[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Unlike Biggie, Tupac's questions were rarely rhetorical. His body has been ashes for more than a decade and a half, and people still holler when they hear him — whether via MP3, hologram or Chappelle's Show skit.
That's why it seemed redundant to write about him in 2013. He's been demonized and deified, his ideas distilled into a dorm-room poster, middle fingers blazing, “Thug Life” tatted up across his abdomen.
But that's exactly why I wanted to write a book about Tupac in 2013. For all the scholarship, tributes and college classes devoted to him, his music and ideas remain commonly misunderstood.
He's the rare figure whose catalog can conform to any interpretation you want. If you're inclined toward political radicalism and societal inequity, 2Pacalypse Now burns with more disenfranchised fury than any album not produced by The Bomb Squad. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. is the hip-hop purist record — a savage but funky homage to his Bay Area and East Coast roots. Me Against the World was written while he was awaiting trial and remains his most well-rounded work. All Eyez on Me was a double-album sprawl that defined the next decade of gangsta rap. The 7 Day Theory is perhaps the angriest record ever recorded, but it also has “To Live and Die in L.A.”
Stealing the title from a Willem Dafoe movie (and Wang Chung song), “To Live and Die in L.A.” is one of Tupac's two songs that can rival Randy Newman's “I Love L.A.” for official municipal anthem. It is rap as promotional postcard, no different from the orange groves and sunshine propaganda that Pasadena civic boosters once used to lure people out West. It is also no less effective. If either of this year's mayoral candidates could have connected with such diverse swaths of the electorate, it would have been a landslide.
Then there's “California Love,” a song seared into every native Californian's synapses. It was Tupac's attempt to “serenade the streets of L.A.” Maybe it's obvious and mildly patronizing, but it is powerful.
This is why Tupac remains resonant. He may lack subtlety, but he understood that the quickest path is usually a straight jab.
Tupac is the rap analogue to Jim Morrison. His memory may be shrouded in myth, but there's a certain primacy that appeals on a raw, atavistic level.
I'll never forget being in college and hearing a roomful of friends talk about why he was their favorite rapper. They couldn't articulate it in words other than to pound their fists to their hearts and say, “He just hits me right here.”
The most timeless artists are often the best communicators. Unlike the man himself, Tupac's legacy cannot be blunted. Danny Brown has a song called “Pac Blood.” Freddie Gibbs pays implicit tribute with almost every song. Kendrick Lamar once told me that one of his chief goals was to make people cry like Tupac.
Perhaps none can speak to Tupac's enduring appeal better than Lil Boosie, the currently incarcerated Louisiana rapper who contains more multitudes than almost any rapper to emerge since Tupac expired at only 25.
“A lot of my fans compare me to Tupac. We both speak about the struggle, we both make heartfelt music, and we both stay in trouble,” Boosie says in a letter. “He says things that other rappers forget about and he cares about his race deeply. It's an honor to be compared to the greatest, but there's only one Tupac.”
It's interesting but not surprising that he speaks about Tupac in the present tense. But that's the point.
Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey's 2Pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap's Greatest Battle is out now on Voyageur Press. They will be reading from the book at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 30, at Lot 1 in Echo Park.