It was an association that was fated to end in tears: ‘Sugar Bear’ Knight (commonly known by the more sexually-innocuous moniker ‘Suge’), the label head who once dangled Vanilla Ice from a twentieth-story balcony in order to secure the rights to 'Ice Ice Baby,' and international badass rapper Tupac Shakur. Indeed, this was less a thuggish alliance than the rash submission of a desperate man, and the exact details of the deal the two struck (or rather the deal Suge dictated) are still unclear. Shakur was, in late 1995, serving the first of four years in prison for an alleged sexual assault; when Knight offered to engineer his release in September of that year, Shakur was essentially prepared to submit to any agreement. Knight, co-founder of the soon-to-be hip-hop empire Death Row Records, used his unique powers of persuasion to lobby for Shakur’s release, raising the $1.4 million bail himself. In return, he required 2Pac release three albums on his Death Row label- he even offered to take a larger than usual stake in the rights.
Speculation on just how bad the deal was for the rapper is as badly informed today as it was a decade ago, but it’s safe to say that he was at least organising his release schedule to fulfil the contract as soon as possible. Emerging from an eight-month hiatus, 2Pac had plenty of material to get him started; he reportedly hit the studio within hours of his release, completing fully twenty-seven song in a mere two weeks. Just five months after his release from prison, he released the first hip-hop double album- legally regarded as two individual releases- All Eyez On Me
. Ultimately quintupling the sales of its predecessor, All Eyez On Me
was a watershed in hip-hop history and elevated 2Pac from an outstanding west coast rapper to a veritable hip-hop institution.
If the concept of a long stretch in a penitentiary and the subsequent attempt on his life inspired an album of sober introspection and the exorcising of personal demons (Me Against The World
, the anticipation of release had more positive ramifications, for the subject at least. All Eyez On Me
is an effective break with the past for 2Pac; scarce to be the found are the solemn examinations of spirit that permeated its predecessor, and missing (presumed murdered) are rants against social and political injustice which informed his debut releases. The two-disc set is a belated celebration of all things gangster, all manners thug and the all-important self-righteous ghetto saga. Curious in their absence are Shakur’s reminiscences of his younger days as a ballet dancer, however we must forge on ahead with what the artist has chosen to portray to us- Tupac grew up hard in the ghetto with an-ex Black Panther mother and a murderer step-father. That’s
how he choose to present his new image as a free man.
All Eyez On Me
was a critical and commercial smash. It gave birth to a number of hit singles, which were still being released right up to the creator’s death, and it’s a list that stands up to this day as one of the most glorious streaks in pop history: ‘California Love,’ ‘2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,’ ‘How Do U Want It,’ ‘I Ain’t Mad at Cha.’ The hits are all contained on Disc One, a classic in itself. The majority of the disc is produced by Daz Dillinger, though Johnny J. (who handles most of Disc Two) and Dr. Dre make appearances on ‘How Do U Want It’ and ‘California Love’ respectively.
I say all
the hits, however the present version of ‘California Love,’ which also features Dre as a performer and co-writer, isn’t the radio version contained on Greatest Hits
but a remix by the same; Dre substitutes the heavy bass funk of the single for something more becoming of his style, a loose G-Funk arrangement that while not as striking or easily likeable does better suit the generally chilled atmosphere of the disc. A guest spot from Zapp’s Roger Troutman, the subsequently murdered funk genius whose band is responsible for more hip-hop bass lines than any other, is a master-stroke: his is the sweet voice that delivers all the memorable refrains beneath the curiously endearing vocoder effect. The re-issued edition features the radio edit as an appendix to Disc Two, however, it has little to no effect tacked on the end.
Troutman’s appearance is only the beginning; the wealth of great vocal performances is instrumental to the success of many of these tracks. Snoop’s cousin Nate Dogg pops up twice, his sweet baritone gracing the choruses of ‘All Bout U’ and ‘Scandalouz’- I’ll never forget my amusement as a child hearing a voice I was certain belonged to some manner of ‘70s prime-time TV soul singer uttering decidedly un-PC slogans, such as “everywhere I go, I see the same hoez.” Snoop’s two guest spots are equally as memorable; on the same track, his half-drunk, half-stoned recollection of seeing the same girl on both an orgy tape and the million man march! He shares the spotlight on ‘2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,’ the pair’s homage to letting loose upon 2Pac’s release from prison to which Snoop lends the repetitive one-line refrain.
Elsewhere, KC and Jojo (formerly of r&b foursome Jodeci) provide the infectious refrain to dancefloor classic ‘How Do U Want It,’ while ‘Got My Mind Made Up’ features the mouth-watering line-up of Dat Nigga Daz (Dillinger), Method Man, Kurupt and Redman. The guest spots are, almost without exception, incredible, helping produce what is undoubtedly some of 2Pac’s (and hip hop’s) most enduring material. However it’s the man whose name is on the front of the record (not the back; that’s Suge Knight, occupying Rick Rubin’s patented “Executive Producer” role) who makes the record what it is, producing some of his most fluid and rhythmically playful rhymes, his voice smoother, clearer and more precise than ever before. His lyrics vary in quality from song to song, and it must be taken into account that it’s primarily a party album and that the lyrics are supposed to reflect the mood, i.e. they’re supposed to be fun
Disc One of All Eyez On Me
, whether establishing or following the trend, essentially validates a proven blueprint for pop-rap releases: when a rapper on form, and Pac is
on form, collaborates with the right musicians, the results are potentially astounding, commercially and sonically. And if Disc One substantiates the thesis, Disc Two is the exception that proves the rule.
It’s a decline that begins at the end of Disc One, in fact, with the Johnny J-produced ‘What’z Ya Phone #,’ which manages to sacrifice all vestige of good taste twice in one sitting- a skill which too often goes unheralded. To the backdrop of an awkwardly sped-up Prince sample (The Time’s ‘777-9311’), Pac recreates a lewd phone call with a “fan” with torturous attention to detail. Johnny J is responsible for the bulk of the mess on this second disc, however it’s startling that the biggest blunder comes not from him, but from somebody who should know a lot better.
Hey, everybody, here’s an idea: let’s sample ‘Atomic Dog’! God knows what was running through Dr. Dre’s mind when he uttered an interpolation of this exclamation, or the five or six previous times the thought came to his mind. Everybody
’s sampled ‘Atomic Dog,’ from Del tha Funky Homosapien and Public Enemy to Ice-T and the Beastie Boys, but nobody’s done it as many times as Dr. Dre. Sure, he had an ace up his sleeve this time with a cameo by George Clinton himself, but it’s still the height of redundancy, more so considering that Dre is pretty much responsible for the sound which inspired the album.
Clinton’s P-Funk brother-in-arms Bootsy Collins provides the inspiration for a similarly duff re-telling, this time a version of Collins’ ‘I’d Rather Be With You’ entitled ‘Rather Be Ya Nigga.’ The presence of Richie Rich sums up Disc Two to a T; aside from Clinton, whose performance is laboured at best, the collaborations don’t hold a flame to Disc One. It’s a side filled with half-sentimental, half-“gang life” tracks- an awkward mix in both connectivity and in co-existence within the same track. Quite simply, 2pac doesn’t come up with the goods. Apart from the catchy ‘Thug Passion’ and the only track which truly stands up to Disc One, ‘Wonda Why They Call U Bytch,’ it’s simply a rather dull record, completely trivial in relation to the former disc.
It’s almost a given that when discussing double albums that there will be some filler, and even when there’s not somebody will always find some anyway. However, it’s quite another concept to grasp that 2Pac has created one entire disc of filler to supplement a disc that many consider flawless. The prevalent theory seems to be that 2Pac was simply eager to release material and meet the terms of his Death Row contract before splitting. Alternatively, he could simply have been eager to get his pent-up feelings out, and felt the easiest way to divide the collection was between “party songs” and “serious songs,” and unintentionally between “good songs” and “terrible songs.” The only consolation is just that, in fact; you don’t need to bother with Disc Two to hear the songs you like. Unfortunately, it must be taken as an entire set, and convenience matters little when weighed against sixty minutes-plus of superfluous material.
As for Suge Knight? After a series of prison sentences for assault, the exile of every member of the label’s classic line-up and the granting by a federal court of over $130 million to the wife of his hitherto unrecognised sponsor for Death Row, Knight is bankrupt, owning little more than the clothes on his back. Maybe he should give Ken Lay a call.