February 13 marks the anniversary of two epochal hip-hop albums, released on the same day in 1996.
2Pac’s All Eyez on Me elevated the West Coast rapper to all-time great status, sold over 10 million copies, and yielded party anthems like “California Love.” The Fugees’ The Score marked a breakthrough for the New Jersey trio, while moving over 5 million copies and generating Lauryn Hill’s classic interpretation of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly (With His Song).” On the 20th year of these two classics, we explore why they remain watermarks of the genre.
2Pac: How *All Eyez on Me* Introduced the Thug**
When 2Pac released the first double album of new material in rap history, All Eyez on Me, it dropped only months after he secured parole in October 1995 from prison, where he was serving a sentence for a sexual assault.
With a new deal from Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, who posted $1.4 million bail for the rapper’s release, he hit the studio to begin making tracks — and stir up controversy. When MTV visited the set where he and Dr. Dre filmed the Mad Max-themed video of the album’s first single, “California Love,” he mocked his chief nemesis, the Notorious B.I.G., and inferred he had slept with Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans.
Two decades later, All Eyez on Me’s place in the hip-hop canon is uncertain — much of that is due to our conflicted feelings about 2Pac
One of the genre’s most prolific musicians, who virtually popularized the word thug among his contemporaries, he is adored by many for his outspoken, rebel spirit and hated by others for his loud abrasiveness. Some would hardly call All Eyez on Me a classic, and instead prefer Pac’s more contemplative Me Against the World, which he recorded just before going to prison in April 1995, and where he tried to make sense of his mess of a life.
Rap’s Violent History
For Pac’s detractors, All Eyez on Me symbolizes the most violent era in the genre’s history: the East Coast-West Coast rivalry that embroiled the music industry — a media-hyped beef that, in retrospect, appears more tragically ludicrous with every passing year.
Pac made pains to point out that his animosity was only directed toward a few, chiefly Bad Boy Records’ Sean “Puffy” Combs and the Notorious B.I.G. On All Eyez on Me, he rapped alongside Method Man and Redman. Before his death, he worked with Brooklyn crew Boot Camp Clik on an unreleased project, One Nation that would have refuted talk of a cross-coastal rap war.
2Pac looms as a mythological anti-hero
It’s hard to claim that 2Pac is misunderstood. His life and unsolved murder on September 7, 1996, has generated countless books, true-crime exposes, reminisces by former friends, colleagues and antagonists, and documentary films. Soon, if his estate has its way, there will be a Hollywood movie on par with last year’s N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton.
2Pac looms over hip-hop like a mythological anti-hero, with countless artists seemingly molded out of his tattooed visage, from Ja Rule to Lil Wayne. There is no lack of interpretations and theories surrounding his work — attempts to make sense of his complex public persona to better understand his music.
The Sonic Evolution of ‘All Eyez on Me’
The album emerged from a series of recording sessions 2Pac held after his release from prison. It’s reflective of how West Coast producers evolved from the crate-digging ethos that defined rap beats in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and moved toward live musicianship.
However, these producers didn’t stop incorporating old records into their beats; instead, they replayed those sounds in a process called interpolation. For example, “All About U,” co-produced by Johnny ‘J’ Rosado and 2Pac, centers on a funky bass rhythm inspired by Cameo’s “Candy,” with some sweet-sounding keyboard tones thrown on top.
When 2Pac raps about violence, he doesn’t do it from the perspective of a wildin’ street kid — he’s a boss who scrapped his way to fortune and left the ghetto
On “Ambitionz as a Ridah,” Daz Dillinger plays ominous keyboard notes over a hard 808 drum break taken from Joeski Love’s novelty rap “Pee-Wee’s Dance.” While samples remained a prominent aspect of the East Coast sound, on the West they were used as subtle building blocks for G-funk.
However, by 1996 the G-funk sound had evolved since albums like DJ Quik’s Quik is the Name and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic pioneered it. Thematically, it began as a soundtrack for hugging the block and curb servin’. Now it was the sound of dancing in the club where, as Snoop Dogg and 2Pac say on their collaboration, it ain’t “Nuthin’ But a Gangsta Party.”
When 2Pac raps about the threat of violence, he doesn’t do it from the perspective of a wildin’ street kid with nothing to lose. He’s a boss who scrapped his way to a fortune and moved out of the ghetto, and he’ll protect his new lifestyle at all costs.
“So many battlefield scars while driven in plush cars/This life as a rap star is nothing without guard,” he raps on “Ambitionz as a Ridah,” noting how he has to guard himself. All Eyez on Me balances between those two poles of celebrating the fruits of hard labor, and zealously eyeing your enemies.
Anyone who has tossed back beers at a frat house, and witnessed bros grinding on women while delivering hard elbows to dudes they don’t like, knows that the gangsta party concept isn’t limited by race.
As a vocalist, 2Pac conveyed thuggish belligerence, gleeful enthusiasm, and depressive hopelessness
2Pac often took pictures that revealed his naked, muscular torso, and defined him as a masculine ideal. Sometimes, his macho attitude resulted in unrepentantly cruel songs like, “Wonder Why They Call U Bitch.”
While casual misogyny runs throughout rap music in general, few were as nakedly honest about their feelings as 2Pac. He refrained from tongue-twisting lyrical metaphors, and spoke plainly and directly. When he tells a conquest that she has to leave his hotel room on “Check Out Time,” he doesn’t try to soften his relationship with the other sex.
As a vocalist, 2Pac conveyed thuggish belligerence, gleeful enthusiasm, and depressive hopelessness.
For “I Ain’t Mad at ‘Cha,” which builds around an interpolation of DeBarge’s “A Dream,” he raps from the perspective of a man who forgives his friends and lovers’ mistakes with resignation. Memorably, its video depicted him in heaven; when it premiered soon after he was murdered, many speculated that he knew he would die soon, including his mother Afeni Shakur.
That seems improbable, though. 2Pac was a talented artist, but he wasn’t a prophet. He was only a man.
Fugees: Battle Raps and Poetry on *The Score*
Waxing nostalgic on the 20th anniversary of The Score by the Fugees, Lauryn Hill’s “How Many Mics” rap is timely: “Seasons change, mad things rearrange.” And while two decades have passed since its release amidst shifting values in human rights, revolutions in gay rights, a pendulum swing of liberal to conservative politics and the globalizing Internet, The Score remains an unrivaled time capsule opus of New York hip-hop.
Fugees had something to say — and it was incendiary
It’s not clear if The Score’s depth can be understood by those unacquainted with the battle of corporate interests, political divisiveness, and corpulent economic bluster of the late ‘90s.
Within the United States, divisions were vast in mentality, especially within the music industry. Digital distribution wasn’t happening. There were no apps. There was no Facebook. Behemoth, bureaucratic music labels maintained a vice grip by exploiting artists and wielding legalese-filled contracts with nebulous words like whereas. Suited executives met in swank boardrooms and predicated sales based on image, pretty faces and staid formulas. Billboards said more than lyrics.
Abroad, Chechens captured Russians, the United Nations charged Bosnian Muslims and Croats with war crimes, Iraqis struck a Kurdish group (to which the U.S. responded by attacking Iraq), and the United Nations distributed food and supplies to more than 1 million Hutu refugees in Zaire following ethnic violence.
So, refugees were real. Strife was real. And often, pop and hip-hop culture weren’t mirroring much besides the pretty faces of blonde pop starlets and formulaic boy bands. Fugees, while they were an attractive assemblage, were not trading on vanity. They had something to say — and it was incendiary. Potent, poetic rhymes were delivered in spitting rage and rolling cadence.
It’s a shame that no follow-up to The Score surfaced in the last 20 years
The Score’s female-fronted battle raps, political skewering of the porcine Republican Newt Gingrich, and shout-outs to cowboys, pirates, blunts, Michael Jackson, Melle Mel, Al Capone and Buffalo Bill were pop culture ephemera drawn from the cauldron that is New York. And the album is a luminary work of producer Jerry Wonder, featuring artists KRS-One, Salaam Remi, Outsidaz, Akon and John Forte. Deft beats backed tasteful samples from The Delfonics and even Enya. Instrumentation and bass were spare, but perfectly arranged: each track breathed. And some breathed fire.
Ensuing years haven’t been kind to members of the Fugees. Wyclef Jean publicly urged Hill to get mental help and put out a bloodless track with a confounding collaboration choice ofBrian Harvey. Rumors percolated throughout the years — Lauryn Hill was crazy, had six kids but was selfish, broke hearts, canceled performances. In other gossip fodder, she spent three months in jail for tax evasion, canceled tours, failed to appear at events due to mysterious health problems, and amassed lawsuits over songwriting credits.
It’s a shame that no follow-up to The Score surfaced in the last 20 years. And yet, the album remains a unicorn, a shred of leprechaun rainbow, elusive fairy dust, moonbeam magic; an effervescent capsule of hip-hop history. It remains timely while being wholly of its era, and far-reaching.
–Sara Jayne Crow