"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Chances Are He’s Still Better Than Your Favorite Rapper...Well, Not Mine But Probably Yours

First off, let me just say that Tupac Amuru Shakur is not the greatest rapper of all-time nor is he better than Christopher Wallace. He’s just not. His early work is way too inconsistent to allow the greatness of his later work to compensate for the fact that 2Pacalypse Now kind of sucks...like a lot. However, let’s get this one thing straight for those who feel the need to be revisionist jackasses, Tupac was, is and always be a great rapper. You need to cut that Tupac was wack shit for real before some crazy ass Pac stan (and nobody is more fanatic than those lunatics) goes all Chris and Snoop on your ass and leaves you in a vacant right next to Lex, Little Kevin and Old Face Andre.

It’s been a somewhat frustrating trend to me lately that many prominent and not so prominent bloggers and fans have decided to re-write hip hop history and not acknowledge Tupac as one of the greats. In some sense this just an overreaction to the hype and mythos surrounding Tupac’s death. If the old axiom is that “Dead rappers get better promotion”, Tupac Shakur is the primary beneficiary of that. Pac has remarkably sold more records dead than every single rapper ever did while they were alive (except for MC Entire...) and for ten years after his death, it was considered high sacrilege and damn near treasonous to question Pac’s rightful place as the greatest rapper of all-time. This coupled with the fact that MTV and other outlets in all of their infinite wisdom (As...mother...fucking...if...) endlessly crowned him number one in all of those polls right next to Biggie and (Fat) White Jesus himself, Marshall Mathers. When the official ten year moratorium for respecting Pac’s death passed two years ago, the growing backlash against Pac’s pre-mature ascension to the top of the G.O.A.T. heap officially was allowed to reach fever pitch. Suddenly, it became cool and or trendy to say that Pac wasn’t a lyricist, that Pac was wack, that Pac was overrated, that Lil’ Wayne was the best rapper alive, blah, blah, blah. Look, I get it. I really do. Tupac was a flawed emcee. His early material sounds extremely dated, his production on his albums are often uneven and weak, he often relied on somewhat tired tropes in his music, and the endless amounts of posthumous Pac albums filled with his lesser thought outtakes far outweigh the true greatness of his post-getting shot material. HOWEVER, it IS fucking blasphemy and damn near bordering on out-and-out hate (and this coming from me so you know that game recognize game...) to say that Pac wasn’t a great artist.

Tupac’s greatest assest as an emcee is his delivery. Pac’s delivery was fierce, dramatic, and full of emotion. Outside of perhaps only Ghostface, there was no other rapper in the history of the art form that could wrench more emotion and drama out of his voice than Tupac Shakur. The old cliche about Tupac was that he’s the greatest rapper of all-time because he was so “felt” by the people. Well, a big part of that was because he was able to channel emotion through his words and make songs that resonate with a mass audience. Pac’s flow wasn’t as effortless as Method Man’s or as virtuoso as Big’s but in some sense because Pac kept it relatively simple and unflashy, he was able to overcome his shortcomings and make music that resonated to a larger audience than either of them ever truly attained. In some senses, he kept to the formula of “keeping it simple, stupid.” Often more lyrical rappers such as Nas, AZ or Common have a problem connecting to their audience because their use of metaphor and more complex vocabulary served to impress critics and confuse your average listener. Tupac didn’t have that problem. While Nas or Rakim could be subtle in their lyricism, Pac was much more blunt. His music has a more anthemic quality than he is given credit for. His most well known songs, “Keep Your Head Up”, “Dear Mama”, “I Get Around”, “California Love”, etc, are known across genres because they transcend the genre due to their somewhat general and universal themes. Pac could never write a song quite as metaphorically genius and subtle like “I Gave You Power” (although “Me & My Girlfriend” comes close) but he had the ability to write a true crossover smash that alluded most of his peers save Biggie, Treach and perhaps Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ 50 Cent.

Another aspect where Pac gets unfairly criticized is that he is accused of not having any classics. In this point, the haters are just flat out wrong. Pac has three stone cold classics in his repertoire. Early Pac was truly wildly inconsistent. 2Pacalypse Now had a few bright moments on there but gets bogged down in weak, unmemorable production, clunky lyricism and stock post-Public Enemy militancy. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. suffers roughly the same fate but bears a marked improvement in Pac’s lyricism and production but Tupac makes the leap to a truly great rapper on Me Against The World. Perhaps, it was because of the threat of going to jail for a longtime due to his rape charge but Pac delivers a performance on that record that is remarkably subtle and damn near emotionally resonant. It’s a record that is both defiant and mournful. It’s not completely flawless but it’s his most balanced and best record as Pac was able to strike the right pitch between his nihilist thugism, his defiant anti-authoritarianism, and his sensitive emotional side. What happened next is equally as shocking. His last two records that he completed while he was alive the double disc All Eyez On Me and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory are both equally resonant and powerful records as well that are amongst the most nihilist records ever recorded and feature the best production Pac ever received especially All Eyez On Me. Perhaps, it was due to the pressures that Pac faced in his prison sentence and after getting shocked but these records are stunning in the sense it marks a drastic shift in Pac’s approach as an artist. He almost completely abandons his sensitive brooding side of his first three records and makes two true and true hardcore gangster rap records. All Eyez On Me should be noted is one of the few hip hop double albums that is pretty much enjoyable all the way through (it does peter out slightly towards the end of disc two but disc one is pretty flawless).

Pac isn’t a flawless artist by any means. He has often trouble staying on beat on faster records and his more political stuff can often stray into platitude infused corniness and his production is often weak. However, Pac belongs in your top ten. There is no question. If not for music or technical mastery but on sheer unadulterated influence...good or bad. Tupac Shakur is the most influential rap artist of all-time, an icon and an iconoclast. No more rappers respect, revere, steal from, and base their entire image from. Pac’s given us both DMX and Saigon, Ja Rule and 50 Cent. He’s a not a perfect influence since Pac’s “martyrdom” (and I really truly and lightly use that term) has caused an endless amount of rappers to obsess about their idiotic street cred and realness instead of focusing on making good music but that’s simply a testament to Pac’s charisma and mythos.

If you must hate Tupac, hate Tupac for the self destructive path that he took himself down and ultimately probably got him killed. Hate him for his hubris. Hate him for the fact that his genocidal and foolish beef got himself and Biggie killed for good measure. Don’t hate him for music. Pac’s great. Deal with it.


tray said...

See, I've never liked Pac's delivery (enemIEEEEEEEES, henessEEEEEY), and his production is just so cornball at times that I'm sure 30 years from now you'll be hearing his stuff in elevators and nursing homes (especially Changes and Keep Your Head Up). But, simply based on influence and popularity, I'm sure he belongs in an objective top ten, though he certainly doesn't make mine - although by the same token, couldn't one argue that Elton John's a top ten "rock" singer?

Really though, the fact is that it doesn't take much to be the greatest rapper of all time, so in a way the designation is pretty meaningless. It's my favorite genre of music as, I assume, it is yours, but look at how little even the greatest rappers accomplished. Biggie - one really good album, one bloated one. In fairness, his stuff would have been better if Puffy hadn't been his executive producer, but then again, isn't there a great chance he would have quickly fallen off had he lived, like pretty much every other rapper ever? A lot of rappers would love to be judged by just their first two albums. Nas - great debut, then faded out into unconvincing drug fantasies, lame attempts to make the pop charts, confused politics, pedantic old school historicism. Despite all that he's still possibly the best rapper alive - which just shows you how bad rap is today. His unreleased catalogue is probably better than his actual one, if you count Lost Tapes on the unreleased side. KRS - started out dominant (though even the first two BDP albums don't really hold up beyond the highlights) - then started taking his Teacher moniker WAY too literally. Jay - probably never even made a top 20 rap album - simply entered the GOAT conversation by virtue of Big and Pac's deaths and Nas's flameout. Spent way too much of his career dumbing down his lyrics to double his dollars, or however that line goes. Ghost - very consistent, but isn't he a little too weird to be the greatest rapper? A guy who raps about baked ziti and wallabees and scuba diving with Sponge Bob? People just love him because he's the only guy in whose work the golden age sound lives on, but in the 90s themselves he wasn't a dominant figure. Rakim, G Rap, Ice Cube - what does it say about the staying power of these guys' work that the sole acquaintance 99% of the 18-and-under demographic has with them is through Are We There Yet*? Rakim may have been the greatest technical innovator of all time but to have been the greatest rapper he would had to have talked about a lot more than how much better he was than all those wack emcees. I don't profess to know why, but for whatever reason, even the greatest rappers accomplished very little compared to the greatest bands, pop singers, jazz musicians, blues artists, classical composers, or what have you. The same's even true for rap groups - Tribe made a couple essential albums, then fell off and broke up, Public Enemy, similar story, EPMD, Run-DMC, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, Outkast, De La: ditto, more or less.

* I guess in fairness you'd also have to mention Rakim's awful cameo on Blueprint 2, that song he did with Truth Hurts, and Ice Cube's 106 and Park charting Lil Jon collabo from a few years back.

Trey Stone said...

one, Nas is not the best rapper alive.

two, outside of select moments on Vol. 1 and 2 Jay's shit really isn't dumbed down. maybe it's the fact that i prefer his flow, topic choices and production Vol. 3 and after, but people really read way too much into that. how realistic is it to expect him to've done mafioso rap (like every NY rapper in the mid-'90s) for his whole career? that would've been lame.

Doc, i've kinda fell into the negative "Pac's really not that good" hype, but it's partially cuz i really wasn't that enthused by Me Against the World when i heard it a while back and have just sort of avoided Eyez (anti-double disc bias?) i've heard all the shit everyone knows of course but based on my own rap tastes + some of the other stuff i've heard i've sorta just assumed he's not up my alley. could change i guess.

i think some of my negative bias comes from the fact that i don't really respect Pac as a person for reasons related to what you alluded to toward the end. of course there's plenty of rappers i wouldn't necessarily like as people who've made good music, but the whole inflated self-important vibe of Against put me off i guess. i've actually thought of copping Eyez for a while since i know a handful of songs from it i like but there's always a $20something price tag staring me in the face

tray said...

Nah, my problem with Jay isn't that he quit mafioso rap, I'm not one of the people who thinks Reasonable Doubt was his best moment. Actually, he might have been at his best in spots on Blueprint 2. Blueprint's a way better album but I think stuff like Hovi Baby or The Watcher is just a whole lot more virtuosic, technically, lyrically, than anything on Blueprint... which is great but, to an extent, easy listening, poppy, Jackson 5 sampling pablum. Anyway, he did dumb down - maybe Volume 2 is him at his dumbest so that stands out, but pretty much his whole career is a descent from the lyrical complexity he showed when he came out (though, as I say, I don't like RD so much because of the beats, derivative persona, the fact that he hadn't really found his flow yet, etc.), and that he showed on occasion later on stuff like, for example, the Intro to Dynasty Roc La. Mostly he just coasted throughout his career on personality and flow, whereas Nas, for all his flaws, really does put some effort into writing, and it shows in the final product. As for his evolving subject matter, that's not really the problem with Kingdom Come or American Gangster or what have you, he wasn't really talking about anything on The Blueprint either, it's just that he's seriously declined as a rapper, and, if he hasn't run out of things to say (he never really was saying much anyway), he's run out of interesting ways to say it. Now all he is is a rapper with no breath control, an annoying habit of overemphasizing vowels at the end of bars, and a weird fascination with Judaism. I guess I should appreciate all the shout-outs, being a Jew myself, but I think it's just a sign of how divorced this guy is from where he came from that he's rapping about black Bar Mitzvahs.

Trey Stone said...

i dunno. to me Hov's all about how well he articulates stuff, and i think the "hustler who made it" (or some other less-lame description i can't think of) persona in his later career is a lot more compelling than his RD/RD-aping stuff on Vol. 1 persona. i guess to me it doesn't really matter if RD is objectively more intricate or whatever, there's something more anonymous and dry about him there that i don't like as much.

i would agree about BP2, although in a much broader sense, cuz the more i think about it i'm convinced that's superior to BP. there's only three out-and-out wack songs on there and the production is crack. some of the Neptunes' best shit with him ever in particular. it's almost like the victory lap that manages to be better than the original, or something.

i hear the complaints about his flow but really, i dunno if i could explain it well but i think his slower/more deliberate AG flow works in a way it didn't on KC. maybe i'm just biased but i think there's still a smoothness to his raps there even if he's not going as fast. "Brooklyn," "Roc Boys" and the title track in particular are pretty close to vintage Hov flow, even though there's definitely some sloppy moments in other places.

Passion of the Weiss said...

Sometimes I think I agree with you more than any other blogger out there.

tray said...

Yeah, I have nothing wrong with the "hustler who made it" persona, or just the "really rich rapper" persona, but, whereas on Blueprint that was still tempered with some awareness of where he made it from, on Kingdom Come it was just like, well, "I Made It" and I don't plan to actually talk about the details of my new lifestyle because I think that will bore you, so no musings on running a corporation or dating Beyonce or anything like that, but I will pretty much exclusively ramble on about how I can afford to buy clubs and hang out with Gwyneth Paltrow. And the whole thing was just totally substance-less and lame. Then American Gangster, I felt, was this dull remake of Reasonable Doubt, lacking the immediacy or authenticity of the earlier project.

Christopher said...

I cosign elements of this post, as well as stick to my own points about Pac. Still, I disagree about his "classics". He had none. The issue with Pac is he never made a good album and he is the pop face of hip-hop, automatically, by the formula of:

Shitloads of untested/uninformed canonical acclaim+millions of albums sold=Suck.

Were his latter three albums more than decent, I doubt these conversations would exist. But they do, not because people (some are, yes, but not all) are being revisionist or reactionary, but because that ten year mark allows honesty about how shitty his catalog is and will always be. He is a candidate for "Best Of" treatment and disposal if I've ever heard of one, which is still a compliment, the guy has classic singles and etc.

Christopher said...

And I completely agree with Tray. In retrospect, Jay is great compositionally, but based on albums, he's merely really good. A lot of the canonical top 10 kind of suck in the long run(::cough:: Nas, Rakim ::cough::)

But unless Ghost makes another Supreme Clientele rather than another Big Doe Rehab, people'll still laugh at assertions that he's in the top 5.

As long as people jump of the Def Jux/Rhymesayers dick and realize they suck and do not work as reactionary vehicles to all other rap, the avenues might stay a bit open.

Trey Stone said...

Vol. 3
The Blueprint
Blueprint 2
Black Album
American Gangster

c'mon now.

i suppose one or two of those may fall under the "really good" category but dude's easily got better album-by-album output than pretty much anyone usually in these discussions. Vol. 1 and Kingdom Come are the only underwhelming ones he's put out (i got a soft spot for Dynasty cuz it has some really great songs that balance out the shit)

Christopher said...

Replace BP2 and Vol. 3 with Vol. 1 and Reasonable Doubt and that's accurate, I think.

Trey Stone said...

nah, Vol. 1's wack. Bad Boy were having an off day on that one

Guy Fawkes said...

I can't really listen to any of Pac's albums. And I don't think much of him as a rapper. He really is an equivalent to Cypress Hill in my mind. I love about 20 of their songs, but I would never subject myself to listening to a whole album of Sen Dog and B-Real... it would just be painful.

But if nothing else, I definitely commend Pac for his "realness", this guy really did live by a Fuck The World motto. Just beefing with random dudes for supposed subliminal disses. Pac never lied for one, and just for that he earns my respect.

Most of these "Ride or die" guys got their style from Pac. Even Em bit his style from Pac a little.

Still, as revolutionary as he was to rap music in general, I can't really listen to him.