2Pac became the unlikely martyr of gangsta rap, and a tragic symbol of the toll its lifestyle exacted on urban black America. At the outset of his career, it didn't appear that he would emerge as one of the definitive rappers of the '90s — he started out as a second-string rapper and dancer for Digital Underground, joining only after they had already landed their biggest hit. But in 1991, he delivered an acclaimed debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, and quickly followed with a star-making performance in the urban drama Juice. Over the course of one year, his profile rose substantially, based as much on his run-ins with the law as his music. By 1994, 2Pac rivaled Snoop Dogg as the most controversial figure in rap, spending as much time in prison as he did in the recording studio. His burgeoning outlaw mythology helped his 1995 album Me Against the World enter the charts at number one, and it also opened him up to charges of exploitation. Yet, as the single "Dear Mama" illustrated, he was capable of sensitivity as well as violence. Signing with Death Row Records in late 1995, 2Pac released the double-album All Eyez on Me in the spring of 1996, and the record, as well as its hit single "California Love," confirmed his superstar status. Unfortunately, the gangsta lifestyle he captured in his music soon overtook his own life. While his celebrity was at its peak, he publicly fought with his rival, the Notorious B.I.G., and there were tensions brewing at Death Row. Even with such conflicts, however, 2Pac's drive-by shooting in September 1996 came as an unexpected shock. On September 13, six days after the shooting, 2Pac passed away, leaving behind a legacy that was based as much on his lifestyle as it was his music.
The son of two Black Panther members, Tupac Amaru Shakur was born in New York City. His parents had separated before he was born, and his mother moved him and his sister around the country for much of their childhood. Frequently, the family was at the poverty level, but Shakur managed to gain acceptance to the prestigious Baltimore School of the Arts as a teenager. While he was at the school, his creative side flourished, as he began writing raps and acting. Before he could graduate, his family moved to Marin City, CA, when he was 17 years old. Over the next few years, he lived on the streets and began hustling. Eventually, he met Shock-G, the leader of Digital Underground. The Oakland-based crew decided to hire him as a dancer and roadie, and as he toured with the group, he worked on his own material. 2Pac made his first recorded appearance on the group's spring 1991 record, This Is an EP Release, and he also appeared on their second album, Sons of the P. The following year, he released his own debut, 2Pacalypse Now. The album became a word-of-mouth hit, as "Brenda's Got a Baby" reached the R&B Top 30 and the record went gold. However, its blunt and explicit lyrics earned criticisms for moral watchdogs, and Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the album while he was campaigning for re-election that year.
Shakur's profile was raised considerably by his acclaimed role in the Ernest Dickerson film Juice, which led to a lead role in John Singleton's Poetic Justice the following year. By the time the film hit theaters, 2Pac had released his second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., which became a platinum album, peaking at number four on the R&B charts and launching the Top Ten R&B hit singles "I Get Around" and "Keep Ya Head Up," which peaked at number 11 and 12, respectively, on the pop charts. Late in 1993, he acted in the basketball movie Above the Rim. Although Shakur was selling records and earning praise for his music and acting, he began having serious altercations with the law; prior to becoming a recording artist, he had no police record. He was arrested in 1992 after he was involved in a fight that culminated with a stray bullet killing a six-year-old bystander; the charges were later dismissed. 2Pac was filming Menace II Society in the summer of 1993 when he assaulted director Allen Hughes; he was sentenced to 15 days in jail in early 1994. The sentence arrived after two other high-profile incidents. In October of 1993, when he was charged with shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta. The charges were dismissed, but the following month, he and two members of his entourage were charged with sexually abusing a female fan. In 1994, he was found guilty of sexual assault. The day after the verdict was announced, he was shot by a pair of muggers while he was in the lobby of a New York City recordings studio. Shakur was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison on February 7, 1995.
Later that month, Shakur began serving his sentence. He was in jail when his third album, Me Against the World, was released in March. The record entered the charts at number one, making 2Pac the first artist to enjoy a number one record while serving a prison sentence. While he was in prison, he accused the Notorious B.I.G., Puffy Combs, Andre Harrell, and his own close friend Randy "Stretch" Walker of orchestrating his New York shooting. Shakur only served eight months of his sentence, as Suge Knight, the president of Death Row Records, arranged for parole and posted a 1.4 million dollar bond for the rapper. By the end of the year, 2Pac was out of prison and working on his debut for Death Row. On November 30, 1995 — the one-year anniversary of the New York shooting — Walker was killed in a gangland-styled murder in Queens.
2Pac's Death Row debut, All Eyez on Me, was the first double disc of original material in hip-hop history. It debuted at number one upon its February release, and would be certified quintuple platinum by the fall. Although he had a hit record and, with the Dr. Dre duet "California Love," a massive single on his hands, Shakur was beginning to tire of hip-hop and started to concentrate on acting. During the summer of 1996, he completed two films, the thriller Bullet and the dark comedy Gridlock'd, which also starred Tim Roth. He also made some recordings for Death Row, which was quickly disintegrating without Dre as the house producer, and as Knight became heavily involved in illegal activities.
At the time of his murder in September 1996, there were indications that Shakur was considering leaving Death Row, and maybe even rap, behind. None of those theories can ever be confirmed, just as the reasons behind his shooting remain mysterious. Shakur was shot on the Las Vegas strip as he was riding in the passenger seat of Knight's car. They had just seen the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand, and as they were leaving the hotel, 2Pac got into a fight with an unnamed young black man. The case was never solved, but it has been suggested that this was the cause of the drive-by shooting, and it has also been suggested that Knight's ties to the mob and to gangs were the reason; another theory is that the Notorious B.I.G. arranged the shooting as retaliation for 2Pac's comments that he slept with Biggie's wife, Faith Evans. Either way, Shakur was shot four times and was admitted to University of Nevada Medical Center. Six days later, he died from his wounds.
Hundreds of mourners appeared at the hospital upon news of his death, and the entire entertainment industry mourned his passing, especially since there were no leads in the case. Many believed his death would end the much-hyped East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalry and decrease black-on-black violence. Sadly, six months after his death, the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered under similar circumstances. As Shakur's notoriety only increased in the wake of his death, a series of posthumous releases followed, among them Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (issued under the alias Makaveli in 1996), R U Still Down? (Remember Me) (1997), Still I Rise (1999), Until the End of Time (2001), and Better Dayz (2002). ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine