The year 2013 will likely be remembered as the year of Kanye. Every day, seemingly without fail, news about Kanye West or his new album, his most recent nonsensical comments, his new baby, or the baby’s mother appear to dominate major websites, magazine articles, and newspaper feature sections. The world appears endlessly fascinated by the Chicago rapper’s penchant for self-praise, his flare for the extreme, and his ever-evolving list of female conquests.
While I’ve always enjoyed his music (“Jesus Walks” is a true hip-hop classic), I’ve never been a fan of his cocky presentation. In his recent New York Times interview, West described himself as “an activist-type artist,’’ much in the same vain as poet Gil Scott-Heron. I had to read that twice. Can’t imagine Scott-Heron ever saying he only dated “mutts.” (Remember that, from a few years back, when West infamously discussed his preference in women with little concern of the derogatory reference to biracial women or the blatant insult to African-American women?)
Be clear, the list of statements and lyrics from West that would probably never be uttered by Scott-Heron goes on for miles. But West’s suggestion that he’s somehow a bringer of knowledge through hip-hop instantly reminded me of another rapper, long gone, but impossible to forget, mainly because his knowledge was rarely tangled with the same type of extreme materialism and egomania West seems thrive on. Tupac Shakur had massive bravado, but that's quite different from arrogance! (I'll get more in to that later.)
Just yesterday news of a new Broadway play titled Holler If Ya Hear Me, based on the life of Tupac Shakur, was announced, as was the news that the late rapper would receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014, some 18 years after his death. The timing is just right as far as I’m concerned. While the list of rappers who’ve have offered us lyrics filled with historical wisdom and ideas worthy of much thought doesn’t begin with Tupac Shakur, somehow that reputation does linger by his name. Shakur’s impact was the subject of lectures at Harvard University, while UC Berkley offered a course focusing on his poems and history. There are statues of his image in both Georgia and Germany.
The son of a Black Panther, Shakur grew up exposed to the most devastating and haunting problems facing African-Americans. So when his rap career began, early songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby” brought a probing spotlight to the desperate plight of pregnant black preteens with nowhere to go. In that sobering song, 12 year-old Brenda throws her baby away in a trash can so no one will learn she was ever pregnant. The songs that followed from Shakur often spoke of women holding their heads up and of men taking more responsibility in their children’s lives. “Dear Mama,” arguably his most famous song, is a loving tribute to his mother, Afeni, a former Black Panther who insisted that he read a major national newspaper every day.
Ironically, West comes from a similarly cultured pedigree. His mother, Donda, was an educator who made a point of exposing her son early to the wonders of reading, higher education, and art. That exposure is clearly evident in many of West’s seamlessly layered lyrical compositions.
Tupac’s knowledge was rarely tangled with the materialism and egomania West seems thrive on.
But while his skill is readily apparent and masterfully used on each of his albums, it often appears to me at least that West is saying much, but talking about absolutely nothing. On the album Yeezus (a title I refuse to say out loud even while alone), he raps in the song “I’m In It” about his desire to stick his fist inside a woman “like a civil-rights sign.” Exactly what kind of activism is that? Yeezus contains a number of songs that degrade and insult women, more so than any of his previous albums—pretty ironic given that West says he’s in the midst of what he calls his most serious relationship ever with Kim Kardashian. Go figure.
For those who feel I’m unfairly romanticizing the life and times of Tupac Shakur, believe me, I’m not. I assure you, I see the whole picture. I remember well the last time I saw the rapper face-to-face. It was September 1996 at an MTV Video Music Awards after-party in New York. I’d interviewed him a few of times over that past year, so my friends pleaded with me to make introductions. I quickly declined, explaining that I wasn’t fond of approaching Shakur in wide, open, or public places, and for good reason: his temper was spitfire, and he seemed to enjoy nothing more than an impromptu fistfight, dustup, or straight-up beat-down any time and any place and with anyone. In fact, the next time I’d see the 25-year rapper was just four days later, his body riddled with bullets and lying in a Las Vegas hospital bed that he’d never leave.
It’s true that Tupac had more than his share of troubling issues, and his lyrics wildly shifted over years from profoundly powerful (“How Long Will They Mourn Me?”) to downright frightening (“Hit 'Em Up”). But he was also a mesmerizing and unforgettable presence on wax, in his film roles, and most certainly in life, as able to discuss the plot structure of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People as to recite lyrics from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Yeah, Tupac talked a lot, but he also knew a lot, and when he shared it, it rarely sounded like a whole lot of nothing.