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For The Record: The "Thug Life" Awakening Of 2Pac's 'All Eyez On Me' At 25

Tupac Shakur

Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

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For The Record: The "Thug Life" Awakening Of 2Pac's 'All Eyez On Me' At 25

As 2Pac's final album to be released during his lifetime, 'All Eyez On Me' saw the rapper embracing his "Thug Life" style and image, while also offering a sprawling look at one of rap's brightest artists ever

GRAMMYs/Mar 29, 2021 - 08:02 pm

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.

Read: For The Record: A Tribe Called Quest's Groundbreaking 'The Low End Theory' At 30

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. 

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Doja Cat

Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

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Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup

Find out who's bringing the heat to the hip-hop fest returning to L.A. this December

GRAMMYs/Oct 2, 2019 - 12:11 am

Today, Rolling Loud revealed the massive lineup for their final music festival of 2019, Rolling Loud Los Angeles, which is set to take over the Banc of California Stadium and adjacent Exposition Park on Dec. 14–15.

This iteration of "the Woodstock of Hip-Hop," as the all-knowing Diddy has called it, will feature Chance the RapperLil Uzi VertJuice WRLDYoung Thug and Lil Baby as Saturday's heavy-hitting headliners. Sunday's headliners are none other than Future, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, YG and Playboi Carti.

L.A.'s own Blueface, Tyga and Doja Cat, are slated to perform, as well as representatives from the diverse rap scenes across the country, including Wale, Juicy J, Lil Yachty, Megan Thee Stallion, Gunna, Tyla Yaweh, Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy.

The lineup announcement follows the successful wrap of Rolling Loud Bay Area in Oakland this past weekend. The event's flagship Miami event took place in May this year, and the New York and Hong Kong debut editions will both take place later this month.

Tickets for Rolling Loud L.A. go on sale this Friday, Oct. 4 at 11 a.m. PST. The complete lineup and more info on this event and their other fests can be found here.

Where Do You Keep Your GRAMMY: Fantastic Negrito

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.

ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Ant Clemons

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

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