Why Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me” Remains The First & Last Flawed Classic Album

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Twenty years ago today (February 13, 1996), Tupac Shakur released what many would come to consider his magnum opus in All Eyez On Me. A Death Row Records double-album, the lone project ‘Pac released at the label before his death is a sprawling ensemble of a man on a vendetta. And while the beats and the slang may appear antiquated, there are aspects of All Eyez that proved to be two decades ahead of their time.

In early 1996, Death Row did not have a website. Plausibly, Tupac never had an email address in his life. There was no social media (at least as we know it)—just artists using media cameras and reporters, accordingly. However, like the Kanye West album the universe is currently waiting for, ‘Pac made music matter in real-time before the millennial term ever existed. Tha Outlawz front man knew how to expertly steer the wheels of fame—and that was never more true than in the last year of his life. Exactly one year to the day after he entered Clinton Correctional Facility, All Eyez released. To the system, his plaintiffs, and all he perceived as wronging him, Tupac demanded the last word over-top a double album.

After spitting at news cameras, handing $100 bills to homeless New Yorkers, and getting shot while on trial for sexual assault, only Shakur could find a way to raise the stakes. When ‘Pac exited Clinton Correctional Facility to step onto a private jet with Suge Knight, lawyer David Kenner, and Thug Life comrade Big Syke, he was grabbing the spotlight with both hands—and refusing to let go. Tupac would record his next album in a reported 14 days—many of which were ideas that began on prison paper. Shakur rapped these verses like they had been festering inside him—revelations conjured during a jail sentence he did not believe he deserved. The distance between the page and the microphone seemed especially small with Shakur on All Eyez On Me. The album may not be his finest songwriting, but it stands as some of his most dominant rapping. The music speaks for itself. He delivered some of his verses with breathless urgency (“Can’t C Me”), and in other places, seemingly refused revision. In the all knowing ‘Pac way, the MC seemed to grasp that he might not make it to 1997.

With sessions reportedly transpiring simultaneously, ‘Pac would call upon peers from across the industry to fill in the blanks. This ranged from Rappin’ 4-Tay (who ‘Pac reportedly listened to while in prison) to homies Method Man, and Redman (who was famously photographed with Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. in New York City three years prior). Tupac’s albums had always been about fellowship, but this album was overflowing with support. Previously, Death Row rarely invited outsiders to its artist albums. Tupac aimed to show a unified front, and perhaps in his own way—defy the image that he was responsible for fracturing the coasts. Decades before artists used features as a way to market albums while showing influence, Tupac’s post-prison album was nothin’ but a gangsta party. The guests certainly did not bask in hype. From C-Bo to CPO, ‘Pac simply called upon his own idea of “real ones”—wanting them to be heard in this orchestrated statement album.

To many lay-listeners, All Eyez is a thematic container that simply includes hits “California Love,” “All About U,” and “How Do You Want It.” These are the heavily-produced records that found ‘Pac showing up late to the Death Row big-top circus tent, and pushing it over the top. Shakur, who had previously found success making thoughtful records about feminism, teen pregnancy, lust, and his own mother suddenly seemed less concerned with sensitivity. Conversely, the longtime Interscope Records-backed MC who had angrily busted at police, justified terror, and mourned the dead on past LPs was suddenly channeling that brute rage towards his specific foes. These steps are the very things that make some hold ‘Pac’s three solo and one group album prior on a higher pedestal. Those albums have moving moments of music—thanks to people like Easy Mo Bee, Warren G, and Shock G. However, on All Eyez, Shakur received songs that featured the attention his rapping deserved.

The album version of “California Love” is among the most detailed Dr. Dre productions ever released. One of Andre Young’s final acts at Death Row, the song features accents that are plugged and pulled throughout the song—three samples arranged simultaneously—and a remix version that chased the original in appeal and airplay. Said to be an Ice Cube and Dre Helter Skelter track originally, the stylized anthem was the commercial welcome home Tupac needed. Similarly, DJ Quik, who had cultivated a number of fledgling artists in his career (Hi-C, Penthouse Players Clique, AMG, Suga Free) presented ‘Pac with “Heartz Of Men.” The song was a funky, scratch-tinged song that sounded as polished as anything David Blake made that side of The Black Album. ‘Pac snatched the mic and used his penetrating delivery to pound his chest and rally-cry against cowards. ‘Pac was not naming names on All Eyez. While his later 1996 recordings were barrages of diatribe and defamation, he cleverly made his beefs universal on this double LP. Even after the tragedies that followed in the next 13 months, this is a staple album for the disenfranchised, the betrayed, and the wounded. ‘Pac was the bully and the victim, and could be a pillar to millions on both sides of that table.

While Suge Knight typically gets the credit, if anybody knew that beef could be packaged, it was Dr. Dre. Still the label president at the time Tupac was signed, Dre and his N.W.A. cohorts had lampooned Ice Cube for leaving just five years earlier. Efil4zaggin may have been one of Dre’s pivots to his Chronic-era production, but thematically, there was no more dominant lyrical premise than knocking the crew’s former kin. The move sold records, for Cube and for N.W.A. By The Chronic, Dre had turned his sights on Eazy-E, having left Ruthless Records and N.W.A. The producer/rapper would also get digs in on Luke Skyywalker and Tim Dog (Dre would also carry on this tradition with 50 Cent and Eminem in the 2000s). By 1996, almost every Death Row album had that built-in controversy of condemning at least one Rap peer. Tupac’s fourth solo set would have a surplus of this controversy. Everything that could possibly sell an album was attached to All Eyez. At a time when MTV News was every 0:50 on the hour, Tupac Shakur was a real-time juggernaut—living up to his raps, and using his life to write the verses he bellowed into the microphone. ‘Pac was clearly not just fighting his own battles—from brandishing a coast he had only lived part of his life, to flaunting his chain on the cover, the MC was serving his label constituents in step with his own cause.

Whether it’s the un-mailed letter-writing found in “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” or the worrisome prayers of “Life Goes On,” Tupac brought his sensitivity with him—in new envelopes. Although the performance artist was shrouded in the company of Compton M.O.B. Piru and Rolling 20s Crip gangsters, as well as Madonna, Sting, and Quincy Jones’ family, he still spoke about the greater social ills. Inside All Eyez… there is that same solemn look that appears in the BMW photograph taken just moments before Tupac’s fatal ambush. While ‘Pac reveled in the might, comraderie, and vengeance, there are aspects of this album that seem like a man apart. Although ‘Pac was writing about prison in “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” perhaps the cells, the busters, and the unhappiness applied to the sunshine, intoxication, and pressures of fame.

All Eyez On Me is 1990s decadence blended with timeless conviction. Seven months before he died, ‘Pac’s fourth solo set was a living will—to basically every artist with whom he worked. As Shakur used the heartier album tracks to react to the world as he saw it (and demand his place in it), he guaranteed career upticks for Tha Outlawz, Danny Boy, C-Bo, and even Bay veteran Richie Rich. This album made Johnny J a sonic visionary—translating ‘Pac’s ideas into melodic, grabbing music that complemented him expertly.  Shakur raised the volume for Death Row to the point where Dr. Dre would make a quiet exit a month later, as The Chronic gave way to Thug Passion on ice.

Artistically, Shakur hastily pushed through an album to get his thoughts and feelings out without reluctance. At a time when albums were turned in months ahead of release, ‘Pac wanted to get lost in the moment, and release it. And he did. The album is not perfect. Most ‘Pac fans would agree that if the best of both discs were combined into one, it would be. However, All Eyez On Me merges Shakur’s anger with his pride. The album is a statement to the wronged underdog showing up later, with a menacing pack. If Rap music in the mid-1990s needed drama, Tupac piled on the plot-lines. While other Shakur albums contain the lyrics that land in college course packets and inked on bodies, this is the album that is most associated with the fallen MC. It has the hits, the pageantry, and the succinct themes that even lay listeners know. As the title foresaw, the album was, indeed, all of us watching one of pop culture’s most brilliant stars soaring across the fame sky, dangerously approaching the sun.

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