Last Friday was my boy Tews’s birthday. I forget a lot of things, but for some reason one of the few things I do usually remember is to text my boy to wish him a happy birthday. It’s weird now that we’re in our 40’s. What do you say to someone turning 42? “Happy birthday! Have an amazing day!” Who give a shit? Who’s really excited about a birthday when you’re that age? Still…he’s my friend and it’s his birthday, so I like to let him know I’m thinking of him.
Fittingly, the other thing that I remember every September 7 is Tupac. Tews and I have a long history with Pac. He was the soundtrack to our time together in high school and college. If there was a party or a road trip, you can bet Tews and I were rolling with Tupac. It’s pretty ridiculous when you think about it. A couple of stupid white boys driving to Marquette, Michigan, rapping along to “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and arguing over who got Pac’s part and who got Snoop’s. Thug life, indeed!
The brilliance of Tupac was that he could get in front of a camera screaming “fuck the world” with two middle fingers in the air, then sincerely perform a song like “Dear Mama” or “Keep Ya Head Up.” People always refer to Tupac as someone who contradicted himself, but I don’t see it that way. Pac was a thoughtful and emotional person who was able to translate those thoughts to poetry, then deliver with charisma. It’s not shocking that the guy who gave us “Hit ‘Em Up” could also write something as deep as “So Many Tears.” He was complicated and had the ability and fearlessness to communicate his thoughts through lyrics with skill that few could match.
Pac was also prophetic. Much of what he was rapping about 25 years ago is still relevant now. His Strictly 4 My N****z album is 25 years old and loaded with songs that stand up against police brutality, a reality that, sadly, never goes away. He knew he was destined for an early death and left so many references to it in his music that to this day people believe he’s alive. Months after his death a posthumous 2Pac album titled The 7 Day Theory was released under the name Makaveli with a picture of Pac nailed to a cross on the cover. The Makaveli name was a nod to 16th century Italian politician and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli who wrote about faking one’s death in order to manipulate enemies. The executive producer on that album is listed simply as “Simon,” a reference to Simon the apostle who was one of the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection. To this day, looking at that album gives me chills. There was a time when I believed Pac was still out there somewhere. It was more wishful thinking than actually believing he was alive, but the way he set his fans up to believe he was still here after he was gone was amazing. Other than Elvis, you don’t hear fans of anyone else who still passionately hold on to that hope.
September 7, 1996. Tews’s 20th birthday. We were in Oshkosh with our guys Tyson, Craig, and Ruhl. There was a party that night at Craig and Ruhl’s house. News broke that Tupac had been shot…again. This time he was leaving a Mike Tyson fight in Vegas and got shot up in the passenger seat of Suge Knight’s car while sitting at a stop light. Unlike the last time he was shot, it didn’t look like he was going to survive. Tews’s birthday party offically turned in to an all-Tupac party and it was bittersweet. It’s always fun to be at a party with the boys, but that night we drowned our sorrows in cheap gin and west coast hip hop. Pac died six nights later and I felt numb. I finally understood how Nirvana fans felt two years earlier when Kurt Cobain died. It didn’t make sense to me how you could feel such loss over a celebrity death until that night. A few days later MTV dropped a new video for the song “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and it was one of the most chilling experiences of my life. I wasn’t sure if I should cry or celebrate. It was like watching a ghost…literally. There was nobody like him before or since. For 22 years we’ve been hearing about rappers being the next Tupac and none of them have come close. Some have possessed more skill or better lyrics. None have had the charisma or delivery.
So, on the 22nd anniversary of his death*, I salute Tupac with 22 of my personal favorite songs that reflect his many sides. Some of these songs have personal stories with them. Most of those stories involve Tews and me in a car rapping along. This is not a ranking. In fact, to avoid any bias I’ll put them in alphabetical order, because there’s nothing more thug life than sorting alphabetically.
*For the record, I’m aware that Tupac died on September 13, 1996. The date at the top of this post does say September 14, 2018. I finished it after midnight. I’ve never been good at meeting deadlines. My brother lives on the west coast and I’m hoping that when he reads this, it’ll still be September 13 there. Using this logic I have convinced myself that it was done on time.
All Eyez on Me
The title track to his most commercially successful album. I have to confess early on: I don’t spend a ton of my time listening to Tupac anymore. It’s not exactly something I can drop the needle on while the kids are around. Let’s just say my taste has changed slightly since I was a teenager. I still love me some Pac whenever I hear it, though. It’s kind of stunning to me that when I played “All Eyez on Me” recently I could still recite it like it was 1996. “I bet you got it twisted you don’t know who to trust, so many player hating bitches trying to sound like us saying they ready for the funk well I don’t think they know me…” I still know all the lyrics to these songs. Also, in case you were wondering, of course I don’t recite the N-bombs when he says them…and he does frequently on this track. It’s not difficult to replace it with a different two syllable word to fill the space, or just shut my mouth and not say anything. You hear that, fellow white folks? When you think it’s time to drop an N-bomb, just don’t.
Bury Me a G
My conscience tells me I shouldn’t like this song. It’s unabashed misogyny that makes me uncomfortable. I’d also be lying if I said in 1995 I didn’t sit behind the wheel of my Festiva on my way to my $7/hour job rapping along, yelling at the top of my lungs, “I ain’t got time for bitches, gotta keep my mind on my motherfucking riches!” Pac’s entire final verse on this song is laugh out loud, cringe-inducing brilliance.
Really, what can you say about this song? Iconic. Amazing video. Still rocks any party 20 years later. Tell me you’re not throwing up the W asking, “Sacramento, where you at?” whenever you hear this song and I’ll call you a filthy liar. Side note: I can do a flawless Roger Troutman impression and I don’t even need that weird keyboard tube thing to do it. Ask Betsy.
A haunting track from the Makaveli 7-Day Theory album. An unusually long hip hop track at over five minutes. I love this track, but the reason I wanted to put it on this list is because I wanted to address the fact that he actually drops the line, “Mama told me never stop until I bust a nut.” Holy shit, really? She said that?!? What was the conversation that led up to it? Tupac’s conversations with his mom are so much different than mine! I usually say things like, “Mom, did you catch that Brewer game last night?” She usually says things to me like, “Trump is such an ass hole,” or, “Are you guys coming over for dinner Sunday night?” Not once has she said, “Son, never stop until you bust a nut.” Thank God. That would be awkward. The other thing that’s awkward is that my Google search history now has “Mama told me never stop until I bust a nut” in it. I wanted to confirm that’s what he actually says. In hindsight, I probably should’ve just Googled “Tupac Hail Mary Lyrics.” Live and learn. If I ever run for public office or something and every little thing I’ve done gets dug up, someone will see that search attributed to my Google account and it will come back to bite me.
Hit ‘Em Up
You know how rappers will throw shade at each other and have their cute little Twitter beef? Maybe talk some shit on a mixtape? Then the bloggers will say things like, “Ooh. There’s beef between this guy and that guy because this guy said this in his song…” This song is not that. Pac believed the guys from Bad Boy set him up and got him shot and he’s out for revenge. There are no subtle digs in this song. You don’t read between the lines. He’s talking about killing people and fucking their wives. I don’t know if I should laugh when I hear this song or recoil in horror. This was the peak – or maybe more appropriately, the low – of the East Coast/West Coast beef. He should have recorded this track and gotten it out of his system, then slept on it. Nothing screams “thug life” like sleeping on it. Then he could wake up the next day, realize it was probably a bit too harsh and burn all evidence of it. When I get pissed about something I’ll type a strongly worded e-mail and then (usually) think better of it before I hit ‘send’ and delete it. Pac recorded this insanity and instead of deleting it he thought, “I should make a video, too.”
Holler if Ya Hear Me
The first Tupac song I ever heard. This is some revolutionary, angry shit and I had no idea when I was 17. This isn’t your run of the mill protest song. It’s a call to arms. There’s some legit terrifying imagery in the video, too. Check it out:
I can’t imagine the balls it took for a young black man like Tupac to write this and release this video. I’m surprised he wasn’t jailed or killed immediately. I’m pretty sure Dan Quayle tried to. This song is pissed off Tupac at his best.
How Do U Want It
You can always use this track to take a party to the next level. Shout out to K-Ci and Jo Jo.
If I Die 2Nite
Here’s something unique to 2Pac I’m guessing you didn’t notice: He’s his own hype man. If you’re not listening for it, you might not notice. His vocals are layered. It’s not unusual to hear a singer do his or her own harmonies on an album. It is unusual for a rapper to have multiple vocal tracks. If you’ve ever seen a live hip hop show you’ll often see other rappers, a DJ, or a hype man backing up the MC by emphasizing certain lyrics. Someone will punctuate the end of a bar by shouting out the last word(s). Pac just does it himself. “If I Die 2Nite” is a great example of this. Listen closely and you’ll notice you’ll hear him rap, then you’ll hear his voice twice over lyrics he’s emphasizing. Talib Kweli once referred to a girl as “stacked like 2Pac vocals” and this is what he was talking about.
I Get Around
Seriously, this song is on the same album as “Keep Ya Head Up.” Unbelievable. Still a fun party track and a throwback to his roots as a member of Digital Underground. A track worthy of Shock G and Money B. Shock G is underrated as hell. This song gets bonus points because Money B shouts out Michelob.
I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto (Hip Hop Version)
Hot take: This is my favorite Tupac track. Everything I love about Pac in one song. Angry, revolutionary, thoughtful, and hopeful simultaneously.
I see no changes, all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under, I wonder what it take to make this
One better place, let’s erase the wasted
Take the evil out the people, they’ll be acting right
‘Cause both black and white are smokin’ crack tonight
And only time we deal is when we kill each other
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
And though it seems Heaven-sent
We ain’t ready to have a black President, huh
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact
The penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with blacks
I wake up in the morning and I ask myself
Is life worth living, should I blast myself
I’m tired of being poor and even worse I’m black
My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch
Cops give a damn about a negro
Pull a trigger, kill a n***a, he’s a hero
Mo’ n***a, mo’ n***a, mo’ n***as
I’d rather be dead than a po’ n***a
Let the Lord judge the criminals
If I die, I wonder if Heaven got a ghetto
Keep Ya Head Up
One of my favorite Tupac tracks and arguably the track he’s most remembered for. A moving love letter to black women. Many have tried to imitate this song over the past 25 years. They’ve all failed.
Me Against the World
Two things. 1. This is Pac’s best album. 2. This song is in the movie Bad Boys and that made me very happy when I was 19.
Never B Peace
A bleak contrast to the hope he raps about on so many other tracks. It’s the kind of song that makes you not want to leave your house. This song has an amazing beat, an eerie minor key, and Pac at his darkest. Never mind the last two verses with the guest rappers. Just check the first verse and the picture Pac paints
Now of course I want peace on the streets, but realistically
Paintin’ perfect pictures ain’t never worked, my misery
Was so deep, couldn’t sleep through all my pressures
In my quest for cash I learned fast, usin’ violent measures
Memories of adolescent years, there was unity
But after puberty we brought war to our community
So many bodies droppin’, it’s gotta stop, I wanna help
But still I’m steppin’, keep my weapon, must protect myself
The promise of a better tomorrow ain’t never reached me
Plus my teachers was too petrified in class to teach me
Sippin’ Thunderbird and grape Kool-Aid, callin’ Earl
Since my stomach was empty, it seduced me to fuck the world
Watch my lil’ homies lose, they childhoods to guns
Nobody cries no more ’cause we all die for fun
So why you ask me if I want peace, if you can’t grant it
N****s fightin ‘cross the whole planet, so it could never be peaceWill there ever be peace, or are we all just
Headed for doom, still consumed by the beast
And I know there’ll never be peace
That’s why I keep my pistol when I walk the streets
‘Cause there could never be peace
No More Pain
Pac had love for Jodeci and collaborated with them more than once. He did multiple tracks with K-Ci and JoJo, most notably “How Do U Want It.” This track, produced by DeVante Swing, is probably the least known of his work with Jodeci, but it’s my favorite. A dark, six-minute track about death, fear, women, revenge on his enemies…you know, the usual Tupac stuff. Just an ill track with a sick piano loop, dark vibe, a great hook borrowed from Method Man, and Tupac talking a lot of shit.
Fun fact: In this song Pac drops this line: “When I die I wanna be a living legend.” Wait, what? How can you be a living legend if your dead? Doesn’t that make you a dead legend? This line, more than any of the other foreshadowing he dropped in his songs, led me to believe he was not dead.
I don’t have a lot to say about this song specifically. I just like this deep cut and wanted it on the list. I do have to mention that at one point he says, “Boom bang boom it’s a stickup. Vice President Dan Quayle eat a dick up.” So good.
Now I want to take a brief moment to talk about Tupac the actor. Before I knew Tupac the rapper I knew him as “Bishop” from the movie Juice. In fact, the only reason I bought his album was because I thought the guy on the cover “looked like the guy from Juice.” I really didn’t know it was the same guy. Pac had some memorable roles in his brief acting career, but none more iconic than Bishop. If you’ve seen the movie, there’s no reason for me to set up this scene. My favorite Tupac scene. If he was still alive he’d have at least one Oscar by now. Peep game:
Picture Me Rollin’
For 15 straight years starting in the summer of 1995 we’d get a group of friends together to play at Gus Macker in Wausau, Wisconsin. Gus Macker is a 3-on-3 playground basketball tournament. The older we got, the more the tourney was about going out at night than it was playing basketball during the day. One year we found ourselves at a bar called Wiggly Field. It was a sports bar, but like most places in Central Wisconsin, it didn’t give off a hip hop friendly vibe…at least not in 2005. Maybe it’s nothing but hip hop now. They did have a jukebox, and that jukebox inexplicably included All Eyez on Me. It also had a feature that allowed you to pay extra to move your song to the front of the line. Tews played “Picture Me Rollin'” seven straight times at Wiggly Field that night. I’m glad we made it out with our lives. The lasting memory of that experience was a drunken Tews trying to sneak across the bar like a ninja to insert his cash and play the song again. I’m laughing out loud just thinking about it. We also played “Holidae Inn” by Chingy three times that night. I don’t think the Wiggly clientele appreciated us.
Pour Out a Little Liquor
The Thug Life album was confusing when it dropped. Was it a Tupac album? Who are these other guys? Was “Thug Life” the name of the group? No matter. “Pour Out a Little Liquor” is all Pac. This song was also featured on the Above the Rim soundtrack. That movie was ridiculous and hilarious…and it wasn’t supposed to be.
So Many Tears
In many ways I believe this is his best song, or at least his best songwriting. Pac’s confessional. All of the charisma and bravado are stripped away and Pac is left contemplating his life and what’s going to happen to him after he’s gone. Check out the final verse:
Lord knows I, tried, been a witness to homicide
Seen drive-by’s takin’ lives, little kids die
Wonder why as I walk by
Broken-hearted as I glance at the chalk line, gettin’ high
This ain’t the life for me, I wanna change
But ain’t no future right for me, I’m stuck in the game
I’m trapped inside a maze
See this Tanqueray influenced me to gettin’ crazy
Disillusioned lately, I’ve been really wantin’ babies
So I could see a part of me that wasn’t always shady
Don’t trust my lady, cause she’s a product of this poison
I’m hearin’ noises, think she fuckin’ all my boys, can’t take no more
I’m fallin’ to the floor; beggin’ for the Lord to let me in
To Heaven’s door, shed so many tears
(Dear God, please let me in)
So many rappers try to make hip hop slow jams that are just corny as hell. I swear by 2001 if Ja Rule and Ashanti made another terrible rap love song I was going to set something on fire. It’s a difficult balancing act. Hip hop is cool, and love songs are typically not cool unless they’re done right. The genre isn’t really made for dudes confessing their love. Leave that to R&B. LL Cool J was the creator of the hip hop love song and that was his corner for a while, but like so many other things, Pac came along and did it better than anyone. “Temptations” is not so much a love song as it is him trying to get in to some girl’s pants, but it is Pac’s best slow jam, if that’s what you’d call this.
This song does not belong on this list. There are many that missed this list that I like more, but my guy Ehlenbeck used to play this song at parties at 3013 Maryland Ave. in Milwaukee. It reminds me of those parties. It also showcases two consistent weaknesses in the Tupac catalog:
1. With the exception of Snoop, Daz, and Kurupt, Tupac always had weak rappers on his songs. My apologies to the Outlawz. They had no business sharing the studio or the stage with Pac. It takes nearly three minutes for Pac to show up and save this one. As always, it was worth the wait when he finally arrived.
2. Pac’s tracks frequently featured terrible female vocalists. Wasn’t Death Row swimming in money at this time? Couldn’t they get Mary J. Blige or at least Dawn from En Vogue or one of the girls from Jade on these tracks? The local cable access vocal talent on some of these songs is painful. On the track “Can U Get Away” the girl singing the hook is so far off key it’s like she’s singing a completely different song.
Thugz Mansion (7 Remix)
The further in to the posthumous Pac albums we got, the more upset I got. It felt to me like people trying to capitalize on his name. Suddenly new rappers were guests on Tupac tracks years after he was gone. Every song had a Tupac verse with slick production by the day’s hot producer who probably never knew Pac. It just bothered me, and to be honest, as much as I love his music, I stopped paying attention. One of the few tracks that works for me on the later albums is this version of “Thugz Mansion.” No Bruce Hornsby samples. No corny rappers adding a Tupac track to their resumé. Just a dope beat and lyrics reminiscent of “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto.” Anthony Hamilton sings a solid hook. A worthy addition to the Pac catalog, which is more than I can say for a lot of the stuff on those later albums.
To Live and Die in L.A.
So much of the hip hop in the 90’s made Los Angeles sound like a terrifying hell that nobody would want to experience. This song is (mostly) the opposite. The laid back beat feels like the perfect track to play on a sunny, 75 degree day with the top down in SoCal. Pac doesn’t paint a perfect, rosy picture of this city, but he loves the good and the bad and makes you want to be a part of it.
It’s hard to explain the influence Tupac had 22 years ago because times have changed so much. It almost feels like he was never human. He’s a mythological figure. The Internet was barely a thing, and social media was nonexistent, so all you see of him on youtube now are his videos and the occasional MTV interview. Even without Twitter, Pac made headlines – good and bad – everywhere he went. If 25-year-old Tupac was alive in 2018 he’d be blowing up Twitter every day. So many have tried to imitate his style, both musically and culturally, but nobody has been able to fully capture him. He was the rose that grew from concrete.
If you didn’t know Tupac, hopefully these 22 tracks gave you a glimpse in to the legend. If you’re like Tews and me, this list will just bring you back. Rest in peace, Tupac. We still miss you.
Man, the HAIL MARY entry is LOL. (Also happy to see a “Dawn from En Vogue” reference.) You’re right though: he’s never been topped. Lots of people who are better at lots of stuff, but no one else like him. RIP.
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I wondered if anyone would get “Dawn from En Vogue”
OMG…I laughed so hard reading your Gus story. What happened in Wausau stayed in Wausau!! 😉
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