(19) Classic Sounds….

Like…

15 Years.

Dude, I wasn’t even 15 years old when my favorite rapper of all time was pronounced dead. I remember hearing the news from the television in my father’s room. I ran in to hear that 2Pac was indeed dead. I immediately felt a weird sort of gravity. A week before, I was joking about him surviving and probably rapping with an iron lung. This time tho, I sincerely realized the impact of death from a distant place. It was a significant year; 1996 had marked the passing of my father’s mother – my Granny. It was my first real and close death, so coming of age as a 13 year old going on 14, the absorption of what loss feels like hit me unforgettably. My Aunt Charlene called me to see if I had heard. I don’t even know how she knew that I liked Pac, or if it was just an assumption based on my music love, but I wasn’t nearly the 2Pac fan that Iam now. I wouldn’t call myself a fan back then. I just liked a good amount of his singles and held fond memories of watching his videos with my big sister Veen. But like most every other hip-hop fan and listener in New York City at that period in time, I had read the VIBE and Source articles and recently heard “Hit ‘Em Up” and I thought the nigga was crazy!

So when we come to a point like this, and the handful of you who consistently visit this blog notice that this is my second review of a classic 2Pac album within a span of 3 months, or if you’re a random visitor and notice that, then the latter of you wonder why I started this post off this way, and the former of you understand that I would not let this month go by without properly acknowledging the anniversary of the death of the most prolific and poetic rapper ever. I mentioned in the prior Pac post that I’d come back this month and pay respect properly, and especially as I prepare to deactivate my blogger status, it makes the most sense that I wrap up this year in significant ways.

It’s this album, that made me the fan that Iam today. I picked a great point to become a Pac historian because had I re-acquainted myself with his music with the All Eyez On Me LP, I think I would have had an underwhelming assessment of him as an artist. While an intended triumph and celebratory effort, that album did more to invoke West Coast hip-hop unity and pride and re-introduce Pac as a retaliatory and party-friendly force in rap than exhibit his skills and personality. It was surface stuff. And tho it can be argued that since The 7 Day Theory is a posthumous work that it may not be Pac’s final vision – especially considering that there are hundreds of songs that he recorded in that year and a slew of Makaveli sequels that hit the mixtape circuit immediately after it’s release, these are still his thoughts and expected execution of such. I began seeing the posters for this album in October. It was releasing on election day of ’96. I didn’t like the cover. I thought it was too much. I heard pieces and bits of it on blocks as cars rolled by and so on. I didn’t really hear it until months later when I was chilling in a pool hall downstairs from my building, which ironically, had a huge airbrushed poster of Pac from his All Eyez On Me cover with the quote, “even thugz cry, but do the lord care?”. I thought it was amazing how a bunch of street dudes from Harlem, my hometown… shooting pool, rolling dice and playing video games, who 4 months ago would otherwise be blasting “Who Shot Ya??” by Biggie, all were just in full out Pac mode, blasting The 7 Day Theory from the jukebox and reciting the lines. I just stood there and soaked it all in.

The first song that made an impression on me was the actual first song off the album. “Bomb First (My Second Reply)” is like no other 2Pac song; It booms, has incredibly aggressive energy without sounding crazy amped, and is full of organized confusion. For those who were not previously familiar with Pac’s Outlawz crew, this song was a great introduction. A tamer follow-up to “Hit ‘Em Up”, this track is still laced with venom but more calculated and stemming less from the mind of a scorned troublemaker and more from the mind of someone fully ready to go to war and taunting his enemies to come out of hiding. It was definitely a battlecry, complete with a dramatic introduction and conclusive explosion and even little clever jabs at Bad Boy and Xzibit (who I was a fan of at the time). What moved me the most however, was that the beat was decidedly east coast. I was used to Pac rapping over the whiny, bouncy and r&bish sounds that had defined California hip-hop. This dark beat with it’s bassline that uses the same sample as a dozen of Hip-Hop songs from the 90, including Naughty By Nature‘s “Uptown Anthem” (who I also knew Pac was cool with) was a change of pace, and to me a sign of where Pac was going before his life got cut short. The outlawz’ Jersey-brewed voices and wordy delivery also helped foster this vibe and added an East Coast co-sign that showed that Pac was not leftist, just beefing with most of the popular rappers along the Atlantic. My ears were wide open from this point.

To hear a song like “Hail Mary” follow such a dynamic lead off is almost overwhelming. What these two songs placed next to each other did for street dudes is indelible. The message is remarkably stark. It’s a sequence of get-back, promises, exposition of plans and credos that lead to quotables that have been repeated time and again. Tho I never fully understood every line of this song (like “mama told me never stop until I bust a nut” – huh?? Why would your mother tell you that?), everybody else seems to, so whatever. Besides, Not understanding Pac is a great departure from the usual route of being able to predict every other damn word that he was about to say (see, “hennessy” and “enemies”). This was also a departure from his one line chorus style and saw him using full out sentences and refrains for hooks on most of the songs on this LP, even chanting – dare I say singing? on this one. The cryptic and gothic feel of this song became the thugs’ anthem and the perfect single to really drive the whole I-just-died-but-I-may-still-be-alive-somewhere-and-outsmarting-you-all feeling that came around his death. This beat too was not typical West-coast fare, and tho it sounds non coast specific, it just resonates with the spirit of hardcore, melodious Hip-Hop. It was the ultimate posthumous song and declaration. The irony in the biblical reference on such a grim track just tied into the whole Christianity play of the album.

Speaking of which, by the time I got to the 5th track, “Blasphemy”, I had faithfully owned this album on tape and was amazed when I heard this. It has a weird beat that is more atmosphere and background for Pac’s vocals than a production. It sounds like everybody was high and producer Hurt-M-Badd was playing with modulated or distorted oboe sounds and Pac said ‘yeah, lets keep that!’ On this under-appreciated song, Pac toys with lots of Christian imagery, incorporating dogma into his verses and making comparisons while questioning texts from Biblical scriptures. It’s a testament to where he was spiritually at the time, in light of his other contemporary tracks like “Black Jesus” and references to Jehovah. He seemed to be at a crossroads but enlightened somewhat, making peace with not accepting the traditional practices handed down, but forming his own definition of God for thugs and Black people overall. Profound lines like “We probably in Hell already, our dumb assess not knowing/everybody kissing ass to go to heaven ain’t goin!” and “brothers getting shot, coming back ressurrected/is this that raw shit? – nigga check it!” will have anybody thinking…

A song that took a bit more time to grow on me however, is “Just Like Daddy”. It’s a little creepy of a concept, but it became a saying after this album became popular. This was more or less a vehicle for Pac to let the Outlawz get a little shine on the female demographic, tho they don’t quite pass as believable in the ladies man department like Pac naturally does. The song fits right in time in a much needed slot right after the darker songs that came before and the heavier songs that follow. It represents the essence of this album, a very honest mix of Pac’s thoughts and feelings at this point; some lighthearted material full of love and calm, to juxtapose with his most angst-ridden and burdensome sentiments and questions. The “Impeach The President” sample underneath once again added to the east coast feel and helped the even flow of west-meets east that seemed to be the formula in production for this project. The samples were all subtle and nicely soaked in other sounds. Besides, no Pac album would be complete without a good song “for the ladies” or 2.

This album may be remembered more for songs like “Hail Mary” and “Me And My Girlfriend”, yet in all honesty, it should be revered for the deeper songs like “Blasphemy” and the 2 in the middle of the album; “Krazy” & “White Man’z World”. While “Krazy” may sound like a return to the usual Pac rhetoric about getting high, being in jail, questioning the fate of a thug, this finds Pac coming from a more mature and contemplative perspective. It’s more sedate, and less hopeless than previous songs of the same vain like “Life Goes On” or “It Ain’t Easy”. When he says simple lines like “I came a long way, but still I got so far to go”, you believe him and almost feel him wanting change. On a less optimistic note, on “White Man’z World”, he kind of accepts the reality of being in a disadvantaged predicament, but calls for a social revolution of Black people not embracing second class status. While he does so with fervor, this is accomplished more through his adlibs, as his verses are less focused on any particular subject and are more 1st and 2nd-person recitations that feel like something that he just needed to get off of his chest. Interestingly enough, it’s the jail talk on this song, that sounds more appropriate for the song “Hold Ya Head” which is a loose dedication to those on lockdown making it through bids, but sees Pac doing more of that 1st person diatribe that he did on “White Man’z World” with a little bit of bragging. It’s the sounds chosen in the production of these songs tho, that is truly the glue. The smooth and rich feeling of replayed samples and real instrumentation in ways that weren’t ever really explored or prominent in rap music coupled with hard hip-hop snares and great use of dramatic segues into each song delivered a  mix that allowed 2Pac to be the final and most powerful instrument on the songs. They evoke definite moods that deliver Pac’s message clearly. This is not Pac rapping hardcore over r&b, or getting deep and conscious over crunk funk, this was the perfect mix…And most of it displayed a thinking Pac who was reflective and strategic.

That doesn’t mean that all strategized Pac was calm. On the aforementioned “Me And My Girlfriend”, he made a cult classic out of a used concept. He pretty much killed it for everybody else after unfortunately, tho he sparked everyone’s desire to follow the trend. On a cinematic and thumping beat (on which Pac gets production credit) that sounds very mafia movie inspired and works for both coasts, Pac rips through this song on an extended metaphor about his lady being his gun. It took alot of us a minute to digest. The whole woman-as-a-metaphor-for-an-object thing was still relatively fresh and new to Hip-Hop fans. We were easily impressed when it was applied to something very dynamic and tangible like guns. Nevermind the fact that  2 years earlier, Organized Konfusion did verses as a stray bullet, or that Common addressed the whole state of Rap music and Hip-Hop culture as if it were a woman, Most of the rap listening public at large hadn’t heard this technique used until Nas‘ personification as a gun on that summer’s “I Gave You Power”. It was mind-blowing. My personal theory is that most of 2Pac’s beef with Nas was rooted from a place of true fandom. I think Pac listened to Nas heavily and respected him, until he started listening a tad too closely. In all honesty, to take offense to any of the lines from Nas’ second album, you’d A) have to understand the bullshit he was talking about, or B) really be rewinding his songs and reading along with the lyrics sheet included with his LP. 2Pac seemed to be rubbed the wrong way by Nas’ brief line in the first track off his album where he claims to have got shot and stitched up and left the hospital in the same night. Something Nas just said for dramatic effect, but something that Pac actually lived. But to catch that line, you’d have to be listening quite intently. I think Pac was listening hella hard, as a fan first, and then felt some way. And even through all of this, especially given the timeframe of when the album came out in relation to his album, and how huge the response was to “I Gave You Power”, I think Pac Loved that song, and in the spirit of competition and ego, felt the need to outdo and 1-up Nas by going the only next place that one could go after turning themselves into a gun...Loving one. So If “I Gave You Power” was the classic rap song of that summer of 1996, then “Me And My Girlfriend” was undoubtedly the classic rap song of that fall. BTW, this song should have never been remade by Jay-Z and Beyonce. Never…

The videos alone for this album should tell you that this is close enough to the version of this album that Pac would have made had he been alive long enough to see it to the release date. Before my visit to the pool hall, I saw the clip for “Toss It Up” late one night on Rap City and thought, ‘what??! I thought all the media outlets said that “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” was the last video he ever made?’ It was weird. I was kind of mad thinking that his final video would be of him parading around LisaRaye and cars with c-list singers instead of the meaningful one with him getting shot and going to heaven with the great musical legends. So you could imagine how flabbergasted I was when I saw the video for “To Live And Die In L.A.” just come out of nowhere months later. I was more shocked that it was being played on NYC radio stations. But this brought a sense of peace back. Whereas “Toss It Up” is the only song on this album that is reminiscent of the reckless and flamboyant vibe of All Eyez, “To Live And Die..” brought more of that calm, reflective but radio friendly spirit that made this album evenly measured.  I was more relieved to think that this was indeed Pac’s final video, a laid back but raw and lamentable ode to the city that made him the man that he became. And even tho he’s not an L.A. native, you can tell that he was directing it towards those who grew up in Los Angeles and the natives. He described the lifestlye and hood culture there so vividly and passionately that it made me want to go there just to see why he and all these other west coast dudes seemed to love it so much. If you watch the video, you see how it makes sense that this was the video where he literally rides out into the sunset. He looks like he was having a genuinely good time, if only for the moment. I even find amusement in the fact that even in the midst of the feel good aura he keeps the pace and balance of the album alive by making time to throw a dart at Dr. Dre at the end and remind us all that he’s still in war mode, just taking a break to love life. 

“Toss It Up” is not a bad song at all, nor does it change or ruin the mood, it’s just a song that I never listen to on here. Maybe because Iam a New Yorker, and this is the only track on here that has that 90’s West coast style of production that I mentioned earlier and expected the album to sound like, or maybe because I absolutely hate the singing, but I’m just never in the mood to hear that shit. Along with “Life Of An Outlaw”, these are the only tracks that I skip on the album. But by definition, a classic album is not so much about whether or not you only choose to listen to your favorite songs on the album, but whether or not you can play it from beginning to end. And since the flow and theme of this album aren’t disturbed at all and every last song has it’s own independent value, this is indeed a classic. And I can attest to listening to this from front to back a zillion times.

“Life Of An Outlaw” is actually one of 3 songs on which 2Pac recieves co-production credit, making this the first and only album where that happens. It’s just telling of the direction that he might have been headed. It also marks an important place in his rap history where he flexes the widest vocabulary of his career and doesn’t rely on his go-to sentences and phrases. He steps it up lyrically and flow wise, using different patterns, more syllables and compounds adding to the effect of that west meets east influence sprinkled across the album. One can only imagine where he was about to go as an artist from this point. Whoever did the sequencing on this LP had the ear to present Pac in the most honest and balanced way possible and closest to his own intent.  With production from 3 unknown beatsmiths (including an up and coming QD3) this seemed to be an ideal marriage of sound for Pac’s new strategic mindstate and a perfect comedown from the party that was All Eyez. Moreso than any other of his albums where he appears to be preoccupied with a particular angle (Death on Me Against The World, Police Brutality and injustice on 2Pacalypse Now, etc.), this was the most well rounded – even with the slant of him being in wartime mode. This album changed the way I looked at 2Pac as an artist, and subsequently changed my life. It’s apart of the top 5 albums that influenced me as a rapper.

With that, my favorite songs on here are “Krazy”, “To Live And Die In L.A.”, “Bomb First”, “Blasphemy” and the super classic “Against All Odds” which is arguably the best closing song on a rap album ever, right next to “Suicidal Thoughts” and “Regrets”. To understand this song is to understand exactly where Pac’s mind was at in that time. He named names of non-rappers, real street dudes with sketchy stories who were all somehow tied together, he talked to the rap figures who were saying slick shit in interviews, he told you why he was mad, and asked you what would you do if you were him? The effects in the background and the talking were the perfect compliment to mark the tone of this track. It’s climactic and impactful. If “Bomb First” was the taunting, this was the declaration. He got it off of his chest. If you don’t like this song, you just don’t like 2Pac and you probably stopped reading this review 8 paragraphs ago.

Yet and still, this album is undeniably a complete classic. And for that it gets 16 Candles out of a possible

4812 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)

R.I.P. Homie. Thanks for the music…

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