American rapper Tupac Shakur (1971–1996) stands out as one of the most influential and commercially successful hip-hop artists of the late 20th century. An exemplar of the “gangsta rap” style that flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shakur became a controversial figure for his violent lyrics and encounters with the law even as critics hailed his musical talents. Public interest in the artist and musical output remained strong, particularly after Shakur's unsolved murder.
Born Lesane Parish Crooks in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem on June 16, 1971, Shakur was the son of Billy Garland and Alice Faye Williams, who would change her name to Afeni Shakur in a second marriage only months later. The future performer's name was also changed, to Tupac Amaru Shakur, in honor of an 18th-century indigenous Peruvian revolutionary. He later styled it professionally as “2Pac.”
Shakur's mother and stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, were active in the Black Panther movement, a radical organization that adopted revolutionary militarized tactics in support of African-American rights. The movement directly shaped Shakur's upbringing; Shakur's mother had been tried and acquitted on charges of planning to bomb several buildings in New York shortly before his birth, and Mutulu Shakur eventually landed on the FBI's Most Wanted list after allegedly committing numerous violent crimes. Adding to the family's upheaval, Afeni Shakur struggled with drug addiction and moved frequently around the country, taking her son with her. Mother and son developed a close but at times fraught relationship.
Despite his setbacks, Shakur had talent and made important connections that would jumpstart his career. In 1990, he successfully auditioned to become a dancer and roadie for the Oakland hip-hop outfit Digital Underground, best known for their 1990 radio hit “Humpty Dance.” Shakur contributed to Digital Underground's 1990 This Is an E.P. and 1991's Sons of the P even as he worked to hone his own material. Soon, he launched a solo career as 2Pac, signing with Interscope to release his debut album 2Paca-lypse Now. A modest success, the album featured singles such as “Brenda's Got a Baby,” which helped establish Shakur as a powerful voice in hip-hop.
Rap music and its at times violent lyrics generated great controversy during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1992, for example, U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle lambasted Shakur's track “Soulja's Story” after a young man who ws reportedly listening to the song in a stolen vehicle shot and killed a Texas state trooper. Quayle called on Interscope to remove Shakur's 2Pacalyse Now from distribution, and the slain trooper family's sued the artist and label for causing “imminent lawless action,” according to John Broder in the Los Angeles Times. Due in part to the notoriety accompanying such controversy, Shakur's profile as a “gangsta” rapper—a hard-edged style popularized on the U.S. West Coast and marked by references to violence, crime, and resistance to police—rose rapidly.
Shakur was also building a career as an actor during this time. He appeared in Ernest Dickerson's 1992 drama Juice, which explored the lives of four young AfricanAmerican men in Harlem. The film received positive reviews, with Shakur gaining nods from Variety for his “impressive” performance and from New York Times critic Janet Maslin as “the film's most magnetic figure.” He next co-starred with singer Janet Jackson in the 1993 romantic film Poetic Justice. Although critics were less enthusiastic about this film, they were generally positive about Shakur's performance. Variety's Leonard Klady asserted that “Shakur … turns in truly outstanding work.” Critics also spoke warmly of Shakur's performance in the 1994 basketballcentered urban drama Above the Rim.
In 1993, Shakur released his second solo album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Featuring two popular radio hits, the album rose higher in the charts than its predecessor and continued to bolster the rapper's notoriety. Yet the “thug life” attitude that defined Shakur's musical persona carried a dark side that crept into his own day-to-day life. Authorities arrested him on a series of charges in the early 1990s, ranging from assault on a film director to shooting off-duty police officers to sexually assaulting a woman in a New York hotel room. This last case went to trial in 1994.
While the jury was deliberating, assailants shot Shakur at least five times at a New York City recording studio as part of what seemed to be an unrelated robbery. “I think it's ironic,” Source editor Jeremy Miller told Charisse Jones of the New York Times regarding the incident. Shakur “has portrayed the role of thug, and there's a line where it's reality, and not reality. I think he's right on the line.” Despite his injuries, Shakur checked himself out of the hospital the following day, just as the jury verdict found him guilty on some of the sexual assault charges. Shakur, who appeared in the courtroom swathed in bandages and confined to a wheelchair, was sentenced to more than four years in prison.
Shakur served eight months in prison before being paroled; reports attributed his release in part to the intervention of Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight, who put up more than one million dollars in bond money. During his time in prison, Shakur's third album, 1995's Me against the World, appeared to great critical acclaim. Debuting at number one, the album translated the artist's troubled times into rap; reviewing the album for AllMusic.com , Steve Hurley asserted that it was “his … least-self-contradicting work, full of genuine reflection about how he's gotten where he is—and dread of the consequences.” Writing in Rolling Stone, Cheo H. Coker agreed about the album's contemplative nature, arguing that, “love him or hate him, 2Pac remains one of the most compelling characters in black popular culture.”
Once out of prison, Shakur signed with Death Row Records to record what is generally considered his finest work, All Eyez on Me. Death Row, founded by Knight and rapper Dr. Dre, was then known almost as much for the pervasive atmosphere of crime and violence surrounding Knight as for its domination of the West Coast sound. The label's influence was easily heard in the crisply produced result. Shakur's sprawling double album contained more than two hours’ worth of the urban anthems that wholeheartedly embraced the “thug life” motif.
All Eyez on Me was an immediate success, debuting at the top of the Billboard charts and spawning such hit singles as “California Love” and “How Do You Want It.” Other songs fueled tensions between Shakur and his rap rivals through threats and claims of sexual infidelity. Regarding the album with the knowledge afforded by time, critics have pointed to the work as a landmark. As Tom Briehan opined on the music website Stereogum in 2016, “All Eyez on Me stands as the greatest document of an unstable era, a time when rap's loudest outlaw joined its most dangerous crew and wreaked as much havoc as he could before dying.”
After a grievously wounded Shakur was transferred to a nearby hospital, doctors determined that one of the bullets had damaged a lung, among other injuries. He spent the next several days under heavy sedation in the intensive care unit and died there on September 13, 1996. Shakur's death devastated fans and others in the music industry, leading to calls for reduced violence in the hip-hop community. “There was this wonderful, charming, bright, talented, funny person that no one is going to get to know; they are just going to know this other side,” commented Shakur's lawyer, Shawn S. Chapman, to Jon Pareles in the New York Times. “Hopefully, this will have some positive effect on people—the gang members—who are shooting each other.”
The lurid public nature of Shakur's murder coupled with investigators’ inability to identify a culprit and fueled ongoing speculation as to its perpetrators. An extensively researched investigative story published by the Los Angeles Times in 2002, for example, suggested links among Shakur's murder, the Los Angeles street gang the Southside Crips, and rival New York–based hip-hopper the Notorious B.I.G. Other theorists posited that Shakur had been caught in violence linked to Knight's gang connections. An ongoing stream of posthumously released Shakur tracks led some fans to suggest that the rapper was not dead at all, but instead had staged a public death and gone into hiding to protect his safety.
In fact, Shakur's estate successfully sued Death Row Records and won possession of a large collection of master recordings of tracks laid down by the artist prior to his death. Curated in part by Shakur's mother and featuring production work by artists such as Eminem, who would subsequently come to prominence, the tracks connected existing work with fast-changing trends in contemporary hip-hop. Among the more successful of these posthumous albums was 1998's Greatest Hits, 2001's Until the End of Time, 2003's documentary soundtrack Tupac Resurrection, and the following year's Loyal to the Game. In 2008, an additional trove of material recorded by Shakur for Death Row was discovered.
Independent of the growth in his musical legacy, popular interest in Shakur remained strong. A computer-generated hologram of the rapper projected during a performance at California's Coachella music festival made national headlines in 2012, and a film about Shakur's life, titled All Eyez on Me, began filming in 2015 with Demetrius Shipp, Jr., in the lead role. In 2016 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that Shakur would be inducted to its ranks as part of its class of 2017, only the sixth hip-hop act and first solo rap artist to be so honored.
McQuillar, Tayannah Lee, and Fred Johnson, Ph.D., Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon, DaCapo Press, 2010.
Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1992.
New York Times, January 17, 1992; December 1, 1994; September 14, 1996; December 20, 2016.
Variety, December 31, 1991; July 20, 1993.
Rolling Stone online, http://www.rollingstone.com/ (February 2, 1998), Cheo H. Coker, “Tupac Shakur: Me against the World.”
Stereogum website, http://www.stereogum.com/ (February 12, 2016), Tom Breihan, “All Eyez on Me Turns 20.”❑