2Pac ~ 2Pacalypse Now (1991)

Posted on July 1, 2012

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In the fall of 1991, when Tupac Shakur emerged from California’s Bay Area, few knew the monstrous impact he’d have on rap music. In just under five years, from November of 1991 (when this album dropped) to his violent death in September of 1996, Tupac captivated and unsettled scores of people, from within and without the rap world. Tupac had stunning natural gifts that would make him feared, loathed, and admired during his brief life and career; and in the years since his untimely demise, Tupac has become the sort of mythical icon Hip Hop had never seen before; falling somewhere between Bob Marley and Elvis Presley in terms of social impact and popularity.

Though he was barely 20 years old when this set was released, Tupac Amaru Shakur had a wealth of life experience behind him. Born in New York City in 1971, Tupac came of age in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan; the son of Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur, and the godson of Black Panther Minister of Defense Geronimo Pratt. In the late 1980’s, Tupac left New York behind; moving to Baltimore, Maryland for a time, and then to Marin City, California in 1988. Taking to poetry writing as a child, Pac gravitated toward rap while in Baltimore, and when his family settled in Marin City, Pac became one-third of a local trio called Strictly Dope. Tupac would be sponsored by Bay Area artisan Leila Steinberg, who’d introduce him to music manager Atron Gregory, who began to guide Pac’s career in 1989.

In 1990, Gregory convinced Shock G, the founder of Bay Area group Digital Underground, to accept Tupac into his touring crew. While serving as a roadie and hypeman for D.U., Tupac recorded a demo which Atron Gregory and Shock G shopped to various labels; getting spurned at every turn. That same year, Gregory sent Tupac’s tape to Interscope Records, a Warner Bros. affiliate that had just opened its doors. Interscope A&R exec Tom Whalley was impressed with Pac’s tape, and after Interscope co-founder Ted Field gave his approval, Whalley offered the then 19-year-old Tupac a contract. In the spring of 1991, “2Pac” hit the studio to record his full-length debut, and that fall, the world got its first look at one of rap’s most volatile firebrands, through the inspired release 2Pacalypse Now.

Overall, 2Pacalypse Now is the album that most accurately depicts the different sides of 2Pac. Before personal dramas engulfed his studio work, Tupac was a thug philosopher; with social insights and venomous plotlines that run hand in hand, and his luminosity and potential are on full display here. The album opens with “Young Black Male”, a sonically chaotic number with Funkadelic’s “Good Old Music” as its drum base, and Tupac sporting a sped-up staccato flow, and giving listeners a bird’s eye view of a young brother’s mindset, including stressors (the police) and temptations (women) he faces on a daily basis. On “Trapped”, the album’s first single, Pac utilizes a funky, organ-laced groove to play a victim of circumstance; caught in a maze of ghetto hell and police harassment, and punished by the authorities when he erupts. Tupac adopts dual personalities on “Soulja’s Story”; using a disembodied tone to play an imprisoned street king, and a youthful inflection to play his impressionable kid brother, who tries to spring him from the pen, and gets killed in the process. “I Don’t Give A Fuck” explores the simultaneous distrust, persecution and exploitation of Blacks the world over; and has Pac rhyming with his boy Pee Wee, who also laced the track. The slow burner “Violent” sounds like something Scarface would make; as Pac tells a spiraling tale of vengeance: getting into a melee with the cops, and incurring the wrath of the entire police force. And “Words Of Wisdom” is just dazzling, with producer Shock G doctoring a bubbly jazz break and spry drum shuffles, and 2Pac playing judge and jury in the case of the Black Nation vs. America, and giving one of the best performances of his career.

The disc’s second half has its most memorable cuts, and shows Tupac’s all-around game. “Crooked Ass Nigga” is an orgy of bullets and spent shells, and has Pac’s frequent collaborator, the late Randy “Stretch” Walker (of Live Squad) lacing the frazzled beat, and then joining Pac in a gun-spraying session on the mic. On “If My Homie Calls”, the album’s biggest hit, 2Pac strides across a bouncing after-hours groove, and speaks to one of his estranged road dogs, letting him know he’ll still support him in his time of need, no matter the distance between them. “Brenda’s Got A Baby” showcases the emotional value that made 2Pac’s music so impactful. Using a solemn R&B melody and soulful vocalists for support, Pac tells a wrenching tale of a girl whose life is torn apart by incest, ends up pregnant, and ultimately turns to prostitution. The song builds slowly, and Pac makes you misty as his subject’s downward spiral unfolds. For the battle rhyme enthusiasts, Tupac takes the safety off his rhyme gun for “Tha Lunatic”, and dumps punchlines like hollow points, while Stretch eggs him on, and Shock G supplies a carnival funk track in the rear. “Rebel Of The Underground” is a crowd rocker with depth; that has Pac flowing over some nursery-style keys and the “Impeach The President” drums, and making sure his voice and point of view are respected, no matter who opposes him. And the haunting “Part Time Mutha” closes the set. It’s another heart tugger, with an interpolation of Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover” for support, and Pac and guest Angelique addressing parental abuse and neglect, and their damaging effects on children, while singer Poppi lays emotive, Luther Vandross-esque vocals throughout the verses and chorus.

At first listen, 2Pacalypse Now may not seem that special, mostly due to the production. For the most part, its beats are fairly pedestrian. The drums are sluggish, the basslines and melodies are dense, and the overall sound is unpolished. But then, that may have been the point. The tracks are good enough to hold up under Tupac’s verses; and as talented as Tupac was, the producers didn’t really have to work that hard.

And, of course, Tupac Shakur is the star of this show. This album was the first (and last) time we’d hear a relatively drama-free 2Pac. No Makaveli. No Thug Life. No “I-got-shot-five-times-and-survived” Pac. Here we got Tupac, pure and uncut. Before career strife set in, 2Pac was just a fiery, intelligent brotha from the Bay, with a lot to say to the world. And his nimble flow, keen intellect, and obvious gift with words made him the perfect vessel to speak to the world. But, besides these traits, Tupac had an earnestness and sincerity that could brighten the darkest night. Songs like “Brenda’s Got A Baby” and “Part Time Mutha” struck chords with many listeners, and Pac’s ability to connect emotionally with his audience would help immortalize him.

For its time, 2Pacalypse Now was moderately successful commercially, selling more than 400,000 units in its first run. But Tupac Shakur wouldn’t enjoy this success; as drama soon set in, and dogged him the rest of his life. In 1992, then-U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle blasted 2Pac for this disc’s anti-law enforcement content; particularly “Soulja’s Story”, which would also be referenced in the murder trial of Ronald Ray Howard, a 19-year-old Texan who’d gun down a state trooper in April of ’92, and claim the song drove him to do it. Over the next four years, Tupac would experience mounting legal troubles and violent encounters that spilled over into his music; and on September 13, 1996, Tupac Amaru Shakur lost his life in Las Vegas, after an ambush drive-by shooting. 2Pac made better (and flashier) albums than 2Pacalypse Now; but to get the full breadth of his work, you should consult this release, and behold the essence of one of rap’s most magnetic figures in simpler times.

To listen to 2Pacalypse Now, click here.

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