Tupac Shakur has been gone for 20 years, but the legendary rapper’s persona and legacy loom large over hip-hop music and culture. So much of his music has been absorbed by even the most casual hip-hop fans: the sensitivity of “Keep Ya Head Up” and “Dear Mama” is as ubiquitous as the white-hot rage of “Hit ‘Em Up” and the unapologetic defiance of “Ambitionz As A Ridah.”
But with so many posthumous releases that have been churned out since Pac’s untimely death in September 1996, it’s easy to overlook how impactful the best of his music was back then and how significant it still is today. To a generation that didn’t grow up with Pac’s image and sound firsthand, his legacy has been diluted by his omnipresence and the hypermarketing of his legacy. But there’s still a lot to be gained from the music that the angry, thoughtful young rapper created.
So as we celebrate what would have been Pac’s 45th birthday, here’s a look at 10 songs that he recorded (in their original form–no posthumous tinkering) that sometimes don’t get mentioned when discussing Pac’s musical greatness.
“The Streets R Death Row”
Produced by frequent Pac collaborator Stretch, this overlooked anthem of struggle was originally buried on 2Pac’s second album, but it shines as one of his more heartfelt odes to the helplessness and hopelessness that informs anger in the ghetto.
A reggae-inflected midtempo groover produced by his former Digital Underground bandmates in Raw Fusion (Money B and DJ Fuze), this cut appeared on Pac’s controversial debut album and was an early example of his unapologetic embrace of gunplay in the face of American hypocrisy.
Released months after his death, this dark, piano-driven single appeared on the soundtrack to one of Pac’s more forgettable films, but became a sort of benediction for his Thug Life persona. Reveling in gangster-ism and his notoriety, it’s a summation of Death Row-era Pac’s swagger.
This pulsing bit of unapologetic rage was showcased on the Thug Life project, but typically gets underacknowledged in hindsight for more well-known fare like “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” Nonetheless, it stands as another example of how potent Pac’s anger could be on wax–especially after the pressures of fame made him a target.
“Definition of A Thug N—-”
Featuring a Warren G-produced groove that reflects the G-Funk maestro’s mid-90s sensibilities, this ominous ode to street hustlers first appeared on the Poetic Justice soundtrack in 1993 and was later included and more widely heard on Pac’s first posthumous album in 1997.
One of 2Pac’s most overlooked singles, this melancholy track features the rapper’s most explicitly direct reference to absentee father-ism. The song mixes truth with fiction, as Pac offers up the hurt and anger he felt at not having his father around, personally–while also reflecting the pain of an entire generation that had grown up under the same circumstances.
“Staring Through My Rear View”
Before DMX rapped over a classic sample of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” (on 1998s “I Can Feel It”), 2Pac shared his own take on the 80s classic with this somber track about hopelessness and fatalism. Showcasing how dark the late rapper could be in his final days, it stands as one of the last songs he recorded.
“High Til I Die”
The soundtrack to the forgettable 1996 basketball flick Sunset Park had more going for it than the formulaic Rhea Pearlman-driven film did–with some of the biggest names in 90s hip-hop and R&B contributing tracks. And this is one of the best. Produced by Tony Pizarro, it’s one of the most forgotten 2Pac songs–and that’s a crime unto itself.
“Never Had A Friend Like Me”
Another entry from a soundtrack–and another song from a Pac film (the woefully underappreciated Gridlock’d) this track about being down is quintessentially 2Pac–and a song that slightly nods to the Disney classic of the same name from Aladdin. Go figure.
Probably the most overlooked song Pac released during his lifetime, this Easy Moe Bee-produced banger was featured on the soundtrack for the classic hip-hop documentary The Show, and it was as good as the best singles Pac was dropping at the time. One of his most perfect odes to the neighborhood; both wistful and worried–another track that is quintessentially 2Pac.