Some may only recognize Thug Life as the two words infamously tattooed across 2Pac’s abdomen, but interviews from the mid-90s reveal that he had big plans for the brandâ€”he foresaw it as the name of a worldwide movement, culture, and lifestyle of a revolutionary urban lower class. As we all know, Shakur never lived to see this dream realized, and before any of these ideas could be put into effect Thug Life was the name of a group and an album by ‘Pac and his friends. Already infamous for his first two solo albums and various run-ins with the law yet not quite the household name he would become in his final two years of life, “Thug Life: Volume 1” was released by Interscope in September 1994, just two months before the New York shooting that embattled the star with Bad Boy Records, five months before beginning his eleven-month stay at Clinton Correctional Facility, a year before signing on with Suge Knight and Death Row, and two years before his Las Vegas murder. This album thus provides a snapshot of a pivotal albeit overlooked time in Shakur’s life. His incarceration strongly influenced the volatile and deeply philosophical recordings of his Death Row days, which produced the most celebrated and controversial music of his catalog, and his output immediately before might serve as a suggestion of another path his career may have taken had he faced different circumstances.
Perhaps most significantly, the Thug Life project is the only full album that places 2Pac in the context of a rap group. Shakur was affiliated with a few different lineups in his recording years, beginning of course with Digital Underground in the early 1990s. After achieving superstardom as a solo entity, another group of friends and frequent collaborators credited as Dramacydal began to appear on his records, the group that would later evolve into Outlawz. With 2Pac as the obvious focal point, the Thug Life lineup included Inglewood’s Big Syke, who would go on to a moderately successful solo career and record with Outlawz as Mussolini; Los Angeles rappers Macodoshis and Rated R, who would later be convicted of murder; and ‘Pac’s elder stepbrother Mopreme. While not an official member, ‘Pac’s friend Stretch from the Digital Underground days, a frequent producer and guest rapper on the first two 2Pac LPs, raps on two tracks and produces five; he too would be gunned down in late 1995.
“Thug Life: Volume 1” maintains an unusual balance between a group album and a 2Pac project. A far greater rapper and character than his buddies, ‘Pac’s larger than life persona is the immediate star, and he is the only member afforded solo cuts. He’s also the driving creative force; more often than not his verses provide the backbone and direction of the songs, and the others merely echo his sentiments. As their name suggests, the Thug Life boys seek to engrain the listener into the day-to-day existence of a West Coast thug. While this may sound terribly proverbial on paper, they share with 2Pac passion and charisma that usually compensates for any lyrical and conceptual deficiencies. The conviction that each exhibits makes it hard not to feel the desperation, entrapment, injustice, and do-or-die mentality that they purvey, and this is what makes their narratives so compelling. At an age where most young folks hope to explore and enjoy the world’s myriad opportunities, these men barely into their twenties felt hopelessly ensnared by societal factors beyond their control and turned to lives of crimeâ€”lives for which their criminal records indicate were hardly embellished in their rhymes.
The legendary opener “Bury Me a G” begins with a rugged drum pattern that blends with a smooth sample from Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You.” Of all the hip hop tracks that have utilized this sample (Nas’ “Good Morning,” Master P’s “Tryin’ 2 Do Something,” Ms. Tee’s “If He Don’t Trick” among countless others) I can’t think of any for which it sounds more fitting. A tasteful, soulful, hopeful, and relaxing track musically, the somber chorus (“I ain’t got time for bitches / Gotta keep my mind on my muthafuckin’ riches / Even when I die, they won’t worry me / Mama don’t cry, bury me a G”) makes for a poignant if unlikely combination. 2Pac opens and closes with two sixteen bar verses, while the other four MCs have eight bars apiece. The track is melodic, well-arranged, and alluring, but it’s also a classic because it embodies the paradox that Thug Life explores throughout the LP: at face, celebration of the thug life, but simultaneously lamenting it below the surface.
The original version of “Thug Life: Volume 1” as submitted to Interscope was reportedly rejected by the label for being overtly violent and unmarketable, and accordingly the version that hit shelves was somewhat lighter and more accessible than ‘Pac’s darker work. Only ten tracks and 42 minutes in length, production comes mostly courtesy of Thug Music, a moniker used by 2Pac and Stretch on the boards, with contributions from Johnny J, Jay Choi, Mopreme, Big Syke, Easy Mo B, and Warren G & Nate Dogg. Most of the music could be characterized as sunny California funk, smooth and soulful without the synthy wooziness of Long Beach’s g-funk, and the beats are consistently great, making for a nice balance with the headier verses.
The rappers not named Tupac Shakur turn in reliably good performances, but like any entourage, their greatest fortune is their affiliation with a superstar. Their chemistry and gangster charm are impressive, and they’re a quite likable bunch, but their glaring shortcomings are what make “Thug Life: Volume 1” a great if flawed LP. Their flows tend to be a bit one-dimensional and can stray toward clumsiness, and verses grow redundant in spite of their substanceâ€”one need only count how many lines Big Syke begins “I got nothin’ to loseâ€¦” before focused gives way to formulaic. A listener might also detect lyrical laziness in that practically every song features as many as a dozen “fuck”s, “fuckin'”s, and “muthafuckin'”s that operate solely as syllable-fillers. Their rhyme schemes are simple, and the lack of complexity can have differing effects: at times, the rawness makes their verses more approachable and their sentiments more emphatic, but in other instances the overall effect just feels slipshod.
The group’s potential flaws prove most endearing on the classic “How Long Will They Mourn Me?,” the sole Thug Life track represented on 2Pac’s multi-platinum 1998 “Greatest Hits” collection. In the aftermath of 2Pac’s passing, much was made of his obsession with death, often to the point where fans tried to point to foreshadowing and decipher prophetic allusions where none existed as producers pieced together manufactured statements of mortality on posthumous tracks. Still, the fact remains that 2Pac was a man unusually conscious and fearful of his own fatality, and listening to much of “Thug Life: Volume 1” with the knowledge that his end was near makes for a truly chilling experience. “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” is brilliantly produced by Warren G and Nate Dogg, who lend a twangy, deliciously funky yet simultaneously soulfully somber track which Nate accentuates with a sobering vocal chorus. 2Pac opens with a visual depiction of death that places the track among “Life Goes On” and “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” as one of the most stunning and perplexing works of his catalog:
“All my homies drinkin’ liquor, tears in everybody’s eyes
Niggas cried, to mourn a homey’s homicide
But I can’t cry, instead I’m just a shoulder
Damn, why they take another soldier?
I load my clip before my eyes blurry, don’t worry
I’ll get them suckers back before you’re buried (Shit)
Retaliate and pull a one-eight-seven
Do real niggas get to go to heaven?
How long will they mourn me? Bury me a motherfuckin’ G
Bitch, don’t wanna die? Then don’t fuck with me
It’s kinda hard to be optimistic
When your homey’s lyin’ dead on the pavement twisted
Y’all don’t hear me though, I’m tryin’ hard to make amends
But I’m losin all my motherfuckin’ friends
Damn, they should’ve shot me when I was born
Now I’m trapped in the motherfuckin’ storm
How long will they mourn me?”
His groupmates follow in suit, dedicating the song to fallen friend Kato and trying to come to grips with their own mortality. Listeners will count no fewer than fourteen variations of “fuckin'” used to fill syllables, but here the group’s simplicity works to their advantageâ€”it accentuates the notion that these are desperate young men attempting to make sense of life’s greatest injustices. At its core, “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” is a song about death’s uncertainty despite our efforts to prepare for it, as Macadoshis so eloquently states in his closing eight:
“Now life’s a fuckin’ trip, and everybody gotta go
But why the fuck it have to be my nigga Kato?
Another nigga fell victim to the chrome
It’s enough to make you crazy, it’s fuckin’ with my dome
You only live once on this earth
A nigga had it bad since the day of my motherfuckin’ birth
But niggas say they down and they always be my homie
But when a nigga gone, how long will ya mourn me?”
The topic of death is heavy on both of 2Pac’s legendary solo tracks here. The Johnny J-produced “Pour Out a Little Liquor” finds 2Pac wistfully looking back in celebration of an illicit childhood, but not at the expense of mourning a lost homey:
“Drinkin’ on gin, smokin’ on blunts and it’s on
Reminiscin’ ’bout my niggas that’s dead and gone
And now they buried, sometimes my eyes still get blurry
‘Cause I’m losin’ all my homies and I worry
I got my back against a brick wall trapped in a circle
Boxin’ with them suckas ’til my knuckles turn purple
Mama told me ‘Son there’ll be days like this’
Don’t wanna think so, I hit the drink and stay blitzed
We had plans of bein’ big time Gs
Rollin’ in marked cars, movin’ them keys
And now I roll up the window, blaze up some endo
Get toe down for my niggas in the pen, yo
Your son’s gettin’ big and strong
And I’d love him like one of my own, ’til you come home and
The years sure fly with the quickness
You do the time, and I’ll keep handlin’ yo’ business
That’s the way it’s supposed to be, homey
If it was me you’d do the shit for me, homey
I can remember scrapin’ back to back
Throwin’ dogs on them suckas runnin’ up on this young hog
I hope my words can paint a perfect picture
And let ya know how much a nigga miss ya
Pour out some liquor!”
The closer “Str8 Ballin,” featuring a glorious Easy Mo Bee beat, is 2Pac’s manifesto and perhaps his most definitive characterization of the Thug Lifeâ€”not quite glorification, but a cheerful embrace of the lifestyle he took such pains to exemplify:
“I’m up before the sunrise, first to hit the block
Little bad motherfucka with a pocket full of rocks
And I’m totin’ them thangs, get my skinny little ass kicked
And niggas laugh, ’til tha first motherfucka got blasted
I put the nigga in his casket
Now they coverin’ the bastard in plastic
I smoke blunts on a regular, buck when it counts
I’m tryin’ to make a million dollars out a quarter ounce
And gettin’ lost on the five-o, fuck them hoes
Got a forty-five screamin’ about survival
Hey nigga can I lay low, cook some yayo
Holla one time when I say so
Don’t want to go to the pen, I’m hittin’ fences
Narcs on a nigga back, missin’ me by inches
And they say how do you survive weighin’ one-sixty-five
In a city where the skinny niggas die
Tell Mama don’t cry, even when they kill me
They can never take the game from a young G
I’m straight ballin'”
“Shit Don’t Stop” and “Under Pressure” are standard West Coast fare, the former sampling Cypress Hill and the latter a dark, familiar but well-executed profile of evading the law. “Stay True” is a summertime rider anthem with upbeat production and a contagiously laidback vibe. The two weakest tracks, “Don’t Get It Twisted” and “Street Fame,” are tellingly the two which don’t feature ‘Pac, and while not bad songs are easily the most skippable. The six minute epic “Cradle to the Grave,” the first single, is anchored by a smooth Thug Music gem and finds all five rappers chronicling their childhoods and waxing over the inescapability of ghetto living. While not nearly as gloomy as some of the other tracks here, it’s easily one of the most effective.
“Thug Life: Volume 1” is an essential and frequently overlooked chapter of the 2Pac saga, bearing the fruits of the West Coast renaissance and the great year that was 1994. Like most of Shakur’s music, its intangibles make it a better record than the sum of its parts, and the case for classic status could be made for half of these ten tracks. “Thug Life: Volume 1” is classic ‘Pac, exhibiting all the apparent inconsistencies and contradictions that made him the world’s most compelling rapper: a conscientious yet shameless thug, at times brooding and others exuberant, and seemingly obsessed with his own death, which ironically awaited him less than two years down the road. Listening to it, it boasts all the qualities that led to his being labeled a visionary, a martyr, and an icon, but it also features timeless, impeccably produced music from an unheralded group, comprising an essential listen that captures rap’s most fascinating and polarizing figure.