The OV’s lyrical analyst Brett Sisun textually pours some out for the rose that grew from concrete, hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur. Pac’s spirit lives on through his thug-life anthem “Life Goes On”
Here at the crossroads between life and death lies Tupac Shakur. Rightfully so. Shakur was a mystic creator and divine wellspring in the development of the lyric arts. His legend has become more significant in the American music scape than he could have imagined while growing up in the violent whirlwinds of Harlem, Baltimore and the Bay Area during the mid-1980’s. Against forces obsessed with greed, power, and death, Shakur found a new form of expression in reflecting the realities of “thug life” in modern America.
In the past my section has been dedicated to analyzing the diction of famous rappers; to point out their imaginative or sloppy use of the English Language, and, basically, get a laugh out of their work. But I wouldn’t feel right doing that now. Yes, I’m tired of the gimmick and the ironic tone. I think there is something more important at stake here in “Life Goes On”:
“How many Niggas fell victim to the streets? Rest in peace young Nigga there’s a heaven for a G.”
Tupac Amaru Shakur was born in East Harlem, the son of two radical Black Panther activists. His name, Tupac Amaru, comes from the name of a Peruvian general who led a failed revolution against the Spanish conquistadors in 1780. His mother Afeni says that he was named for “the last Inca chief to be tortured, brutalized, and murdered by Spanish conquistadores…a warrior.”
From an early age Shakur was a reflective and creative mind. He attended the Baltimore School of the Arts for 2 years, was an avid reader, poetry writer and even starred in a high school production of The Nutcracker. When he left his single mother at age seventeen for the West coast, a new world surrounded him, one obsessed with violence, death, and race. Shakur’s experiences there had a profound impact on his art and would eventually become the “thug lifestyle” portrayed in “Life Goes On”:
“Be a lie, if I told ya that I never thought of death, my Niggas, we tha last ones left.”
The chorus of “Life Goes On” is a simple and sentimental reflection of Tupac’s solitude. In his community people had little access to wealth, education, and social empowerment, and thus were likely to run into trouble with the law. He is keenly aware of this oppression in his music. He refers to his people as “Niggas,” an endearing derivative of the N-word once used by plantation owners in early American history. In reforming and using this word, Shakur counters and explains its meaning. According to “Man Man,” one of Tupac’s closest friends: “I never could have had that word tattooed on me before, but Pac said, ‘We’re going to take that word that they used and turn it around on them…to make it positive.’” A polarizing word by design, this is a clear example of Shakur’s character. He turns hardship and bigotry into something more meaningful that anyone, even outside his own community, can understand. This lyrical confrontation with social issues became a defining aspect of the “thug lifestyle”:
“2 in tha morning and we still high-assed out, screamin’ ‘thug till I die’ before I passed out, but now that you’re gone, I’m in the zone thinking ‘I don’t want die all alone.’”
Shakur’s first albums, 2pacolypse Now (1991) through Me Against the World (1995), spoke to an enormous number of people, some of whom lived the “thug life” and others who indulged in its edgy style. This popularity caught the attention of Death Row Records’ executive Marion “Suge” Knight. Notorious for his brute mentality and violent intimidation tactics, Knight wanted Shakur on his label in order to package and sell the “thug life” in musical units. After a stint in jail for assault charges, Shakur was bailed out by Knight in exchange for a recording deal. Knight picked up Shakur in a stretch limousine and flew him in a private jet to Knight’s L.A. studio. The inner city gangster shook hands with the multi-billion dollar record industry. Rap music, and Shakur’s life, would never be the same.
“Give me a paper and a pen, so I can write about my life of sin, a couple bottles of gin, in case I don’t get in.”
“Life Goes On” appears on Shakur’s first album with Death Row Records, All Eyez on Me (1996) which went 9x Platinum and sold over 5 million units by 1998. Written and recorded in less than 2 weeks, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest rap albums of the 1990’s. The songs on the album reach into the hidden emotional aspects of the “gangster”, and reveal the unmistakable change that death incurs on those who live on with its memory. Shakur ironically describes his own death in the song and how it should be celebrated:
“Bury me smilin’, with G’s in my pocket, have a party at my funeral, let every rapper rock it, let tha hoes that I used to know, from way before, kiss me from my head to my toe.”
On the night of September 7th, 1996, Shakur helped assault Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson, a member of L.A.’s Southside Compton Crips, in the lobby of the MGM Grand after a Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight. After leaving the MGM, parked at a red light, Shakur was shot four times in a drive by while in the passenger seat of Knight’s BMW. Knight survived the attack, but Shakur died from internal bleeding in the hospital September 13, 1996. His wish for a rocking party funeral would not be granted. He was mysteriously cremated days after his death, and little investigation followed into his murder.
“Pour out some liquor, have a toast for tha homies, see we both gotta die but you chose to go before me.”
Following Tupac Shakur’s death, as Knight battled the abandonment of his artists, parole violations, and jail time, The Death Row Records Empire crumbled. Shakur’s spirit, however, lived on through his enormous and dedicated fan base, who celebrated his death as martyrdom. Myths arose about him still being alive and, in almost biblical fashion, predicted his resurrection back into the world. Regardless of these rumors, he died living the life he always preached would kill him and, in doing so, validated his life’s work. In his own words, his message is clearest:
“If you can’t find somethin’ to live for, you best find somethin’ to die for…”
“That’s right baby, life goes on…”