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Opinion: Tupac at 50: Why His Era Was A Different Universe From Hip-Hop Today

The iconic rapper offered a duality that likely would not have been accepted from an artist at his level today.

As far as hip-hop is concerned, age 50 might as well be age 150.

It’s always been a young person’s genre – the perfect medium through which to channel angst toward adults, corporate America, and navigation of relationships at an age before we possess the maturity to properly do so.

As a teenager of the 1990s, it’s been something of a mixed bag watching some of my favorite rappers reach that half-century mark. On one end, you have folks like Jay-Z ,51, who has eternal cachet as a living hip-hop G.O.A.T.  

On the other end, you have gangsta rap pioneer Ice Cube, 52, whose classic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is unlikely to be duplicated. You also have several still-active legends like Nas, Eminem and Snoop Dogg soon looking at a half-century. DMX died at 50 while finishing up his recently released eighth album Exodus.

Tupac Shakur would’ve been 50 today (June 16). Having succumbed to gunshot wounds at age 25 on Sept. 13, 1996, he’s been gone almost as long as he was here.

It’s hard to imagine ‘Pac as a quinquagenarian because he left us as an avatar of 90s Black urban youth. He died something much deeper, more meaningful than just another rapper – he was a young Black icon; a beloved yet complicated hero of his zeitgeist...hip-hop’s preeminent anti-hero.
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‘Pac as he existed then would’ve had problems in the current era of social media and social enlightenment. There’s that 1994 sexual abuse conviction. There are the various other allegations involving assault with various weapons. And there’s “Hit Em’ Up,” to this day arguably the most caustic hip-hop diss track of all time, aimed primarily at The Notorious B.I.G. and full of every -ism you can muster. Drake, for example, could not get away with this.  

But ‘Pac also demonstrated a duality that I think would be less acceptable from an artist of his caliber today. Through his interviews and his music, he shined a harsh light on a society that created space for young, Black misfits to thrive and die. ‘Pac was not a dumb man, and he spoke more intelligently on the social ills than anything I would expect from almost any rapper currently on the Billboard Top 40 (and there’s plenty to talk about these days).

It didn’t hurt that he was a product of a socially aware, more culturally robust era of hip-hop: When his debut, 2Pacalypse Now, dropped in 1991, the Black kids in my elementary school were rocking Malcolm X hats and leather Africa patches – whether or not we truly understood Brother Malcolm at the time, we thought it was cool because mainstream rappers made it cool.

Further contrasting how different things were then, Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug movement was still very prominent in schools and in music, while today’s young rap fans worship the music of drug abusers their age.

Visit a high school and you’re likely to find at least a couple kids who are happy to dismiss the music of Lil’ Whomever Du Jour and who also appreciate ‘Pac. But it will never be the same for them as it was for me: I’m almost exactly 10 years younger than ‘Pac, so I remember the man as he existed in my Sony Discman and on MTV while he was still drawing breath, and I remember how his death during my sophomore year of high school shook everyone to their core. 

As a 40-year-old, I look at 25-year-olds and see how much they don’t know yet. But to me, ‘Pac will always loom large in his wisdom despite not getting enough of that natural wisdom that comes from clocking some years on Earth.

Whether Tupac is the greatest rapper of all time has been a matter of hotly-debated discussion for a quarter century to the point of annoyance. Whether he’s one of the most influential rappers of all time is not up for discussion.

It’s tempting to conjecture about what ‘Pac would be doing if he were alive at 50, but that’s the only good thing about his life being cut short at such a young age – we don’t have to think about it.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at wafflecolored.com.

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