Wednesday, February 24, 2016
February 24, 2016: Rap Readings: Biggie and Tupac
[When I wrote a Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I realized I had never written a full series AmericanStudying rap, one of the most distinctly American, and most complex and contested, musical genres. Well, that changes this week. I’d love to hear your own Rap Readings in comments! And I have to highlight here the work of Dr. Regina Bradley, AKA Red Clay Scholar, the best current scholar of all things rap and hip hop.]
On what we can learn from one of rap’s most famous beefs, and what it doesn’t include.
There’s nothing I can write about the feud between Tupac Shakur and Chris Wallace (generally known by his stage names Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G.), and the broader East Coast-West Coast rivalry that the beef represented and indeed helped create, that hasn’t already been exhaustively covered in every form of media over the last couple decades. If anything, I would say that the beef has become too central to the story and collective memory of both men (no doubt due in large part to the fact that both were killed in shootings that might have been linked to the rivalry), making it difficult at times to remember them for the voice, artistry, and innovations that made them two of rap’s most significant talents. I don’t want to simply add one more text focused entirely on the feud; but I do believe that pairing the two artists can help us consider an interesting and important contrast in rap and in American culture more broadly.
To put it simply (and of course far too reductively, but as always this post is a starting point for ideas that I hope we can keep talking about!), it seems to me that Tupac carried forward rap’s socially and politically conscious legacies, while Biggie embodied its celebratory narratives of party and pleasure. Take two of their most autobiographical songs: Tupac’s “Dear Mama” from Me Against the World (1995), a song which links the story of his childhood to the social and cultural factors of his mother’s life and the historical and political problems they reflect; and Biggie’s “Juicy” from Ready to Die (1994), a song which likewise narrates many of the challenging circumstances of Biggie’s childhood but contrasts them with the success and wealth he has achieved to make the case that “it’s all good.” These are only two of their many songs, but I believe they do illustrate how two artists with similar backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives could come to frame those topics and their artistic identities and roles very differently. Tupac’s posthumously published collection of poetry was entitled The Rose That Grew from Concrete (1999), and I would argue that while the phrase applies to both men, Tupac often rapped about the concrete, while Biggie focused on the rose.
Notwithstanding that telling contrast, however, there’s no doubt that in many ways both Tupac and Biggie were part of the 1990s rise of gangsta rap as the genre’s most prominent and popular (and controversial) form. There’s a reason why Biggie named his debut album Ready to Die, and why Tupac predicted his own shooting death in (among other places in his music) the final verse of “Changes” (1998). And thus, while it’s important to remember the artistry and talent of both men, it’s equally important to move beyond them and their sub-genre and consider other sides of rap in the decade. Take, for example, Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” (1992), a song that consider late 20th century African American identity and community in relationship to the legacies of slavery and racial violence. That amazing song doesn’t just offer a different vision of what rap and hip hop can include, and of the kinds of voices and sounds that can portray it—it also reminds us that there are American geographies beyond the East Coast and West Coast that have played a foundational role in creating those musical genres, and have remained a vital part of their evolving identities.
Next rap reading tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other rap artists, songs, or analyses you’d share?