A FULL DECADE AFTER HIS DEATH, TUPAC SHAKUR HAS THE CULTURE IN A HEADLOCK. HE HAS RELEASED NEARLY TWICE AS MANY ALBUMS DEAD--EIGHT--THAN THE FIVE HE RELEASED WHEN HE WAS ALIVE. HIS POSTHUMOUS RELEASES OFTEN OUTSELL THE EFFORTS OF LIVING ARTISTS AND DEBUT AT THE TOP OF THE MUSIC CHARTS. AS RECENTLY AS 2004, TUPAC'S POSTHUMOUS ALBUM LOYAL TO THE GAME BESTED R&B SONGSTRESS ASHANTI's THIRD LP, CONCRETE ROSE, AND WAS TOP IN SALES THE WEEK IT DEBUTED. (INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, A COLLECTION OF TUPAC'S ADOLESCENT VERSE THE ROSE THaT GREW FROM CONCRETE WAS POSTHUMOUSLY PUBLISHED IN 1999.) WHEN HE DREW BREATH AND SPIT VENOM, TUPAC SOLD NEARLY 10 MILLION DISCS; IN DEATH, HE HAS SOLD AT LEAST 25 MILLION MORE. IN 2003, THROUGH THE MIRACLE OF TECHNOLOGY, TUPAC WAS THE LONE STAR OF TUPAC: RESURRECTION, A SUCCESSFUL AND MOVING DOCUMENTARY ON HIS ART AND LIFE. IN THE FILM, TUPAC NEARLY TOPPED MOSES' FEAT IN THE BIBLE OF DISCUSSING HIS DEATH IN A WORK OF ART CREATED AFTER HIS DEMISE.
Tupac was the subject in 2004 of a scholarly conference, sponsored by the Hip-Hop Archive at Harvard, that strained to explain his enduring appeal. In 2001, his life and death were explored in a play that debuted in New York's East Village entitled Up Against the Wind. He regularly appears on fists of the top money earners among dead artists, alongside Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Bob Marley. Tupac is widely regarded as the most influential rapper ever and one of the most important figures in music history. "I put Tupac beyond Shakespeare," says legendary rapper Nas.
Anticipating his legacy, Tupac once boasted to his early benefactor Leila Steinberg--who permitted the fledgling rapper to temporarily live with her family and who served as his first manager--that future generations would analyze his raps the way they do Shakespeare's plays. Tupac's words would prove more prophetic than anyone could have guessed; starting with a class at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1998, a slew of college courses dedicated to studying Tupac's body of work cropped up after his death. In the classroom, students probe every nook and cranny of his storied and controversial existence.
Rhyme and Reason
One of the reasons Tupac still resonates in the culture is his outsized literary ambition. When it came to the themes of his music, Tupac thought big, and often in stark binaries: life and death ("Life Goes On"); love and hate ("Hail Mary"); judgment and forgiveness ("I Ain't Mad at Cha"); joy and pain ("To Live and Die in L.A."); and heaven and hell ("I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto"). He fearlessly, and poetically, explored dimensions of the male psyche neglected by his rap peers. (None of them had dared to, as tenderly or publicly, praise their mothers as Tupac praised his in "Dear Mama.") Tupac squeezed the various vulnerabilities of black life into verse without smothering its defiant hope. In "Unconditional Love," for instance, the narrator acknowledges the "urge to die" but reminds his listeners that "tomorrow comes after the dark / So you will always be in my heart, with unconditional love."
Tupac's language was inflamed with love for the desperately poor. He was a ghetto Dickens who explained the plight of the downtrodden in rebellious rhyme. But like the unconventional literary masters he brought to mind--think Jean Genet meets Sylvia Plath--Tupac was often smeared by critics and pundits who took his words literally. The vibrant imagination that fueled Tupac's gift was often dismissed, perhaps because it was too dark, too dangerous.
As with many of the "troublesome" artists who preceded him, it was Tupac's tolerance for life's gray zones that provided a constant problem for both his critics and those seeking to interpret his work. While he often decried racism and spoke about blacks and whites, he rarely thought in black and white terms. His eager embrace of ethical ambivalence came off to critics as mere hypocrisy. After all, how could the same artist--or, given the unwilling suspension of disbelief, the same man--encourage women to keep their heads up one moment and then quickly pelt them with harsh...