“I’m tired as hell.”
About 20 minutes into Tupac Live, a collection cobbled together from concerts mounted shortly before the rapper’s murder in 1996, Tupac admits that he hasn’t rehearsed for this evening’s show.
He just got off a plane and went straight to the club, so here he is, playing the part of himself before a shrieking crowd that sounds more interested in his eyelashes, or lips, or arms, or bald head, than the quality of the show. That’s just as well, because, like most live rap recordings, Tupac Live (Death Row) sounds awful. He cuts songs off a minute and a half in, and the DJ—or more properly, the guy handling the DAT player—fumbles with the selections, clicking through five or six selections before he lands on the one Pac wants. Some tracks overpower the rapper; others dip out of the mix altogether.
At this point, there is almost no justification for a new Tupac release, unless it features that one song wherein Pac not only winks about his own faked death, but also drops science about the 2007 World Series, Nick and Jessica, the cure for cancer, the 9/11 Commission, and James McGreevey. Each posthumous release means a messier dogpile. Nevertheless, there’s something deeply alluring about Tupac Live. A lot of it is extra-textual. One tires just thinking about Tupac’s last years: he went to jail, and came out a lot crazier for it; he triangulated all kinds of arcane conspiracies, then fell punch-drunk tired from swinging at every real or imagined rival in sight.
All of this comes through on Tupac Live even if his musicality doesn’t. He still snaps at the East Coast with a rich fury: “They tried to ban this song. They don’t want to play my song, but they want to play fat boy all goddamn day.” He sounds equally believable being bad (“Troublesome”) and speaking good (“Never Call You Bitch Again”). The big hit “How Do U Want It” sounds weirder than ever. It was built as a smooth, kinky come-on, but Tupac re-routes its energies midway. By now he is hoarse, choking on his gruff, shouted words. The crowd roars, as always.
It almost sounds quaint: “Bill Clinton and Mr. Bob Dole, you’re too old to understand the way the story is told.” Tupac grew up in the 1980s under Reagan and alongside crack, which, if you want to pretend his life made sense, might explain the starkness of his vision. He became a star during the trickle-down culture wars, when Dan Quayle and Tipper Gore and C. Delores Tucker deemed hip-hop a threat to national security. (Remember when hip-hop’s greatest enemy was censorship?) Clinton and Dole are the same to him. They are the establishment, and he can’t imagine being part of it. They’re still the same today, sure, but nowadays there is something resembling a choice, as Jadakiss and Russell Simmons and Jay-Z want you to know. Today, Bill Clinton seems dead cool and Capitol Hill tolerates, sometimes even welcomes, hip-hop.
It is one of the many moments of Tupac Live that reminds you that you are listening to a dead man; his multi-directional anger—against women, cops, politics, foes—tethers Tupac Live to a historical moment. Tupac endures because the vagueness of his character allows his music to drift from meaning to meaning; there is pride or loathing, depending on what you want to hear. Here he just seems pissed, and there are no clothing lines or label deals or fashion spreads or vanity sneakers or booze tie-ins to make him feel more powerful than he is. There is no hope: no “Vote or Die”; no club songs about doing good or resisting war; no rappers confessing they had never registered in the past but, well, things are different now. Eight years later, and staring down the barrel of four more, there is no reason to feel that way again. We’re all tired as hell.