Imagine creating a work of art — something that will truly stand the test the time — but not being able to present your masterpiece to the public once it debuted. That is what Tupac Shakur faced upon the release of his third studio album, Me Against the World, on March 14, 1995. Incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility following his conviction on sexual assault charges, Tupac watched Me Against the World debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts — his first release to achieve that feat — from a jail cell in upstate New York. As a result, the MC became the first artist in history to have that dubious distinction.
The last two years of Tupac’s career had been filled with an intoxicating mix of drama and success, culminating in his unfortunate predicament. In spring of 1993, the rapper was coming off the release of his sophomore album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., and was beginning to experience his transition from a promising conscious street rapper to a full-blown star. Featuring what would become some of the most defining cuts in his catalog, including “Keep Your Head Up” and “I Get Around,” Pac was proving to be a viable hit-maker and emerging as one of the most charismatic artists in all of rap with his charming, yet unpredictable ways.
Although born in New York City, the rapper repped California as his homebase so when he was tapped to play the role of Birdie in the 1994 urban drama, Above the Rim, which was set in New York City, Pac spent much of 1993 and 1994 soaking up the vibe of the city in preparation for the film. During that time, he reconnected with his East Coast roots and the flavor of its concrete jungles while hobnobbing with notorious street thugs such as Haitian Jack and Jimmy Henchman, both of whom would play a big part in his eventual downfall. During that same year, Pac was accused of sexual assault by a female fan, but according to him, he had no involvement in the assault — Jack was also accused and claims he “did nothing to that girl.”
As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Pac was then the victim of a robbery during the now infamous Quad studios shooting in 1994, during which he was shot five times. The incident occurred a day before the verdict in his sexual assault was to be announced and nearly a year to the date of the alleged assault itself. When all was said and done, Pac was convicted on two counts and sentenced to one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years in prison.
This effectively made him unavailable to tour or promote Me Against the World, putting a damper on what was predicted to be a blockbuster year for the rapper. But all of the above set the stage for what is considered Tupac’s greatest body of work and the one album that stands above the rest of his catalog. Me Against the World was the product of a man tapping into the deep end of his artistry while reconciling all of the turmoil in his life with his newfound status as a superstar.
The album’s opening track, “If I Die 2Nite,” is noticeably more boom-bap than G-Funk and is quite the appropriate album opener given the recent happenings in his life at the time. Produced by Easy Mo Bee, who also worked on the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album the year prior, the track sees Tupac questioning what would occur if he were to make his exit on any given night and sounds eerily comfortable with the idea.
Listen to 2Pac’s “If I Die Tonight”
The LP’s title track follows up and immediately grabs your attention with its hard-hitting snares, pounding bass and melodic synths. “Me Against the World” showcases Pac hitting on all cylinders lyrically, especially on the closeout verse during which he gives an impassioned speech to the under-privileged youth across the ghettos of America. “The message I stress: to make it stop study your lessons / Don’t settle for less – even the genius asks his questions / Be grateful for blessings, don’t ever change, keep your essence / The power is in the people and politics we address / Always do your best, don’t let the pressure make you panic / And when you get stranded, and things don’t go the way you planned it / Dreaming of riches, in a position of making a difference /Politicians and hypocrites, they don’t wanna listen,” he raps, delivering the kind of jewels that has kept him a champion of the people nearing two decades after his death.
“Shed So Many Tears” is a glimpse inside the mind of a man on the brink of madness and is nothing short of a masterpiece. “Back in elementary, I thrived on misery / Left me alone I grew up amongst a dying breed/ Inside my mind couldn’t find a place to rest / Until I got that Thug Life tatted on my chest,” he spits. The first four lines alone are unforgettable and hold a weight that belies their simplicity.” While the song as a whole is memorable, the third verse is especially telling, as Tupac bares his inner-most fears with the lines: “There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest / I’m barely standing, bout to go to pieces, screaming peace / And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it / I had my mind full of demons trying to break free / They planted seeds and they hatched, sparking the flame / Inside my brain like a match, such a dirty game / No memories, just a misery / Painting a picture of my enemies killing me, in my sleep.” He possibly alludes to his dealings with Haitian Jack and Jimmy Henchman, as well as the Quad Studios ambush and remains one of the more cryptic offerings in the legend’s discography.
Over the years, Tupac had also cultivated an image as a sex symbol and was regarded as eye candy for throngs of female rap fans, which made the rape allegations against him seem a bit problematic to some. The song “Temptations” catered to this fan base and featured the chiseled MC rhyming sweet nothings into the ears of cuties across the nation and adding to his growing cache of hit singles. “Young N—-z” suffers from a horrible mix, but still manages to flourish due to its lively track and Pac’s lyrics from the point of view of a teenage thug.
The song served as a dedication to Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, an 11-year-old gang member that made the cover of TIME magazine in 1994, after being killed in a gang-related murder. This is one of the rapper’s more underrated offerings. The album’s most endearing selection comes courtesy of the “Dear Mama.” An ode to his mother, Afeni Shakur, the track is a brutally honest examination of his relationship with her and is regarded as the unofficial Mother’s Day anthem in hip-hop.
Watch 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” Video
Giving props to his rap influences on the nostalgic “Old School,” Tupac reminisces on the genre’s “golden era,” running down a list of East Coast pioneers and reminding listeners of his love for New York hip-hop, which would prove to be highly ironic as he would become a major catalyst for the growing rift between East and West Coast factions. Other standouts from the LP include his reunion with mentor Shock G on the infectious “F— the World” and the haunting “Death Around the Corner,” which is the sonic equivalent of the backseat of a jalopy full of gang-banging Chicanos plotting on their next kill.
The greatest gift that Tupac has as an artist is the ability to make the listener feel exactly what he was rhyming about. While other rappers will leave you in awe with their jaw-dropping lyrical wizardry and flows, ‘Pac made things more tangible than visceral with his words on Me Against the World. You’re put into the shoes of the late thug poet for the duration of the album.
Me Against the World does have its lesser moments — namely “Can U Get Away” and the disappointing closing track, “Outlaw” — but it remains a testament to the brilliance of Tupac Shakur and showcases everything there is to love about his artistry. All Eyez On Me may have been a big budget production with as much glitz and glamor surrounding it as any rap album in history while The Don Killuminati was akin to an audio version of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but Me Against the World was Pac laying it all on the table — the good and the bad — and letting the chips fall where they may. The result is a poignant take on the life and times of Tupac Amaru Shakur, the man behind the music.
I often wonder what musical direction Pac would have went in had he not been incarcerated and gone on to align with Death Row Records. Would he have continued to implement the sonic style of the East Coast into his sound? Or would he have continued to surprise us with the unexpected as he’d done since his entrance into the game? The world will never know, but what we do know is that Me Against the World is a timeless classic and is sure to sound just as good in another 20 years as it does today.
Listen to 2Pac’s “Temptations”See 10 Music Milestones From Great Black Artists