Tupac Shakur is alive and well ten years after his death. Or at least the charts would have you believe, with five certified platinum and double platinum albums under his belt since the untimely death of the rapper one fateful night in Las Vegas a decade ago. "Pac's Life", the sixth release of original material in a series of posthumous albums signed off on and executive produced by his mother Afeni Shakur, is sure to be another album that enjoys similar success to the previous releases of the past several years. And its good to see his mom cares enough to make sure her boy is honored in death rather then exploited by putting together a decent collection of hip-hop/rap that is sure to get a booty or two shaking from the west coast to the east and all parts in between. Whatever her motives or those of the artists helping out to bring this album of previously unreleased material to life, its really not worth mentioning, as it seems dead or alive Tupac can hold his own with the best of the hip hop world and beyond.
In the years since 2 Pac's last release while he was still with us the hip-hop/rap genre has seen some changes, and the artist and producers assembled for this work embrace those changes without reservation or apology. Although purist may balk and hardcore fans may smirk, this is perhaps Tupac's most musically inclined and commercially accessible work to date. Not that Pac was a stranger to sales success or a commercial ringer or two included on his albums for good measure, but with everyone from Ashanti to Ludacris to Keyshia Cole to Carl Thomas lending contributions to this album it definitely has an R&B groove that while present on Pac albums past, was never quite as prominent as on this release.
"Am I wrong 'cause I wanna get it on 'til I die" is the question Pac poses from the grave to open the album, as if to ask and answer his own question on the incendiary lead off track "Untouchable Swiss Beatz Remix" out in front of some dense beats and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony supported rhyming. The sound is thick and layered, with deep keyboard loops, drum machine claps, and 2 Pac's deep tenor and familiar delivery leading this familiar tale of gangsta life. "We outlaws/Hustlin' and bustlin'/Untouchable" 2 Pac reminds us from the great beyond, and if he weren't six feet under we would undoubtedly believe hm in this convincing rap of brash bravado and defiance.
But if we've opened hard the next three songs are more of what this album is all about. "Pac's Life", "Dumpin'", and especially "Playa Cardz Right", belong as much to the guests artist and producers as Pac himself. Pac's Life is a playful take on Prince's "Pop Life" that features R&B/Pop princess Ashanti adding Mariah Carey like harmonies behind guest rapper T.I. while Tupac delivers his rhyme of survival, success, and getting on with it in the face of stardom, and Dumpin' has more Carl Thomas on it then Tupac himself, to the point of adding new rhymes and raps to the smooth piano led groove. In fact Tupac appears for just forty seconds of this four and a half minute track before Thomas turns it into a somewhat cheesy morality tale. "I always thought I'd have to die to do a record with Pac" Thomas exclaims while boasting of Pac's skills, strong enough to be with us even now. Its all a bit much. But Keyshia Cole's "Playa Cardz Right (Female)" is just the souful slow jam we need to bring it back down, Pac delivering random romantic odes behind Keyshia's sexy pleading. As said before, as much the guest artists album as Tupac's. And some might say even more.
Which leads us to the big question of this album. Is it Tupac or is it simply various performers taking the bits and pieces Shakur left behind and making it thier own" And does it matter" Getting deeper into things we're treated to some strong 2 Pac rhyming in "Sleep" and the album highlight "Don't Stop", which takes a shot at mocking the political powers that be who would restrict our musical freedoms of expression. But like other songs on this album while the tracks start with Pac, its not long before people such as Big Syke, 'Lil Scrappy, and Ludacris take over, making Shakur sound like a guest on his own album. Which may not be bad, but if the rhymes weren't written by Tupac and simply inspired by the scraps he left behind, well, some of his more die hard fans may have a problem with that. And rightfully so, as they may hope for an actual Tupac album and not simply a glorified tribute record.
But hardcore fans are given some satisfaction, however small. "International", "Soon As I get Home", and the original mix of "Untouchable" all feature Tupac prominently, and in the case of Soon As I Get Home untouched from the original unreleased recording. Listening to these tracks the brilliance of Shakur comes through loud and clear and those of us who have an appreciation of this man and his music perhaps can't help but feel slighted by the tracks here that all but bury the artist under a wash of R&B instrumentals and girlie harmonies. But this is what Shakur left us, so this is what we have to work with. RIP, for better or for worse.
Pac's Life is a good album. Not very good and certainly not great, we can't really expect that at this point from this artist. After all, he's ten years gone. And while some may argue several of the artist included on the record and some of the arrangements are not of the sort Shakur would associate himself with when he was alive, it certainly can't be argued that the principles involved didn't do the very best they could to honor his memory. The album is tightly assembled, carefully crafted, and passionately performed by friends of Tupac and distant admirers alike. And while the pick of material may be getting thin after so many years of milking what was left behind by Shakur, and detractors abound, you certainly can't fault a boys mama for trying to keep the legacy of her beloved son alive for the masses who loved him so dearly. Rumors of Tupac abound these days. Is he dead, is he alive, who killed him, did he stage it, was he a true gangsta, was he a poser, and on and on it goes. These questions and more are perhaps best answered by Shakur himself when in "Pac's Life" he simply says "All you muthafu.ckers conversating about my life/Mind your own fuc.kin business". And if you think he meant it while still breathing he most likely means it just as much now, if not more. And it probably goes double for his moms. Let a playa' play, and let a nigga' rest in peace as well, seems to be the message. All we have to do is sit back and groove. Sleep tight, Tupac...