What, you thought I wasn’t gonna do a Classic Sounds review of a 2Pac album?? Yeah, why would I do a review of an album by my favorite rapper of all time, on what would be his 40th birthday, coming up on the 15th anniversary of his death??
Let alone his debut album.
Pac represents so many things to hip-hop culture. His career is a study in itself. Often criticized for the duality of his stances and expression, that was the very thing that made Pac so compelling. It was anger and anti-establishment, then it was gentle and compassionate. It was poetic and then it was brazen and brash. It was California-centric, but at the same time it was universally pro-Black.
I remember being in my sister Veen‘s room and seeing that she had this album on tape, and thinking to myself 2Pacalypse Now?? ‘What kind of title is that?’ It was on the arrival on the movie Juice, and I had just saw the video for his lead single “Trapped”. I was in 4th grade, but I wasn’t impressed. I just knew I had heard his name here and there, usually in the vein of something controversial. I remember thinking, ‘oh, he’s that trouble-making rapper that’s playing a bad guy in that movie’. Boy, was that a foreshadowing understatement…
Who would have known that this would turn out to be the rapper who I’d identify with the most 6 years later, and carry my tangled up, anxious and brooding self through my teenage years? somehow, despite any concrete similarities, in a world of glorified stick-up kids making get money anthems, backpackers, hot boys and Diddyisms, I related to the outspoken, borderline paranoid, son of an ex crack-addict, ex- militant single parent who championed “thug life” and the pursuit of fucking and getting fucked up, with oh-so-poetic sensibilities. Pac was many things…But the magic is in how all of these equally strong components of his character boiled within the same pot. This means whatever image 2Pac brings to mind may very well be true. But the bigger truth is that he has always been so much more.
As one of the rare Hip-Hop artists who’s work got progressively better with each release, if not the best example of it, Pac is a great research subject in that you can see where his division of focus was and what parts of that pervaded through the bulk of his career. While most rappers release their most groundbreaking and provacative work at the beginning of their careers, anyone familiar with Pac’s catalogue knows that 2Pacalypse Now was just the tip of the iceberg.
Here, Pac seems to embrace a role of being the outspoken, more street-oriented off -shoot of the classic Cali group Digital Underground, which he was an unofficial member of. The “Rebel” in his own words. Much like Kool G. Rap was to the Juice crew, this album would serve to affirm Pac’s loyalty to the peeps that put him on, but also as the platform that would catapult him to eclipse them right afterward.
Taking this angle, this is the most civil yet aggressive version of Pac. Still very much so from the ‘I’m an emcee’ school of thought, this is the period where you’ll hear Pac using the wordiest and quickest flow of his career. He puts force in every syllable as opposed to dramatic emphasis that would later become his signature style. He vacillates between a measured delivery and a loose flow, even implementing elements of stacking and compound twisting, ala Bone Thugs.
Nowhere else is Pac’s early 90’s personality captured on track so completely.Even though the beats here mirror the times and contain alot of what helped lay the framework for what would become the West Coast sound, this album really is made up of instrumentals that really don’t fit any kind of niche. The overly dramatic bassline and cheesy keys on “Brenda’s Got A Baby” scream PSA, and some of the tracks where Pac just spits his version of bravado sound like they were borrowed from the east coast, back when people weren’t distinguishing rappers by region. Take for instance, the reverse distortion, repetetive hard piano loop and scratches accompanying the Ed O.G. vocal sample on the introductory track “Young Black Male”. In one verse, 2Pac makes his statement and shows a lyrical dexterity that he rarely displays. He also presents the recklessness that compliments the social awareness that makes this album complete.
And that’s explicitly what 2Pacalypse Now gives you. As noted before, Pac had many sides and felt passionate on a multitude of issues that he split up within his body of work. One thing that remains constant is that throughout the span of his life, though some issues became more dominant than others, there was a dedication to the causes that he felt near and dear to. In other words, Pac stayed true to what he believed. Whatever he was fighting for on this album, was the same thing that he died fighting for. It’s here, on this debut, that we get a more Black and White version of Pac, with his concentration fixed on inciting riotous self-defense against crooked establishments – particularly police, painting vivid scenarios about social ills through storytelling, and making a name for himself as the young hot head doing things his own way. The tying together of these focuses is evident from the first transition of “Young Black Male” into “Trapped”. While the former is a boastful first shot in the air, the latter is less so and incorporates more of a narrative from a victimized angle.
The ebb and flow of the LP basically follows that lead, swinging back and forth from the kind of overconfidant and foreboding rap that we’ve come to know Pac for, to social commentary. Pac seems extremely entrenched in the world of police brutality and the injustices that are associated with the long arm of the law. All thru the album, cops are characterized as vicious, racists overseers who live to profile Blacks and keep law enforcement and judicial processes a numbers game. It becomes Pac’s one man rallying cry for inner city Black men to take action against such trespasses. This is clearly from a sentiment in which Pac felt that he was speaking not only for himself, but for every young Black male like himself that he knew. An interesting point, considering that this album came out the year right before the now infamous Los Angeles riots and even more ironically so, before Pac caught a serious charged of allegedly opening fire on two officers in Georgia. This fervor is captured in angry songs like “I Don’t Give A Fuck”, but none more stark and musically gripping as on “Violent”. Over an old distorted reggae dub beat that was souped up to build intensity, this is one of the rare tracks where you’ll hear Pac spit over an unconventional sound but marry it perfectly. The now outdated synths work against the speaker rattling bassline to give a cinematic quality to the song as Pac descriptively engulfs you in his increasing disdain for cops that elevates to a fictional me-against-them shoot-out at the end. With lines that are hard to forget like “So here I go/I gotta make my mind up/pick my 9 up/or hit the line up”, and “If I die tonight/I’m dying in a gunfight”, Pac’s strength rested in not clever wordplay, but in the simple poetry and believability of what he was saying. Even in fictional instances, these were still situations that Pac would probably act out if he found himself in them in real life.
Speaking of which, he takes a second to redirect his angst into a more cerebral outcry when he delves into his actual poetry roots and drops science while maintaining the hardcore vibe on “Words Of Wisdom” Even over an uptempo acid-jazz like breakdown, that was not something uncommon of that era…Where hip -hop was still playing with it’s jazz experimentation phase. Like I said, this album tapped into a little bit of every sound that was going on at the moment.
Another recurring theme goin on thru the album was loyalty to the hood and like-minded niggas (defined by Pac as meaning Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished). He addresses the benefits of it on songs like the soulful and more organically produced “If My Homie Calls”, and the deviation from it on songs like “Crooked Ass Nigga”. Featuring a guest verse from frequent early 90’s Pac collaborator Stretch, the man Pac would later accuse of abandoning him and alligning with his enemies, his presence on this song just serves as cruel irony…
It’s when Pac takes a pause from letting anger be the fuel behind his verses, that he leaves you with some of the most impactful songs that will leave you in thought and reflection and overall appreciation of his creative mind. He does this through the medium of storytelling. In a calm voice, he lays out the entire tale of Brenda, who has come to represent anyBlackgirl USA in innercity america who experiences a teen pregnancy that she can’t handle, completely in third person, but never from a detached sentiment. You can almost feel his empathy through the song, as if he’s talking about his little sister or someone that close. It’s so powerful that it makes you overlook the horribly overly melodramatic singing in the background and the bad beat.
The same goes for “Part Time Mutha” where he semi-autobiographically takes the role of a son, in strife from growing up witnessing a drug-addicted mother. It’s revealing in light of finding out what we now know about 2Pac, but the following 2 verses take it beyond just him aand speaks to the larger social epidemic of hard drug addiction that was rampant in the era. He enlists a random female to rap the second verse (in his cadence), and then he assumes the character of a struggling single mother himself on the last verse.
The most sharply executed of these stories is “Soulja’s Story”. Over a looming sample that is open enough to allow the listener to feel every word, but encroaching enough to set the ominous tone, Pac weaves a sequence of 2 brothers who become incarcerated and spark a prison break, again playing both characters.
The rest of the album is standard 2Pac rap that evens out his agenda and overall statement. As a complete project, it’s definitely the seminal effort where Pac’s early impact was established. Tho lacking the personal exposition and extrovertive vulnerability that lead fans to love him that his subsequent albums contained, this was Pac’s most easily digestable work until he dropped All Eyez On Me, which spared emotional complexity for mass appeal and more party emphasis. 2Pacalypse was clear, concise, and bold. He was so focused, that besides references to sex, Pac didn’t save himself any space to exhibit his female-directed material – which is just as vital and significant to the 2Pac mythos as his beef songs and conscious songs. This is the only album where that is the case. He was just too focused on getting his points across on retaliation, respect and rebellion. Besides an overbearing tone of anger that propels it, and the now, ages-old sound of the beats coupled against Pac’s rapping (which could have worked in the late part of his career as well), the album is pretty well balanced.
My favorite songs here are “Young Black Male”, “Violent”, “Soulja’s Story”,
“Rebel Of The Underground” & “If My Homie Calls”
This album gets 12 Candles out of a possible
4, 8, 12 or 16.
4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)
8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)
12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)
16(Classic all around)
It’s more like a 13. Which is a fitting number.
This comes on the heels of an alleged confession by a former Jimmy Henchmen associate of being the shooter behind the infamous 1994 incident at NY’s Quad studio that sparked the paranoia and vengeful spirit that Pac would become most known for in the late 90’s.
Happy Birthday Homie…