956 - 2Pac 'Me Against The World' (1995)

My Rating: 2.20 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/1

Favourite Tracks: So Many Tears, If I Die 2Nite
Least-Favourite Tracks:
Heavy In The Game, Old School

Like it or not, gangsta rap has been one of America’s most successful musical exports. 2Pac alone has sold over 75 million albums which represents one hell of a soapbox for his particular musings on life. Such popularity also inspires a form of cultural imperialism, with people around the world tossing away huge chunks of their own identity & replacing it wholesale with that of their favourite US rappers. Here in the UK, there’s nothing more cringe-worthy than hearing a middle-aged, middle-class, white Englishman trying to speak like a young, working-class, black American. How much more removed from your own origins do you need to be? I recently worked in a trendy music biz office where one plummy Oxbridge graduate regularly used “ghetto-talk” without a hint of irony; the worst thing was that it’s become so normal that nobody else there even noticed.

Although Tupac spent several years at drama school, the way he spoke & behaved didn’t seem to be an affectation. He grew up in a harsh environment & while aspersions have been cast about the “street” credentials of some rappers, the very nature of Tupac’s life (& death) means nobody could really accuse him of faking it. Authenticity is a highly-prized commodity in the world of gangsta rap, so when you issue an album just after you’ve survived being shot 5 times & whilst serving a prison sentence for sexual assault, it is bound to add a certain gravitas to your words. Released against that backdrop an album titled Me Against The World was always going to be taken seriously.

I should confess at the outset that I know very little about rap. Everyone has holes in their musical knowledge & gangsta rap represents a point-blank .45-calibre exit-wound in mine. If you’d mentioned “Tupac & Biggie” to me several years ago, I might have assumed you were talking about some kiddies’ cartoon show. And I laughed the other day when a guy on a radio phone-in mistakenly referred to 50 Cent as “50 Pence” but secretly knew I wasn’t all that far away from making the same blunder. Rap certainly polarises opinion amongst people I know in the music world too; some pretend to know a lot about it in order to boost their credibility, others loftily dismiss the whole genre without ever having listened to a single note.

Back to the album & if anyone was not aware that Tupac had been shot, the opening intro-track soon remedies that; what starts out as a soulful instrumental soon turns into something of a brag-fest as dozens of sensationalised news reports about his shooting & discharging himself from hospital are interwoven through the music. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer – you’re a tough guy, we get it for heaven’s sake. But as the album progresses we get glimpses of some vulnerability & for the critics that is one of the things that sets this release apart from its peers. Most of the lyrics (predictably) glorify his violent lifestyle, yet there’s a contemplative streak running through all the songs that simultaneously express his doubts & fears. It’s like Tupac had one of those cartoon devils whispering in one ear & an angel in the other. A track like If I Die 2Night talks of “plottin’ on murderin’ motherfuckers” & “duckin’ the cop.. as I’m clutchin’ my Glock” yet conversely complains “I’m sick of psychotic society, somebody save me” & “I hope I’m forgiven for Thug livin’ when I die”. It’s a contradictory stance yet in a sense it works because it comes across as an honest internal struggle. Having said that, I think many critics overplay the vulnerability-line; they hold up a track like Dear Mama & point out how few hardcore rappers would record a gentle ballad tribute to their mum. That may be so but Tupac still can’t bring himself to state directly that he loves her – his big repeated chorus line is “you are appreciated” which as a sentiment is not exactly overflowing with warmth & tenderness.

The spectre of his untimely death looms large over the whole album & it’s something I found intriguing. It’s partly the dying-young effect; I get the same thing hearing Ian Curtis or Nick Drake, though in Tupac’s case the album feels more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a eulogy. The paranoid mistrust of Death Around The Corner is eerily-accurate & on track after track, Tupac predicts his own violent demise. Lines like “I’m having visions of leaving here in a hearse” or “my every move is a calculated step to bring me closer to embrace an early death” (from So Many Tears) take on extraordinary significance. I couldn’t help wondering what we’d make of such lyrics had he not been shot dead. If he’d gone on to great success as an actor & got fat by the pool in his Bel-Air mansion such lyrics might have come across as just empty posturing, but following his murder they stand as a kind of validation & that certainly adds a powerful edge to the record.

Musically the songs are well-produced & surprisingly melodic but I do find it hard to get all that excited about songs constructed entirely from samples of other peoples’ songs. Also there’s a (jealous) side of me that resents anybody who doesn’t write the music, doesn’t play any instruments, doesn’t sing & yet can still make over $80 million of record sales in one year. Considering the Poet Laureate earns £5750 a year that’s pretty good wages for a bit of rhyming. And I do have misgivings about a lot of the lyrical content, not because I find it offensive but mainly because its obsessive uber-machismo focus on murder, sex, drink & drugs just seems so childish – to me it’s the sort of thing that 14 year old boys boast about, not grown men.

Rap fans have long revered this album; as an outsider to the genre I found it something of a mixed bag. It was certainly more accessible than I expected & the murky world it portrays, whether fact or fiction (or a blurring of the two) offers a vicarious thrill to those of us peering in from our comfy suburban lives. The cycle is neatly completed with the final track Outlaw & its chilly closing lines - “Muh’fuckers wanna see me in my casket… I never die, thug niggaz multiply, cause after me is thug life baby”. As my plummy Oxbridge friend might put it; “Believe”.


crowbarred said...

Out on bail
Fresh outta jail
California dreamin
Soon as I stepped on the scene
Im hearin hoochies screamin.
Fiendin for money and alcohol
The life of a west side playa
[not quite Lennon & McCartney] but then again nor were they, if you get my drift ~ crowbarred

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