(1) Tupac vs. (1) Eminem
Here we are, rap fans, the final battle of our 2013 Rap Madness Tournament. Though our final two competitors are of little surprise to anyone, in an artform full of diverse personalities and achievements their roads have not been easy. Leaving hip-hop icons Public Enemy, NWA and Jay-Z in his wake, Tupac now squares off against the Great White American Hope, who himself has laid figures such as Big Daddy Kane and Notorious B.I.G. to rest. Hip-Hop is the most powerful form of art and music of the last twenty years. Which artist has Impacted that artform in the largest, greatest, deepest way, Tupac or Eminem?
The seed of a rebellious family tree, from birth Tupac was imbued with a sense of social change and justice, often violent and revolutionary in nature. It might seem a straight path, then, to the hip-hop figure he would later become but that is not Pac’s tale. In his early teens Tupac found a passion for the Arts, acting in Harlem’s 127th St. Repertory Ensemble and later enrolling in Baltimore’s School for the Arts. It was through stage and performance that Shakur would first come to find his skill as a rapper, competing in school contests. When his family moved to California in 1988 he began attending poetry classes that would lead to his Digital Underground association. And while from his earliest recordings and writings Tupac stayed close to social issues, the man that would become the venerable leader of Thug Life movement wouldn’t emerge until years later.
In a similar vein, though viewed by many as an American villain, Eminem is also far more artist than natural thug. Full of images explored by few, Em’s graphic lyrics come less from a place of real psychopathic desires and criminal urges and more from an artistic exploration of the emotions that such darkness evokes. The Marshall Mathers LP is hip-hop top-selling album of all time featuring the smash singles “Stan” and “The Real Slim Shady”. The album also is Em at his darkest, featuring “Kim” wherein he savagely murders his former wife. Dark and perhaps disgusting, “Kim” (and other dark tracks on the album) is great art. It is lyrically and sonically proficient, steeped in color and detail and touches a place that few other pieces of art ever will.
For both men, their legal/criminal problems didn’t begin until they were already on their way to a career in the music industry. With incarcerated in 1995, Pac released his third album ‘Me Against the World’ and would sign with Deathrow Records, releasing his double album ‘All Eyez on Me’ soon after leaving jail. His fourth album, featuring the hits ‘How Do You Want It?’, ‘2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted’ and ‘California Love’, would be certified 5x platinum within two months and 9x platinum by 1998 and was historic as the first hip-hop double album. It’s on this album that ‘Pac merged his once social revolutionary persona into one of an American gangster and, not coincidentally, solidified his status as a hip-hop icon.
Each of these two artists has two diamond albums apiece and ranks among the top-selling musicians of all time. While sales aren’t necessary the largest indicator of Impact, what they do speak to, especially on the giant scale that we’ve been talking about, is the wide appeal, almost universal in some ways, of these titans. When an artist becomes so large that everyone everywhere has a need to hear and buy their product there is an inherent wave of influence created on the artform and its fans.
Both are artists rather than thugs, despite Pac creating the Thug Life movement. Pac grew into his gangster (more gangsta, really) persona while Em “graduated to one”. They both created characters of themselves which they then imbue with wild, savage, colorful traits that one might not otherwise be able to bring to life. Neither one parlayed a life of crime and drug-dealing into becoming a hip-hop artist but neither shied away from dark and violent imagery, perhaps proving that there was indeed (usefulness) in such narratives but one didn’t have to personally be a criminal to present them in a realistic light.
In our online poll, one commenter (a gentleman and a scholar) had this to say – “Eminem has been on the scene producing hits since ’99: that’s 14 years of relevancy in a game noted for eating its young.” That last point is important; it’s hard to last in rap. The shelf-life for a particular album is generally short and the disposable nature of alot of rap makes an artist that lasts particularly significant. In Tupac’s case, there is such a demand among his fans that he re-appears to critical acclaim every few years despite his passing in 1996.
Both of these men are hip-hop icons, truly earning their place among the top artists the artform has to offer. Their larger-then-life personas and the lyrical mastery make their art indispensable to hip-hop’s canon. Our online poll is going on now, with Eminem out to an early lead. Who will claim the spot of Hip-Hop’s Biggest Impact?