2Pac’s Pivotal Classic Me Against The World Turns 20 Years Old (Food For Thought)
20 years ago today (March 14, 1995), Tupac Shakur’s Me Against The World was released, and with it came the rapper’s most introspective work of his career. Released during a time of exceptional turmoil for 2Pac, the album signaled a musical changing of the guards, post-Thug Life and pre-Death Row, that manifested itself as an exploration of the anxiety germane to the legal and personal issues enveloping him at the time. After being accused of sexual assault in late 1993, ‘Pac was the victim of an attempted murder the following year (both incidents transpiring in New York City), experiences which shaped the feeling and sound of Me Against The World, the first solo album he released in over two years.
Earning conspicuous accolades like being the first artist to debut an album at the top of the Billboard 200 while in prison, Tupac managed to be omnipresent during the album’s release despite (or perhaps bolstered by) being locked away. In an interview included within the 2003 book Tupac: Resurrection 1971–1996, ‘Pac was proud of the fact that the album had surpassed Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits in sales, a tremendous achievement for a Black artist making music deliberately for the hood and particularly poignant considering Springsteen’s international super-stardom and 22-year foothold in music. About Me Against The World, ‘Pac goes on to say, “it was like a Blues record. It was down-home. It was all my fears, all the things I just couldn’t sleep about.” That paranoia, whether brought on by internal or external stimuli, is a dominating force in nearly every track, but also present are moments of nostalgia, sensitivity, and optimism that elevate the album to more than just a one-dimensional piece of work.
The album’s intro, a nearly two-minute compilation of soundbites from various news segments, serves as a backdrop for the forthcoming content. Reporters discuss the incidents around his 1994 legal issues, as if to remind listeners of the extenuating circumstances under which he recorded the album. In a stellar example of the re-purposing of others’ work, a concept upon which Hip-Hop is based, the album’s first song begins with an altered William Shakespeare quote. Adapted from Julius Caesar, a story exploring the familiar trope of a man being brought down by his own comrades (“I no longer trust my homies,
them phonies tried to do me”), the quote bellows “a coward dies a thousand deaths, a soldier dies but once.” Tupac often included warnings about trusting others, especially the ones who claim to be your supporters, so it’s fitting that of all Shakespeare’s plays, it is Julius Caesar that is alluded to at the top of a song titled “If I Die 2Nite.”
Tracks like “So Many Tears,” “Lord Knows,” “Death Around the Corner,” and the title track deal directly with suicidal thoughts and symptoms of depression in ways that make Tupac extremely vulnerable and emotionally exposed. Lines like “now I’m lost and I’m weary, so many tears / I’m suicidal, so don’t stand near me,” “if I wasn’t high, I’d probably try to blow my brains out,” “Am I paranoid? Tell me the truth / I’m out the window with my AK, ready to shoot,” and “the question is will I live? No one in the world loves me” are exemplary of Tupac’s conscious effort to externalize the internal in ways he hadn’t before. No doubt a result of the hardships he was navigating throughout the recording process, what ostensibly would make him appear weak or “soft” in fact fortified him into not just another “thug” rapper, but a man capable of reflection on par with the greatest Blues musicians.
In February 1995, Heads all over the world could be found listening to “Dear Mama,” an ode to motherhood and the lead single from the album. Released on February 21, just one week after ‘Pac began his nine-month prison sentence, the song has become Hip-Hop’s most enduring homage to mothers and, by extension, women. In a tinge of unfortunate irony, Shakur was locked up for the alleged sexual assault of a woman, an irony compounded by “Can U Get Away,” a track depicting ‘Pac as a man attempting to convince a woman to leave an abusive relationship. The importance of those two tracks when discussing the vitriolic misogyny far too common in Rap music from that era cannot be overstated. In the former, Tupac made it acceptable for a “thug” to openly love his mother and in the latter, he publicly disapproved of domestic abuse. It isn’t until “Fuck the World” that he seems to directly address the allegations against him, albeit fleetingly in only one lyric (“Haha, what you say? Who you callin’ rapist? Ain’t that a bitch”). Whether or not this was intentional, there is a level of maturity inherent in choosing not to pen a track devoted to the woman who, according to him, wrongly accused him of a crime that seemed antithetical to his views on women, at least those on Me Against The World.
Although not known at the time, Me Against The World would prove to be a harbinger of Tupac’s eventual demise. The final album released before his signing to Death Row Records, it remains a crystallized specimen of unadulterated Tupac, before the influence of Suge Knight and his next home’s sound and reputation. In a calculated move by the Death Row CEO, Knight offered to pay ‘Pac’s $1.4 million bail in exchange for signing a three-album contract with his label. For many, that move is the definitive junction in time when the rapper signed his death warrant, for it was his relationship with Death Row which set the stage for the forthcoming (and some say overtly orchestrated) East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry in Rap music.
Two decades later, as we prepare ourselves for next year’s twentieth anniversary of his death, Me Against The World holds up, for many, as the greatest album of his career. Although still replete with the violence that litters his entire discography, the album can, in many ways, be seen as his last album, for never again would Tupac explore the genesis of his pain as cohesively and completely. Nevertheless, the year and half of life he had remaining after March 14, 1995 left an indelible impression on the Culture and despite the tremendous sense of loss since his passing, we have albums like this one that remind us “a real motherfucker will pick the time he goes.”
Amanda Mester is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @CanEye_KickIt