On what would’ve been Tupac’s 43rd Birthday, here’s an essay I wrote way back in the late 90s for a music course I took in college about one of my favorite Tupac songs, ‘Unconditional Love’ – originally released to the world on his ‘Greatest Hits’ album. I’ve left the essay relatively unedited for authenticity’s sake. RIPower ‘Pac.
Tupac Shakur’s track entitled “Unconditional Love”, provides us with a prime example of his content diversity as a lyricist, his passion for what he determined as his role in not only the music industry, but also contemporary American society, and most importantly, his deep appreciation for the most prominent and important figures in his life. If one breaks this song down verse by verse, one realizes that each stanza is essentially a verbal show of gratitude to three very significant people/types of people in Tupac’s life. The first verse deals with his profound love for his mother. Verse two deals with the role of Tupac’s male friend’s (i.e. his “dogs”) over the course of his life, and the third verse talks about one of Tupac’s female friends (perhaps an old girlfriend who obviously meant a lot to him). In this sense, “Unconditional Love” is essentially three different types of songs combined to make one. Either way, his message is clear. The people he talks about in the song influenced his personal views and actions in a positive manner over the years, and he wants them to know that regardless of the situation, he will love them forever because he knows that they love him unconditionally. He makes sure that he communicates this message strongly by making it the thematic idea behind the chorus.
When Tupac raps “though things change, the future’s still inside of me. We must remember that tomorrow comes after the dark, and you will always be in my heart… with unconditional love!” He is saying that though time (and perhaps money in his case) may change external environmental factors, they way he feels about those who matter in his life will never change because he is in complete control of his internal emotional state (“the future’s still inside of me”). He is also expressing the notion that regardless of how bleak a situation may be either to himself or to his loved ones, it will eventually work itself out in part because of the deeply rooted reciprocating love which they hold for one another (“we must remember that tomorrow comes after the dark, and you will always be in my heart… with unconditional love!”). By means of his chorus, Tupac brings to equilibrium all the individuals to which the song is directed, and leaves no ambiguity as to what message he is attempting to convey to them in the song.
The first verse of “Unconditional Love” deals with Tupac’s strong relationship with his mother. Tupac’s childhood and early adolescent experiences with his mom were very intense. Afeni Shakur was a Black Panther who was in jail while pregnant with Tupac, and was released just a few days prior to his birth. Her ties to the Panthers definitely had a strong influence on Tupac, but their relationship was at times one full of turmoil. In Tupac’s most well known tribute to his mother, “Dear Mama”, he details in-depth the good times and the bad times that he and his mother went through together. The most telling moment (at least in my opinion) of the song is in its first verse when Tupac raps, “and even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen, mama…” This type of love is the essence of what Tupac speaks of in the first verse of “Unconditional Love.”
He begins the verse by proclaiming that what he is about to say are his “truest thoughts” and “truest feelings.” He then goes on to describe the difficulties of watching his neighborhood friends die, and wonders why people cannot realize that “it’s hard to live this life without God,” and that everyone should ask for forgiveness from God in order to lead a more spiritually fulfilling existence. He then goes on to rap about his mother. In the situation which Tupac sets up, he is highly disturbed by all the trials and tribulations which he witnesses and experiences on a daily basis, and is reaching out to his mother for answers and emotional appeasement. He paints a vivid picture in which he “ask[s] [his] mama why God deserved to die.” Then he expresses his sorrows by saying that his mother “witness[ed] the tears falling free from [his] eyes before she could reply.” Tupac began the verse by portraying the struggles of his environment, then went on to describe a situation in which he expels all of his emotional stress and agony to his mother because he knows that as his mother, she will listen and offer support.
In the next two lines he essentially sums up the painful reality of growing up in poverty (as he and his mother did). “Though we were born without a silver spoon, my broken down TV, show cartoons in my living room.” Tupac uses this scenario metaphorically to express how powerful the love between him and his mother is. Tupac was raised in poverty (i.e. “born without a silver spoon”), but despite the financial disadvantages, and thanks in large part to his mother’s love for him, he was able as a child (as well as in retrospect an adult) to focus on the few things they did have which brought them joy. Though their television was old and “broken down,” he was still able to watch the same cartoons that all the other children were watching. In context, the message is that he received the same type of love which all mothers should have for their sons and daughters, regardless of financial status or any other type of categorization for that matter, and therefore lived a healthy childhood.
Tupac then goes on to express his desire to “make it” in the music industry so that he can realize his “fantasy” of bringing his mother as well as entire family outside of poverty’s dreadful confines. “Perhaps it’s just a fantasy. A life where we don’t need no welfare shit with our whole family.” Tupac ends the verse by accepting the notion that perhaps he himself was the cause of some of his own struggles as well as those of his mother, and then stressing the notion that all of his personal mental and emotional problems die away when he experiences the unequivocal power of his mother’s love. “Maybe it’s me that caused it, the fighting and the hurting. In my room crying cause I didn’t want to be a burden. Watch mama open up her arms to hugging, and I ain’t worried ‘bout a damn thang, with unconditionl love.” Every family experiences strife, and every mother and son relationship goes through its ups and downs. In the end however, both mother and son know that their bond is unbreakable, and that the love that they share for one another will carry them through almost any situation. Tupac understood this, and expressed it very eloquently and passionately in this verse.
“Unconditional Love’s” second verse deals with the bond which Tupac felt between him and his close friends. He starts the verse by describing a distance of sorts which keeps him from getting in touch with a particular friend of his as often as he would like. “Just got the message you’ve been calling all week. Been out here hustling on these streets, ain’t had a chance to speak.” Despite this time apart however, Tupac values and trusts his friendship with this particular individual so much that he goes on to say, “but you know, with you and me it’s on G, we could never be enemies, cause you been such a good friend to me.” This line once again expresses the notion of unconditional love. Though the nature of the relationship (and the type of love) is different from that of his relationship with his mother, the dynamics behind the love are essentially the same. Tupac is not saying that he loves his friend in the same manner which he loves his mother, but rather that the bond between them is so strong and meaningful that much like his mother’s role, it has helped shape his personality and carried him through tougher times. “Where would I be without my dogs?!? No one to ride when times get hard, ‘cause it ain’t easy being who we are.”
Tupac and his friends went through similar hindrances while growing up, and he acknowledges that had it not been for them, he may not have made it past the struggles of growing up in the ghetto. He says that it’s difficult enough being an under-privileged minority male in today’s world without having to deal with the daily struggles of such by oneself. At this point in the verse, Tupac takes a different turn which I will address later. He ends the verse however by shouting, “sending love out to my block. The struggle never stops.” This is basically a reaffirmation of the verse’s earlier theme. Tupac expresses his appreciation to his “block” (that is, his neighborhood, and more specifically, his close friends) in order to show that he truly values the influence which they had on his life as well as the support which they have given him over the years. He ends by exclaiming that “the struggle never stops” so that everyone keep in mind the fact that they have to keep supporting and loving each other unconditionally in order to survive the hindrances which they suffer on a daily basis as an under-privileged urban society. Tupac (much like many other rappers) truly valued his community, and made it a point in this song to express how deeply his love for them genuinely was.
In the third verse of “Unconditional Love,” Tupac describes his gratefulness for his relationship with a girlfriend of his. It is important to note however, that although the lyrics tell a different story, Tupac did not father any children. He was an artist, and one his duties as an artist is to create vivid stories for others to enjoy. In this verse, he combines personal experiences with a hypothetical situation in order to further illustrate his point that unconditional love can get people through very difficult situations.
That having been said, as is the case with most boyfriend/girlfriend type relationships, Tupac deals with the notion that there are differences between the two individuals that he simply cannot work out, regardless of how much he tries to do so. “I’ll probably never understand your ways. With everyday I swear I hear ya. Trying to change your ways while getting paid at the same time.” Tupac then goes on to briefly talk about how a baby complicates the matter. In the context of the verse, he loves his girlfriend as well as their newborn son, but he fears he may not be able to be around long enough to support them. “Just had a baby with the same eyes. Something inside, please let me die these are strange times.” This fear of falling prey to a life on the streets, and not being able to grow with his family is so intense that it causes Tupac to beg for death (“please let me die”) so that he would not have to deal with the potential hindrances and pressures of doing so. Despite this recognized moment of weakness however, Tupac goes on to talk about how important it is for him to once again “make it.” He regretfully asks, “how come I never made it?” Then later he exclaims that he knows that “one day [he’s] gotta be a star.”
Tupac, in the context of the verse, recognizes the fact that he has to “be a star” (which takes on two meanings in this case) in order to provide for his family. Not only does he have to be the breadwinner and provide the bear living essentials for his girlfriend and his daughter (i.e. food, housing, clothing. etc…), but he also has to play the role of husband and father. He then goes on to recognize that his means of making money (which again takes on two meaning within the context of the song) may be detrimental to the family relationship when he says “this fast life soon shatter us.” The “fast life” which he speaks about can be either “hustling” in the streets (i.e. drug-dealing, gangbanging, etc…), the Hip-Hop industry, or possibly (and most likely in my opinion) a combination of both. Both occupations are very risky and require that the individual involved spends a lot of time away from home, and as history proved, at least in this case, one is not any safer than the other is. In any event, Tupac in this situation once again creates a scenario in which both he and his girlfriend forget all their worries because of their profound love for one another. “Hoping for better days. Maybe a peaceful night. Baby don’t cry, cause everything’s gonna be all right. Just lay your head on my shoulder. Don’t worry bout a thang baby-girl I’m a soldier. Never treated me bad, no matter who I was. You still came with that, unconditional love.” His relationship with his girlfriend was so strong that at least momentarily, it melted away all of their worries about the past, present, and future. Tupac creates a storyline in which he and his girlfriend were so deeply in love, that they were able to withstand certain stages in each other’s lives, and ultimately make it through life’s challenges.
Intermingled within these three verses is a theme through which Tupac expresses his desire and relentless passion to use his music as a means of getting people to view society in a new light. In the first verse, Tupac begins to build this theme by asserting that “one day [he] hopes to make it, a player in this game.” Although in the context of the verse he is talking about becoming a star in the rap industry so that he can one day support his entire family, he goes on to expand on this theme in the second and third verses. These next few lines are integral pieces as to further understanding what it was that Tupac truly hoped to accomplish as an artist through Hip-Hop. After expressing his appreciation for his friends in verse two, Tupac adamantly makes this declaration: “Driven by my ambitions. Desire higher positions, so I proceed to make G’s [money], eternally and my mission is to be more than just a rap musician. The elevation of today’s generation if I could make ‘em listen.” These are the most telling lines in the entire song, and in terms of Tupac’s “mission”, one of the most striking which he has ever written.
Tupac in many ways accomplished what he set out to do, that is, elevate the minds of those who experienced his words, his music, and his life in the public sphere. He is known for his many contradictions. People wonder how somebody who sympathizes with the struggle of women in his music (i.e. “Keep Ya Head Up”) could be convicted of sodomy charges. People wonder how somebody from New York could move to California and seemingly initiate a musical bi-coastal feud in which he makes it a point to berate the east coast and many of its Hip-Hop artists (i.e. The Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, Jay-Z, et. al.). The fact to the matter is however, that despite all the controversy (a lot of which was more misunderstanding and media hype more than anything), and despite whether or not one loved him or hated him as a person as well as an artist, we all felt his impact, and most importantly, we all learned from him. His death thought us that all the money in the world cannot protect one from the evils of violence. He himself predicted in many of his songs and videos (i.e. “So Many Tears,” “I Ain’t Mad at Ya,” etc…) that one day he would have to reap what he sowed. He knew his tumultuous past would one day be the cause of his demise.
Through his life, we witnessed one of the most compelling and charismatic musicians of all time. A poster-boy for resilience, Tupac had an impeccable ability to rebound from his many setbacks, and come back from whatever problem he may have been suffering with more force, energy, drive, and passion than beforehand. His lyrics were at times beautiful, thought provoking, engaging and/or prophetic, and at other times slanderous, unwarranted, misguided, and/or controversial, but with rare exception (for no artist is perpetually great), they were always real, always genuine, and always powerful. “Unconditional Love” is no exception. He expresses appreciation for those he loves, and acknowledges that it is because of their strong love for him that has been/will be able pursues his true desire in life, to change the way people view society.
In conclusion, “Unconditional Love” is a multidimensional song in which Tupac expresses his deepest thoughts and emotions on both the people he cares for, as well as the purpose behind his music. Musically, “Unconditional Love” is similar to “Dear Mama” in that both songs are slower paced, and also in that he uses a similar speed and tone of voice in his rap. Both songs are about very emotional subjects in which Tupac is expressing appreciation and love for individuals and groups of people whom he cares about deeply. Because of this reason, it is no surprise that the two songs are similar in both musical and vocal nature. Tupac, in many of his songs, aimed to not only expel his own feelings, but also extract some from the listener. In this particular, the combination of the lyrical content of the song, the manner in which he expressed it, as well as the nature of the music allowed to succeed in doing so. This is what makes this song (in my opinion at least) one of Tupac’s finest, and what made Tupac such a fascinating artists and persona alike. He enjoyed and flaunted all his money and material possessions, but understood that in the end what were most important were his loved ones and his aspirations. In his words: “after all the lights and screams, nothing but my dreams matter.”