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Life after death

Pop Music

The myth of slain rapper Tupac Shakur gains vitality amid mounting record sales, biographies, scholarly attention and, now, a documentary film.

November 16, 2003|Baz Dreisinger | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — When Tupac Shakur was shot to death in Las Vegas in 1996, his fans felt shock, grief and then denial. The world hadn't seen or heard the last of the revered rapper, they insisted.

They were right.

With last week's opening of "Tupac: Resurrection," a motion picture documentary narrated by the slain rapper, Tupac has reappeared in theaters near you. The film is accompanied by a soundtrack album and coffee-table tome that sets Tupac's poetry and memoirs alongside glossy photos.

Seven years after his death, Tupac is also back, so to speak, in venues likely and unlikely. The focus of a course called "The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur" at the University of Washington, he's also the subject of numerous biographies, fan tributes and highbrow volumes (from "Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur" by University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson, to indie press titles like "Tupac and Elvis: Inevitably Restless").

And of course, Tupac, who's in the Top 10 of Forbes.com's list of highest-earning dead celebrities, is as alive as ever, musically speaking. The best-selling rap artist of all time, he's sold more records posthumously than he did in 25 years of life, according to the movie.

"The title 'icon' is bandied about all the time, but Tupac is one of the few who actually deserves it," says Lauren Lazin, the director of "Tupac: Resurrection."

Why? What gives Tupac's legacy -- pervasive, lucrative, steeped in conspiracy theories and urban myth -- a life of its own?

Few offer answers -- or dramatize the fascination -- like a Tupac fan who spent time in the rapper's skin, in a manner of speaking: Tom Sanford, an Ivy League-educated artist and self-described "white kid from the suburbs," expressed his reverence by turning himself into Tupac.

The transformation was, he admits, "stupid and superficial." Sanford lost 30 pounds, acquired Tupac's picture-perfect physique, drank quarts of Hennessy, and got one of the rapper's tattoos ("2Pac") on his chest.

But his recent experiment, documented in a Web log that garnered more than 2,000 hits a day, clearly touched a nerve.

"Tupac was a gangster, see -- but then again no, he wasn't. He got out of the ghetto but constantly went back in," Sanford says, standing in his Brooklyn gallery before his massive painting of Tupac's murder, which has all the religious gravitas of Leonardo's "The Last Supper."

He shakes his head. "He was incredibly conscientious, but actually he did all this really stupid stuff." Finally, Sanford, 28, sighs. "He was just, well, a total contradiction."

The sigh says it all: Tupac's legend flourishes because nothing feeds myth like indeterminacy, and no one is more indeterminate than Tupac.

The basis of all celebrity worship -- if we really knew our stars, we'd lose the joy of constructing them -- ambiguity is the essence of Tupac, a slippery Gemini who referred in one of his poems to the "duo within me."

Thug intellectual

Call Tupac soft or call him hard; footage in "Tupac: Resurrection" and in previous documentaries supports your claim. He was, like his character in the 1992 film "Juice," a thug for whom gang bandannas were masculine armor.

But like his character in 1993's "Poetic Justice," he was also a sensitive intellectual who loved Shakespeare and wrote incendiary lyrics about welfare and police brutality, who tried to reconcile thinker and thug with a couldn't-care-less ethos he called "thug life" -- the ghetto equivalent, he argued, of Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death."

There's something in Tupac for everyone. Political rappers Dead Prez, who celebrated Tupac's birthday at a recent concert, fete him for poignant tunes such as "Brenda's Got a Baby," about the plight of a single mother, or tracks whose titles alone suggest that rap is the CNN of the ghetto: "Young Black Male," "Trapped," "Strugglin'."

But blockbuster rappers 50 Cent and Ja Rule -- bickering over who's the true heir to Tupac's artistic legacy, recording remixed duets with the slain rapper and persistently citing him in their lyrics -- can identify with the Tupac who joyously sang, on "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," about "nothing but a gangsta party."

Whatever he was rhyming about -- gangsterism or group homes -- Tupac always had that voice, a powerful one with pain in its every intonation. That voice was classic R&B reborn as rap.

Some like to think of Tupac as a schooled artist, nurtured by his years in a Baltimore art school. Others prefer the idea of an untrained street talent. Certain interviews find him wise beyond his years -- calm and thoughtful, a teenager with a nagging sense of his own mortality. But in others he's a child -- the sweetly naive author of poems such as "Excuse Me but Lady Liberty Needs Glasses," or a spoiled brat prone to temperamental fits.

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