There are several moments on All Eyez on Me, the diamond-certified double CD by Tupac Shakur, in which the volatile artist sounds joyful. Maybe it’s because he loved rapping his incredible lyrics into a microphone to be preserved for posterity.
Maybe it was because he felt reborn after being signed to the infamous label, Death Row Records. Or maybe, Shakur was just happy as hell to once again have his freedom after nearly nine months in lockup.
Whatever the reason, that happiness and joy produced an essential hip-hop recording and contributed to the controversial star becoming a pop culture icon. All Eyez on Me, released 25 years ago today, became the final album released during ‘Pac’s lifetime.
Exactly seven months later, he died from gunshot wounds suffered six days earlier in a drive-by shooting.
But Shakur, who recorded as 2Pac, brought a different energy to that album (as compared to his previous ones) and enlisted a list of hip-hop luminaries to feature on many of the album’s 27 tracks.
The seeds of greatness for this LP were sown in the early months of 1995. That’s when the star was incarcerated at Riker’s Island before being moved to the Clinton Correctional Facility.
His anger over being convicted of crimes he emphatically denied informed his mindset for the follow up to Me Against the World. That was his 1995 classic, which I believe to be his magnum opus; it was also darker and more fatalistic than All Eyez on Me.
With revenge on his mind and a mental sketch of what his future could become, Shakur was released from prison in October ’95. From there, he went a thousand miles per hour in the studio to craft his next musical statement. In the process, his “fuck the world” mentality received a major upgrade.
Evidence of ‘Pac’s increased star power throughout 1996 lies in my own experience. I was not a fan of rap music at the time, yet his charisma and evocative presence were undeniable even to me.
Sure, his name seemed to be in the news in 1996 as much as O.J. Simpson’s was the previous year. But the music on the album was brilliant thanks to Shakur’s passionate vocals and the searing conviction of his delivery.
Appearing as a presenter at the 38th annual Grammy awards in February 1996, ‘Pac was decked out in a black Versace suit. He spoke to the crowd with an aura and poise that belied his “thuggish” reputation.
His music videos became more frequent and his sex appeal earned him more attention from women both famous and not. I don’t believe it’s coincidental that he appeared as a musical guest on SNL for the first time, and was considered for more films (co-starring in two) than usual.
His incendiary rivalry with East coast nemesis The Notorious B.I.G. led to the vicious diss track, “Hit Em Up.” Released twelve days before ‘Pac’s 25th birthday, the song was designed to humiliate and destroy Biggie.
The media coverage of the so-called rivalry as well as the combative lyrics added more fuel to Tupac’s cultural cache. Despite the wealth of talent in hip-hop during 1996, Shakur loomed largest and owned that year.
The visual of him, shirtless with his sculpted torso tatted up with a Death Row Records medallion around his neck is one the most indelible mental images of his career.
By the time he appeared in New York City for the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, All Eyez on Me had enjoyed major chart success. Shakur had graduated from rap musician to best-selling artist, then in a flash — controversial celebrity.
He was flawlessly attired in a tailored suit during the awards show along with label mate Snoop Dogg. This had become more commonplace for the superstar, who formerly favored urban fashion in nearly all situations.
Three days after the VMAs, ‘Pac was gunned down in Las Vegas following a Mike Tyson boxing match. His passing on September 13, 1996, was not only an enormous loss for hip-hop but for the black community at large.
During Tupac’s enigmatic career, he alternated between “gangsta” rapper and intellectual visionary. He was blessed with a marvelous mind and possessed the tools to evolve into something far greater than what he achieved.
Despite his occasional bad choices and menacing activities from time to time, Shakur was a genius. Becoming a pop icon in 1996 was fueled by a short stint in prison and a legendary album.
But the odds he defied and the success he accomplished continue to inspire many people. A quarter-century later and beyond, those details and facts will allow his legacy to endure.