The world lost 2Pac 20 years ago, one of the greatest rappers to ever grace the mic, to a fatal shooting. Despite his untimely death, 2Pac left behind a lasting legacy—his contributions to hip-hop forever changed the landscape of the genre as we know it today.
2Pac’s legacy was defined by his mythic persona. He took the mid ‘90s hip-hop scene by storm and left his mark through his involvement in the infamous East Coast vs. West Coast feud and his upfront and ferocious rapping style.
His early works were influenced by political rap groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. and it was his unrelenting, angst-ridden style that garnered him attention in the hip-hop community. He was able to deliver insightful first person narratives on poverty, gang violence, and substance abuse that tore apart his communities.
2Pac’s landmark album “All Eyez on Me” (1996) marked an era of rap that glorified the thug life. Under the label of the West Coast Death Row Records, 2Pac was one of the major orchestrators behind this movement: his outspoken flaunting of reckless behavior and threats of violence drew controversy to the newly emerging genre of gangster rap.
Gangster rap became defined by rivalries among the most prominent figures in hip-hop. Competition between the West Coast Death Row Records and East Coast Bad Boy Records escalated into feuds and gang violence. The rivalry between 2Pac and East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls was legendary because of 2Pac’s audacious, volatile, and wrathful side that provoked his audiences. It also set the precedent for numerous other rivalries to follow and established rap battles and diss tracks as one of the most popular facets of hip-hop, further popularizing the genre. Despite the stigma attributed to gangster rap due to its provocative nature, 2Pac’s captivating persona and unmatched ferocity helped keep the genre entertaining and fresh.
One of 2Pac’s most distinguishing qualities as a rapper was his dichotomous nature. He simultaneously possessed a violent gangster persona and a sensitive, endearing side. 2Pac certainly embodied many characteristic traits of the West Coast rap scene, particularly his outspoken character, yet he also stood out from the rest of his contemporaries by embodying other traits that defy his gangster persona. 2Pac’s legacy and persona often overshadowed his underappreciated poetic achievements.
For all his accomplishments in popularizing hip-hop, 2Pac’s unmatched poetic ability was what truly transcended the genre and set its standard for lyrical prowess. While 2Pac’s most commercially successful hits such as “Hit ‘Em Up” and “California Love” have rocketed him to the spotlight, they were directed toward an audience that readily consumed the popular and trending West Coast rap scene mentioned earlier and were thus a result of the profitable feud between the two coasts. 2Pac’s best works were arguably his most personal and sensitive, qualities which both songs mentioned had lacked.
“Dear Mama” is one such embodiment of 2Pac’s personal and sensitive side. The song encompasses 2Pac’s appreciation for his mother who raised him in his youth despite their difficult circumstances including poverty, drug addictions, crime ridden environments, and the absence of a father figure. The lyrics, “Even though you was a crack fiend mama, you always a black queen mama,” precisely embodies the love he had for his mother.
2Pac’s harsh upbringing has been a major element of his songs, and his vulnerability is apparent throughout “Dear Mama.” This vulnerability does not seem characteristic of 2Pac when compared to some of his popular songs or other prominent rappers during his time, further adding to 2Pac’s intriguing dichotomous nature.
2Pac was fiercely individualistic and independent at heart. Several analyses of his lyrics provide insight into his character. For instance, the lyrics “Back in elementary, I thrived on misery / Left me alone I grew up amongst a dying breed” from “So Many Tears” shed light into 2Pac’s isolation and tribulations during his youth. This brewing hatred was further exacerbated into his adulthood. The title of one of his most acclaimed albums, “Me Against the World” (1995), firmly establishes this notion.
2Pac’s remarkable awareness of the injustices that he has suffered was manifested in his politically conscious works. Some of his most profound lyrics are “I’ve been trapped since birth, cautious, cause I’m cursed” from “Only God Can Judge Me.”
2Pac acknowledged the injustices he had to face due to his race and grapples with this theme on a larger scale in his song “Changes,” arguably his best work and one that provided great insight into his character: “Is life worth living? Should I blast myself / I’m tired of being poor, and even worse I’m black / My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch.”
Despite all the difficulties he experienced and the bitterness he held, 2Pac held an endearing soft side. As the song “Changes” progresses, 2Pac mentions that “I’d love to go back to when we played as kids,” presumably referring to his innocence and happiness he held before it was shattered by the rest of the world around him.
As a tortured soul that longed to escape the walls that confined him, 2Pac was forced to endure many dark realities of life that have shaped his character. At his very core, 2Pac was a poet and someone who was articulate with expressing his emotions and suffering. 2Pac’s collection of poems from the anthology “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” provide even more fascinating insight into his multifaceted personality.
One notable theme from “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” was 2Pac’s loneliness and quest for self-identity. To quote an excerpt from the poem “What of Fame?” “Everyone knows ure face / the world screams ure name / never again are u alone.” Yet in another poem “In the Depths of Solitude,” 2Pac mentions that he was “CONSTANTLY yearning 2 be accepted / and from all receive respect / and that is my only regret.”
Full of bitterness and angst directed toward the world, 2Pac revealed through his poems a longing to understand his purpose in a world marred by suffering. This desire was particularly evident in the poem “What Is It That I Search 4,” where he laments, “I know not what I search 4 / But I know I have yet 2 find it / Because it is invisible to the eye / My heart must search 4 it blinded.”
2Pac’s contributions to hip-hop seem to be lost today considering the recent decline in quality of the genre. The emergence of trap and a de-emphasis on lyrics have made hip-hop indistinguishable from pop music. Contemporary artists such as Future, Desiigner, and others continually fail to produce thought-provoking and engaging works, but rather focus more on the beat, consequently resulting in monosyllabic and trite lyrics.
Yet despite this trend, 2Pac left behind a legacy of using powerful lyrics to promote awareness of the many injustices that occur everyday. Such a legacy is especially important today in a time when political unrest, xenophobia, and social rights movements have swept the nation. This legacy is carried on by a select few today who have realized the importance of lyricism and poetry in their songs. One such example is Kendrick Lamar, a prominent rapper who has experienced a harsh upbringing similar to 2Pac’s and uses influences from 2Pac’s lyricism to incorporate politically conscious lyrics and deliver a message to his audience.
2Pac never hesitated to speak his mind, a quality which distinguishes hip-hop from other genres; it has the capacity to provoke and enlighten through a powerful use of words. In this aspect, 2Pac was nearly unmatched in his ability to use words in a way that can evoke deep emotions and thoughts. That is what separated him from the rest of the pack and is what rappers today must aspire to reach.
2Pac will be forever remembered as an iconic rapper, a symbol of hip-hop during its glory days in the ‘90s. 2Pac was, however, not merely a rapper, but a poet who spoke from his soul. Against all odds, he overcame his adversities that were beyond his control such as poverty, racial injustices, and crime-ridden neighborhoods, and left behind words that continue to resonate today.
Despite all that he had experienced, he urged his listeners to “Remember one thing, through every dark night / There’s a bright day after that / So no matter how hard it get, stick your head out / Keep your head up and handle it,” from “Me Against the World.”
Rest in peace, 2Pac.