And still I see no changes. Can’t a brother get a little peace?
There’s war on the streets & the war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.
– 2Pac – “Changes”
Fifteen years ago today (9/13/2011), Tupac Amaru Shakur — 2Pac aka Makaveli — died after being gunned down in Las Vegas. The talented rapper was criticized by politicians, in particular by Dan Quayle who led protests against his first album 2Pacalypse Now (1991) and suggested it “had no place in America.” 2Pac earned a reputation as one of the early “gangsta rappers” and his sound came to symbolize West Coast hip-hop at a time when a violent West Coast vs. East Coast feud emerged in hip-hop. As a result, many who have not listened to 2Pac — and even some who have — fail to understand the complexity and depth of his lyrics and intellect. Beyond just a gangsta rapper, 2Pac was a poet with a strong political and social conscience, which now days you will only hear from underground rappers (such as Dead Prez, A-Alikes, and Immortal Technique).
A few months ago, I gave a guest lecture at a local university on a class about “Race and Music”, and my lecture focused on politics in hip-hop, and one of my goals was to emphasize to the students that there is a difference between glorifying the gangsta life and narrating it as a social problem. While Tupac ended up having some songs that celebrated the gangsta life in his later music, which likely had more to do with his association with Suge Knight than his own lifestyle, his early music focused on social and political issues, and this progressive message continued to influence much of his later music as well. Anyway, to show this class an example of narrating the gangsta life instead of celebrating it, I played the song “Soulja’s Story” from his first album (again, from 1991), which is a song that drew the ire of Dan Quayle.
“Soulja’s Story” is a brilliant song that needs to be listened to while following along with the lyrics to appreciate it, which is what I made this class do. I will analyze the song here, so I will also provide the lyrics, but feel free to just read my analysis instead of the lyrics if you just want the synopsis. The song has two characters, both played by Tupac: Tupac (the person) as 2Pac (the rapper) and Tupac as Soulja (a fictional character with a deeper voice who Tupac uses in a few songs). It starts off with 2Pac softly repeating what is the chorus of the song in the background:
All you wanted to be, a soulja, a soulja
All you wanted to be, a soulja, like me
All you wanted to be, a soulja, a soulja
All you wanted to be, a soulja, like me
Then Soulja speaks over 2Pac with some sound political and social advice:
They cuttin off welfare..
They think crime is risin now
You got whites killin blacks,
cops killin blacks, and blacks killin blacks
Sh*t just gon’ get worse
They just gon’ become souljas
Tupac, as Soulja, is emphasizing that cutting welfare will only lead to more social ills because the poor blacks, who depend on it due to their low income, will increasingly turn to crime without it. This introduction also reveals what Tupac means by “soulja”: a “gangsta” who turns to crime as a result of the social ills affecting the black community.
This concludes the intro to the song, but then Soulja (again, remember this is still Tupac with a deeper voice) begins the first verse. Here Tupac provides the story of Soulja’s life:
Crack done took a part of my family tree
My mom is on the sh*t, my daddy’s splittin, mom is steady blamin me
Is it my fault, just cause I’m a young black male?
Cops sweat me as if my destiny is makin crack sales
Only fifteen and got problems
Cops on my tail, so I bail til I dodge ’em
They finally pull me over and I laugh
“Remember Rodney King?” and I blast on his punk ass
Now I got a murder case..
.. you speak of heaven punk? I never heard of the place
Wanted to come up fast, got a Uz and a black mask
Duckin f*ckin ‘Task’, now who’s the jack-ass?
Keep my sh*t cocked, cause the cops got a glock too
What the f*ck would you do – drop them or let ’em drop you?
I chose droppin the cop
I got me a glock, and a glock for the n*ggaz on my block
Momma tried to stab me, I moved out
Sold a pound a weed, made G’s, bought a new house
I’m only seventeen, I’m the new kid
Got me a crew, bought ’em jewels, and a Uz’-thick
But all good things don’t last
‘Task’ came fast, and busted my black ass
Coolin in the pen, where the good’s kept
Now my little brother wants to follow in my footsteps
Soulja has significant problems at home: his mom is a crack addict and his dad stranded the family, while his mom blames him for the problems. As a young teen (15), he is already being harassed by the cops for being black — as if his “destiny is makin crack sales” — even though he still seems innocent, but these problems at home led him to try gain independence and make a living for himself. As a result of domestic problems and the need for independence, by the time Soulja is 17 he turns to crime (“Momma tried to stab me, I moved out / Sold a pound of weed, made G’s, bought a new house / I’m only seventeen, I’m the new kid /Got me a crew, bought ’em jewels, and a Uz’-thick”). Now that Soulja has adopted the gangsta lifestyle with jewels, money, guns, and drugs, he’s even more of a target by the cops. When he finally gets pulled over, knowing that he is in possession of illegal goods while also the beating of Rodney King is fresh in his memory, Soulja fears for his life and shoots the cop. Of course, I am not defending anyone who kills a cop, nor was Tupac, but he’s discussing the socio-economic and political realities behind why it may happen instead of just accusing the murderer as a no-good thug with no motive. Too often, society focuses on the crimes — which are certainly unforgivable — without considering the causes of the crimes, which also need to be addressed to prevent further instances of them. Tupac clearly realized this and agreed with assessment based on his line early in the intro “they cuttin off welfare / they think crime rising now? / … sh*t just gon get worse.” Returning to the narrative, Soulja was arrested for murdering the cop shortly after, and he’s now in prison. Unfortunately, his little brother looks up to him (having no male head of the household, and his mom is a crack addict, who else would he look up to?), and wants to “follow in his footsteps.”
This ends the first verse, and the chorus that began the song repeats. Then the second verse comes from 2Pac’s perspective (in this song, 2Pac raps as Soulja’s younger brother):
Buck, buck – n*ggaz get f*cked, don’t step to this
Quiet as kept I’m blessed on a quest with a death wish
Tell ’em to come and test, and arrest, n*gga it’s hectic
Here’s the anorexic, I’m makin it to an exit
Walkin through the streets on the black tip
Packed with several gats, cause I’m on some “pay ’em back” sh*t
N*ggaz don’t wanna try me, brother you’ll get shot down
Now I’m king of the block, since my bigger brother’s locked down
I’m hot now, so many punk police have got shot down
Other coppers see me on the block, and they jock now
That’s what I call a kingpin
Send my brother what he needs and some weed up to Sing-Sing
Tellin him just be ready set
Pack ya sh*t up quick; and when I hit, be prepared to jet
N*ggaz from the block on the boat now
Every single one got a gun, that’ll smoke – pow!
These punks about to get hit by the best
I’m wearin double vest.. so aim at my f*ckin chest
I’ll be makin straight dome calls
Touch the button on the wall, you’ll be pickin up your own balls
I can still hear my mother shout..
“Hit the pig n*gga, break your bigger brother out”
I got a message for the warden
I’m comin for ya ass, as fast as Flash Gorden
We get surrounded in the mess hall, yes y’all
A crazy motherf*cker makin death calls
Just bring me my brother and we leavin
For every minute you stall, one of y’all bleedin..
They brought my brother in a jiffy
I took a cop, just in case things got tricky
And just as we was walkin out (BANG!)
I caught a bullet in the head, the screams never left my mouth
My brother caught a bullet too
I think he gon’ pull through, he deserve to
The fast life ain’t everything they told ya
Never get much older, following the tracks of a soulja
As Soulja’s little brother, 2Pac raps in a much angrier and more aggressive style, wanting to get revenge for his older brother. Soulja made clear in the previous verse that his younger brother wanted to follow in his footsteps, so 2Pac picks up as Soulja’s little brother looking to resume the gangsta life that his older brother got imprisoned for. While Soulja seemed more socially conscious of what he was doing, 2Pac’s verse expresses more of an act of revenge to try to make up for what happened to his older brother. So he, with the encouragement of his mother, attempts to break his brother out of prison. While he initially got his brother, as they were leaving the prison, they both got shot; 2Pac got shot in the head, and seemingly died, while his brother also got shot, but seems like he will make it. But for anyone who thinks Tupac is glorifying gangsta lifestyle here, the last two lines make it clear: “The fast life ain’t everything they told ya / Never get much older, following the tracks of a soulja.” Basically, the “fast life” (fast way to riches through crime — the gangsta lifestyle) is not what it is made out to be; it ends up leading to prison or death, hence it is not worth it. Yet, while Tupac warns against it, he acknowledges the causes of it, and it’s due to the social ills in society that primarily affect African Americans.
As I mentioned, I played this song for a class where I was giving a guest lecture on politics in hip-hop, and I had them follow along with the lyrics as I played it. I was surprised by how well they interpreted the lyrics when I played it. They understood the complexity of it and the social and political story that Tupac was telling through these two characters. Yet, this is the song that drew condemnation from Dan Quayle for saying this song had no place in American society. If you actually listen to the lyrics and understand the song, it is just commentary on current events in society, especially in the African American community.
15 years after 2Pac’s death, no mainstream rapper has come close to replicating his revolutionary message. In this post, I just broke down one song, which was from his first album, but there are many more 2Pac songs that can be analyzed in a similar way. 2Pac was a revolutionary poet and musician, who, despite accusations from the media and politicians that he was a mere “gangsta rapper,” had a lot to say and to learn from. For the future of hip-hop, I can only hope more artists embrace this radical message that seeks change in society instead of the majority of the hip-hop artists we are stuck with now who simply glorify the gangsta lifestyle instead of breaking it down and recognizing its causes and flaws. Unfortunately, the radio does not play the politicized artists, and we are stuck with artists who celebrate a damning lifestyle built on selling crack and “pimping hoes.”
America needs another Tupac, and hip-hop needs another 2Pac. We can only hope for the emergence of another “soulja” to reach the masses.