Monday, May 10, 2010

The Immortals #86 - 2Pac Shakur

Okay, confession time: I'd never heard a 2Pac song before sitting down to write this post.

Despite being, ostensibly, his core audience (a white, suburban high school freshman in southern California) when his post-incarceration magnum opus, All Eyez On Me was released, rocketing him to pop superstardom, I somehow managed to completely miss the phenomena. I was just old enough to be turning off MTV, and the once-venerable Los Angeles rock radio institution KROQ-FM had not yet completed its hellish devolution into a Clearchannel atrocity. And I never got invited to parties or had any fun ever. I had a vague familiarity with "California Love" through cultural osmosis, and I knew to attribute the phrase "picture me rollin'" to his track of the same name, but otherwise I managed to live to the ripe old age of 27 years old before becoming acquainted with the works of Mr. Tupac Amaru Shakur.

And I'm sorry, you guys, but I just do not get it.

Now, it's true that I'm the biggest hip-hop guy, but I'm far from a neophyte. I've got love for most of the genre's other entrants on Rolling Stone's "Immortals" list, and a bunch of other fairly "mainstream" acts like Eric B, and Rakim, Public Enemy, The Pharcyde, Boogie Down Productions/KRS-ONE, and A Tribe Called Quest- all have all seen some play in my collection (to name but a few...) But more important than my credentials (or relative lack thereof) is that 2Pac provides us with our first opportunity to address rap and hip-hop's inclusion by RS' parade of experts and legends as ostensibly belonging naturally within some broad interpretation of the rock and roll milieu.

Put flatly, it is incredibly dismissive of perhaps the most culturally significant musical movement of the latter half of the 20th century, despite the fact that RS' decision could charitably be taken as an intended compliment to hip-hop, that it's greatest artists are every bit as important as those from "plain old" rock and roll. But this gesture is wholly misguided, and ultimately as equally great an implied insult to the titans of jazz (and, arguably, giants of country and soul musics as well) who were not seen as deserving recognition in the world of rock music in its "first 50 years."

The six hip-hop artists who made the top 100 (four of whom are clustered between spots #75 and #86) represent a plot on behalf of Rolling Stone that could be taken as token reference at best and grotesquely commercial at worst- an slight that stings all the greater when considering that such a middling a talent as 2Pac managed to end up occupying a space that could have otherwise gone to John Coltrane or Willie Nelson (or hell, even Garth Brooks! I mean, the dude sold a bazillion fucking records, right?) But no, the "masterminds" behind the Immortals project saw fit to incorporate an overwhelmingly popular (and profitable) part of their magazine's coverage since the late 1980s with a transparent attempt to play it off as a tribute from rock and roll to hip-hop that really does neither any service, ultimately.

So why 2Pac? Well, for a lot of the reasons that Gram Parsons (our #87) is here, quite frankly. If any rapper's personal mythology ever overwhelmed the quality of his art, it was Shakur's. The oft-sung ballad of the thug-poet with who embodied such fake dynamic tensions as being "hard edged" with a "gentle soul" has somehow not been undone in the almost 15 years following his death in a senseless act of life-imitating-music-industry-created-hype, as if nobody checked the wiki and took note that the dude was a dancer with the Digital Underground (a far more honest and entertaining venture than anything from 'Pac's own recording career- "Samoans!"), or that nobody ever played the childish media games of glamorizing gang violence more egregiously.

Instead, we somehow remember him as the profligate free spirit who was lost before his time, leaving us with nothing but his interminable hours of uninspired teenage bullshit spewn across tracks so utterly unremarkable as to border on... nothing. They're fucking boring. I just listened to an hour of this two-disc Greatest Hits thing, and I can't even think of a comparison that wouldn't make his music sound like some other thing that's far more interesting and worthy of anybody's time.

Were I so inclined play this as an insult to hip-hop, I would point to 2Pac as the ultimate triumph of persona over substance, but that really isn't any more uniquely warranted a criticism as could be equally applied to 60 years of pop music, so fuck it. Instead I'll pay a specific (and ultimately far more damning) insult to Shakur for his inexplicable legions of fans to suffer: You already know that if you hadn't been shot, you'd have gotten as old and pathetic as Elvis did at the end, but you know what else?

Biggie wouldn't have.

Yeah, that's right. You thought I'd write something about 'Pac that did the favor of not mentioning him? Well I didn't. Because as long as we're humoring this little exercise and including rappers on the list, Biggie was just one of a great many artists who deserved to be here more than you.

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