Hip-hop has come a long way and evolved from its humble beginnings in South Bronx, NY into a billion-dollar business, but the culture’s essence will be forever linked to civil rights and activism. And few artists have embodied revolutionary warfare quite like the late Tupac Amaru Shakur, whose 1991 debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, would jumpstart the career of one of the most influential artists of all-time.
Rap’s initial recordings’ sole purpose may have been rocking the party, but as the genre began to take shape and form its identity as the voice of young minorities across America, its tone became more rigid while its content was more attuned to the plight of the inner-city. The late ’80s, which was marked by the crack epidemic and the effects of Reaganomics, spawned pioneering politically-minded acts like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and Queen Latifah, all of whom would usher in a sense of black nationalism and Afrocentricity among artists and fans alike.
The east coast may have been fighting the power, but on the west coast, the tide was turning more towards tales of nihilism than liberation. While Ice Cube established himself as the most politically conscious rapper on the west side of things – with the classics AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate – acts like N.W.A., Compton’s Most Wanted, and others were dominating the charts with more violent and abrasive content, which was deemed misogynistic and criminal in nature. But Tupac’s 2Pacalypse Now‘s arrival would help even the score and provide a middle ground for fans, who identified with the mentality and lifestyle of a thug but were cognizant of the discrimination and oppression plaguing urban America. The album’s ultimate success would help Interscope Records legitimize itself as a major player in the rap game, and go down as a landmark debut album in the genre’s history. However, prior to its release, 2Pacalypse Now, and 2Pac the artist were anything but a sure bet.
Migrating from Baltimore to the west coast in 1988, 2Pac and his family would settle in Marin City, an impoverished suburb where he would begin to seriously pursue a rap career. After a chance meeting with Marin City resident Leila Steinberg, who became the rapper’s first manager, the two would shop for a deal, but no takers were willing to bite on an offer to sign on the raw talent. Eventually finding a believer in Atron Gregory, manager of popular rap group Digital Underground, 2Pac would pay dues as a roadie and backup-dancer before getting his big opportunity to shine on a Digital Underground track titled “Same Song.” The song, recorded as a contribution to the soundtrack for the 1991 film, Nothing But Trouble, would be picked as the lead-off track on Digital Underground’s This Is an EP Release, with Pac’s performance helping him secure a solo record deal with Interscope Records.
Tom Whalley, president of Interscope at the time, remembers Pac wasting little time creating the album that would shape up to be his debut. “Right away you could tell that this guy was different from the rest of the world,” Tom Whalley said in a 1997 interview with Vanity Fair. “I couldn’t slow him down. I never worked with anyone who could write so many great songs so quickly.” Steinberg also remembers Pac’s work ethic fondly.
Released on November 12, 1991, 2Pacalypse Now was devoid of any undeniable hit singles and performed modestly out of the gate. Eventually, it won critics and listeners over with its pointed commentary and Pac’s tangible charisma and sincerity. “Young Black Male,” the lead-off selection, is a breakdown of the plight of urban youth fighting for survival and sets the tone for the project, but the subsequent selection, “Trapped,” is where the album begins to build its momentum. Produced by The Underground Railroad, “Trapped” finds 2Pac likening the inner-city to a prison which he, or other young black men, cannot escape. Rapping “You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion/Happiness, living on the streets is a delusion/Even a smooth criminal one day must get caught/Shot up or shot down with the bullet that he bought,” Tupac assumes the role of a man who murders a cop in self-defense, but gets gunned down while on the run from law enforcement, ultimately deciding that death is better than serving a life sentence in prison.
The first single released from the album, “Trapped,” would be Pac’s introduction to the public in a solo capacity, but 2Pacalypse Now would gain national attention after being denounced by then U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle in 1992. Quayle’s remarks were in response to 18 year-old Texas resident Ronald Ray Howard’s claim that 2Pac’s song “Soulja’s Story,” the album’s third track, inspired him to murder Bill Davidson, a 43-year-old police officer, after being pulled over while driving a stolen car. “Once again we’re faced with an irresponsible corporate act,” Quayle said in a statement following the incident. “There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation,” Quayle continued, before concluding “Today I am suggesting that the Time Warner subsidiary Interscope Records withdraw this record. It has no place in our society.”
“Soulja’s Story,” which depicted a prison break and the murder of law enforcement, would be the first of his songs to catch the attention of political pundits, and create a war of words between 2Pac and Quayle, who the rapper would call out on “Pac’s Theme” and “Peep Game,” from his sophomore album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. The backlash may have put Pac on the defensive, but he goes on the offensive on the reggae-tinged cut “Violence,” an offering that sees him retaliating against corrupt cops committing police brutality before participating in a shootout to the death. Equality by any means and retaliation against law enforcement are two of the dominant themes on 2Pacalypse Now, but 2Pac lightens the mood with The Underground Railroad-produced number “Words of Wisdom,” on which he kicks knowledge directed towards the youth of America, its corrupt ways, and their role in helping to turn the tables. Powered by a sample of “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock, this jittery soundscape is a welcome departure from the other sonic contributions on the album and showcases Pac’s underrated dexterity as a lyricist.
Connecting with deceased Live Squad member Stretch – who would have a falling out with 2Pac in the aftermath of the infamous 1994 shooting incident at Quad Studios – on “Crooked Ass Nigga,” 2Pac and his friend-turned-foe would display an effortless chemistry with one another, resulting in one of the sleeper cuts on 2Pacalypse Now. However, one of the more endearing compositions on 2Pac’s debut is “When My Homie Calls,” an ode to loyalty and brotherhood among his close friends still coping with life in the gutter. Lyrics like “If you need my assistance, there’ll be no resistance/I’ll be there in an instant/Who am I to judge another brother, only on his cover/I’d be no different than the other” embody the bond between young men in the inner-city and makes this Big D The Impossible-produced standout a gem within 2Pac’s cache of classic records.
2Pacalypse Now includes more than a few timeless tracks, but the most memorable of them all, without question, is “Brenda’s Got A Baby.” Produced by Deion “Big D” and The Underground Railroad, the song, which features guest vocals from r&b vocalist Dave Hollister, introduces us to a 12-year-old girl named Brenda who’s been impregnated by a family member and attempts to dispose of her newborn baby after giving birth. The story ends with her falling into a life of prostitution and becoming a victim of murder, with the whereabouts of her baby unknown. The song, which would be accompanied by a music video depicting the fictional tragedy, would become the first of 2Pac’s cautionary tales to truly resonate within the black community and prompt discussion in rap surrounding underage pregnancy, a topic which hadn’t been broached at length until that point.
“Yes, when this song came out, no male rappers at all anywhere were talking about problems that females were having, number one,” Pac once said when questioned about what prompted him to record the song. “Number two, it talked about child molestation. It talked about families taking advantages of families. It talked about the effects of poverty. It talked about how one person’s problems can affect a whole community of people. It talked about how the innocent are the ones that get hurt. It talked about drugs, the abuse of drugs, broken families how she couldn’t leave the baby, you know, the bond that a mother has with her baby. And how women need to be able to make a choice.” While it has been claimed that “Brenda’s Got A Baby” is the product of a true story based on a 1991 incident in Brownsville, Brooklyn, regardless of the rhyme and reason, the song is a quintessential rap classic and among the greatest records in the genre’s history.
2Pacalypse Now closes out on a strong note with “Part Time Mutha,” a song examining the effects of drug addiction, child negligence, and sexual assault from the vantage point of a hardened young man, an abused teenage girl, and a single father. Produced by Big D The Impossible and featuring an interpolation of Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover, “Part Time Mutha” serves as a heartfelt account of broken homes and an effective finale to 2Pacalypse Now.
Following the release of his debut album, which eventually certified gold by the RIAA and became the lowest-selling release of 2Pac’s career, the rapper would become a breakout star. Leading roles in films like Juice and Poetic Justice broadened his appeal. After reaching platinum success with Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., 2Pac’s career would be halted by a prison sentence following a rape conviction. He would later become an even bigger star while in prison, with his third album, Me Against The World, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 on April 1, 1995. His release from prison later that year would set in motion his alliance with Death Row Records, unleashing the 1996 double-album All Eyez On Me, which catapulted him to the top of the rap game.
Unfortunately, on September 13, 1996, seven days after being shot in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Tupac Amaru Shakur passed away, leaving an unfinished chapter in the book of hip-hop. However, it was also the day that 2Pac ascended to icon status, his legacy destined to be celebrated in a rare air along with the likes of Lennon, Marley, Gaye, and Cobain until the end of time. Twenty-five years after its release, 2Pacalypse Now remains unsung in comparison to more celebrated 2Pac albums like All Eyez On Me, Me Against The World, and 7 Day Theory; all of which are hailed as some of the greatest rap albums of all time. Even a few releases out of the rap deity’s posthumous collection are more frequently cited and receive more acclaim as a whole. Despite not being the greatest artistic achievement of his career, 2Pacalypse Now was the birth of a rap revolutionary that was nothing like we’d seen before, and as we know now, have yet to see again.