Today (tonight) is a challenging blog for me to write. Seemingly, it should be a simple discussion on the next west coast rap sensation, Tupac Shakur and his double album “All Eyez On Me”. However, between the music I have listened to and the television I watched tonight, I’m struggling a bit on the inside with the blurry lines of fictional and real-life violence. Make no mistake, this entire double album, which was the first full double album released in the hip-hop genre, is a celebration of the thug life Tupac lived and died. Musically, I can’t deny that I really like this record a lot, and for reasons I will cite below, I prefer it to most of the east coast New York rap albums I have listened to recently. It is rated as album # 436 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time, and it is album #9 on the Top Ten Hip Hop albums of all time as rated on definitivedose.com.
Let’s start with the music, and move on to the bigger discussion. From a production standpoint, most of the songs on this album have a much more robust and lush backing than the bare-bones drum base of New York hip-hop. Dr. Dre is only a partial contributor on this album, but his influence, sound and style from “The Chronic” and “Doggystyle” carry over on Death Row records to this entire production. Most of the songs have really thick bass lines, and are much more melodic than their east coast contemporaries. Songs like “How Do U Want It” and “Life Goes On” could be classified as R&B as much as they are hip-hop, other than the lead vocal track. The backing vocals and instrumentation make these songs immensely listenable and very easy on the ears.
The album opens with the mood setter “Ambitionz Az A Ridah”, and you know quickly Tupac that comes to this record angry and ready to fight following incarceration and several dust-ups. It is a haunting tone that is cast, but it also a great hook within the confines of this intensity.
Other stand-out tracks that really bump along include “Skandalouz”, which features Nate Dogg, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” that features Snoop Dogg, and “Heartz of Men”. Each one of these tracks grabs you from the first beat, and will all be automatic adds to my playlist collection. As you can see here and elsewhere, another recurring theme on this album is collaboration, as a majority of the tracks feature some other artist in addition to Tupac.
The signature song from this record is “California Love”, another collaboration with Dr. Dre, who raps the first verse of the song. The funkified allure of this track is undeniable, and it remains today as one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever produced. Not only is the groove unmatched, the adulation for California is just as lasting and impactful as other generational tributes to the west coast American sunshine dream like “California Girls” by the Beach Boys and “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & The Papas. For all of its challenges, there is no place in America or worldwide like the Golden State, and my own ongoing fascination with California originates from a childhood where my father lived primarily in southern California for two-plus years, and my visits were my first exposure to seemingly endless sunshine and the excess wealth and celebrity of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Leave it again to Dr. Dre to co-deliver my other favorite on this album, the song “Can’t C Me” and yet another unmistakable signature bass beat. Blending my love for funk and fat bass lines, you just don’t hear much else in the hip-hop world that thumps quite like this track, even if Tupac’s vocal delivery lacks the same smoothness we get from Q-Tip, Nas, Havoc or Tupac’s ultimate nemesis, The Notorious B.I.G.
With that, let’s talk more about this east coast – west coast rivalry. For the most part, it was treated by casual fans as somewhat of a musical cartoon. Yet, when you peel it back and listen to the many back and forth songs and videos, and more importantly, understand the cultivation of violence that emerged during this time, is it really anything to laugh at or celebrate? Most evidence leads to the conclusion that neither Biggie or Tupac’s murders were a direct result of this back-and-forth rivalry, but even if that is true, the desensitization and normalization of “thug life” and the resulting loss of life and criminal detainment are complex by-products of this generation and genre of music. I’m as guilty as any… I typically love these songs and laugh and relish in their seemingly fictional video-game world of street violence, but as we saw with this end result, the consequences were anything but fictional.
I realized tonight that my inner struggle with this fictional or non-fictional world reaches beyond the art form of music. Currently immersed in the television show “Breaking Bad”, I had a long conversation tonight as I tried to deal with, somewhat unsuccessfully, the seemingly downward and irreversible spiral of the two main characters who originated as hapless, coincidental criminals who descended into continuous acts of violence, even if it was for the purposes of survival. Is this what I want to watch or listen to with my limited free time? I remain unsure on all of this, but it definitely impacted me, both in music and in television, particularly in an age where the world has suddenly become more violent and senseless with a brutal war waging as we speak.
A lot to take in, and I’m probably best served shutting down for the night, but the struggle of today will roll on. I love the funky groove, and like many, I’m drawn like a moth to the culture we center on with “All Eyez On Me” or “Breaking Bad”, but that doesn’t mean that this fascination is without consequence or conflict.