Advertisement

Tupac Shakur’s Top 20 Songs

All ears on Pac ahead of the release of All Eyez On Me

tupac-shakur-documentary
Advertisement
Advertisement

    Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.

    For the truly great artists, their art implies a thorough philosophy, and to experience their work is to see the world through their eyes. Tupac Shakur is like that, and yet at first glance he seems full of contradictions. How to reconcile a conscious rapper who is also a gangster rapper? An intellectual with a street brawler?

    He led a troubled life, and although I wish to make the case that Shakur was a great thinker, I don’t agree with many of his conclusions and decisions. He had a violent temper, and his brief career was constantly interrupted by legal troubles. Most troubling of all was his conviction for sexual assault, an episode that marked a turning point in his music.

    And yet for all that, he brought an emotionality to hip-hop that the genre hadn’t seen before, and his ideas about how the world works are always interesting even when they’re uncomfortable. His ideas can also bring joy and wonder; people don’t come in just two flavors, good or evil, and the 20 songs chosen here contain both in great quantities.

    Any list like this must be incomplete — personally, I think it’s about 12 songs too short — but I hope it captures something of his evolution, and I hope, too, that our readers will fill the comments with all the great songs that I was unable to fit. Perhaps, in this way, we’ll have a better understanding of a man who contained multitudes.

    –Wren Graves
    Contributing Writer


    20. “Trapped”

    2Pacalypse Now

    For anyone struggling to understand Shakur’s worldview, “Trapped” is the place to start. According to Shakur, poor black men are under almost unbearable pressure, from their peers (“They never talk peace in the black community/ All we know is violence”), from police (“Hands up, throw me against the wall/ Didn’t do a thing at all”), and from what he sees as society’s insufficient efforts to help (“Too many brothers daily heading for the big pen/ Niggas comin’ out worse-off than when they went in”). Shakur believes that in such a dangerous, unforgiving world, the use of violence is both rational and justified. This belief in violence and its transformative power made him a controversial figure; in 1992, Vice-President Dan Quayle used Shakur as a campaign talking point, arguing that Shakur endangered police lives by making songs like “Trapped” and “Soulja’s Story”.
    __________________________________________________________

    19. “Toss It Up”

    The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

    On September 7th, 1996, after Shakur and Suge Knight attended a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, a Death Row associate spotted a member of the Crips gang who had allegedly perpetrated a robbery against a member of Death Row earlier in the year. Shakur ordered his entourage to attack the man; Knight attacked the man himself. A few hours later, en route to a club, the car carrying Shakur and Knight was riddled with bullets. Shakur was shot twice in the chest and once in the thigh; his last words were said to a police officer, and they were, “Fuck you.”

    Two months later, Suge Knight and Death Row released the last studio album by Shakur, recorded under the pen name Makaveli, and saddled with the clunky title The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. It’s a great record, but part of what makes it great is that Tupac had retreated even further into pettiness and grudges.

    The first verse of “Toss It Up” is silky sex talk; the rest is a diss track directed at Dr. Dre, who had recently left Death Row and immediately scored a hit with guest verses on Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”. “Toss It Up” is a direct descendant of “No Diggity,” part one-upsmanship and part parody, complete with the “Hey-ya-hey-ya-hey-ya-hey-ya” altered to “Play on-play on-play on-play on.” It ends with Shakur insulting Dre’s authenticity and manhood, before taking shots at Blackstreet’s Teddy Riley as well as producer Sean Combs.

    That the song has some split-personality problems isn’t a knock against it; on the contrary, Shakur’s appeal has always been how whatever he’s thinking about winds up in his music. “Toss It Up” is great because the beat is great, and because K-Ci and Jojo make magic whenever they work with Shakur, and, perhaps more than anything else, because Shakur was feeling petty.
    __________________________________________________________

    18. “Hit ‘Em Up”

    How Do You Want It (Single)

    Since Shakur was shot outside the Quad Recording Studios (this is the shooting he survived), two men have confessed to the attack: Dexter Isaac and James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond. Neither has implicated Sean Combs or Notorious B.I.G.. Either could be lying. Regardless, Shakur told everyone who would listen that Biggie and Combs were behind the shooting. Whether Shakur believed that, I cannot say, but it certainly didn’t hurt album sales.

    This was in the middle of the overblown media maelstrom called the East-Coast West-Coast Hip Hop Rivalry, and Notorious B.I.G. responded by releasing the song, “Who Shot Ya?”. The lyrics of the song don’t seem to be about Shakur (Biggie references the victim’s daughter, and Shakur didn’t have a daughter), but the timing implied Biggie was involved. Shakur fired back with “Hit ‘Em Up”, perhaps the single most devastating diss track in all of rap history.

    “I fucked your bitch you fat motherfucker,” is how Shakur begins, and it doesn’t get more pleasant from there. It’s purposely rude and vile; Shakur sets out to humiliate Biggie and he doesn’t go for the throat, he goes for the balls. Did Shakur really have sex with Faith Evans, Notorious B.I.G.’s wife? She says it never happened. As for Biggie, on “Brooklyn’s Finest”, he joked, “If Faith had twins, she’d probably have two ‘Pacs.”

    “Hit ‘Em Up” is great storytelling, but not in the way of, say, “Brenda’s Got A Baby”; it’s great as a provocation, and for how it plays with the relationship between the rappers and their fans. Compared to “Who Shot Ya?”, “Hit ‘Em Up” takes place in an expanded narrative universe, where the stakes are higher and the plot has twists.
    __________________________________________________________

    17. “Keep Ya Head Up”

    Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z…

    Shakur dedicated this song to all black women, though Latasha Harlins in particular. In 1991, Harlins was shot in the back of the head by a store owner who claimed the 15-year-old girl was stealing a bottle of orange juice, but security footage posthumously proved Harlins innocent. With that kind of inspiration, you might expect the song to have a tragic tone, but Shakur is upbeat.

    Even as he criticizes men who beat women and abandon children, he maintains that things are going to get better, and insists that black is beautiful: “They say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice/ I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots.” He encourages those who are going through a hard time to “Keep ya head up,” and drives the point home with a sample of the The Five Stairsteps “O-o-h Child.”

    Shakur asks, “Why do we rape our women — do we hate our women?” But it has to be mentioned that this feminist anthem was released only one month before Shakur was arrested for sexual assault, a crime for which he would eventually serve nine months in jail. At his sentencing hearing, he cried while apologizing to his victim, and at the same time insisted that he hadn’t committed a crime. This is an unavoidable part of Shakur’s legacy: Shakur the hypocrite, the man who couldn’t live up to his own ideals.
    __________________________________________________________

    16. “Papa’z Song” feat: Wyked

    Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z…

    Tupac Shakur’s stepbrother Mopreme Shakur features here under the name Wyked, making “Papa’z Song” a family affair. The brothers’ had different dads who were absent for different reasons: Tupac Shakur’s father Billy Garland left when Pac was five, and didn’t get back in touch until after Pac was shot in 1994; and while Mopreme’s father (and Tupac’s stepfather) Mutulu Shakur has only been in jail since 1987, the former Black Liberation Army member had been in hiding since 1981, when he became No. 1 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for his part in robbing $1.6 million from an armored truck, as well as for the deaths of three police officers and security guards.

    “Papa’z Song” is a howl of rage against these two absent fathers specifically, as well as delinquent dads in general. Shakur is one of those rare individuals that not only takes the feelings of young people seriously, but can also serve as their voice. He channels them on “Papa’z Song”, and in his voice, kids could hear the rattling pieces of their own broken homes.
    __________________________________________________________

    15. “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted” feat. Snoop Dogg

    All Eyez On Me

    Shakur didn’t have much of a choice to join Death Row — at least, not if he wanted to get out on bail — but the arrangement worked out in at least one important respect: Death Row came pre-furnished with A-List talent. Was there a time in Shakur’s career that he traded bars with even half as much charisma as Snoop Dogg carries in a single swinging lock of hair? Shakur’s spitfire style sounds even hotter next to Snoop’s cool molasses flow. It’s all in service of a party song, but at the time, Shakur was going for a lighter feel. After everything that happened to him — the shooting and the trial — his music took on a fatalistic hedonism: Life is short and life is brutal, so find pleasure where you can.
    __________________________________________________________

    14. “Me And My Girlfriend”

    The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

    The girlfriend is a handgun, in case you thought Shakur was going soft. According to his friend Young Noble, Shakur got the idea for the concept from the Nas song, “I Gave You Power”, which is written from the perspective of a firearm. This arrived after Nas and Shakur had been feuding over Nas’ song, “The Message”, which was a diss track directed at Biggie, but which a paranoid Shakur thought had been written about himself. Shakur and Nas eventually squashed their beef two days before Shakur’s death, but by then, the verses for “Me And My Girlfriend” had been recorded, and Shakur had done what he did best: He one-upped an enemy and turned a grudge into something great.
    __________________________________________________________

    13. “So Many Tears”

    Me Against The World

    Shakur reflects on the turmoil of his early childhood, and the moment he began to feel like he belonged in the world: “Inside my mind I couldn’t find a place to rest/ Until I got that Thug Life tatted on my chest.” His mind drifts to the, “Many homies in the cemetery,” and to whether there’s a place in heaven for people like him. As Shakur tells it, he doesn’t sound very optimistic. It’s a quietly affecting song, as the great rapper worries that he went wrong, and wonders where he could’ve done right.
    __________________________________________________________

    12. “How Do You Want It”

    All Eyez On Me

    Shakur had spent his time in prison reading the morally dubious philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, the man who said, “The ends justify the means,” and “It’s better to be feared than loved.” Machiavelli had a profound effect on Shakur, and of course, the experience of being shot, standing trial, and going to jail must have affected him, too.

    The record he cut afterwards, All Eyez On Me, is largely devoid of the social commentary that had characterized his early records. He underwent a transformation by becoming more self-interested, less sympathetic, and even more obsessed with money and status. And so he branched out into pop music.

    Like most pop songs, “How Do You Want It” is about sex. Shakur approaches the subject with his typical gusto — he’s almost panting with desire. K-Ci and Jojo slide into the hook with electric cool, stealing the song while they’re at it. Coming on the heels of “California Love”, Shakur had claimed his second consecutive No. 1 song in the country.
    __________________________________________________________

    11. “To Live & Die In L.A.”

    The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

    “‘California Love’ part mothafuckin’ two/ Without gay ass Dre” is the offensive way Shakur chooses to end one of his very best songs, a slow and sweet ode to the whole great city of Los Angeles: the thugs and angels, the violence, the dreams that came true, the people in all their diversity, and Sunset Blvd. QDIII’s beat evokes Dr. Dre’s G-Funk classics, and that might have been what attracted Shakur to the track in the first place: The chance to outdo Dr. Dre at his own game. Some artists make art for the sheer pleasure of it, but Shakur doesn’t seem to be one of those, at least not at this late stage in his career. By the time he’s calling himself Makaveli, he’s exhibiting a competitive streak reminiscent of Michael Jordan, and like Jordan, the thing that gets him out of bed in the morning seems to be the chance to humiliate his enemies.
    __________________________________________________________

    10. “Dear Mama”

    Me Against The World

    Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur Davis, was a political activist and former member of the Black Panther Party. Along with 21 other Black Panthers, she was arrested and charged with a conspiracy to carry out a string of bombings in New York. She waived her right to a lawyer and defended herself in court while pregnant with Tupac. He was born shortly after his mother was acquitted.

    “Dear Mama” is Shakur’s love letter to his mother, and while it’s a chance to say, “You are appreciated,” and “Thanks,” Shakur is honest in ways that aren’t always flattering to his mom. The song begins with, “When I was young me and mama had beef/ Seventeen years old kicked out on the streets,” and winds up making public a fact that she may have preferred stay private: “And even as a crack fiend, mama/ You always was a black queen, mama.” It’s a sweet song, but the feelings are undeniably raw.
    __________________________________________________________

    9. “California Love (remix)”

    All Eyez On Me

    Shakur had grown up on the East Coast, moved to San Francisco when he was 17, and spent his career shuttling back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. It’s silly that he would represent the West Coast in an East-West feud, and it would probably never have happened if not for “California Love”. In 1995, Dr. Dre was the best producer in the world, the inventor of G-Funk, and “California Love” was his masterpiece. Built around a Roger Troutman sample, the beat features a bluesy melody and shimmering psychedelics layered over funky dance drums. Dr. Dre had planned to save this ode to California for his own album, but wound up giving it to Shakur instead. After the song became the No. 1 song in the country — Shakur’s first No. 1 — he became inexorably linked with a place he’d only lived a few years.
    __________________________________________________________

    8. “If I Die 2Nite”

    Me Against The World

    Shakur was a lifelong fan of Shakespeare, and he begins this ripper with an epigraph taken from Julius Caesar: “A coward dies a thousand deaths/ A soldier dies but one.” Shakur reimagines one of history’s most famous conquerors as Emperor of the Ghetto: slinging drugs, stocked with Glocks, swimming in women and money and all the while teetering on the edge of the grave. His flow is explosively percussive, inviting us to imagine a hail of bullets by raining down a syllabic string of P’s and K’s.
    __________________________________________________________

    7. “Me Against The World”

    Me Against The World

    On November, 30th, 1994, Shakur survived being shot five times outside the Quad Recording Studios, where Notorious B.I.G. and Sean Combs had been working on new music. The next day, he checked himself out of hospital against doctor’s orders and went to court, where he was sentenced to prison for one-and-a-half to four years for sexual assault. While the album Me Against The World wouldn’t be released until after he was behind bars, some of the recording took place during this tumultuous time in his life. The music he made is emotional and bluesy.

    The title track, “Me Against The World”, is a song of isolation and persecution — traits that would later manifest themselves as paranoia. At the time, though, Shakur thought, “There ain’t no stopppin’ me/ Constantly movin’ while making millions,” and he pauses to worry that he “Can’t reach the children ‘cause they’re illin’/ Addicted to killin’ and the appeal from the cap peelin’.” His confidence slips later in the song, and after reflecting on the dead friends he’s lost, he wonders about his own mortality. It’s sad without being dark, and we get the introspection of Shakur’s early albums with the technical mastery of his later works.
    __________________________________________________________

    6. “Picture Me Rollin”

    All Eyez On Me

    It starts off like a victory lap: the broke kid turned rich man, driving through the old neighborhood in his fancy car. But Shakur’s good mood slips as he considers his various enemies — both gangsters and feds — and then, a fear even greater than death, Shakur imagines a return to poverty. He was broke when he wrote those lyrics, and his anxiety is palpable. Compare this to some of his earlier explorations of death, like “So Many Tears”, where his tone is more meditative than afraid. For “Picture Me Rollin’”, he ends the first verse with the horrifying image of himself as a junkie for money: “I’m like a fiend that finally sees when all the dope is gone/ My nerves is wrecked, heart beatin’/ And my hands are swollen/ Thinkin’ of the G’s I’ll be holdin’; picture me rollin.”
    __________________________________________________________

    5. “Holla If Ya Hear Me”

    Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z...

    A protest song that’s also great for call-and-response in concert, “Holla If Ya Hear Me” is Shakur in a state of righteous anger. “Oh, no, we won’t turn the other cheek/ In case ya can’t see us while we burn the other week,” is a reference to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, which flared up after Rodney King, a black man, was beat to death by several white cops, with the whole shameful episode caught on camera. “Holla If Ya Hear Me” is a call to arms — “Raise up!” — and Shakur is not talking about a peaceful revolution. “Waiting for the day to let the rage free/ Still me till they kill me/ I love it when they fear me.” This is his destructive activism, the part of him that feels the system is so broken, there’s nothing to do but tear it down.
    __________________________________________________________

    4. “Ambitionz As A Ridah”

    All Eyez On Me

    When Shakur was arrested for sexual assault, he was broke — lawyers are expensive, and he’d never been much of a saver — and so he was unable to make his bail. After Death Row CEO Suge Knight covered the fees (and not coincidentally inked him to a three-record contract), Shakur went straight to the studio, where the first thing he did was record, “Ambitionz As A Ridah”. This menacing stunt track boasts an infectious beat by Daz Dillinger, and the joy is in the knotty flows. After, “Mama come rescue me I’m suicidal thinkin’ thoughts,” the way he trills, “I’m innocent so there’ll be bullets flyin’ when I’m caught,” is breathtaking. Here, Shakur is a master of his craft at the height of his powers.
    __________________________________________________________

    3. “Brenda’s Got A Baby”

    2Pacalypse Now

    Shakur’s first radio single is also his bleakest. As the video proclaims, it’s “based on a true story,” written after Shakur read a newspaper article about a 12 year-old girl who was molested by her cousin, subsequently became pregnant, gave birth, and abandoned the baby in a dumpster. Dave Hollister’s chorus appears twice, at the beginning and the end, while the middle of the song follows Brenda from age 12 until her death a short while later. This is the source of the song’s power: The chorus is quite pretty, and Shakur has structured the song so that nothing beautiful happens during Brenda’s brief life.
    __________________________________________________________

    2. “Changes”

    Greatest Hits

    The vultures circled soon after Shakur’s death, hoping to pick a few more dollars off his dead bones. Since then, five posthumous albums have been released — as many as he created in life — as well as an additional 10 compilation albums. Every verse he ever recorded and left on the cutting room floor — the half-baked flows, the cliches, the nonsense, the stuff he wasn’t proud of — everything he didn’t feel comfortable sharing with the public in life has been dragged into the open now that he’s dead. It’s shameful, and it would be worse except that the process unearthed a perfect song: “Changes”.

    “I see no changes,” is how Shakur starts the song, but he himself changed so much that when “Changes” was released it hardly sounded like him anymore. The verses were recorded back in 1992 and yet remixed and released in 1998. Except for the poppy hook by Talent (not to mention, the Bruce Hornsby sample), it sounds like one of Shakur’s early, socially conscious songs. Where would “Changes” fit among the bouncy bangers of All Eyez On Me, or the dark interiors of The Seven Day Theory? By then, he’d become even more jaded; he’d stopped expecting things to improve and stopped feeling disappointed.

    “Changes” was made when the state of the world still pissed him off, and even then he’s hardly an optimist. The most wrenching moment comes after Shakur chastises a drug dealer for selling to children. The dealer responds, “I gotta get paid!” and Shakur can only shrug, “Well hey – but that’s the way it is.”
    __________________________________________________________

    1. “Hail Mary”

    The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

    Where once he turned to The Complete Works of Shakespeare for inspiration, now Shakur turns to the only book that sells better. “Hail Mary” begins with a paraphrase of John 3:16 and then adds a follow-up: “And God said he should send his one begotten son… To lead the wild into the ways of man.” In the song, Shakur is clearly the begotten son (and he seems to have been begotten as a drug dealer this time around), but what to make of the second line? Is Shakur leading those who are wild to civilization, or is he introducing wildness into the ways of men?

    The imagery is rich and chilling. Shakur offers his flesh for the eating and ventures “Inside the solitary mind of a madman/ Screams in the dark, evil lurks..” It’s some of his most vivid writing, as well as his most bizarre.

    Every religion must have a creed, and Shakur’s is bleakly violent: “Do you wanna ride or die? La dadada la la la la?” Ride or die. Christianity is interested in sinners and saints, but for the religion of Tupac there is only predator and prey. The second part, the “la dada,” is a menacing call from the wild where language doesn’t exist.

    And this is where Shakur ended his journey. At some point along the way, his social conscience was left on the side of the road, too heavy to carry, replaced with the search for pleasure, however fleeting. Throughout his career, the one constant belief is in the transformative powers of violence, and the one conviction, that guns are heard when men and women are not. It’s a philosophy he lived by and died by.

    And look, violence transformed him from a troubled antihero to a dead legend. I don’t know if Shakur would consider it an improvement, but you can’t argue with results: the posthumous albums are a combined 11 times Platinum, and that’s the verses he didn’t think were good enough to release. That’s the power of violence, the power that Tupac Shakur told us about all along. Like it or not, he was right.

Advertisement