I See No Changes
"We need to change the way we eat.
We need to change the way we live.
And we need to change the way we treat each other" — 2Pac, Changes
There's scarce a rapper alive whose success doesn't owe to actually being or pretending to be a thug. Tupac's 'street cred' gave him the high ground from which to call on black people to improve their lives and their communities. It may not be out of range to say that, between Martin Luther King Jr.'s passing and his own, Tupac Shakur was the most influential black leader in America.
That may sound funny to hear, what with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton still fighting the fight, Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, and Bill Cosby manning the airwaves, but that only speaks to the unspeakably large void left behind by Tupac's death.
The Jacksons and Sharptons of the world are best received and most supported by civil rights-era blacks who grew up marching on Selma and defending the humanity and the most basic rights of their people. But their fight against institutional racism doesn't always hold resonance with poor people just trying to survive. Even Jackson and Sharpton, mavericks that they are, wear suits to work every single day. They fly around the world, meet with important people, and live a life most of their supporters can't imagine or relate to. Even those who buy the idea that Jackson and Sharpton are working on their behalf may still find it tough to relate to such men, or feel that they're speaking directly to them.
On the other hand, Tupac's admonition that the black community needs to "change the way we live" gave each and every one of us a role to play in shaping the future, as opposed to waiting for some law to be passed or some CEO to put more money in Jesse Jackson's bank account as proof of the 'power' of the black community. Tupac was the guy who could look black men in our communal eye and tell us we weren't living right, a rare experience indeed in an era in which five of every six black children are born out of wedlock.
Tupac's reach goes further than the others. Only Tupac could get inside the head of that guy, bobbing his head to the beat at the bus depot, because it was Tupac that that guy was — and is — listening to.
The More Things Change…
The first disc — Thug — starts off strong, with Death Row hits from Tupac's prime, like "California Love" and "So Many Tears." It's not until around "How Do U Want It?" that you regret having picked the edited version.
In the beginning, listening to radio edits matters less than you'd think. Most rap you hear on the radio or see on BET has already been sanitized for your listening pleasure; typically, you've heard the "clean" version of a song play on radio before buying the CD. Radio friendly editing, though, is a tool best used to lure in the listener and, as its name implies, make a song more amenable to radio and music video producers constantly worried about what their advertisers will think. But once lured you were in the hands of the artist and his idea of creative expression.
It doesn't work that way with edited CDs. On some popular songs, such as "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," radio edits sound better than their explicit counterparts, to the where one wonders whether their profanity actually detracts from the song.
But with unfamiliar songs like "Definition of a Thug Nigga" and "They Don't Give a Fuck About us," songs that you won't hear on the radio, but only when you buy the actual CD, the wheels begin to come off.
There are many reasons to produce an edited CD; maybe you're marketing to younger listeners, or to those who listened to Tupac way back when, who are ten years older and may not like profanity, even if they like the artist saying it. But none of them outweigh the absolute havoc that redactions wreak on the listening experience.
One helpful Rule of Thumb for these situations: when you can't even sing your song title without editing words out, the song should stay as is. Or, pick one that wouldn't be racked by editing. Listening to edited rap is about as pointless as wearing a condom after getting married — which is to say, quite.
An edited Tupac is a sanitized Tupac, which is a far cry from the way his fans have always known and remembered him. If you want non-offensive lyrics that your 12-year old can listen to and your minister wouldn't disapprove of, you don't want to be listening to Tupac. Perhaps, instead of trying to make him all things to all people, its producers might be better served to "let 2Pac be 2Pac" and accept that not everyone will respond to the man he is, nor should they.
But this all fits in with the efforts of Tupac's estate to immortalize the rapper. "I believe," said Afeni Shakur, "[that The Best of 2Pac] represents the many sides to my son as an artist and human being," a tough task indeed for a 22-song effort.
Thug features songs embodying the 'gangsta' persona that made 2Pac a hero to so many youth with whom his anger resonated. Life, features 2Pac in a role most familiar: speaking sense to the black community, encouraging us to lead better lives, be better fathers, and support each other. Tupac's ability to float between those roles so freely gave black men a defiant, don't-box-me-in confidence that's been hard to recover.
One of the necessary conditions of any "best hits" venture is that it spans the artist's entire career; Tupac's estate would like us to believe his career spanned from 1991 to 2007, and not that 1992-1996 period during which he gained most of his fan base.
The problem with previously unreleased music is that, while we may not have heard it yet and for that reason consider it new, it was still recorded over a decade ago. Rap music and music in general have changed so much in that intervening decade that a listener may prefer hearing the classics, the hits, the songs we knew and loved once as above tracks that didn't even make the cut ten years ago.
Music has come a long way in the short decade since Tupac's passing, and any songs recorded back then…well, haven't. And, tempting as it is to piece together parts of the puzzle lost in Tupac's premature death, some things are better left as they were. When a 25-year old man perishes from the scene, we should feel as though something is missing. And releasing CDs filled with every word he ever recorded won't change that fact.
For my money, if I want to listen to The Best of 2Pac, I head over to my local record store and pick up anything from his Death Row years.