Music News

Live After Death

When it comes to rap legends, few rhymers are more legendary than Tupac Shakur, but no one is more exploited. Controversial and often contradictory while alive, he has become universally loved since his still-unsolved murder in 1996, even by those who used to hate him. Stars from Ja Rule to DMX to Eminem have bitten his style, not to mention an entire generation of maladjusted young males. But Tupac's mythology is heavily exaggerated. While his always-emotional delivery made him a contender for Best Rapper of All Time (and endeared him to folks from Johannesburg to Rio de Janeiro), most fans forget that few would've dared nominate him as such while he was alive.

All of which begs the question: Is Tupac overrated?

The fact that he's sold millions more records posthumously than, well, prehumously skews all sense of artistic perspective -- his image largely defines his legacy now, not his music. And while some gems have emerged from the vaults (the entire Makaveli album for sheer dramatic intensity, and the occasional socially conscious tune like "Changes" and "Letter 2 My Unborn Child"), we've also endured a lot of throwaway material. One of the most egregious examples is the new CD The Rose Vol. 2, a second collection of 'Pac's poetry recorded by contemporary artists. While pieces like "The Power of a Smile" and "Life Through My Eyes" show a depth not evident from his Death Row material, the versions on The Rose are so overproduced as to completely undermine whatever resonance they might've once had. Who really wants to hear the likes of Memphis Bleek and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony concoct half-baked songs "inspired and based on" 'Pac's poetic verses? As a strictly spoken-word album, it might've worked; as is, it's just another cash-in.

Another "new" Shakur project out now -- the concert video Tupac: Live at the House of Blues -- might disappoint fans as well. The DVD is notable given that there's precious little in the way of onstage 'Pac footage available; most other films about the late rapper are unauthorized thugumentaries like Thug Immortal and Thug Angel. So while this does capture 'Pac at the zenith of his Death Row years (just after the release of the definitive double album All Eyez on Me, which came out months before his death), Tupac is upstaged by the also-legendary Snoop Dogg.

The show begins with 'Pac suddenly appearing onstage to the strains of the anthemic "Ambitions Az a Ridah," accompanied by the Outlawz. Dressed in a black button-down shirt and white jeans, he blithely skips across the stage, his playfulness in marked contrast to his lyrics -- I won't deny it/I'm a straight ridah/You don't wanna fuck with me. "I got some new shit for y'all tonight," he announces, before launching into "Troublesome," wherein he's screaming that he's screaming 'Fuck all y'all niggas' in Swahili over the "If I Ruled the World" beat. Next is the inflammatory Biggie/Nas/Mobb Deep diss "Hit 'Em Up" (You claim to be a player but I fucked your wife), one of the most devastating salvos in the West Coast-East Coast rap war. Thankfully, the song allows the Outlawz a chance to do something besides take up space onstage, stepping out of their hype-men roles to deliver additional tongue-lashings.

From there, "All About U" segues into "Never Call U Bitch Again," highlighting 'Pac's duality by veering from clowning music video groupies to refuting misogyny (at least momentarily). The set concludes with "How Do You Want It," a song reportedly inspired by porn vixen Heather Hunter, and here featuring ex-Jodeci crooners K-Ci & JoJo, who reprise their vocal harmonies live. The 26-minute performance is hardly a revealing look into the rapper's complex character; we get no major insights from 'Pac's live show, other than his need to keep a lot of people onstage at all times to justify his thug.

Snoop, on the other hand, starts on a serious note with his best song, the poignant "Murder Was the Case" (often compared to Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail"), before delving into more party-oriented fare like "The Shiznit" and "Gin and Juice." G-funk aficionados will appreciate guest spots by the Dogg Pound (Daz, Kurupt, and Nate Dogg) . . . feminists much less so. It's hard not to feel a little pity for the nearly naked female dancers who gyrate their backsides to lyrics like You gave me all your pussy, and you licked my balls.

Tupac returns for the show-closing Snoop duet "2 of Amerikkka's Most Wanted" -- by this time, everybody and his mama is crowding the House of Blues stage and 'Pac has ripped off his shirt to reveal his tatted chest, completing his symbolic transformation into the "G" Snoop represented all along. The concert ends anticlimactically with Death Row boss Suge Knight coming up to hug both 'Pac and Snoop as the curtain falls, a little creepy for anyone who's seen Nick Broomfield's documentary Biggie and Tupac, which essentially implicates Suge in Tupac's murder.

Five music videos help compensate for House of Blues' underwhelming set, but the fact remains that 'Pac displays nowhere near the steely onstage poise of his then-labelmate. Thus, this DVD works better as the definitive Death Row showcase, reminding us why the G-funk era was so memorable, and celebrating Suge's acumen in assembling the talented roster the label once boasted.

Maybe we just wonder what he'd be like now. But do these releases prove 'Pac is overrated? Sure, in the same sense that Elvis is overrated or Jesus is overrated. Contrasting House of Blues with The Rose, it makes you wonder what would've happened had 'Pac fully engaged his more poetic and conscious side, rather than seek the seemingly inevitable violent death directly resulting from his ambitions az a ridah.

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Eric K. Arnold