Somewhere, whether in the afterlife or in the midst of planning his much fabled return to public life, Tupac Shakur is groaning emphatically and shaking his head. Nah, we all know he’s dead–gunned down in Las Vegas amid a torrent of gunfire in 1996, to be briefly reconfigured as a hologram that performed alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella 2012. That aside, the latest incarnation of Tupac’s posthumous celebrity is a musical, Holler if Ya Hear Me, and it’s a dreadful affair we see narrated to the tune of Tupac’s most influential songs.
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The play, now at Palace Theater, is directed by Kenny Leon, a Tony winner this year for A Raisin in the Sun, and tells the story of inner-city youth who struggle with glaring poverty, gang warfare and a culture of masculinity and bravado. It’s a story with a weak, meandering plot that revolves around the death of a beloved neighborhood fixture named Benny. When Benny dies, his brother Vertus and his friends prepare to exact revenge upon Benny’s killers. They consult John, a recently released ex-convict to help them, but the newly formed gang is persuaded to put down their guns by friends and family who’ve seen an endless amount of carnage in their lives.
Many holes are set deeply within this story–we don’t really know anything about Benny or his killers or why he was killed, but there isn’t really much to be gleaned from the actual killing itself. The overall moral of the play is easy enough to understand and worthwhile enough to advocate–in the hood, senseless killings breed other senseless killings, and this culture of bloodshed is something that needs to be stopped.
However, Holler if Ya Hear Me strays from expounding on broader themes of poverty and inner-city gang life, largely because of the music that drives its narrative. Tupac’s poetry is salient and captivating, if not often profound. He told stories of struggle, stupidity, arrogance, and systematic oppression. He rapped with a certain trademark cockiness and with a level of street-smart wisdom that made his aura hard to ignore. His lyrics, even if stumbled through by a cast who’ve simply memorized them for performance, illicit goosebumps and real trepidation, anger and hope.
That said, it’s unsurprising that the best part of the play is the musical numbers, even if they do tend to overshadow and obscure the hollow plot. Even if the play’s narrative is cliche and undeveloped, the performers do bring a certain level of vocal talent to the field, and songs are delivered with real prowess and honesty. Still, some songs seem as if they’ve been stripped directly from youth center slam-poetry competitions, and others don’t even make much sense in the context of particular scenes. For example, when the cast breaks out into “California Love,” amid reference to a vague theme about a character’s plans for moving out west, the rendition seems to come out of nowhere, leaving the audience blindsided with confusion amid the loud noise blaring from the speakers.
Holler if Ya Hear Me uses Tupac Shakur’s songs to prove a point about inner-city life that we’d already learned from Tupac’s music years ago. It’s a worthwhile gesture to pay tribute to one of rap’s most brilliant lyricists in the form of a musical, but the play tends to bastardize Tupac’s music in a way that reminds us how much better it is to actually listen to a Tupac record, instead of hearing his songs rapped through other lips.