The mythos of Tupac Shakur is thick. Fueled by his divided persona — at times a truth-spewing, politically-minded griot speaking out against societal ills, at others an unapologetic, womanizing self-proclaimed thug who could give two damns what you thought of him — it's perhaps grown far larger than the man himself. The dichotomy played out on both his debut 2Pacalypse Now and its follow up Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., with songs like "Brenda's Got A Baby" and "Keep Ya Head Up" juxtaposed with the likes of "Crooked Ass N****z and "I Get Around."
But by the arrival of his third album, Me Against the World, it seemed that 'Pac was finally able to truly marry his two warring personalities. Perhaps that was due to the storm brewing around him at the time. The year leading up to the album's release included a trial and subsequent conviction for a sexual assault charge, another assault charge for attacking Menace II Society co-director Allen Hughes and an attempted robbery at New York's Quad City Studios that ended with him being shot five times (and would eventually lead to a rift between he and The Notorious B.I.G., which would stoke the flames of the East Coast/West Coast hip hop beef). These events informed Me Against the World with a sense of paranoia, world weariness and need for self-reflection that provided a lens through which the album was focused.
'Pac decided to open the album with an intro that consisted of spliced together news reports of the attempted robbery and shooting at Quad City Studios. It served as an omen of what was to come for most of the album, as many of the remaining 14 tracks reference that moment in some way. Death was obviously on his mind with songs like "If I Die 2nite" and "Death Around the Corner" addressing his fears and fearlessness concerning meeting his maker. And then there was single "So Many Tears." Produced by Easy Mo Bee (best known at the time for his work with Biggie), it found 'Pac somberly contemplating the value and trajectory of his life. The song's melancholy feeling surprisingly utilized a sample of Stevie Wonder's joyous "That Girl," turning its bright harmonica and perky musical refrain into an elegiac dirge as the rapper lists the many things weighing on his mind.
But all his thoughts weren't steeped in morbidity. 2Pac also felt the need to pay tribute to the many forces in his life that helped shape him. "Dear Mama," which paid tribute to his mother, Afeni Shakur, painted a sweet ode to her over a looped sample of Joe Sample's "In My Wildest Dreams." Then there's the balmy "Temptations" which flipped elements of "Computer Love" to weave a lusty web of sex and wanting that served as a darker, more personal take on the player persona 'Pac presented on "I Get Around." He later flipped that persona on its head, though, with the tender "Can U Get Away," with the rapper laying his heart on the line to play the knight in shining armor to a woman who can't seem to get out of an abusive relationship. Then there's the albums sole moment that seems truly joyous, "Old School." Produced by Danish duo Soulshock & Karlin, the song paid tribute to the old school hip hop that served as the soundtrack to his youth growing up on the East Coast and featured him giddily reminiscing over Brooklyn block parties, stickball and Italian ices showing a gentler side rarely seen in public.
For the most part, though, Me Against the World was 2Pac's declaration against the forces of the world he believed were turning against him. The title track, another Soulshock & Karlin production, detailed his manifesto as he and members of Dramacydal (who would eventually become the group Outlawz) trade verses about the ills of inner city living, the strains of thug life and living under the constant threat of the authorities. It's a stance that he doubled down on with "F**k The World," though in that instance, it was much more personal, with 'Pac addressing his legal woes by asking "Who you calling rapist?" at the song's beginning before going on an acid-filled diatribe against cops and haters while throwing a middle finger up to all. The story is the same for much of the rest of the set, with him waffling between the cautionary ("Young N****z," "It Ain't Easy") and world weary acceptance of his fate ("Heavy in the Game," "Lord Knows," "Outlaw") while infusing each song with the hard-edged cynicism that his circumstances had created.
Released while 2Pac was incarcerated for the 1994 sexual assault conviction, it was the first time that the rapper didn't appear in any music videos for his album's singles. Instead, archival footage, actors, his own mother and sometimes other rappers and friends acted as his stand-ins, unintentionally illustrating 2Pac's own disillusionment with and divestment from the world around him. The alienated feeling and his larger-than-life persona struck a chord with the rapper's fans, however. Me Against the World debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's albums chart upon its release in March of 1995 (making him the first artist to do so while serving a prison sentence), selling 240,000 copies in its first week and achieving double platinum status by year's end. Its singles, "Dear Mama," "Temptation" and "So Many Tears," also fared well, with "Dear Mama" delivering the most impact, peaking at No. 9 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart.
Though the following year would see 2Pac signing to Death Row Records and heading down a path that led him to release his fourth album, All Eyez On Me, to rousing success and, unfortunately, also set in motion the events that would lead to his untimely death, many hold Me Against the World as the record that truly captured the rapper's essence on wax. Twenty years later, though some songs have started to show their age, it still holds up as one hip hop's shining moments.