Friday, November 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "All Eyez on Me" by 2Pac

All Eyez on Me, 2Pac's final release during his lifetime, marks a lamentable shift in topic and theme. While 2Pac's early, and superior, albums find him decrying a variety of societal ills as a 'message' rapper, All Eyez on Me is filled with remorseless 'thug life' tales. Truth be told, little more than a small series of incremental steps exists between decrying gang violence, illustrating its horrors, objectively recounting gangland tales, and glorifying street crime. Since to many a listener the intent of 'message rap' was often lost in the vicarious thrill of hard-life tales, perhaps it's to be expected that the artists would blur that line as well until it was barely even perceptible. Circumstances conspired to feed Shakur's voluminous martyr-complex, with the result that he got out of jail determined to show how hard he was, a thug fighting against a system designed to keep him down. In any case, he was walking free due to Suge Knight's posting of a bond, in exchange for Shakur recording for Knight's Death Row label, an imprint with a reputation for bloodiness and bloody-mindedness.

Never mind that Shakur was in prison for sexual assault, less a hard-man-being-beaten-down crime than a defenseless-woman-being-beaten-and-gang-raped crime. Tales of being a sex criminal sell rather less than ghetto thug odysseys (and on this particular album any track discussing women tends to be misogynist swill), so former-ballet-dancer 2Pac threw himself into the role with all the concentration of a method actor. Within months he was dead, a victim of the very gang violence he had tried to hard to be a part of. Be careful what you wish for, they say.

2Pac apparently had a backlog of material written from his days behind prison bars. He also apparently wanted to get his contract with Suge Knight over with as soon as possible. Whether or not it's strictly true, All Eyez on Me is hailed as rap's first double album, and more importantly, reflecting its 1996 release era, it's a double-CD, a 132-minute monster.

When, in the wake of this album's phenomenal 9x-platinum success, it became de rigeur for hip-hop artists to release double-CDs, they became a new and very particular form of torture. Already the expanded running time offered by the CD had caused hip-hop artists to give into bloat, with CDs padded to 70-minute running times with skits, intros, outros, remixes and 'special guests'. Within the context of what I do here at "Better as a Single", almost any mainstream CD released in the 1990s was a 'double album', and most of them were guilty of the same quality-control-lapses that plagues 'doubles' in the 60s, 70s and 80s. But 140 minutes is far more than anybody properly needs (double CDs are effectively quadruple albums), and All Eyez on Me is no exception, especially since it's front-loaded to the point that 80% of what you want to hear is contained on the first CD. It plays almost like a 'deluxe edition' package, with the album on one disc accompanied by outtakes on a second disc. My reduction, then, doesn't go so far as to minimise a 132-minute project into a 40-minute format. Instead, I've cut it down to twelve overlong songs, to come up with one CD that's about sixty minutes in length. Still more than common sense would dictate, but much more tolerable than 27 overlong songs that all start to sound pretty much exactly the same.

All Eyez on Me

Side one
  1. Ambitionz az a Rider (4:38)
  2. California Love (Remix) (6:25)
  3. How Do U Want It (4:47)
  4. 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted (4:06)
  5. Picture Me Rollin' (5:14)
  6. Run tha Streetz (5:16)
Side two
  1. Only God Can Judge Me (4:56)
  2. Heartz of Men (4:43)
  3. Shorty Wanna Be a Thug (3:51)
  4. No More Pain (6:14)
  5. I Ain't Mad at Cha (4:53)
  6. Life Goes On (5:01)

Ambitionz az a Ridah: keep (side one, track one)

This is a really great opening track. Musically, it's pretty simple, with little more than a creepy/funky piano line and a beat behind it. On an album crammed with guest performances, this is quite understated, to the point that 2Pac himself actually sings the chorus (and sung it is). Over top, 2Pac raps as he intends to for the next two hours: ghetto fantasy, 'thug life' both as a metaphor for street life and for the rather more pampered life of a rap star. But his flow is a force to be reckoned with: self-assured and commanding. He's every bit the 'great rapper' he's frequently lauded as on this song.

Not only was this the first song recorded for the album (a historical note at best) but it's also a kind of 'statement of purpose'. I frontload this album perhaps too heavily with hits and with special-guests, so at least this, track one on the original and track one on my single-disc, serves as an 'intro' before getting down to the top 40.

All Bout U: lose

A smooth R&B sound and a well-sung chorus does nothing to hide the fact that this is misogynistic garbage. Most of 2Pac's verses are just women-hating sex talk. The chorus, and Snoop Dogg's speech, berate a woman for, as far as I can tell, having a successful career in music videos (and attending the Million Man March). For this sin, the woman is called a 'ho' literally dozens of times, without even the slightest remorse.

Skandalouz: lose

This is a tough one. I think this properly belongs on a different album. I know 2Pac envisioned this as largely a 'party album', but rarely is is as explicitly 'party-oriented' as it is here. As usual on this album, 2Pac has nothing intelligent to say on the topic of women, and some of his lines are quite bad, really. But his flow is great, Nate Dogg's vocals warm and memorable, and the bed of music beneath it rich and welcoming. This is just too great sounding a song to be entirely dismissed, but it's ultimately an empty experience.

Got My Mind Made Up: lose

After the previous two tracks, this is a welcome return to the business at hand. The simplest of beats, accented with tiny little scratches and a simple keyboard line, lies underneath a series of guest-stars. This album is overloaded with guest-stars, but the ones on Disc 1, like the Siamese Twins Method Man and Redman here, are big names you want to hear, not anonymous space-fillers. And frankly what's worthwhile - all that's worthwhile - about this song is Method Man and Redman. Otherwise, there's nothing of note going on here.

How Do U Want It: keep (side one, track three)

'Commercial' rap at its most blatant, this Jodeci-sung track even features an unusually radio-oriented 'bouncy' flow from 2Pac himself. The whole thing sounds great, though, and even if Jodeci are required to drop way more n-bombs than they probably otherwise would have, surely this pop confection was responsible for more than a few of the multi million units this collection shifted.

I had originally buried this song a bit deeper, but on playback it kept bubbling forward. Tracks two and three are a one-two of legitimate party jams before the album cools down a bit. The two number one hits come back-to-back, and this is the second one, track three.

2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted: keep (side one, track four)

Obviously this song does nothing more than what it says on the label: takes two of Death Row's biggest stars, 2Pac and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and sticks them on the same song, sparring back-and-forth on a friendly, superficial tune that makes no real attempt at 'depth' in any way, shape or form. Luckily, that's quite enough: this track works merely because the pair seem to be having a good time, they're two greats at the peak of their game, effortlessly knocking off what feels like a simple, fresh freestyle. Most of the 'special guests' on this album feel like marketing ploys: no-names riding 2Pac's coattails in the hopes of greater success to come (while 2Pac tends to phone in his own contribution). Here, though, it's a meeting of equals, and 2Pac rises to the occasion. It does get a bit repetitive, though.

To a certain extent the track placement of the original was a kind of template for my version. On the original, this song brings us back to the mission at hand after "How Do U Want It", and it serves the same purpose here, as track four keeping the special-guest parade alive on my single-length.

No More Pain: keep (side two, track four)

This six-minute-plus epic revolves around a highly creepy, dissonant beat reminiscent of the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA (though in fact created by DeVanté Swing, someone I've otherwise never even heard of). The whole mood, in fact, recalls that Staten Island crew - interesting for a disc that forms a major part of the 'coastal feud' of the era. 2Pac is perhaps a bit unrelenting here, but the whole thing is a welcome change of pace and an intense masterpiece, even if ultimately it outwears its welcome by the time it's faded out.

I wanted to have side two slow down a little. This being slow but also long and experimental, it screams out 'put me on side two', and so I do, in the middle of a long segment of songs without guest rappers. With two weepers following this, this is in a way the album's climax. It's track four of side two.

Heartz of Men: keep (side two, track two)

A thank-you to benefactor Suge Knight, this is a great-sounding song, funky and with a rich mosaic of samples (including great use of Prince and Richard Pryor), this song is hugely enjoyable as an example of pure escapist ghetto fantasy. It's only when you consider the hollowness of 2Pac's materialist hard-man braggadocio that the song loses a little bit of its lustre.

It wasn't immediately apparent to me where to put this. Since side two starts off uptempo before cooling off halfway through, I included it here. It comes after the funky side opener and keeps the tempo high.

Life Goes On: keep (side two, track six)

This song sticks out on the album for being far more sentimental than the rest of the collection and, frankly, not being entirely devoid of cheese. It flirts with the boundaries of good taste, but a bit of suspension of disbelief (and of cynicism) later, and you're listing to a good an memorable song. This is one of many of 2Pac's meditations on death that gained a certain level of infamy as 'prophetic' in the wake of his own premature passing.

It's a eulogy. Putting it in the middle of a CD strikes me as strange and ultimately detrimental to the CD's flow and to this song's impact. It's, again, an oddly sentimental way to end the album, but it works for me, and it's a hell of a lot better closing track than "Heaven Ain't Hard 2 Find".

Only God Can Judge Me: keep (side two, track one)

The only reason one ever says the phrase that forms this song's title is in response to having been judged, and found wanting, by humans. Since that judgement was by and large fair, this song is mostly martyr-complex stuff. Yet 2Pac is entirely compelling here, dramatic and messianic and exhibiting a flow here as masterful as on any other tracks recorded during his lifetime. The G-Funk backing track, an outside production by people I've never heard of, is funky and memorable enough to make the song a success.

It is a bit of a statement of purpose, isn't it? Not enough to displace "Ambitionz az a Ridah" as the opener, but starting off side two is like a 'second opener', isn't it? Well, at least I like to pretend it is.

Tradin' War Stories: lose

That tightrope between reviling and revelling in 'the life': perhaps it's the very tension between these two divergent goals that creates the excitement that exists in so much 'gangsta rap'; I don't know. I do know that the temptation to draw some kind of moral or message from experience, however remorseless you might like to seem for the vicarious benefit of suburban teenagers who buy your stuff, seems almost irresistible, and here we get a sense of that: another mass of rappers sitting around, 'trading war stories' as the apt title would have it. But it cuts a bit deeper here, as in each case there's an attempt to dig a bit deeper than mere thug-boasts. Most of the time on these two discs, I find myself tuning out the words and listening to the music below. But here I find it hard to do that. It's decent, but it's overlong, and in the end it's just filler.

California Love (Remix): keep (side one, track one)

I'm having a hard time with this. In particular, I'm having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what is so undeniably fabulous about the single version of this song and what precisely gets lost in this sadly toothless remix. It's still great, mind you: effortless, exciting, fun and funky as hell. It's a true party song on a disc that has fewer of them than one might think. What it is, in fact, is a shadow of a masterpiece. Obviously, as the whole planet agrees by now, the disc should have had the single mix. Roger Troutman's fabulous talkboxed coda is a worthwhile addition, but otherwise even he (singing one of hip-hop's best-ever original choruses) loses a little with this remix. Still, can't complain: this still blows 95% of the rest of these two CDs clean out of the water. 2Pac would eventually have plenty of unflattering things to say about Dr. Dre, but did he ever attempt to calculate exactly how much Dre contributed to his career with this masterpiece? This is a very rare thing: a song that nobody seems to dislike. It's just brilliant from start to finish.

Remix or no, this is the jewel in the crown. There's really no reason it should be placed deep in the middle of the first CD. I really think the sooner the better for this, so it's track two here, first up after the 'intro'. It might be true that I front-load this album too much, but I like the idea of putting the 'party tunes' first. Contemplation comes later, in fits and spurts.

I Ain't Mad at Cha: keep (side two, track five)

My personal pick for 'best tune on the album' and maybe even 'best tune in 2Pac's career', this is a rare return to the themes and emotional weight of 2Pac's previous albums. An absolutely gorgeous rumination on past friends escaping 'the life' (and, again, of his time in prison), this is sensitively and congenially written and performed by 2Pac (within hours of his release from prison, allegedly), with a beautiful chorus sung by Danny Boy and a piano line, taken from a DeBarge song, that BlackStreet also used. 2Pac did it better.

The focus of this is different to "Life Goes On", I know. But the two are contemplative and considerate, and they bring the album to a calm, reflective conclusion. So it's the second-to-last track.

What'z Ya Phone #: lose

The first CD ends in a really dreadful fashion. Building a song around Prince's erratic funk masterpiece "777-9311" is no bad idea, and marrying it to a rushed sex rap not a crime by itself. But the second half of this track is entirely an unpleasant re-enactment of a telephone conversation between 2Pac and some woman he was 'intimate' with. Horrible stuff that no one in their right mind would want to listen to more than once. As obscene phone calls go, I'd even take the Jerky Boys.

Can't C Me: lose

Dr. Dre was working at the peak of his talent in this era, and actually getting George Clinton himself on board instead of merely sampling P-Funk is a genius move. The track has all kinds of Parliament-style curlicues throughout, but somehow it falls flat. I think it might be 2Pac himself, who seems like he's boxed in by the activity around him and is screaming to be heard in this track. As the opening track of disc two, a 'party tune' is a good choice, but this particular track seems to be trying too hard, and it gets no party started. So I guess that makes it perfect as an introduction to the unfortunately flat disc two.

Shorty Wanna Be a Thug: keep (side two, track three)

Shorty Wanna be a Thug: A scratchy vinyl sample and an occasional sax break conspire to create a backdrop that is a bit unusual over which 2Pac (sans guests, strangely for disc two) tells the take of a youth being inaugurated into the 'life'. Ultimately, it's quite a gripping track, perhaps not overly memorable but not merely filler either. Even though this is faint praise, this track is a highlight of the second disc.

Side two, track three is the single most anonymous place on a twelve-track album, and I wanted to give this song a bit more prominence, but the only prominence I could give it (not inconsequential) was as 'bridge between uptempo and slower segments'.

Holla at Me: lose

This is taken at a quicker tempo than most of the midtempo G-Funk on display here, yet the increased tempo does little to ramp up the energy and excitement level. Guest vocalist Jewell, whoever she is, dominates this track, but it's mostly just messy and forgettable.

Wonda Why They Call U Bitch: lose

More misogynistic garbage. At one time 2Pac might have defended a woman against slurs, now he revels in them. In this particular case, the woman - who 2Pac says he loved 'like a sister - is apparently guilty of the crime of promiscuity. In any case, the musical backing, with female voices amusically singing the title track, is weak, leaving nothing worthwhile about this song.

When We Ride: lose

An anonymous 'group track': in an obvious cross-marketing move, the Outlawz dominate; 2Pac is barely even present. Electro squeaks and beeps in the background, a decent backing track, but absolutely nothing you'd need to hear a second time.

Thug Passion: lose

This track has on it all the elements of the very best of Death Row G-Funk. It really is a decent sounding song, but again it's largely a special-guest showcase, and when 2Pac does show up, he clearly has nothing to say, rapping about drinks and knocking off another filler that is all style, no substance.

Picture Me Rollin': keep (side one, track five)

'Rolling' is exactly what this smooth, musical backing track is doing. It's mostly run-of-the-mill gangsta taunts and boasts on top, another litanly of guest rappers lining up to add a verse or two, another sung chorus, another four minutes done and dusted. But it sounds great, and ultimately when it comes to disc two of this collection, that has to be enough.

I'll be frank here: one of the main reasons I included this song was because CD2 was woefully under-represented on my single-disc. But I wound up putting it on side one, the last of a long series of head-bobbing songs with prominent beats, second to last on the side.

Check-Out Time: lose

Probably the most cynical filler track on disc two, and maybe the worst track on the whole disc. A parade of guest performers talk boring nonsense about being drunk and picking up women, with the phrase "we gotta go" repeated incessantly. Horrid.

Rather Be Ya Nigga: lose

This is a pretty generic 'slow jam', another embarrassing take on relationships. The music is a bit too saccharine, and nothing either 2Pac or Richie Rich has much compelling to say. It's actually all rather poorly done. As the topic of sex goes, it's one of the better performances on this disc, actually, yet it still falls flat. This is what passes for 'romance' at Death Row, I guess.

All Eyez on Me: lose

What does it mean if you take your magnum opus's title track and bury it as track ten of the second disc? It could mean that Death Row started with the title for the CD, and then decided that one of the anonymous tracks on disc two could be spruced up by adding a half-sung 'chorus' featuring the album title. I don't know, but ultimately this song is really representative of the second disc, being perfectly mediocre. Not embarrassing, but something that might have stayed on the shelf had this album been better edited. Big Syke pulls off his verse with aplomb, though. How odd that a title track doesn't make the cut.

Run tha Streetz: keep (side one, track six)

In the middle of the doldrums of the second half of CD two, we get this track. This track is not that highly rated, and it's back to gender relations, which on this album means 2Pac talking a load of bollocks. The main reason I rate this, though, is because it's written mostly from a woman's perspective, Michel'le gets in a great verse, and after countless tracks where women are either cussed and treated as sex objects or else (on the 'thug' stuff) ignored entirely, it's nice to have a slightly more varied approach to the other half of the planet. The song features the R&B-staple high-pitched keyboard line and is hardly revolutionary musically, but at least it's no embarrassment.

Of the twelve songs I chose, I'm well aware that this is the one most likely to raise eyebrows. Its sound is most similar to "Life Goes On", so I give them complementary positions: the final track on each side. That might frustrate this song's detractors that I give it so prominent a placement, but I like the idea of cooling down side one by dropping the tempo as it concludes.

Ain't Hard 2 Find: lose

A series of anonymous guest rappers, so anonymous they're actually identified by letters of the alphabet (honestly: except for Richie Rich and 2Pac himself, the performers here are named "B-Legit", "C-Bo", "D-Shot" and "E-40"), over a totally typical G-Funk beat. Death Row could have whipped off a 60 minute CD of material exactly like this ever week or so. There's nothing wrong with this; in the context of the second half of disc two, it's almost a highlight. But it's just bog-standard, run-of-the-mill stuff.

Heaven Ain't Hard 2 Find: lose

A sex rap, but shockingly limp. A truly dreadful ending to the album, this could be the Fresh Prince.

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