One of the things that music writers do to impress each other is to boast about who they’ve interviewed. I’ve never bothered entering these bragging rights showdowns. I’ll never get the interview that I most want. I’ll never get to interview Tupac.
It’s a small sorrow in the grand scheme of things. But it’s there nonetheless. And I always think about it on September 13.
There’s no rapper under the sun that’s been mythologized as much as Tupac. As the print version of XXL noted recently, Tupac has had a thriving, productive career since his murder. His ghost has sold over 73 million albums, and inspired countless books, college courses and documentary films. (Not even going to talk about all the t-shirts.) Tupac has immeasurable influence on the rap game, and on pop culture as a whole.
In part, I think it’s due to how compelling his story is. The Pac narrative weaves together so many fragments of America life and history: the Black Power movement, inner-city poverty, Reaganomics, the crack era, gang life, Hollywood, the music industry, the prisons, the cult of celebrity, the rise of rap as mainstream music, and hip-hop’s morbid fascination with death. It’s a story with a tragic ending; a story that brings into focus the pain and futility and wasted potential that violence (and poverty and racism) causes. It’s a story of spectacular loss.
But it’s not just about mythology—it’s also about a man’s life. Vibe editor Danyel Smith was quoted today on the topic of why Pac is so beloved:
Nothing that I can answer is really going to get at it, or it’s going to sound emotional and corny, but the fact of the matter is he was just a very special human being. He was the kind of heroic figure—very flawed, very passionate, very handsome, very outspoken, very talented—who comes along once in a lifetime.
Pac isn’t the greatest rapper of all time when it comes to skills. But he had the great (and rare) gift of making you feel something with his music. At the end of the day, despite his thug armor, he was unafraid to show emotion. He was unafraid to reveal his humanity—who he was as a man—with all his strengths and weaknesses.
And because of that, his music has an intimate quality to it. In spite of his superstardom. His tracks remind you of your best friend or your brother—or any of the handful of guys close enough to really let their guard down. The guys you see in every conceivable situation: pumped at the club, telling animated stories over burgers, bloody from a fight, head hung in court, crying on your couch, fixing your car, getting fed by their doting Moms, working crappy jobs, helping their friends move, clowning around. Pac is like those guys next door—you see them at their best and at their worst, and wind up loving them all the more for it.