Crack, Commerce, and Conscience


Tupac Amaru Shakur was murdered way back in 1996. Yet to hip-hop culture, its troubled hero is not really dead. Nor is his influence. The proof? The West Coast battler’s latest posthumous release, Until the End of Time, has sold a robust 1.7 million copies since March, according to SoundScan. Truth told, Shakur wasn’t a great rapper. His delivery was about as smooth as a broken brick. Yet he compensated for his artistic limitations with his use of psychology. He lived a chaotic life—he zoomed in and out of jail, got shot five times, and lived to tell about it. He made sure folks could feel him every step of the way. His paranoid musings on mortality (“Blasphemy”) and his guilt complex (“Dear Mama”) could be fascinating, and they won over a nation of aspiring thugs.

Jadakiss, the most talented member of revered Yonkers trio the LOX, was one of those self-anointed thugs touched by Tupac’s bluntness. He wants his audience to feel his gangsta love, too. Unlike Shakur and others who’ve taken Shakur’s lead, however, Jadakiss doesn’t obsess over irresponsibility or death. The 26-year-old makes the ghetto life sound more like a badge of honor than a curse on Kiss tha Game Goodbye, his outrageously good but troubling solo debut. Guns, to him, are the equivalent of gold bars: “Which gun is my favorite?/I got ’em all from the old to the latest shit,” he boasts with his reefer-scraped, menacing delivery on the chilling “Jada’s Got a Gun.” Crack comes across like a PlayStation 2; it’s what’s in demand. If you listen to him, he’s the “Bobby Womack of crack.” He’s not repentant. He’s too busy enjoying the perks. “My watch got so many rocks/ When you look at the time/It’s sort of like you’re watching yourself,” Jadakiss proclaims on “Knock Yourself Out,” the album’s requisite, delicious Neptunes track.

Even Jay-Z and Raekwon, two others with butterscotch flows and bulletins o’ plenty from the crack game, pause for reflection occasionally. Jadakiss’s indifference to what is right, and to whatever lies ahead, make Kiss tha Game Goodbye a startling listen. When he does take time to steer “the Section 8 kids” from the old neighborhood on the gospel-flavored “Keep Your Head Up,” he doesn’t exactly talk up school: “It’s a risk I gotta take/I’m gonna be the nigga with the bricks and the stash and the biscuit out of state. . . . I go extremely hard/Why let up?”

The rapper is at his sharpest when he focuses on women, not drugs. “On My Way” finds him on a nationwide tour in search of the ladies over Swizz Beatz’s laid-back funk beat. In Houston, he catches a Rockets game after getting some play. In New Orleans, he longs for a girl from the Magnolia projects—with “gold fronts.” In Philadelphia, he comes to “crack that ass like the Liberty Bell.” The track drips with charisma, as does “Nasty Girl,” a Timbaland-manned gangsta-love jam, complete with crooner Carl Thomas on the chorus. On these songs, and throughout the rest of Kiss tha Game Goodbye, Jadakiss drives the thug genre deep into platinum irresponsibility.

Jadakiss may get a few of his listeners to feel him, but it’s Shakur who’s been coronated the ghetto Jimi Hendrix. Shakur anticipated his own tragic legacy, and he left enough master tapes lying around to keep whatever from-the-grave machinery rolling.

Until the End of Time is the sixth posthumous offering from 2Pac Inc., more specifically his mother Afeni Shakur and Death Row Records. The two-CD set is a sprawling mess, 124 minutes of raw, generic beats and experiments. Nevertheless, it scatters enough evidence of why Shakur became such an icon.

Granted, the album relies heavily on default lyricism (he was fond of shout-outs to “all my homies” and “all my niggas”) and on low-rent r&b. The eight cuts with his side group, the Outlawz, are clichés—yeah, yeah, you’re down to die for all your soldiers, and all that other crap. The rapper offers two versions of the title track, bland appropriations of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings”—hell, one version even lifts the vocals of Richard Page, the ’80s popsters’ lead singer. Another tired artifact: Shakur calls out Jay-Z and Mobb Deep, up-and-comers in 1996, in a weak attempt to extend the mythical bicoastal hip-hop feud.

Thankfully, Shakur’s fears and—let’s face it—morality sprinkle enough of the record to make it worth purchasing. We get the jarring “Letter 2 My Unborn”: “Will my child get to feel love/Or are we just cursed to be street thugs?/Cause being black hurts,” he ponders. He then answers that question: “If there’s a ghetto for true thugs, I’ll see you there/And I’m sorry for not being there.” It’s heady stuff, and it gives weight to lines such as “In my dreams, I hear motherfuckers screaming/What is the meaning?” from “When Thugs Cry.”

Shakur’s work studied how actions breed consequences. That’s what made it important. Jadakiss, on the other hand, cooks base on the Foreman grill on “Knock Yourself Out.” His ghetto-fabulous routine, as exciting and as original as it is, ultimately rings hollow without the appearance of a conscience. Jadakiss can floss about the fruits of his misdeeds, but Until the End of Time, despite its flaws, bubbles with heart. Side by side with it, Kiss tha Game Goodbye feels synthetic.

Advantage, dead man.