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For The Record: The "Thug Life" Awakening Of 2Pac's 'All Eyez On Me' At 25
There are plenty of idioms about the importance of perseverance through hard times. But as 2Pac sat in a prison cell in fall 1995, he just needed an ally. He had titled his album from March of that year Me Against The World, and that was exactly how he felt. In 1994 alone, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor after being charged with assaulting an artist at a concert at Michigan State University; he was found guilty of assaulting the directors of the film Menace II Society; and he was the victim of an armed robbery at New York City's Quad Studios that left him shot five times, leaving him paranoid that his former-friend-turned-rival Notorious B.I.G.set up the shooting and jumpstarting a musical and violent beef between the East Coast and West Coast rap scenes.
In February 1995, 2Pac, born Tupac Shakur, was convicted of sexual abuse and faced a potential sentence of nearly five years. Me Against The World had become the first album to top the Billboard charts by an artist in prison. But the three-year span before All Eyez On Me, his fourth studio album and his final to drop while he was still alive, was tumultuous, a taxing era on his spirit. And he felt that despite creating art that advocated for others, he didn't have much help when he needed it.
In a nervous, harrowing interview at Rikers Island with VIBE's Kevin Powell in 1995 as the rapper awaited sentencing for the sexual abuse case, Pac recounted the Quad Studios shooting and gave insight into his trauma. "I was so scared of this responsibility that I was running away from it. But I see now that whether I show up for work or not, the evil forces are going to be at me," Pac said. " ... I've been having nightmares, thinking they're still shooting me."
He also gave his side of the sexual abuse case, stating he didn't rape the woman in question, but admitting he didn't do much to protect her from his cohorts' sexual assault, either. He sounded reformed, denouncing the thug life persona he had adopted and assuming responsibility for his music's impact. "If you see everybody dying because of what you saying, it don't matter that you didn't make them die, it just matters that you didn't save them," Pac said in the VIBE interview. " … This Thug Life stuff, it was just ignorance. My intentions was always in the right place. I never killed anybody, I never raped anybody, I never committed no crimes that weren't honorable –– that weren't to defend myself. So that's what I'm going to show them. I'm going to show people my true intentions, and my true heart."
Creating music was the last thing on 2Pac's mind while battling his demons in prison. "I don't even got the thrill to rap no more," Pac told VIBE. "In here, I don't even remember my lyrics." But his debt in the outside world was piling up just as high as his pain while locked up inside, and his money was running low as his mother was on the verge of losing her home.
Through his wife, Pac reportedly reached out to Suge Knight for financial help, and the Death Row Records founder delivered. He reportedly sent $15,000 to the rapper and began visiting Shakur in prison. Knight eventually struck a deal: He'd get his legal team to help with Pac's case and put up the money for his $1.4 million bail; in exchange, 2Pac would deliver three albums. Pac joined the Death Row family, alongside L.A. rap behemoths Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, solidifying a label roster rivaling any others rap music had ever created.
When Pac was released from prison, his repentance for Thug Life went out the window. He descended from remorse to unbridled anger: He was almost killed, he believed he was betrayed by one of his closest friends, Black civil rights leaders were speaking out against him despite his familial lineage to the Black Panther Party via his mother, Afeni Shakur, and he had spent months isolated in a prison cell for a crime he felt he didn't commit.
He also knew the big stage required dedication to a persona. "When you do rap albums, you got to train yourself," he told VIBE. "You got to constantly be in character." That's not to say Pac was putting on an act, though: Even as he contradicted himself, every word felt sincere. He showed off his iconic Thug Life tattoo on his stomach. "Yes, I did say Thug Life was dead, but when (New York's hip-hop scene) said (they didn't have information on my shooting), they breathed new life into me. Thug Life became not only a rap group, but a way of life, for life, for me," he said in another interview with VIBE. "They said I couldn't be in pain … Remember this lack of consciousness when I come out. Remember this lack of mercy when I come out. Remember this lack of compassion when I come out."
2Pac remembered, and with All Eyez On Me, he didn't let anyone else forget. He recognized his mortality and recorded at a frantic pace, creating enough original material to make one of hip-hop's first double albums, and leaving what felt like an infinite amount of records in the vault after his untimely death in 1996. (Rumors at the time circulated that Pac created a double album to speed toward his contract requirements after uneasiness arose around Suge Knight.)
He rode on his enemies across All Eyez On Me, taking on everyone who he felt turned their back on him when he needed them most. On "How Do U Want It," he spits venom at civil rights activist and politician C. Delores Tucker, who was leading the charge against rap music that year. "Instead of tryin' to help a n***a, you destroy a brother / Worse than the others; Bill Clinton, Mister Bob Dole / You're too old to understand the way the game's told," he fumes. While Pac wouldn't come after Biggie on wax by name until "Hit 'Em Up," it was clear that many of his shots weren't against the hypothetical haters that litter other rap songs. "Spitting at adversaries, envious and after me / I'd rather die before they capture me, watch me bleed," Pac says on the album opener "Ambitionz Az A Ridah."
Even the carefree fun of All Eyez On Me is tinged with jadedness. "All Bout U" has a dance-ready beat by Daz Dillinger and a melodious chorus by Nate Dogg, but Pac still distrusts women after his rape charge: "You're probably crooked as the last trick," he sneers, before he, Snoop Dogg and the Outlawz chastise women in their circle as gold-digging groupies.
The sentiment continues on songs like "Skandalouz" and "Wonda Why They Call U Bitch"; at the end of the latter, Pac speaks directly to Tucker again, stating that the song explains the misogyny in his music. He spends the first couple of verses of "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted" celebrating his freedom with fellow indicted rapper Snoop, but by the third verse, he's refocused on protection and vengeance: "Jealousy is misery, sufferin' is greed / Better be prepared when you cowards f**k with me."
The album is two discs long, but Pac's blunt, direct style makes it fly by, like repeated shots of potent-yet-smooth scotch. His rhyme schemes weren't complex or multifaceted, but you never questioned how he felt––and his musical approach was versatile. He sounds just as much at home popping off at foes over Dre's funky synths on "Can't C Me" and seesawing with Snoop over Daz's thumping synths as he does on the temporary East Coast truce record "Got My Mind Made Up," where he and Snoop team up with Method Man and Redman over record scratches that wouldn't sound out of place in a DJ Premier set.
Dr. Dre didn't produce as much of All Eyez On Me as many would've thought when Pac signed to Death Row, but Daz Dillinger and Johnny J—with the help of DJ Quik on mixing and mastering, as reported by Pitchfork—easily hold up the sound of the album, giving it a sheen that contrasts from the dusty, unrefined tone of Pac's previous works.
Despite the reputation of 2Pac abandoning his conscious side in favor of the Thug Life, he never strayed from his duty to speak up about the sociopolitical conditions plaguing Black people—he just switched his approach. The individual perspective may feel less direct than previous songs like "Trapped" or "Brenda's Got A Baby," but the antagonists remain the same.
On "Picture Me Rollin','' he seizes joy over a lighthearted Johnny J production despite the threats of recidivism from a racist, corrupt legal system. "They got me under surveillance / That's what somebody be tellin' / Know there's dope bein' sold, but I ain't the one sellin'," he insists. " … The federales wanna see me dead / N***as put prices on my head."
On "I Ain't Mad At Cha," he laments the deteriorating friendship with someone from his block, but he looks on proudly as his old friend embraces Islam and reforms his life after prison, even as Pac himself embraces Thug Life. In the context of the rest of the album, "I Ain't Mad At Cha'' embodies Pac at his most contradictory, compelling and tragic self: While he recognizes the conditions that push people toward street life and by showing his old friend's decision to move away from it, he dually admits he made a conscious decision to embrace the rage that sprouted from his trauma.
That choice would cost him his life: In September 1996, he was shot and killed while leaving a boxing match, between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon, with Suge Knight. 2Pac was taken too soon, but All Eyez On Me still gave a sprawling, skillful image of one of rap's brightest artists ever, and an honest, fearless war cry from a man who was fighting for his life.