Tupac had so many faces, so many layers, so many personalities and so many emotions. And he was entitled to all of them.
Tupac is the poster child for black folks are not monolithic. In fact, a lot of shit is running through our brains, simultaneously, including conflicting thoughts. We want to be rich; we want to be anti-capitalism; we want to say f**k the world; we what’s best for our people; and sometimes we’re just tired of everyone, including our own people. And Tupac was this. He was all of this.
Which got me contemplating, on his 51st birthday, which Tupac should we honor? Hit Em Up Tupac? Brenda’s Got a Baby Tupac? White Man’z World Tupac? Me Against the World Tupac? Keep Ya Head Up Tupac? Nah. And you know why? Because all of those Tupac’s have been mentioned, thought of, dissected and re-dissected time and time again. I love addressing the Black Plight Tupac. Probably my favorite Pac.
The black plight, when Pac was alive (And even now, hence why Tupac is still so relevant), needed that no holds bar rawness to not only tell the story of the intersectionality of black poverty in this country, but to uplift those stuck in poverty. Uplift those stuck in the system. Inspire those to defend the defenseless. Give hope to the hopeless.
We KNEW exactly what Tupac meant when he rapped:
“Now, I was raised as a young black male/In order to get paid, forced to make crack sales/Caught a nigga so they send me to these overpacked jails/In the cell, countin’ days in this livin’ black hell, do you feel me?”
Lines like this sums up the black plight in America. Especially that poor, black plight, that seems like a bottomless pit for a lot of folks. We love that Tupac. But again, this has been discussed.
Let’s try something different, right quick…
Dun, Dun Dun Dun…
“I won’t deny it, Imma straight ridah…”
Every Tupac fan, both casual and hardcore knows what that means. When All Eyez on Me was released, it’s both paramount and poignant that I revisit what I consider to be Pac’s magnum opus, even if there are negative ramifications centered around Ambitionz Az a Ridah. Me Against the World is my favorite Tupac album. Always has, always will be. However, I do concede that Makaveli: The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory is probably his most lyrically mature album. In Makaveli, you could tell it was getting almost too easy for Pac. To the point that he was almost bored. But All Eyez on Me was his most commercially impactful work.
And probably his most important work.
Buried was the black rebel with a big heart and a big mouth. Buried was the Tupac who was this passionate and sophisticated, yet uncensored pro black absolutist, who understood the intersections of being poor and black. Buried was the Tupac who understood the intersections of being a woman and black. The Pac the world knew before All Eyez on Me took a backseat to a more malevolent, sinister Pac, who sought vengeance and greed. He was still there, rearing that genuine smile occasionally, but a more broken Tupac occupied the limelight.
Was this genuine? Well, that’s debatable.
It’s debatable as to whether he rode a pathway to a genuine transformation, or took an incredulous avenue in order to take advantage of capitalism out of either want or necessity. Me personally, I think it’s all of the above.
But, it’s a universal concurrence that this Pac was different. From being influenced by a variety of figures from Afeni Shakur and Geronimo Pratt to Shakespere, to now being influenced by Suge Knight and his Piru associates, we witnessed a different Pac. Maybe not worse. Maybe not better. But, different.
It was a Pac we didn’t recognize, but it was also a Pac we loved. This Pac was brass (well so was the old Pac), entertaining, and most importantly, vengeful.
Ambitionz Az a Ridah was vengeful. And so sonically and lyrically potent. It was deadly. From the jump, Pac makes us acknowledge this transformation. His middle finger to the police and society hasn’t changed. That’s still the Pac we know. The acknowledgement, for me, comes in the form of: “Was born rough and rugged, addressing the mass public/My attitude was fuck it, cause motherfuckas love it.” That, alone, lets us know he was doubling down on middle finger Tupac. And tucked away, somewhere deep in that big, beautiful psyche was the caring Tupac. Unfortunately, that Tupac wouldn’t be seen very much before his death.
In Ambitionz As a Ridah, he goes on in the first verse to rant about something he made known earlier, which was this “money over b*tches” mentality. Tupac, like most rappers before or after, would delve into the realm of misogyny, but unlike most rappers, he always managed to balance it so well with his love and appreciation for women, especially black women.
Here, on Ambitionz Az a Ridah, and honestly the entire album, his perceived fall out with women (including black women) post rape trial and first degree sexual abuse conviction, left Pac doubling down on misognistic terms that would occupy a chunk of the first verse in Ambitionz Az a Ridah.
This first verse also let’s us know how he views others in the industry. “Now it’s on and it’s on because I said so/Can’t trust a b*tch in the business, so I got with Death Row.” This announcement of him committing to Death Row shook the industry to its core. Here, one of the hottest, if not the hottest rapper in the game (remember Me Against the World went number 1 when he was in prison) signed to the hottest and most powerful record label in the game, at the time. Death Row signified both excellence and ruthlessness.
And Pac made sure to let us know that was contributing to both the excellent and the ruthless.
By the second verse, Pac is getting somewhat darker. He touches on everything from killing his adversaries to suicide, pleading for Afeni to come and rescue him: “Mama, come rescue me, I’m sucidial, thinkin thoughts/I’m innocent, so there’ll be bullets flyin’ when I’m caught.” He follows this by reiterating something that Pac tells us multiple times before his death. That he’d rather die than go back to prison.
By the end of the second verse, Pac lets us know that not only does he seek vengeance, but there is no going back. Peace, in itself, is not an option: “Fuck peace and the police, my ambitions as a ridah.”
I always ponder, both to myself and with an unlucky group of few, as to whether the third verse is my favorite or second favorite. And it’s mostly because he’s just kind of bragging by this time. Like, it’s not overly complex, or riddled with messages left to be interpreted. Pac is clear, here. And he’s also in his bag:
“I been hesitant to reappear, been away for years/Now I’m back, my adversaries been reduced to tears/Question my methods to switch up speeds/Sure as some b*tches bleed/Niggas feel the fire of mother’s corrupted seed/BLAST ME, BUT THEY DIDN’T FINISH, DIDN’T DIMINISH MY POWERS/SO NOW I’M BACK TO BE A MOTHERFUCKIN’ MEANCE…they cowards/That’s why they tried to set me up/Had b*tch ass niggas on my team, so indeed, they wet me up/BUT I’M BACK, REINCARNATED…”
This…this stream of lyrical consciousness pierces the veil of Pac’s soul and lets us in. He lets us into the hate that’s been caused by being shot 5 times. Because not only was the entire ordeal a threat to his life, but just as importantly for him, it was humiliating. He felt somewhat embarrassed. Embarrassed not only that he was running around with a slew of shady people who, he felt set him up, but that the people he considered his friends, his brothers, didn’t warn him about his oversight.
Pac’s optimism was replaced with pure pessimism. He thought, before being shot the first time, that no other black person, that no other black man would harm him. Because THEY knew what he was ultimately fighting for. What he was ultimately fighting to achieve, on a macro level.
But when the black men, he felt, betrayed him on a micro level, that set off a string of events that gave us so much, well, everything. So much heavy, so much power, so much grief, so much Pac.
“Revenge on them niggas that played me/And all the cowards that was down with it….”
This is the Pac y’all wanted. This is the Pac I wanted. But, this ain’t the Pac we needed. Because if it was the Pac we needed, then maybe that Pac would maybe still be with us.
Leslie McLemore writes about a lot of different shit for Black With No Chaser. He is also the Takeaway Kang, the greatest baby father to the dopest babymomma, and the father of two beautiful girls, one of which gets on every nerve he has. The other one is sweet…sometimes. So, you know, balance. Sort of.
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