1995, a rap star becoming an icon
Discover Open Mic, a series of cultural articles that will celebrate Hennessy’s cultural richness and the passions of our communities. For the first article, Angus Batey, hip hop specialist, gives us an inside scoop on one of Tupac’s greatest records: Me against the World©.
Hip-hop's love affair with Hennessy has been going on long enough to qualify for a Hors d'Age designation, but there's one rapper whose association with the brand stands above all the others.
It would be eight years after his untimely death before the world got to hear it, but when 2Pac's 'Hennessy' was released in 2004, the link came as no surprise. The pairing goes back to before his solo career began: you can see him in the background of the video to 'The Humpty Dance'©, the 1989 hit from Digital Underground, probably the first of the many rap records to mention the marque.
Today 2Pac is a pop-culture deity, loved as much for what he's come to represent in his super-sized afterlife as for the music he made while he was still with us. His aura sometimes gets in the way of us being able to appreciate his art: but Pac was a master of vivid imagery whose best records drip with poetic power. And, for this listener, there's one release in particular that stands out.
Me Against the World© was a Number One hit in 1995, but it wasn't showered with unanimous praise. That was because of what was going on in 2Pac's life right at that moment, and how controversial and polarising a figure he had become. Many reviewers interpreted lyrics about being attacked from all sides as self-serving defensiveness from someone whose poor life choices had finally caught up with him. But if you allow yourself to listen to his many messages, there's plenty here that helps explain why vast numbers of people feel like he's speaking directly to them.
Across the record, 2Pac deftly blends moods and influences, and because he's so relatable and conversational, we stick with him even when - maybe especially when - he takes us from ecstasy to emptiness in a heartbeat. In 'Old School'© you'll hear a veteran of rap's golden age paying euphoric tribute to the pioneers he grew up with. Yet, just moments earlier, 'Lord Knows'© has stopped us in our tracks: an agonised scream of despair and desolation, it shows us hip-hop isn't just about brags and boasts, but can, in the right hands, take us to the same kind of emotional places that depression-era blues masters like Skip James and Robert Johnson sang about.
Genius between the lines
Tupac's genius lies in how easily he persuades us that these are all important, vibrant parts of the same all-too-real person. In 'Dear Mama'© he lays bare his difficult upbringing, his honesty and openness still shocking, his willingness to let us see inside his troubled soul the factor that made him an artist who can connect so effectively with new listeners to this day.
It's conflicted and contradictory: warm and inclusive one minute, disturbing and desperate the next - but that's who 2Pac was. Ultimately, Me Against the World© is an album that demands we listen carefully - and promises that, If we do, we'll hear a rap star becoming an icon.
About Angus Batey
British freelance journalist Angus Batey first heard hip-hop at the dawn of the music's late 1980s golden age, and has been writing about it ever since. He has worked for Hip-Hop Connection, The Guardian, Mojo, NME and The Times, and his series of in-depth essays on classic hip-hop albums appears on TheQuietus.com.
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