This week I watched the documentary Marathon Boy, about a six-year-old distance running prodigy in India named Bhudia Singh. I couldn't help but see the corollary between the life of this boy and that of Tupac Shakur. Initially, there is this blissfully pure part of Bhudia's life after he's rescued from the slums by his adoptive Indian parents. He is precocious, innocent, and thriving -- until they discover his uncanny gift for running long distances. As word of Bhudia's giftedness grows, he becomes metaphorically and physically swallowed up by the crowds, the media, his family, and the government, who all seem to want a piece of his fame. To listen to 2Pacalypse Now, is to listen to 2Pac in his purest form -- long before the crowds and stardom swallowed him up.
It is important to note that when this album came out, 2Pac was not yet "Pac" the revered prophet of the hood. It was his breakout performance in Ernest Dickerson' 1992 film, Juice, that made the world sit up and take notice of Shakur. While 2Pacalypse was his debut album, and spawned a Top 30 hit in "Brenda's Got a Baby," indeed it is an album without a true single.
The leadoff track, "Young Black Male," sounds chopped and screwed with its slurred samples of Ed O.G. and the Bulldogs' "I Got To Have It" and Ice Cube's "The Product." It is grimy and rustic with a tight snare reminiscent of something by Pete Rock. While the beat is slinky, 2Pac's flow is rapid fire. His urgency betrays the message, however, because there really isn't one. He rambles on about big booties and the like, then the track falls off into what sounds like the crew cutting up around the mix board laughing.
Things get down to business on "Trapped," an honest expression of the frustration of constantly being harassed, threatened, and oppressed by the police. While Digital Underground's Shock G intones "Nuh-uh they can't keep the black man down" on the hook over a church organ, 2Pac reflects on how a fight he was in wasn't worth it: "As I look back in hindsight/the fight was irrelevant." How many gangsters have you heard admit that? More importantly, it contains some of the most honest lyrics on violence I've ever heard: "...shoulda put my gun away but all I heard was the ridicule/chicks saying damn homie's dissing you."
"I Don't Give a F--k," while no doubt a shocking title at the time, gives us a peek into Pac's DNA. Since he was the son of members of the Black Panther Party, it isn't just a random rant when he raps "F the FBI, F the CIA, F the B-u-s-h." He knows firsthand what he's speaking of. He calls out the hypocrisy of being followed in a store simply because he's black.
"Soulja's Story" is Pac's first venture into a storytelling rap. Right away, you pick up on the similarities to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Warning" both in concept and cadence. This time 2Pac's first verse gets the chopped and screwed treatment, which just comes off gimmicky, well before Pro Tools and Auto-Tune. The plot is a cautionary tale about a guy who feels he's forced into the hustler life when there are no other options or support from home. However, he has a younger brother who aches to follow in his footsteps, and ends up getting locked up. Big brother then hatches a plot to break little brother out of jail. What's genius about this song is, instead of speaking only as the big brother, 2Pac assumes the older and younger brother's voices in first person.
Now, any song that samples Shabba Ranks' "Pirate's Anthem" will get five mics from me on principle. "Violent" is no exception. The track substitutes "violent" for "pirate," but the beat is still as infectious as the original. Notice again here, 2Pac isn't claiming to be violent in order to rob or sell drugs but rather to speak out and stand up for himself. He repeatedly uses terminology reflective of the Panthers such as: "They claim that I'm violent, just cause I refuse to be silent/these hypocrites are havin fits, cause I'm not buyin it/Defyin it, envious because I will rebel against/any oppressor, and this is known as self defense." Hearing Chuck D's unmistakable baritone "They claim I'm violent!" on the chorus feels like an affirmation of Shakur's position.
If you accept this premise, then it won't be a surprise to hear 2Pac move into a full-fledged spoken word addressing America on "Words of Wisdom." The melody is a very cool jazz groove, driven by Fender Rhodes piano riffs that bounce over a hi-hat sample as the beat. This one gives a nod to both Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and the Nation of Islam documentary The Hate that Hate Produced.
2Pacalypse Now should definitely be in any hip-hop connoisseur's collection, but more importantly it should be in every 2Pac fan's collection. If your frame of reference for 2Pac begins with All Eyez on Me, you don't know him. You haven't heard 2Pac's soul, the one that was pure, uncut, and innocent that, like Bhudia Singh, existed before the fame.