At the age of 22, Tupac Shakur was caught in a maelstrom. He had been embroiled in legal issues for years, having previously been imprisoned for assault, and investigated in connection with a non-fatal shooting involving off-duty police officers. Tragically, he was also involved in a wrongful death suit when a 6 year old child was killed when a member of his entourage attempted to pick up a pistol registered to Shakur and accidentally discharged the weapon. In 1994 the rapper was robbed and shot five times in the Quad Recording Studios building in Manhattan; following that shooting, Shakur checked himself out of hospital against his doctor’s orders three hours after surgery. He would later blame the shooting on former associate and fellow rapper The Notorious B.I.G. and Bad Boy Records boss Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.
A day after leaving hospital, Shakur was imprisoned for sexual assault involving a female fan - a charge he denied until his dying day. He was sentenced to up to four and a half years in prison. Recorded at the time of his shooting and the widely-publicised sexual assault trial, and released during his eleven month stint in prison, Me Against the World was understandably the rapper’s darkest work to date. Lyrically concerned with paranoia, loss, innocence, injustice, and persecution, and featuring slower, more soulful production, Me Against the World was described by Shakur as thus:
“It was like a blues record. It was down-home. It was all my fears, all the things I just couldn’t sleep about. Everybody thought I was living so well and doing so good that I wanted to explain it. And it took a whole album to get it all out. I get to tell my innermost, darkest secrets. I tell my own personal problems.”
This was all quite a departure for the young Harlem-born rapper. His first two records - 2Pacalypse Now and Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… - had been tough, political albums, unabashedly confrontational in the style of the times; strong records which nevertheless lacked much of the charismatic, gifted songwriting that his best releases would see. When Me Against the World was released, it touched on subject matter that had seldom before been explored in hip hop. “I’m hopeless, they should’ve killed me as a baby/ And now they got me trapped in the storm, I’m goin’ crazy,” Shakur raps on Lord Knows and the honesty is confronting. Scarface’s dark storytelling on 1994’s The Diary was perhaps the closest precursor to such rhymes, but even so, the confessional lines on Shakur’s third album were shockingly open: “Homie died in my arms, with his brains hangin’, fucked up/ I had to tell him it was alright, and that’s a lie/ And he knew it when he shook and died, my God.”
These were notes from an America that was seldom reported in the mainstream press, and seldom acknowledged. The Rodney King riots had recently seen Los Angeles erupt with a vitriolic violence that had lain dormant beneath the surface, waiting for a catalyst; on Me Against the World, Shakur experiences a similar moment of personal eruption, not that of violence but of regret. He consciously unearths the demons that lay scattered in his mind, hoping that through exposition they may be defeated. Pained, afraid, and searching for answers, he writes everything down and sends it to us as an open letter.
“More bodies being buried/ I’m losing my homies in a hurry/ They’re relocating to the cemetery/ Got me worried, stressing, my vision’s blurry/ The question is will I live?/ No one in the world loves me/ I’m headed for danger, don’t trust strangers/ Put one in the chamber whenever I’m feeling this anger/ Don’t wanna make excuses, cause this is how it is, what’s the use?/ Unless we’re shooting no one notices the youth,” Shakur raps on the title track. The bassy hoarseness of his voice is strained, as though he is trying in vain to internalise difficult emotions, overcome as he stands in the mic booth.
This was the first time the world had truly been exposed to Tupac Shakur as he was before his tough showboating days: Tupac, the baby who was born only a month after his mother Afeni (a former crackhead) was acquitted of more than 150 charges of “Conspiracy against the United States government and New York landmarks.” Tupac, whose parents, godfather, and stepfather were all high-ranking Black Panthers (his uncle spent four years of the ’80s on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list). Tupac, who escaped his violent, tumultuous upbringing to enrol at Baltimore School for the Arts to study acting, poetry, jazz, and ballet, performing Shakespeare and the role of the Mouse King in The Nutcracker. Tupac, who studied poetry and composed heartfelt, tender odes like The Rose That Grew from Concrete. Tupac, who was remembered by all who knew him as magnetically popular, funny, kind, and talented; teachers described him as an intensely charismatic who relished entertaining those around him, and making people laugh.
In this way, Me Against the World is an autobiography of sorts; an exposé on the side of Shakur that was ignored by the media, pushed aside by label executives, and unknown to the fans. Many of the lyrics are heartbreakingly honest, as on album highlight So Many Tears: “Fuck the world cause I’m cursed, I’m having visions/ Of leaving here in a hearse, God can you feel me?/ Take me away from all the pressure and all the pain/ Show me some happiness again, I’m going blind/ I spend my time in this cell, ain’t living well/ I know my destiny is Hell/ Where did I fail?/ My life is in denial and when I die/ Baptised in eternal fire/ I’ll shed so many tears,” he confesses, the pain in every word audible even all these years later; Shakur unloads in verse after verse of traumatised recollection, confessing suicidal thoughts and wondering where everything went so wrong. “Lord knows I tried/ Been a witness to homicide/ Seen drive-bys takin’ lives, little kids die/ Wonder why as I walk by/ Broken-hearted as I glance at the chalk line, getting high/ This ain’t the life for me, I wanna change/ But ain’t no future bright for me, I’m stuck in the game/ I’m trapped inside a maze.”
The beats on Me Against the World are of-the-time, with pounding kick drums, vinyl scratches, soulful studio croonings from a host of guest vocal soloists, tasteful Fender Rhodes keyboard licks, and flourishes of guitar here and there. None of the songs are carried by their beat, as some of the great rap songs have been, but there is no need for that dynamic here when Shakur is so lyrically on-form. The instrumentals are uniformly dark, slow, streets-inspired canvases for Shakur to paint his lyrical pictures on top; to listen to Me Against the World in order to hear big hooks, club hits, or massive beats is to make a critical error. These are street poems recorded by a young renegade, and the soundtrack is fitting.
Despite the lack of any obvious hits, hooks, or anthems, Me Against the World was an unprecedented success, helping Shakur achieve his first number one record, selling 240,000 copies in its first week. The unlikely hit single was Dear Mama, a loving dedication from Shakur to his mother Afeni. It reads like a personal letter, baring secrets never intended for the public to hear. “Now ain’t nobody tell us it was fair/ No love from my daddy cause the coward wasn’t there/ He passed away and I didn’t cry, cause my anger/ Wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger/They say I’m wrong and I’m heartless, but all along/ I was looking for a father he was gone/ I hung around with the thugs, and even though they sold drugs/ They showed a young brother love,” he raps, and there is an urgency to these explanations. Shakur’s love for his mother is clear, and in fact his close relationship with the various women who raised him was one of the key elements the rapper consistently called on to argue how he could never have been guilty of committing the crimes against a woman that were alleged his sexual assault trial. “I wish I could take the pain away/ If you can make it through the night there’s a brighter day/ Everything will be alright if you hold on/ It’s a struggle every day, gotta roll on/ And there’s no way I can pay you back, but my plan/ Is to show you that I understand/ You are appreciated.”
Me Against the World is an outstanding record: it lets light in on dark thoughts, trauma, pain, and sorrow, and in doing so it is a lasting monument to the storytelling prowess and undying charisma of Tupac Shakur. He was brutally murdered just over a year after the album’s release, by individuals who have never been apprehended, and we will never know what sort of artist Shakur may one day have become. Yet Me Against the World remains the most defining testament we have. A testament to a musician and writer who was always more than what he seemed to most; beneath the tattoos, the tough demeanour, the felonious affiliates, and the boastful arrogance of his younger days, there was a poet of immense insight, passion, and intelligence. There is a beautiful irony that, in airing his demons on these songs and in titling this record in such a manner, Shakur found in the year before his death more recognition and acceptance than ever before; he found that there was an entire subculture of America who could relate to his pain. These vulnerable lamentations will endure forever, and Tupac Shakur will continue to be remembered as the immortal prophetic poet of rap music.
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