Twenty Years After Tupac’s Death, Does His Music Still Endure?

Unless you’re one of the conspiracy theorists who thinks he’s alive and well in Cuba, as of September 13th, 2016, Tupac Shakur has been dead for twenty years.

Twenty years. Two decades. Wow, that is a long time. A long enough time to fade into the background, to be forgotten. Which in the case of Tupac’s music, may be the case.

The rapper Lil Uzi Vert, one of the more popular new artists these days, is 22-years-old, and he recently said he “honestly couldn’t name five songs from Tupac and Biggie.”

In July, the rapper Rich Homie Quan, who is 26-years-old, could not recite The Notorious B.I.G.’s lyrics during a ceremonial performance at VH1's Hip-Hop Honors show.

Although Quan apologized (“I assure you that I never intended to disrespect Biggie Smalls,” he wrote in an Instagram post following the flub), his mistake may signal a larger trend.

Last November, Billboard published a list called: “The 10 Best Rappers of All Time.” While the Notorious B.I.G. came in at #1, and the rest of the list was rounded out by the likes of Jay-Z, Eminem, Lauryn Hill and Andre 3000, among others, one rapper was curiously left off — Tupac.

“This is so disrespectful,” Snoop Dogg wrote on Instagram, after seeing the list. “Whoever did this list need a swift kick in the ass.”

Why Tupac — the subject of the biopic All Eyez On Me, due in theaters nationwide November 11th — gets left off of a list like that is anyone’s guess, but it could be argued ‘Pac’s immense fame and legacy, no doubt fueled by the question marks still surrounding his death, have overshadowed his music.

Biggie, in some regards, still benefits from being an east coast product; DJ’s in New York, at least the older ones, haven’t stopped playing his records (neither Lil Uzi Vert or Rich Homie Quan, to their credit, are from New York). And he doesn’t have an expansive catalog either — there are only so many Biggie songs you can play.

But Tupac’s catalog is enormous. And perhaps because so much of his material was released posthumously, he’s been left in a sort of rap no-mans-land. You’re either really into Tupac, or you’re not into Tupac at all. Tupac is an island unto himself.

Even today, provided someone isn’t schooling you on his greatest hits, the only songs you will hear from Tupac in casual settings are: “Changes,” (on the radio), and “How Do U Want It” (at a party). Occasionally you will hear “Dear Mama” or “Keep Your Head Up” somewhere.

This isn’t enough to have anyone really know Tupac’s music. And sure, music culture, especially these days, isn’t just built by the radio and what’s playing at parties — things can be culturally relevant even when they’re not easily measured and observed. Some things, you have to know, to know.

Like “Hail Mary.” Everyone knows that.

But inasmuch as one knows, they know that twenty years afer his death, Tupac the idea is much much much bigger than Tupac the musician. Which is tragically sad, because his music features some of the most raw, most honest, most compelling songwriting in the history of all recorded music, let alone hip-hop. It’s something that, especially in these times, needs to be heard.

Oh well. As Tupac himself once said… that’s just the way it is.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.