It’s easy to forget that 2Pac’s prolific career lasted only five years. A 2Pac fan unfamiliar with his 1991 debut 2Pacalypse Now will be struck by how clear and sober 2Pac sounds. Each one of 2Pac’s albums became angrier and more prophetic, until life uncomfortably intimated art, and 2Pac was murdered weeks after completing 7 Day Theory. A debut album is a culmination of the artist’s life up until that point, and to truly understand an artist’s journey you must start with their roots. We’re familiar with 1993-1996 2Pac, so let’s unpack his debut and see where it ranks with the greatest debut rap albums.
“Young Black Male” – If I could’ve asked producer Big D the Impossible two questions they’d be 1) How did you come up with your amazing name? 2) You produced four beats on 2Pac’s album, why did you let him use the worst one for the intro? An intro is supposed to hook the listener in, Jay-Z understood and perfected this. 2Pac sounds fine but not enough to save this un-funky Funkadelic sample.
“Trapped” –Quintessential Early 2pac, a song about feeling like a prisoner in the streets. “Trapped” would’ve served as a better introduction to the world than the underwhelming “Young Black Male”. Speaking of singles, The Underground Railroad produced all three singles off the album, “Trapped”, “If My Homie Calls” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby”, all great beats. According to my Google research the only other tracks The Underground Railroad ever produced are an interlude and “Point Tha Finga” off Strictly 4 My Niggaz, the follow-up to 2pacalypse Now. The Underground Railroad included Pee-Wee (more on him later), Live Squad (much more on them later), Big D The Impossible and three Digital Underground producers: Ronald Brooks, Gregory Jacobs and David Elliot. What an interesting ensemble of West Coast producers, it’s a shame that they didn’t stick together and become the West Coast version of The Hitmen or Beats by The Pound.
“Soulja’s Story” – An 18-year-old boy in Texas was “inspired” to kill a 43-year-old state trooper after listening to this song. The lore that followed this song is more significant than how much the track sticks out on the album. However, it did lead to the hilarious line off Strictly 4 My Niggaz “What the fuck does Quayle know what a young black male needs?!” I have a conspiracy theory that Big Syke, not 2Pac, is the voice of Soulja. It sounds nothing like 2Pac’s teenage voice and much more like the gruff, deep voice of Big Syke who eventually starred in 2pac’s Thug Life album and appeared on four(!) songs on All Eyez on Me.
“I Don’t Give A Fuck” – Most underrated song on the album. I wish I knew someone weird enough who would want to have a 45-minute conversation just on this song. The beat knocks and the rebellious nature of the song makes it the best song to listen to in the car, put simply, the song bumps. It’s produced by a man called Pee-Wee and features an obscure rapper named Pogo. Pogo’s voice is clear and cocky while he floats over the beat with little effort. When his verse ends and 2Pac’s second verse immediately starts you realize how well they complement each other. I may or may not have spent many a car ride wishing 2Pac and Pogo traded four bar verses for a whole song like they were Jadakiss and Styles P. I got so into this song that I did an hour-long Google deep dive trying to discover who this Pogo guy was and how I could listen to his other stuff. Eventually, I discovered the rapper Pogo and Pee-Wee are the same person. Pee-Wee was one half of the Digital Underground affiliated Early 90’s group Gold Money. It’s very hard to find any music of Gold Money other than a video they shot to promote their single “Money”. I sat through the “Money” video and came up with two conclusions: 1) The other member of Gold Money was so bad he held Pee-Wee/Pogo back from stardom 2) I love black women.
“Violent” – There was an unwritten rule in Hip-Hop in the late 80’s and early 90’s: you had to have one reggae inspired beat/song on your album. It almost always went bad, Boogie Down Productions’ “9mm” being the exception to the rule. DJ Quik’s “Tha Bombudd” off Quik Is The Name is the most glaring example of a reggae inspired song doing it’s best to ruin an otherwise classic album. This trend foreshadowed the god-awful genre of Reggaeton. Can’t we just let reggae be and not mix it with any other genres? It’s a shame because Raw Fusion were hardcore producers with interesting sounds and could’ve come up with something compelling. 2Pac sounds good on the weak Shabba Ranks sample and lyrically it’s up to snuff with the rest of the album. It’s the worst beat on the album, yet someone in the studio suggested two minutes of the instrumental just rocking at the end, making it the longest song on the album.
“Words of Wisdom” – We go from my least favorite to my favorite beat on the album, produced by Digital Underground member and 2Pac’s mentor Shock G. 2Pac was at his best when he made being thoughtful sound fly. The beat is begging for 2Pac to flow on it and he complies, floating over the track like a veteran. At the end of his song he starts shit-talking, but not with nearly the same snarl of his later work. By Strictly, 2pac had grown an incredible amount as an artist and person in the small 14-month window between his debut and sophomore efforts.
“Crooked Nigga” – Instead of rapping like Ice Cube, 2Pac samples him for this solid album cut. The song is produced by Live Squad member Stretch who also co-produced “Tha Lunatic”. 2Pac and Stretch had a falling out after 2Pac got shot in the infamous ’94 Quad Studio Shooting, and the two traded jabs in Vibe Magazine. Less than a year later Stretch was murdered. Post-prison 2Pac had the Death Row Army behind him and any producer wanting to work with him. Pre-prison 2Pac’s best collaborator was Stretch. Just look at his 2Pac credits:
2pacalypse Now– “Crooked Nigga”, “Tha Lunatic”
Strictly 4 My Niggaz- “Holler If Ya Hear Me”, “Strugglin”, “The Streets R Deathrow”, “5 Deadly Venoms”
Thug Life Vol. 1- “Bury Me A G”, “Shit Don’t Stop”, “Stay True”, “Under Pressure”, “Street Fame”
Above The Law Soundtrack- “Pain”
One Million Strong Compilation- “Runnin’ From tha Police”
Me Against The World- “So Many Tears”
R U Still Down? (Remember Me)- “Nothing to Lose”, “Hold on Be Strong”, “Only Fear of Death”
Greatest Hits- “God Bless the Dead”
Unreleased 2pac Tracks released during his lifetime – “Pass the 40”, “Flex”, “Hell Razor”, “Hurts The Most”, “Thug Life”, “House of Pain”
What a resume. Stretch was on his way to becoming one of the best producers of all time. It’s not the sheer number of tracks, it’s the quality of a beat by a producer that makes you go “Yo, who produced this?”. Stretch isn’t doing just one style, “Pain” and “Bury Me A G” are two of my favorite 2Pac songs and sound nothing alike. Stretch was the point guard during 2pac’s underrated ’92-’94 run, setting 2Pac up for success and always pressing the right buttons. We may never know what the ORIGINAL Thug Life Vol. 1 would have sounded like, but it’s safe to assume there would’ve been even more Stretch bangers. “So Many Tears” is up there with any other 2Pac song on his masterpiece Me Against The World. It makes you wonder what else Stretch could’ve added to the album whose mood matched his production style. “Troublesome ‘96” and “Changes” get the shine from Greatest Hit,s but “God Bless The Dead” holds its own among classic 2Pac’s tracks. Besides “Do For Love”, he produced my three favorite tracks on 2Pac’s best posthumous album, R U Still Down? (Remember Me), which, unlike most posthumous 2pac albums, uses mostly original beats. Stretch was the only producer ever to collaborate with 2pac and Biggie on a song and he did it twice. Oh, and he produced “Take it in Blood” & “Silent Murder” on It Was Written. Here’s to Stretch appreciation day!
“If My Homie Calls” – A classic that doesn’t get included on enough 2Pac compilations and playlists. This single proved even more than “Trapped” that 2Pac could make a melodic song around a catchy hook. The hook is so great that 2Pac recycled, I mean reused it for “Peep Game” off Strictly 4 My Niggaz.
“Brenda’s Got A Baby”– The biggest legacy of any song on the album. A song about the sensitive subject of Teen Pregnancy in the ghetto. What sticks out to me is despite being a teenager 2pac pulls off this great artistic statement in the most tactful way possible. Marrying melodies, street tales and characters would go on to become 2Pac’s staple. Blackstreet member Dave Hollister does a great job on the hook
“Tha Lunatic”- Upbeat, rapidity rap song that’s not quite in the “lyrical, miracle, spiritual” mold but it’s close and that’s fine because 2Pac was still finding his way as an artist and the song is solid. This song would have been perfect in place of “Violent” which would have kept the flow going between “I Don’t Give A Fuck” and “Words of Wisdom”. Just in case you forgot it was the early 90’s 2pac mentions Mike Tyson, Nintendo and Michael Jordan within a few lines.
“Rebel of the Underground”– Good, not great song. The second Shock G beat on the album falls short of “Words of Wisdom”. It’s solid but unmemorable.
“Part Time Mother” – We finish the album with a Big D The Impossible beat, just like we started! This beat is an interesting sample of Stevie Wonders’ “Part Time Lover”. Another street tale in the vein of a Donald Goines novel about females in broken homes. The track features two artists, Poppi, who after being features on “Papaz Song” on Strictly 4 My Niggaz vanished from the hip-hop earth. The other artist Angelique didn’t end up making it as a rapper, BUT did star in 2 seasons of Nickelodeon’s “All That”.
As you can probably tell I’m a big 2pac fan. He’s my favorite rapper. Me Against The World, All Eyez On Me and 7 Day Theory are my three favorite hip-hop albums. Strictly 4 My Niggaz and Thug Life Vol. 1 are in my top 40. It’s a little harder to rank 2pacalypse Now. Do I put a greater album by a worse artist above it or give the benefit to the greatest rapper of all time? It’s easier to compare 2Pac’s debut with other solo debuts and go from there. This does not include rappers from groups solo debuts, sorry Ghostface, Raekwon, GZA, Scarface, Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
Classic solo debuts undeniably better than 2pacalypse Now:
Eric B & Rakim – Paid In Full (1987)
Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded (1987)
MC Shan – Down By Law (1987)
Too $hort – Born To Mack (1987)
Slick Rick – The Great Adventures of Slick Rick The Ruler (1988)
Big Daddy Kane – Long Live The Kane (1988)
Biz Markie – Goin Off (1988)
Chill Rob G – Ride The Rhythm (1989)
The D.O.C. – No One Can Do It Better (1989)
Lord Finesse – Funky Technician (1990)
DJ Quik – Quik Is The Name (1991)
Redman – Whut? Thee Album (1992)
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – Mecca & The Soul Brother (1992)
Diamond D – Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop (1992)
Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)
The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die (1994)
Nas– Illmatic (1994)
Jeru The Damaja – The Sun Rises in The East (1994)
AZ – Doe or Die (1995)
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Big Pun – Capital Punishment (1998)
Classic debuts you could argue are better than 2pacalypse Now:
Whoodini – Escape (1984)
LL Cool J – Radio (1985)
Schooly D – Saturday Night!: The Album (1987)
MC Lyte – Lyte as a Rock (1987)
Queen Latifah – All Hail The Queen (1989)
Kool G Rap – Road To Riches (1989)
Spice 1 – Spice 1 (1992)
O.C. – Word…Life (1994)
Big L - Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995)
DMX – It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (1998)
Debuts where if you got me intoxicated, I would admit that I would take these albums on a deserted island over 2pacalypse Now then deny it the next day when I sobered up:
Ma$e – Harlem World (1997)
50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
The Game – The Documentary (2005)
Young Jeezy – Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005)
Interesting lists that tell you a lot about hip-hop history. It confirms that the late 80’s and early 90’s is the golden era, things slowed down in the late 90’s and rap went to hell this past decade. Depending on the day, I would rank 2pacalypse Now somewhere between 20-30 on my all time rap debuts, and probably in the 70’s on my top 100. Not bad for an album that even his so-called biggest fans aren’t familiar with.