Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey's new book, 2Pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap's Greatest Battle, from Voyageur Press. This section, written by Weiss, focuses on the only album Tupac recorded in the L.A. area, All Eyez on Me.
The double album exists because you cannot rein in your output. If Tupac contained Walt Whitman–worthy multitudes, All Eyez on Me encompasses the complete stress and sprawl. He is the political firebrand of 2Pacalypse Now, the ambitious rider of Thug Life, the warrior-strategist of The Don Kiluminati, the poet of teenage Baltimore chaos, the pimp of “I Get Around.” The pugilist. He is whatever you see in the mirror before you stagger and brawl in the night.
The arc comes straight from Joseph Campbell. This is the ancient hero with a thousand faces: the hero as warrior, lover, emperor and tyrant, the possessor of the “magic ring of myth.”
Conceived in prison and executed at Can-Am Studios in Tarzana. Death Row headquarters. A bivouac in blood red. Blood carpet. Blood walls. Cameras in every corner like a Panopticon. Corrupt cops from the Rampart District providing security and scare tactics. Suge Knight, the evil Goliath, smoking cigars and skulking like a reaper — feeding mice to the piranhas in his fish tank. Side by side with a pitbull named Damu, trained to kill on command.
This is what Tupac entered in October 1995, when Suge Knight and Jimmy Iovine ponied up his $1.4 million bail. Tupac was broke and Death Row/Interscope was his only hope for freedom while his sexual-abuse conviction was being appealed. In exchange for a three-album deal, Tupac was installed as the free-agent superstar. His mother got a house. There were vacations to Vegas, Mexico and Hawaii — cars, clothes and a galaxy of transgressions that Suge Knight will take with him to his grave.
At its apex, Death Row was the closest that a black-owned record company came to replicating Motown. And Knight clearly modeled the structure and vertical integration on the Detroit soul legends. When Tupac signed, it seemed to be the label's coup de grace.
For all its success, Death Row had really only produced two truly iconic records: Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Tupac's emergence immediately defibrillated Death Row from its criminal stupor.
“Before Tupac came, everyone at Death Row only got a verse or two or one song done per day. We'd just be partying, smoking, chilling. Pac came in with a military mindset. He taught us that it wasn't a game; it was about making as much music as you can,” Kurupt told me in a 2009 interview.
The story says that Tupac went straight from landing in Burbank to the studio. Forgoing sleep or sex, the fresh-out-of-jail rapper wrote “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” one of a half-dozen songs he allegedly recorded that first night. The initial song cut became the first cut on the double album. It's a mission statement. He whispers ominously: “I won't deny it/I'm a straight ridah/You don't want to fuck with me/Got the police bustin' at me/but they can't do nothing to a G.” His first words on lead single “California Love” are, “Out on bail/fresh out of jail/California dreaming.”
“I went from one to 14 songs a day, just from fucking with him,” remembered West Coast rap legend DJ Quik, who engineered All Eyez on Me. “I'd been doing my thing for a long time at that point and I was, like, 'Who is this firestarter to get me to change the way I did my business?' ”
Tupac's artistic legacy doesn't rely on All Eyez on Me, but his popular resonance does. The reason is simple: His success was built on tremendous reserves of strength and its depths were never tested more. The Death Row mafia clan was the tightest familial structure Tupac had ever known. Unlike most stars of his era, Tupac had never formally come up in a group. He was a sideline player in Digital Underground and quickly cast them aside as soon as he tasted real wealth.
The album simultaneously inverts and reaffirms the promise of The Beach Boys and the sunshine mythos. California remains the frontier for reinvention and freedom, but there is a darker undercurrent. Tupac unintentionally assumes the noir-light dialectic that has played out since Philip Marlowe. But he is both Manson and Morrison. The killer and the shaman merged into the most charismatic gangster since Bugsy Siegel hobnobbed with studio heads and Italian countesses. To prove it, he attended the Grammys and was dating Quincy Jones' daughter; only years before he had disparaged the music legend for dating white women.
All Eyez on Me is a fantasy but, like the most poignant fantasies, there's an undercurrent of truth. A black male born in 1991 has a roughly 29 percent chance of being imprisoned in his lifetime. Blacks make up 12 to 13 percent of the population but 40 percent of the incarcerated.
Even at his most leather-clad and sleazy, Tupac never forgot that he was raised to offer a voice to the voiceless. His prison stint was barbarous and soul-crushing, but it allowed Tupac to fully empathize in ways that had been heretofore impossible. His vision was no longer restricted to images of hell as the ghettos were going up in crack smoke. His images of being “trapped” were no longer figurative. Hell was here in the form of iron bars, a penitentiary jumpsuit and sociopathic rapists.
Nearly all of Tupac's songs contain some indelibly quotable line or couplet, but it's rarely the clever turns of phrase like those Biggie is remembered for. Tupac's memorable phrasings often are rhetorical questions or off-the-cuff asides. They are murmurs that everyone silently thinks. “Oh you a Muslim, now? No more dope games,” he asks his ex–best friend gone straight. To the average listener, that means nothing. But to people in the 'hood, many of whom have seen friends and relatives convert in jail, the details ring true and linger long after the song ends.
For those who worship irony and abstraction, Biggie is the king. But for those who prefer the immeasurable flux of emotion, Tupac has no peers. I once watched a roomfull of guys debate the greatest rapper of all time. The consensus choice was Tupac, but no one could articulate why. They just pounded their chest with closed fists and said: He just hits you right here.
Tupac concludes All Eyez On Me with “Heaven Ain't Hard 2 Find,” which presents the idea of heaven as embodied by the lust and love of a woman.
It's only on “Only God Can Judge Me” where Tupac reveals how much he has in common with Biggie. Tupac has fantasies of his family in a hearse. He eerily foretells his impending death: lying naked with a body full of bullet holes, unable to breathe, with something evil in his IV. Both his and Biggie's double albums are obsessed with mortality and final judgment. They turn to God with trepidation for their wrongdoings. By now, both know where the bones are buried. And as the song fades out, Tupac admits his only fear is coming back to Earth, reincarnated.
But there could never be another Tupac, although you can still see the vapors of him everywhere.