We’ve become used to rock stars leaving curiously apt or ironic song titles just before they die. When Elvis expired in 1977, his current single was “Way Down,” which ended with those three low notes, “Way on DOOOWN.” “That’s Elvis, ‘Way on down.’ And I guess one way or another he is,” said a disc jockey on that sad day. “Well, at least 6 feet.”
But, two months after the death of 2Pac Shakur, the ironies of his passing are looking not so much accidental as suspiciously well orchestrated. Just a few days after the murder of their biggest-selling artist, Death Row Records couriered his last video, I Ain’t Mad At Cha, to MTV, coyly suggesting the network might like to rush it into high rotation. Filmed a few weeks earlier, the video shows, by amazing coincidence, 2Pac dying in a drive-by shooting in a car not dissimilar to that of Suge Knight, the Death Row gangsta impresario in whose passenger seat 2Pac met his fate.
Since then, his fans have argued that, as with that other binarily monikered wordsmith Mark Twain, rumors of 2Pac’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The gangsta rapper, they claim, faked his own death. The boy is still in the ‘hood, not the shroud. But, just as commentators bemoan the way contemporary pop has degenerated into sampling, remixes, and cover versions, so 2Pac’s death seems to be merely a cunningly sampled remixed cover-version medley of previous celebrity deaths. There’s the question of physical evidence: No autopsy was conducted, and the body was cremated the next day–so how do we know he’s really dead, eh? This is the Jim Morrison strategy. The only two people who saw Morrison’s body were Mrs. Morrison and the doctor who signed the death certificate, and, since both these witnesses died soon after, how can we ever be sure? Then there’s the Paul McCartney approach. Just as McCartney started rumors of his death by appearing on the Abbey Road cover without shoes and on Sergeant Pepper wearing an armband marked “OPD” (alleged to mean Officially Pronounced Dead), so did 2Pac, on his new album, slyly adopt the name “Makaveli”–like Machiavelli, who, according to 2Pac’s rapping confrere Chuck D, faked his own death to fool his enemies–and pose on the cover in a crucifixion pose, suggesting he intended a resurrection.
There are several flaws with these theories. This may be disheartening for 2Pac fans to contemplate, but, while Jesus did return, it wasn’t for long. Also, Chuck D seems to be the only Machiavelli scholar who has heard anything about that wily courtier dodging death. Possibly, he’s confusing him with that other wily courtier, Rasputin, the man behind the czarist throne, who was poisoned, drowned, etc., but managed to keep coming back. (See Boney M’s seminal 1979 disco hit, which runs, “Ra-ra-rasputEEN, lover of the Russian queen.”) And while it’s pleasant to think of 2Pac sitting around, pondering whether to stay or depart this world–“To pack or not to pack, that is the question”–the best evidence against the faked-death theory is the album itself, credited to Makaveli and cumbersomely entitled The Don Killuminati/The 7 Day Theory. It indicates, frankly, that Pac/Mak didn’t have that much imagination.
The only reference you’ll find on the album to Mak’s previous identity is in the small print on the liner notes: “Exit–2Pac. ENTER–MAKAVELI.” But, alas, the first stage of that maneuver is easier to accomplish than the second. Pop stars periodically reinvent themselves, but even Ricky Nelson’s radical decision to drop the “y” and relaunch himself as “Rick Nelson” was accompanied by a switch to gloomier, more adult material by Dylan and Tim Hardin. From “2Pac” to “Makaveli,” on the other hand, is merely a matter of nomenclature (“Mantovani” would, at least, have been different.) From the opening track, it’s clear the guy has nothing to say in his new identity beyond the same old clapped-out self-justification. “Bomb First (My Second Reply)” begins with a mock news bulletin announcing the name change, and gloating that the Notorious B.I.G. and “several other corny-sounding muthafuckerz” from the East Coast will want to assassinate him.
I t’s hard to figure out the East-West rap wars. In the 1950s, Nat “King” Cole declared playfully that “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock ’n’ Roll.” In the 1970s, many rockers despised disco. But the rap wars are a civil war, occurring within the genre. The only real precedent is the 1940s competition of the crooners; in 1944, Frank Sinatra depicted his competition by parodying “Sunday, Monday, or Always” as “Dick Todd, Dick Haymes, and Como.” These mock-rivalries were contrived to attract publicity and promote sales–surely, that’s true of the rap wars, too. Why else would Suge and his record company allow Mak the Knife to bore on ad nauseam throughout his album about all those East Coast muthafuckerz? In what may be the ultimate postmodern self-referential auto-commentary in contemporary popular culture, Mak begins “To Live & Die in LA” with a radio phone-in in which the host is discussing 2Pac’s previous record, on which the rapper taunted the Notorious B.I.G–who he believed had a part in his 1994 shooting–with a reference to Mrs. B.I.G.: “I fucked your bitch, you fat mutherfucka.” If only all these rivalries could be resolved with the grace of George Harrison, who, after losing Patti Boyd to Eric Clapton, recorded a version of “Bye, Bye, Love,” amending the line, “I hope she’s happy, I sure am blue,” to “I hope she’s happy, ol’ Clapper, too.”
B ut, with this album, musical comparisons are irrelevant. The most melodically interesting track is the exhibitionist provocation of “Me and My Girlfriend“–a love letter to his gun–and it soon dawns on you that that’s only because he’s swiped the tune from Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” Otherwise, most of the creative energy seems to have gone not into the music, but into the dialogue and sound effects that precede and increasingly disrupt the songs. Those who bemoan the decline of radio drama should listen to all the screeching tires and gunfire, and marvel. Those who hail 2Pac as a poet should realize that, on this album, the lyrics are the merest afterthought; by this stage, he was more gangsta than rapper. The only interesting musical effect is the funereal bell tolling throughout “Hail Mary, Nigger.”
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for Tu. Yes, he’s dead. And, if his death seems exquisitely well timed, let’s tactfully put that down to shrewd career management on the part of Suge and Death Row. A few years ago, I was driving around New York with Paul Simon for a BBC-TV film, when the car went over a pothole and the radio jumped from some tasteful doo-wop on WCBS-FM to a rap station: “This,” said Simon sadly, “is the perfect soundtrack for an age of instant gratification.” Maybe Death Row is the first record company to understand, as manufacturers of automobiles and home-entertainment centers do, the need for built-in obsolescence. Happy is the gangsta rapper who lives to celebrate 50 years in show business.