There’s a new Tupac Shakur biopic, All Eyez on Me, in theaters on Friday. There are two high-profile 2Pac documentaries in the works, one a six-part A&E Biography series, Who Killed Tupac?, premiering June 29, plus a feature, directed by Steve McQueen. Unsurprisingly, this wave of 2Pac retrospectives comes on the heels of the box-office success of F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, in summer 2015. But this particular bout of nostalgia also comes at a point when Gen X hip-hop fandom has found cause to worry whether its two definitive martyrs — 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. — will translate to the SoundCloud generation.
Musically, rappers have moved on from the mid-1990s. Spiritually, though, hip-hop has never really moved on from 2Pac. He taught rappers how to be, and his archetype endures to this day. Just by the size of his personality and the breadth of his talent — artist, actor, activist — 2Pac greatly expanded the bounds of a rapper’s stardom. He raised the stakes. The alarm in his music owed to panic-rap forefathers such as Chuck D and KRS-One, who gave the genre a sense of militancy and political purpose, and Ice Cube, who interpreted that purpose through a haze of youthful indiscretion. But 2Pac was bigger. His ego could fill an arena. And his albums presented several different moods and facets of that ego — selfishness, righteousness, lust, love, war, and peace — with incredible dynamic range. The trick of 2Pac’s music is how forcefully it established the rapper as the center of all gravity and concern. It’s crazy how every 2Pac song is somehow the most urgent music you’ve ever heard in your life.
It’s foolish to spend too much time faulting contemporary music for whatever qualities it’s challenged or shed from previous generations. But if there’s a single, essential quality that hip-hop’s current mainstream has largely discarded, it’s 2Pac’s sense of urgency. Drake — the star of hip-hop’s latest phase — couldn’t sound any less urgent if he tried. And, overall, Drake’s massive orbit is given to narcissism and bacchanalia — with exception. There’s Run the Jewels, the mosh-rap duo whose leftist paranoia certainly suits the present moment in American politics. There’s Kendrick Lamar and YG, two Compton rappers whose music is equal parts introspection and exhortation. These are the few contemporary rappers who take 2Pac’s civil rights mission and messaging to heart.
2Pac’s persona is another matter. Countless rap stars of the past couple of decades have impersonated 2Pac, the public figure, in some form or fashion. They’ve got the posturing down pat: the self-righteousness, the fatalism in the face of persecution, the delusions of grandeur that may just happen to pan out. You see the template in DMX, who fashioned himself as a dark, bizarro Christ figure whose paranoia and access to guns made him a danger to others, not to mention himself. You see it in 50 Cent, who aped many of 2Pac’s vocal and personal idiosyncrasies, but none of his good will. You see it in Kanye West, who has framed his troubled fashion career as civil rights martyrdom. They all project a grandeur that music, alone, could hardly communicate or confine; they all brag like 2Pac, rant like 2Pac, and swear by 2Pac. They were the last generation of rappers who came up hearing 2Pac on the radio, and watching him in movie theaters, thus absorbing his lessons directly.
But some things, you learn unconsciously. Some role models, you take for granted. The latest wave of millennial rappers, as obsessed with Lil Wayne and Fall Out Boy as they are, may never learn a 2Pac record verbatim. It doesn’t really matter whether Lil Yachty can name, much less recite, five 2Pac songs; or whether Kodak Black counts him among his top five rappers of all time. They’re still walking in his aftermath, chasing his melodramatic example, and — in Kodak Black’s case — repeating some of his worst mistakes. One hopes the descendants meet far more peaceful ends than 2Pac did himself. One hopes they watch these slated 2Pac hagiographies if only to recognize, on screen, bits of themselves.