Revisiting Tupac Shakur's fourth studio album 20 years later.
It’s an incredible feat to create a great double album. It’s increasingly difficult in hip hop, where the music is typically not too time consuming. It’s one thing for Pink Floyd to eclipse the single-disc duration, but when Tupac Shakur did it on All Eyez on Me it essentially did the impossible by packaging an hour and a half of West Coast gangster rap for mainstream consumption.
Despite clocking twenty-seven tracks, All Eyez on Me doesn’t waste time with intros and outros and interludes and skits, like so many rap albums do. Instead, Tupac and executive producer Suge Knight allowed the record to speak with music. In the case of this album, the music sort of perfected the West Coast/Death Row sound by employing an all-star cast of producers like Daz Dillinger, Johnny “J,” Dr. Dre, Rasheed, and more.
The production relied on the sounds of vintage G-Funk, complete with funky basslines, quirky synth lines and vocoder hooks. That sound was blended in with the more melodic style of hip hop that was poppin’ at the time through artists like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The sheer amount of samples cleared on the record is impressive in itself. The credits contain huge names like Kool & the Gang, Funkadelic, Bobby Caldwell, The O’Jays, Prince, Quincy Jones, and Grandmaster Flash are just some of the artists whose music helped to shape the sound of All Eyez on Me.
Without these classic samples, it would be impossible to imagine that the record would have the same impact it did. Take “Heartz of Men” for example. DJ Quik used samples from Prince, Richard Pryor, Fred Wesley & The Horny Horns, and The Detroit Emeralds, just on that track. That’s a lot of legal red-tape to get through to release a track, but when you listen to Tupac spit over that funky beat, it was obviously all well worth it.
On “Shorty Wanna Be A Thug,” you’ll hear the Hank Crawford sample that Kanye made even more famous on “Drive Slow.” “Life Goes On” used a sample from The O’Jay’s “Brandy” to pull on your heartstrings. “All About U” uses a Cameo bit to keep it extra upbeat. “Thug Passion” uses elements of the classic “Computer Love” by Zapp & Roger to recreate those funky, retro vibes. “Picture Me Rollin” uses some Kool & the Gang by mining elements of “Winter Sadness” to recreate a wild, new track. So on and so forth, All Eyez on Me is a prime example of the reinterpretation of the prior generation’s music in hip hop.
Death Row wasn’t shy about shelling’ dough out for features either, as Snoop Doggy Dogg, Nat Dogg, Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, Method Man, Redman, K-Ci & JoJo, George Clinton, Dr. Dre, E-40, and more all appear on the album. Most of the album’s tracks contain a feature, which can be troublesome for certain artists, but Tupac’s distinctive growl stays at the forefront for the duration of Eyez. Some of the more stellar stand-outs would be Nate Dogg’s double-feature on tracks #2 and #3, including the monster hook her laid on “All About U.” Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, Method Man, and Redman combined to bring an East Coast cypher vibe to “Got My Mind Made Up,” and the track remains unmentioned amidst conversations of the East/West beef; it wasn’t all hostility between the two scenes.
On the second disc, there are a handful of fairly unknown names that are given spotlight, like Big Syke, Napolean, D-Shot, C-Bo, B-Legit, and Nanci Fletcher. Tupac was always rooting for the underdog, and one can’t help but to wonder if these features were in effort to boost the stock of some struggling artists. Amongst those names, there’s also George Clinton holding it down on “Can’t C Me.” It’s another example of Clinton’s hip hop lineage as he croons over the classic G-Funk sound.
Despite a handful of great verses, and even more relatively forgettable ones, no one really outshined Tupac on this album. All Eyez on Me is the magnum opus in a discography that remains one of the most impressive bodies of work in rap’s history. Pac’s ability to craft a poetic flow over a wide variety of topics has always been what he’s best at, and with twenty-seven tracks, he dives into sex, love, friendship, gang life, legal troubles, money, street struggles, etc. He really gets it all off his chest, like he was building it up in jail before Suge bailed him out. He even says at the beginning of “Heartz of Men,” “Hey Suge, what I tell you, nigga? When I come out of jail, what was I gonna do? I was gonna start diggin' into these niggas' chest, right? Watch this…” That’s just what he did.
On “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” Tupac details a strained friendship in a way that anyone could relate to. “We used to be like distant cousins / Fightin', playin' dozens, whole neighborhood buzzin',” he starts his second verse with, before diving into the jealousy felt by the other side in the third verse. Gaining success and getting out of the ghetto can come with a backlash, as demonstrated in a number of rap tracks, but 2Pac’s craft is second to none on the subject.
With “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” Tupac does what every lawyer would urge him NOT to do by speaking on his legal troubles on wax. Along with Snoop Dogg, who was in the same rocky boat as Pac was, the two detail their struggles with the system. “Tradin’ War Stories” compares gang/street life to the life of a soldier, something Tupac would touch on in his posthumous work. It’s a compelling listen that enlists his fellow Outlawz for some great features.
“Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” is one of the more controversial tracks on the record, making the statement that a lack of self-respect by women leads to a lack of respect by men. The taboo content can be mistaken as misogyny, but the message is more likely meant to empower women to respect themselves. Tupac paints the picture of a woman who is up to no good: gold-diggin’, partying, and having tons of sex for all the wrong reasons. She ends up dying of HIV in the end, but the more important lines come at the end of the first verse, when Tupac provides an alternative lifestyle to the one the subject is living:
“Keep your mind on your money, enroll in school
And as the years pass by, you can show them fools
But you ain't trying to hear me cause you're stuck
You're headin' for the bathroom 'bout to get tossed up
Still looking for a rich man, you dug a ditch
Got your legs up trying to get rich
I love you like a sister, but you need to switch
And that's why they called you bitch”
In 2016, Tupac’s influence can still be felt. As the West Coast enjoys a renaissance, it’s a fitting time for All Eyez on Me to turn twenty years young. Many of the album’s tracks still sound as fresh as anything coming out today. It’s a shame that we can’t see Tupac play an OG role alongside the likes of Kendrick, The Game, and Vince Staples, but we’re forever grateful for the body of work he left behind. He’s released more albums after death than he did while on this earth, which is a testament to his work ethic. This double album, one of hip hop’s very very best, is a legendary body of art from one of the biggest legends to ever bless the game.