There was a time after Tupac Shakur died on Sept. 13, 1996 when a new posthumous album was something of a surprise. As “R U Still Down” hit stores in ’97 and put together some of his older unreleased material along with B-sides and soundtrack cuts, “Makaveli” bootlegs floated around through street vendors and tape traders, suggesting a much deeper archive of material available to put out. Slowly but surely these songs came out – a few on “Greatest Hits” in 1998, more on a shared 2Pac + Outlawz “Still I Rise” album in ’99, then the floodgates were opened in the 21st century with the double CD’s “Until the End of Time” in 2001 and “Better Dayz” in 2002. Suddenly new 2Pac albums weren’t much of a surprise at all. In fact the only thing shocking about 2003 was that instead of another new CD of unreleased 2Pac material, his fans were hit with the shockingly weak and unacceptable “Nu-Mixx Klazzics” album, although that’s largely to blame on Suge Knight for trying to cash in on the remaining value of the few 2Pac assets he still held.
There’s an endless amount of debate about the new songs that keep surfacing. Although they hold similarities to the cuts found on bootleg tapes and through file-swapping, they’ve often been re-arranged, mixed with new beats, and feature guest stars that weren’t part of the original mix. People Shakur never even knew or worked with in his lifetime end up co-starring with him on tracks, and in a few cases it’s even people he called out while he was still alive during the East coat/West coast rap war (Nas comes to mind). Has the “purity” of these Shakur recordings been lost? Yes. There’s not even a question on that point. With the endless popularity of this rap icon/martyr well assured though, there’s no reason to believe that in the future a box set called “The Masters” might not wind up on store shelves. In the interim Afeni Shakur and Interscope are trying to keep the 2Pac legacy alive by making his songs relevant to today’s generation, blending him with beats and rhymes contemporary to the times. If the songs turn out to be good, what can you really complain about? Instead of a shady quasi-legal bootleg or download of a “pure” song that’s poor quality, 2Pac’s voice is mastered to the highest level possible and digitally encoded onto compact disc. That’s a win/win, since even if you heard the bootleg you get to hear the old raps in a new and much cleaner way.
The 65 minutes of “Loyal to the Game” continue that tradition. Things are kickstarted with the Eminem produced “Soldier Like Me,” and Marshall Mathers also does some singing for the hook. It’s not surprising given that Em produced three songs for the Tupac Resurrection soundtrack, and it’s said he even gave Afeni Shakur the hookup for free out of respect. I wonder if he did the same on here. His next two songs are “The Uppercut” featuring the Ouwlawz and the first solo track “Out on Bail.” It’s at times like this when Shakur’s voice comes through the strongest:
“I’m stuck in jail, the D.A.’s tryin to burn me
I’d be out on bail, if I had a good attorney
Want to label me a criminal and cuff me up
Got a pocket full of money so they rough me up – I ain’t trippin
In the county and I’m mad as fuck
Got a record so they put me with the baddest bunch
Everybody wanna talk cause I’m rappin, they askin me what happened
Is it true you did a flick with Janet Jackson?
I can’t sleep! They takin Polaroids
And I’m tryin to use the phone, but they makin noise
Man I wish I had my glock, cause it’s major
I’m makin shanks out the plastic in razors
These motherfuckers won’t leave me alone, that’s my word
Bout to turn a violation to a motherfuckin murder”
That’s 2Pac at his thugged out finest. Eminem’s heavy presence on the album continues as he produces the next three cuts as well: the somber solo “Ghetto Gospel” which makes excellent use of an Elton John sample for a hook, “Black Cotton” which features both Eminem AND the Outlawz, and the title track “Loyal to the Game” featuring G-Unit. In fact as this writer delves deeper into this album, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s not going to be a song NOT produced by Eminem. Turn the page in the liner notes and you’ll see 7-9 all have his musical touch, although the guest appearances this time are by Jadakiss on “N.I.G.G.A.” and Nate Dogg singing the hook of the album’s lead single “Thugs Get Lonely Too”:
“I call you up long distance, on the telephone
Wanna tuck you in even though I can’t make it home
I whisper thangs in your ear like you’re near me
Wonder if you feel me, from far away, and can you hear me?
It seems to me, that you’re jealous
Cause I’m hustlin and makin money, with the fellas
In the backstreets, tryin to track me, baby hold up!
Thugs get lonely too, but I’m a soldier”
Although I’m surprised by the fact Eminem seems to have done this entire album, it at least seems that his production skills are not only vastly improved over his other beats to date, but that he specifically laced beats appropriate to the songs and the way Shakur is flowing. As 2Pac rips vocals at high tempo on “Crooked Nigga Too,” Em wisely chose a spartan track with a stripped down bass and rhythm track that keeps the time as Shakur unreels his rhymes, not taking away the focus or drowning out the diction of the venemous verbals. “Don’t You Trust Me” may become the second big hit he’s involved with to feature a Dido sample, but once again it seems like a natural fit and “Do You Have a Little Time” shines here – I think Shakur would approve. The only song I’m not really sure about is “Hennessey” featuring Obie Trice. While it’s loping accordian and bass style sounds perfectly appropriate for an Obie track, it doesn’t feel like 2Pac’s style at all. Even when Shakur wanted to inject humor into his music, it usually came from George Clinton/P-Funk/70’s groove orientation, and this song clearly doesn’t. Eminem finishes more strongly on the oriental influenced “Thug 4 Life” with a beat that’s still a little different but seems more like something Shakur would/could get down with.
Perhaps the album’s orchestrators realized that having an entire new 2Pac album be solely produced by Eminem could be overkill, and it does seem wise that they included four non-Eminem mixes as bonus tracks. Scott Storch does an excellent job on “Po Nigga Blues” and Ron Isley is as soulful as ever with his crooning. The Red Spyda mix of “Hennessey” featuring Edi (Amin) and Sleepy Brown seems much more appropriate and should have been used on the album instead – no offense Marshall, it’s just closer in swing and funk to how Shakur sounded in his prime. I’m really digging the smooth bounce of Raphael Saadiq’s “Crooked Nigga Too” remix, and DJ Quik as always comes off hard on his “Loyal to the Game” remix with Big Syke. It’s a shame that Quik and ‘Pac didn’t get to collaborate more while he was alive, they’re a natural fit. On the whole “Loyal to the Game” is a satisfactory experience; not really exceeding the quality of past posthumous releases but not showing the signs of weakness one would expect when it’s increasingly hard to pick relevant material to mix and release. ‘Pac fans might be surprised that Eminem was the HPIC on this one, but will most likely (even if a bit begrudgingly) have to give him props for helping keep 2Pac fresh in 2004. If you’re loyal to 2Pac, “Loyal to the Game” will be right up your alley.