A lot has changed in hip hop over 40 years. What commenced on the neighborhood corners of one of New York City’s fiercest boroughs has since grown into a worldwide multibillion dollar industry. But of all the artists who have risen and fallen, few have had such a profound impact that they are remembered forever. Tupac, however, was one of these few.
Tupac’s impact on hip hop, in fact, was so great that rarely does a new hip hop artist emerge without eventually being measured against him. But while some rappers leverage comparisons to sell records, others steer clear, realizing such comparisons in the end usually only lead to fan disappointment.
This is because Tupac, in many ways, is like the Michael Jordan of hip hop. A few may come close, but there will never be another one quite like him. Yet in an industry that also thrives on bravado and showmanship, the real reason why there will never be another Tupac is often overlooked.
The truth is Tupac isn’t adored by fans across the world because he spent his brief career bragging about how much money he made, or how many cars he owned (as mainstream hip hop artists tend to do). On the contrary, Tupac is remembered because he spent much of his career remembering those who made hip hop successful to begin with—regular people.
To this extent, Tupac was uniquely sincere in a notoriously shallow business. Whereas hip hop artists often go to great lengths to project a rugged and tough image, Tupac wasn’t afraid to show he was human or express emotion. He wasn’t afraid to laugh or cry. Tupac, quite simply, was just Tupac—hip hop’s most iconic mama’s boy.
But the real Tupac was also complex. Despite championing himself as a “thug” and “outlaw,” he didn’t grow up gangbanging or selling drugs. And despite growing up poor, he didn’t grow up uneducated. Tupac, in fact, was an avid reader and writer.
He was influenced greatly by his mother, Afeni Shakur. A social activist and former member of the Black Panther Party, she not only required Tupac to read the newspaper on a daily basis, but enrolled him in a New York art school with the goal of exposing him to the arts and broadening his mind. In other words, Tupac wasn’t just a rapper. He was a well-rounded, socially conscious individual.
His music often straddled the line between art and activism. In the song, “Changes,” Tupac questioned America’s war in the Middle East. In the song, “So Many Tears,” he pondered the existence of heaven and hell. And in the song, “Me Against the World,” he addressed the growing epidemic of children growing up without fathers. But while these songs many have solidified Tupac as an activist, it was classics such as “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Dear Mama” that ultimately endeared him to fans.
However, Tupac was also far from perfect. As a result, he often found himself embroiled in feuds with rival artists or at the center of media firestorms. Yet despite his shortcomings, his growth as a man was perhaps never more apparent than during his time in prison. It was during this period that he would ultimately describe his “thug” and “outlaw” persona as nothing more than a phase.
Following his release from prison, Tupac would go on to become one of the most beloved hip hop artists of all time, recording numerous records and appearing in countless movies. He was gunned down in Last Vegas on September 7th, 1996, and died six days later.
Despite his success, Tupac died younger than Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix—all legends in their own right. And yet, in the years since his passing, Tupac’s commercial and pop cultural influence has only continued to grow—becoming to rap what Elvis has become to rock ‘n’ roll.
The real tragedy is he followed in his footsteps—dying unexpectedly, and far too young.
This column originally appeared at Street Motivation.
Brandon Loran Maxwell is a writer, speaker, and prize winning essayist. His writings and commentary have appeared at The Hill, Salon, Townhall, The Washington Examiner, The Oregonian, FEE, and Latino Rebels Radio, among others. He regularly speaks on a variety of social topics, and has been cited at outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, Vox, and The Washington Post. His personal essay “Notes From An American Prisoner” was awarded a Writer’s Digest prize in 2014, and his one-act play “Petal By Petal” about drug and alcohol addiction was performed at The Little Theater in 2009. In addition, Brandon has fronted various punk rock and hip hop groups. He holds a B.S. in political science, and often writes about prison reform, immigration reform, pop culture, music, and Chicano culture.