In September 1996, Tupac Shakur hobbled out of the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada. Despite dire predictions that 2Pac wouldn’t survive four bullets, the indestructible rapper came home to L.A. — paranoid and wounded but determined to break the destructive loop of violence.
After Suge Knight returned to prison, 2Pac distanced himself from the chaos of Death Row Records. Shortly before the shooting, Shakur had formed production company Euphanasia, which gradually absorbed more of his time and energy.
Revenues from executive producing American History X helped him buy himself out of his record deal. A beloved comedic turn opposite Jackie Chan in Rush Hour partially erased past controversies. Hollywood studio heads finally saw 2Pac as a bankable star — a sinister version of Will Smith. A Rolling Stone cover story claimed he had “finally matured,” thanks to wife Kidada Jones and her father, mogul Quincy Jones, who’d become a paternal mentor.
Right as the South became a force, 2Pac signed with No Limit Records, shocking those who interpreted his California love as absolutism. In reality, he’d always loved all forms of rap, once telling The Source that the Geto Boys’ Grip It! On That Other Level was his favorite. Besides, Master P founded his label in the Bay Area, where he’d once attempted to sign 2Pac during his Digital Underground days. Both of his No Limit albums went No. 1; 2Pac’s duets with Mystikal were spectacular.
Becoming a father and husband spurred 2Pac to reconcile with his enemies (save for Chino XL). His cameo on “It’s Mine,” alongside Mobb Deep and Nas, became a definitive Tunnel banger of the era, earning back East Coast respect for the rapper who once called himself MC New York.
2Pac and Biggie brokered peace after the murder of Big L reminded them how close their own rivalry had come to a bloody end. Many critics hailed their joint appearance at the 2000 Grammy Awards as a historic juncture in rap’s growing mainstream dominance. It also was remembered for 2Pac’s decision to diss Sisqo, apropos of nothing.
During Bush’s first term, 2Pac mostly focused on his film career, directing his first feature, a drama loosely based on the plot of “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” There was a turn on Broadway, where he starred as Walter Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, a poetic triumph for the former art student whose acting debut came at age 13, when he played Travis Younger on the Apollo stage in Harlem.
2Pac’s proudest moment may have come during his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech at the 2005 Academy Awards for his role opposite Tom Cruise in Collateral. Indicting the Bush administration’s corruption, war crimes and inequitable treatment of minorities, 2Pac once again became the most divisive figure in America.
Racist epithets and calls for boycotts followed, but ultimately 2Pac’s critique was remembered for its eloquence and courage. If anyone wondered whether he’d gone Hollywood, the son of a Black Panther leader reasserted himself as one of the most important civil rights figures of his generation. His efforts to diminish inner-city poverty and gang violence earned him an invitation to address the United Nations. Even the ambassador from Slovenia learned what T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. stood for.
A generation of 2000s stars (Lil Wayne, Boosie, 50 Cent, Eminem) worshipped him as a god. Wayne even heeded his advice not to sign a rapper from a Canadian teen soap opera. Instead, Aubrey “Drake” Graham went on to become a producer for Guy Fieri.
2Pac crushed his guest appearances on 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, and emerged as a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement. Twenty years after his attempted murder, he remains one of the most revered and irreplaceable figures in American life.
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To think what we could have lost.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.