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Ambitionz: 2Pac, YG, and Rap Expectations

A new album, a new movie, and a new Chance raise an old question

Getty Images
Getty Images

Hip-hop has entered middle age, and the results are about what you’d expect. Snoop Dogg runs a youth football league. Ice Cube plays a grumpy dad in movies. Dr. Dre lifts weights. It’s fun to watch once-angry icons get clowned on reality television. It’s also kind of depressing. Art about rap is tracing a similar arc: we had Juice, and now we have All Eyez on Me.

The trailer for that long-promised Tupac Shakur biopic appeared yesterday. The film follows 2009’s Biggie feature Notorious and last year’s N.W.A blockbuster Straight Outta Compton, each of which altered the Musical Biopic framework just enough to accommodate boom-bap soundtracks. Which is to say, not that much. The signposts don’t change, whether the man-in-black in question is Johnny Cash or Ice Cube: Childhood formative moments, scenes of raucous triumph and excess, a descent into despair (or a further ascent into headphone moguldom). And while it’s risky to judge a movie on nothing more than a teaser, All Eyez seems a good bet to follow roughly the same path.

That it’s on that path at all is an upset. Morgan Creek Productions announced the movie back in 2011, with Antoine Fuqua attached to direct. In 2014, the project was shifted to Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, who put in a year of work before passing it off to Carl Franklin. Franklin lasted less than a year; music video director Benny Boom grabbed the baton, cast staggering Tupac-a-like Demetrius Shipp Jr., and managed to get the damn thing made. (Salute, Benny.)

Maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe All Eyez on Me will be great! Tupac makes for a glorious movie subject (if the second best in his own family), and Benny Boom directed the video for “Hard in da Paint.” And it’s undeniably a marker of progress that this movie can get made at all — that it wasn’t abandoned in a haze of IMDb rumors, half-apologies, and murmurs about “demographics” and “overseas gross.” But if it’s good, it seems likely that it’ll be good in the cramped, overly faithful way that all musical biopics are. And even then, the teaser strikes me as symptomatic of a larger question, one that hip-hop keeps asking itself as the genre ages into its crotchety forties: how do you repackage your radical history for a mass audience without losing what made it so radical in the first place?

Chance the Rapper has been asking that question for a while now. Yesterday brought something of an answer: the Recording Academy announced rules changes that make streaming-only music eligible to win Grammy awards. Back in February, Chance’s plea for eligibility came screaming across Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”; now, his Apple Music–backed Coloring Book has a real shot.

From one angle, Chance’s Grammy thirst feels misplaced. He’s so blisteringly talented, so generationally specific, so earnest and unusual and socially-minded that a Grammy seems beneath him. Chance racked up a zillion streams. Chance managed to retain an aura of anti-label communitarianism while partnering with a massive tech company. Fuck a Grammy!

Kanye, too, has griped about the Grammys’ ignorance-turned-irrelevance, and for the longest time it felt like merely another of Ye’s unhinged rants. But the Grammys count: They’re the music industry’s highest professional honor, and the Recording Academy seems hell-bent on outperforming its ignorance and entrenched racism each passing year. So, sure, Chance will go on to win bigger and better victories than Best Rap Album. But institutional support matters — it casts a halo on its recipients, and that trickles down.

Alternatively: it lets you grow up to be the kind of person who becomes the subject of a boring, conservative film. And sometimes you lose to Macklemore.

Still Brazy, the second album from L.A. king YG, is out today. (It’s been streaming on Apple Music since Wednesday.) It’s a great revivalist document of West Coast rap: street-level yarns drape over skeletal, stressed-out G-Funk reductions. I want to listen to it in a convertible.

Still Brazy looks backward while moving forward; it bumps as it preaches (without being preachy). Still Brazy updates “Fuck tha Police”–level urgency for our dark political moment, and it moves with such ease from “I was there” narratives to coruscating anti-cop ragers that reviews praising its “widescreen” “tales” are all but guaranteed.

YG isn’t after a Grammy, even if this album — biting, bitten — is worthy of one. He’s more interested in making songs that are true to his moment, and his history. Kanye and Chance do this, too; if Still Brazy and The Life of Pablo and Coloring Book don’t win Grammys, it’ll be because these albums are leaps and bounds ahead of what Grammy voters think hip-hop can do.

So what will a Tupac movie look like? Will it get Straight Outta Compton’s major league sheen of legitimacy? Who will be Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s Paul Giamatti?

Better question: Why does a Tupac movie need a Paul Giamatti at all?

It’s possible to look at All Eyez on Me and see the product of middle-aged rap conservatism. It’s also possible to see something different: a small movie, weird and spiky. An alternate timeline. Maybe John Singleton bailing for Benny Boom is a good thing; maybe All Eyez on Me is Belly, but about Tupac. Maybe it’s a movie about hip-hop that doesn’t insist on asking, “Bars, tho?” Maybe it’s a movie about rap made by someone who isn’t scared of Young Thug. Maybe it’s as radical as its subject, as uncompromising as Kanye, as self-possessed as Chance. Let’s give YG first crack at the script.