The Dichotomy of Tupac

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September 6, 2013 by Ian Goldstein

By Ian Goldstein

Now tell me what’s a mother to do?
Bein’ real don’t appeal to the brother in you.
You gotta operate the easy way.
‘I made a G today’ But you made it in a sleazy way.
Sellin’ crack to the kids. ‘I gotta get paid,’
Well hey, well that’s the way it is. -“Changes”

Thug for life, high ’til I die
When them stupid-ass bitches ask why, tell ’em. -“Thug 4 Life”

If there is one song by Tupac Shakur that could appeal to any fan base it’s “Changes,” his posthumous release that was nominated for a Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy in 2000. “Changes” takes it’s chorus from “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range, it has lyrics that question and comment on race in society in a way Juvenile never has. “Changes” is (seemingly) genuine Tupac.

Much like Lennon, Tupac became a vocabulary word that transcended the prominent musician who held it. Lennon eclipsed John Lennon after his assassination in 1980. Tupac overshadowed Tupac Shakur after he was shot and killed in 1996. Lennon became synonymous with dreaming, imagining, bettering; once Lennon died his prolific career sped back into the mainstream and immediately cemented his legacy. Tupac represented reflection, awareness, respect; after being gunned down, his meaningful songs sounded less like ones written by a rapper and more like they were composed by a martyr. The name Tupac began giving visuals of run-down streets in L.A. where weary young mothers weeped and frightened kids were pressured into gang life.

We like to remember someone fondly in death. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s false. There’s always another side. Tupac had another side. There was Tupac and there was 2Pac. Tupac was the passionate philosopher, questioning race and gender roles and suggesting ways in which society, particularly lower classes, could better itself. 

I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots
I give a holler to my sisters on welfare
Tupac cares, and don’t nobody else care…

-“Keep ya head up”

Tupac refers to himself through third person in “Keep Ya Head Up,” as if he’s an observer reaching in to help. He’s declaring that along with his past race’ past, females, and welfare cases are not acknowledged as they should be. With his status as an artist and a messenger, he addresses them. He cares. 

And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?

-“Keep ya head up”

This is one of Tupac’s most famous lines. He preaches about what women have done for all the ungrateful hedonistic males. Even in the video for “Keep Ya Head Up” Tupac speaks to the camera, to the listener, and isn’t dressed like a thug. Instead he wears a t-shirt, a sideways cap, and holds a little girl up over his shoulders, illustrating his desire to protect. Though Tupac was well aware of the female paradox (we are nurtured and cared for by women, yet we hurt and degrade them) he still did exactly that, heard in some of his other popular songs. Tupac, spiritual messenger becomes 2Pac, Gangsta Rapper.


This is where 2Pac and arguably his most famous song emerge: his 1995 collaboration with Dr.Dre, “California Love.” It’s a love letter to the Sunshine State but it’s also a proponent of seemingly contradictory ideas:

Out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreaming
Soon as I step on the scene, I’m hearing hoochies screaming
Fiending for money and alcohol
The life of a Westside player where cowards die and the strong ball.

This verse is 2pac’s entrance. He storms out of jail ready to live with “hoochies” yelling for him and focusing primarily on materialism. This is not Tupac Shakur of “Keep Ya Head Up.” It’s 2Pac, the self-indulgent ex-con drinking and dancing in California. It’s 2Pac opposing Tupac,making the switch stealthily, but blatantly; no one notices.

In his 1996 diss song song “Hit ‘Em Up,” 2Pac yet again emerges as a vengeful, violent aggressor seeking to harm Biggie Smalls and Bad Boy records. The song was written when Tupac believed Biggie and other Bad Boy records members had something to do with Tupac being shot outside a recording studio in 1994 (something to which a convicted killer recently admitted). The song and the video do not suggest someone who seeks peace, but instead someone who is looking to disrupt it.  He questions “Who shot me?” and then declares “But your punks didn’t finish. Now you about to feel the wrath of a menace.” 

It’s typical that stars in Hollywood will do one movie for the studio and one movie for themselves. They will work on a film they feel passionately about and then do a blockbuster to pay the bills. Actors like George Clooney (working on the Ocean’s films and then writing and directing Good Night and Good Luck) or Christian Bale (The Dark Knight and The Fighter) are examples of this. But many of these actors/directors encounter a win-win, both choices usually progress their careers. Having both Moonrise Kingdom and then The Bourne Legacy on a resume isn’t too bad. But Adam Sandler is an example of the Tupac Dichotomy, someone who is cognizant of what is wrong, but does it anyway.

Adam Sandler is aware. He may appear on Letterman in a t-shirt and jeans and act as though his concern is minimal, (and it probably is) but he knows what sells and what he enjoys. He knows his films are childish, but he has fun making them and maintains success. Funny People, Judd Apatow’s 2009 film taught us that Adam Sandler has to be somewhat cognizant of how little integrity his films contain. Funny People tells the story of a movie star, George Simmons, dealing with death and reflecting on his life. Simmons (Sandler) knows his films are ridiculous and he’s not proud of them, but they made him successful. After this film, it seemed like Sandler had finally understand what his career was becoming.

But then Jack and Jill was released. And though it wasn’t a total shocker that Sandler released a film like this, after having essentially admitted his movies were pointless, he continued to do it, which seemed like a contradiction.  It was everything Sandler was mocking. It’s as if Louis C.K. decided to mirror his stand up act after Gallagher with no intention of irony. It’s contradictory and insane, and also depressing. Sandler then released That’s My Boy and Grown Ups 2. Movies that appear now to be both one for him and one for them (indistinguishable which is which). The truth is that Sandler is having fun writing these films, and if he can get the budget for them to be made (even if nobody sees it) then good for him for reaching a point in his career where he can write any screenplay and have a crew instantly.

Tupac reached a point in his career in the ’90s in which he was seemingly unstoppable, making Death Row Records a household name, getting artists like Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre. to sign with them and making hit album after hit album to the point where he could be Tupack Shakur or 2Pac and sell records. One is a 20th century philosopher, directing the misguided. The other is the vengeful opposition to authority and civilized society. It may be wrong to call it a contradiction; each half is still part of a whole person. But, much like Adam Sandler’s career trajectory, it’s just another facet of someone who can’t be one thing all the time, even if we want them to be.


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