A crossroad has been reached with the release of Tupac Shakur’s newest double album “Better Dayz.” With it’s debut on November 26, 2002 the thug idol to millions has had at least as much (if not more) of his material released since his death over six years ago than he did while alive. It’s safe to say that during his living days, Shakur was justifiably paranoid about his own demise. This alone could account for the prolific amount of material he recorded, though it’s equally possible he was recording as much material as possible to fulfill his contract and get out from under Suge Knight’s thumb.
The world will never know which of these possibilities (if not both, or even an unknown third) is the most true, but the one we’re still living in has not yet shaken off the ghost of this thug soldier. While here he was undoubtedly underrated as a lyricist; often not taken seriously simply because his critics believed he sold records because of the controversy that followed him everywhere. He is also overrated post-mortem, as many legions of fans (some who only discovered him after the fact) worship his every word like religious prophecy and claim he could even forsee the untold future like Nostradamus. The truth lies comfortably in between. Shakur was a troubled man, who used his pain as both inspiration for brilliance and justification for his debauchery. We saw an artist who swung between these wild extremes – the same man who could both touch the hearts of women everywhere with “Keep Ya Head Up” and yet dismiss them as “Skandalouz” in the flick of an eye. He could straight up pursue carnal lusts on “I Get Around” but then turn and question the meaning of life on “So Many Tears.” The intense friction generated between Shakur’s own internal desires to be both devil and angel was what made him so intensely interesting both back then and still today.
It’s safe to say then that any legitimate posthumous album from 2Pac (or Makaveli if you prefer his other nom de plume) is going to generate a lot of interest and/or be a best seller. Like ‘Pac himself these albums have swung between extremes. “R U Still Down?” was an excellent compendium of unreleased songs from his early career. “Greatest Hits” was a tease, featuring only a few new songs and mostly remastered material. “Still I Rise” was a somewhat dissapointing album overly dominated by the Outlawz, but last year’s “Until the End of Time” redeemed the concept of releasing new Shakur material as a whole. The double album “Better Dayz” has made a claim of “20 never before released songs” in the press, but there is a small amount of rehash here. “My Block” originally appeared on “The Show” soundtrack, “Late Night” and “Who Do U Believe In” were both on Death Row compilations, and two tracks each feature two versions: “Thugz Mansion” with both original and acoustic mixes, and “Fair Xchange” featuring Jazze Pha on Disc One and Mya on Disc Two. While “Better Dayz” still clocks in with the promised twenty songs overall, one has to wonder if the material wasn’t “stretched” a little for this album. Either there’s not as much in the vaults as we’re lead to believe, or the labels involved are trying to save his recorded material for the NEXT posthumous LP.
What can be found here is not likely to be a revelation to his hardcore fanbase. A lot of Shakur’s unreleased raps have been floating around for a while now thanks to bootlegging and the internet. That said, it’s worthwhile to check out mastered copies of this material whether you’ve heard the originals or not; and in some cases the high gloss finish almost makes thingsTOO vivid. Take the harsh words of “When We Ride On Our Enemies” for example; originally produced by Johnny ‘J’ but but given a post-mortem polish by BRISS. In his waning days Shakur saw enemies lurking in every shadow, but those who got the worst of his wrath were the few who made the mistake of even breathing his name:
“Here’s a word to those that robbed me
I murder you then I, run a train on Mobb Deep! Don’t fuck with me
Nigga you’re barely livin, don’t you got sickle cell?
See me have a seizure on stage, you ain’t feelin well, hell
How many niggaz wanna be involved?
See I was only talkin to Biggie, but I’ll kill allay’all, then ball
Then tell Da Brat to keep her mouth closed
Fuck around and get tossed up, by the fuckin Outlawz”
Shakur’s yin and yang struggle for balance on these selections, because even as murderous as this song is “Thugz Mansion” envisions a world where people who have since passed from this world spend their afterlife in harmony – figuratively AND literally:
“Seen a show with Marvin Gaye last night, it had me shook
Drippin peppermint Schnapps, with Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke
Then some lady named Billie Holiday
Sang sittin there kickin it with Malcolm, ’til the day came
Little LaTasha sho’ grown
Tell the lady in the liquor that she’s forgiven, so come home
Maybe in time you’ll understand only God can save us
When Miles Davis cuttin lose with the band
Just think of all the people that you knew in the past
that passed on, they in heaven, found peace at last
Picture a place that they exist, together”
It’s not hard to picture the settings ‘Pac envisions as a rapper. Besides his brash voice which got him notice even in his “Same Song” days with Digital Underground, he has the ability to evoke the scene he wants you to see by both his well-crafted words and powerful delivery. On the album’s title track, he paints the canvas with the story of a hard luck brother who feels the pull of doing bad to get ahead and struggles to walk the right path:
“Thinkin back as an adolescent, who would’ve guessed
that in my future years, I’d be stressin
Some say the ghetto’s sick and corrupted
Plus my P.O. won’t let me hang with the brothers I grew up with
Tryin to keep my head up and stay strong
All my homies slangin llello all day long, but they wrong
So I’m solo and so broke
Savin up for some Jordan’s, cause they dope
I got a girl and I love her but she broke too, and so am I
I can’t take her to the place she wanna go to
So we argue and play fight, all day and night
Makin passionate love ’til the daylight
Plus we about to get evicted, can’t pay the rent
Guess it’s time to see who really is yo’ friend”
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the amount of songs contained herein which contain threats by Shakur against others. Not many of these songs saw release while he was alive, but the fact he recorded them speaks volumes about the way he felt. In his heart Shakur obviously believed he had been set up by Notorious B.I.G. during the robbery and attempt on his life; even though the available facts to date have never proved this claim. Still, once you make Shakur’s shitlist, you make it in a BIG way (pun intended). “Fuck Em All” proves this:
“Aiyyo Biggie – put your hands up!
Now I can make it happen, my rappin is similar
to motherfuckers when they scrappin, blast and watch ’em back up
Notorious Biggie killer, affiliation with Death Row
Niggaz get they caps pealed back, fool it’s the West coast!
Bitch you misdemeanor, I’m raisin hell like felonies
Mr. Makaveli straight out of jail, to sellin these
Intoxicated, we duplicated but never faded
Now that we made it my adversaries is player hatin
I watched Arnold Schwarzeneggar bust somebody in the movie
Now I wanna do it too, ooh ooh, niggaz is too through”
For the most part, the music is nothing to complain about. Frank Nitty does an excellent job on the “My Block” remix, “Never B Peace,” and “Still Ballin” which inserts Trick Daddy into the mix. Jazze Pha does both “Changed Man” and “U Can Call” along with his version of “Fair Xchange,” and a fair number of original versions from long time Shakur collaborator Johnny ‘J’ find their way onto the album; albiet possibly with new vocals inserted: “Never Call U Bitch Again” featuring Tyrese, the aforementioned “Better Dayz” featuring Mr. Biggs, and “There U Go” with the Outlawz (who show up periodically throughtout both discs). Only a few things miss the mark — “Fame” is underwhelming, “Catchin Feelins” feels simplistic and repetitive, “Whatcha Gonna Do” sounds like it belongs on a Miami Bass album and the “Intro” like most skits on any album is a waste of time.
On the whole, the collection of material presented here is again worthwhile of being archived in Shakur’s repoitoire, although the purists will debate about whether the “best versions” of these songs are the ones that will now go down in history. This double album is slightly less compelling than “Until the End of Time” was to a casual listener who doesn’t care for 2Pac either way, but his fans will be pleased by this release. It’s something of a concern to see the filler and rereleased material on this CD though, and one wonders whether this isn’t a trend for the future as more Shakur albums are assembled out of less and less material. At some point, they could bypass the point of interest for even his diehard fans. Thankfully we haven’t gotten there YET, so “Better Dayz” is still a good investment of your rap dollar.