WORDS BY: Alan Light
Rapper. Actor. Activist. Thug. Poet. Rebel. Visionary. Though his recording career lasted just five years, Tupac Amaru Shakur (1971-1996) is one of the most popular artists in history, with over 75 million records sold worldwide. More than half of his eleven studio albums sold over three million copies in the U.S., and both 1996’s All Eyez on Me and his Greatest Hits collection have been certified diamond, surpassing the ten-million mark and placing them among the top-selling albums of all time.
Intent on escaping Baltimore’s violence, his family relocated to Marin City, California when he was 17. He hooked up with the popular Bay Area rap crew Digital Underground, starting as a roadie and back-up dancer, and eventually working his way up to contributing a verse to the 1991 hit “Same Song,” his recorded debut. Tupac was signed to Interscope Records by Tom Whalley (who still oversees his estate today), and his first solo album, 2Pacalypse Now, arrived a few months later, generating both acclaim and controversy. Though the single “Brenda’s Got a Baby” demonstrated his empathy and conscience, the album’s unsparing examinations of street violence and police harassment led to a public condemnation by Vice President Dan Quayle.
This tension would continue to play out over the next five years, as Tupac’s life grew increasingly tumultuous and his popularity escalated. In 1993, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., including the hits “Keep Ya Head Up” and “I Get Around,” became his first platinum release. Two years later, following the release of the Thug Life: Volume 1 album (recorded with Thug Life, his group of five MCs), the more somber and reflective Me Against the World reached Number One on the album charts and was nominated for two Grammys.
Things got even bigger in 1996 with All Eyez on Me, Tupac’s best-selling album, which spawned five singles, including two Number One hits, “California Love” and “How Do U Want It.” At the height of his phenomenal success, Tupac’s life was cut short on September 13, 1996 when he was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas at the age of 25.
Despite the tragedy, Tupac’s music catalog continued to grow thanks to a significant cache of unreleased songs. He recorded at a relentless pace, eventually amassing enough music for an additional seven studio albums, including the multi-platinum releases R U Still Down?, Until the End of Time, and the double-disc Better Dayz.
Nearly a decade after his final album, appreciation has only deepened for the lasting impact of Tupac’s music. His story was told in 2003’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection. The Library of Congress added “Dear Mama” to the National Recording Registry in 2009, and even the Vatican featured “Changes” on its official playlist.