In Blender’s list of the most overrated “People, Places, Trends and Other Junk in Rock” Tupac Shakur takes the top slot.
I sometimes think stuff like this has more to do with the frustration that often happens with popularity than it does with any real beef with the work. This feels to me like White people whining cause they just don’t get it and the fact that there is such zeal, such love, such passion for someone they don’t get is confusing and maddening.
I sympathize. I understand that one recognizes that there’s a segment of ‘Pac’s fanbase that is in love with the myth and the drama, not the music. I understand that so much of who we were told Pac was, what he chose to sell at different points in his career, what he was seduced by, was “dangerous” and “scary.”
Interestingly, any reasonable diehard hip-hop fan with any integrity will tell you that Tupac is not the greatest rapper. In fact, that’s kinda what we been saying all along. In fact, as he was being captured by the mainstream media and he started to believe all his own hype, we prayed we’d get him back.
Because here’s the thing about ‘Pac:
With ‘Pac it was never really about his skills (or just his skills).
Tupac Shakur was the first completely, unapologetically human hip-hop artist. By that I mean, what you saw of him at any given time, what you heard, what you felt was the full force of Black humanity. In all its dirty, confusing, conflicting, dangerous, crazy, brilliant, scary, mean, beautiful, soulful, emotional complexity.
In hip-hop. In hip-hop.
The importance of an artist like him to a relatively young Black artform cannot be overstated. In the way Rakim is the point where hip-hop came of age creatively, Tupac (more specifically, Me Against The World) is the point where hip-hop became complete (both emotional and well-crafted). Where the hip-hop artist could feel comfortable — no compelled — to bear his (or her) soul.
For black people, our love of our music is about the intangible. In many ways, it’s undefinable except when we talk about how our humanity can be reflected in, refracted by, and illuminated in, the art that our best artists make. Because words don’t really capture what great Black music means to Black people.
This is the at the heart of why we so few White artists who work in our forms are loved and appreciated. Because it’s not really about the way you sing, or the notes, or the timbre of the voice, or the types of instruments that you use (all of which can be learned and appropriated easily).
It’s something that is uniquely Black. Something that is never appreciated because the dominant culture is always too busy trying to define it so they can sell it with a White face.
For us, Tupac is in that great tradition that includes Billie and Mahalia and Marvin and Stevie and Isaac and Aretha and Curtis. He transcended the confines, the limitations, the rules of his chosen genre to become the living embodiment of a segment of his generation’s Black community. He transcends for so many of us, whether or not we enjoy any (or all) of his music.
Kinda like how the Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and Kurt Cobain represent a whole generation of white folks.
It’s funny how artists like these four are never on lists of overrated anything. Especially in a mainstream magazine. Because musically, nuts and bolts, these artists have all kinds of crap in their catalogs (not to mention the fact that much of what they were was out and out stolen from Black folks…but don’t mention this). But if you mention to anyone that you don’t buy into the dominant narrative on these artists (or have some interesting point or perspective), you are dismissed outright.
But it’s completely fine to reduce Black art to whether or not it’s totally well-crafted 100% of the time. It’s fine to reduce all that Tupac was to “insane rock-star charisma.”
Black artistry is always fair game, right. Whenever there are huge numbers of people who like a Black artist, that art’s value is always questioned. One can always just talk about only the craft and insinuate that the cultural impact of the art is just hype, or not principled, or overpopulated with stans. Not that that ever happens with rock musicians or anything.
What’s most interesting to me about this list is that most of it is pretty ironic and humorous (as if to say that one should take it with a grain of salt), but everything about the Tupac section is reductive and flip to the point of being flat-out insulting.
Like: “He admirably conceived of a gangsta rapper as a principled rebel.”
There are number of things wrong with this statement, not the least of which is that most “gangsta rappers” rejected the label, as it was never an accurate picture of what they were trying to accomplish with their art. More specifically, it insinuates that “gangsta rapper” and “principled rebel” are mutually exclusive terms, in such a way as to reduce and condemn an entire segment of hip-hop (ill-defined though it may be).
Is Tupac overrated? Absolutely. But this isn’t really the point. The subtext needs to be clear for folks
This is a case of mainstream magazines lionizing and propagating the most sensationalistic aspects of black music yet again, reaping the benefits yet again, and now turning around and whining that “eh…the music really isn’t that good anyway.”