Prison is not a healthy place. It changes every person it holds within its walls. Prison is likely one of the reasons the follow-up to Tupac’s most personal work is its antithesis: an album full of bravado and anger, featuring a bombastic 2Pac backed by some of the largest voices in the industry.
Shakur was released from prison on October 12, 1995 thanks to the $1.4 million bail posted by CEO of Death Row Records, Suge Knight. In exchange for posting bail, Shakur inked a three-album deal with Knight. Death Row Records was already the biggest rap label on the west coast thanks to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg but signing Shakur immediately secured Death Row as a nationwide force.
Shakur left the Clinton Correctional Facility and flew directly to Can-Am Studios in Los Angeles to begin writing and recording what would become All Eyez On Me. “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” was the first song he completed. According to rapper Kurupt (of Dogg Pound fame), “Pac wasn’t in the studio for any more than 45 minutes before he had his first verse done and laid it that fast.” The whole album was recorded within two weeks and released to an eager audience on February 13, 1996.
Lyrics raced out of Shakur at an unprecedented pace. To match his intensity, Suge brought in some of the hottest hip-hop producers of the 90’s to provide beats as fierce as the lyrics Pac was prepared to lay down. Producers like Dr. Dre (already Death Row’s top producer), Daz Dillinger, DJ Pooh, DJ Quik, Johnny J, Rick Rock, and many others came in to provide the backing beats that would become part of this hip-hop classic.
In addition to producers, All Eyez On Me was heavy on the guest rappers. The album’s various voices are a representation of the areas Shakur at one point called home and drew inspiration from. Method Man and Redman came in representing New York. Rappin’ 4-Tay, C-Bo, Richie Rich, D-Shot, B-Legit, and E-40 took the short drive to make sure the Bay was present. And of course, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, CPO, Nate Dogg, and Tha Dogg Pound provide that classic Death Row, L.A. flow. The eclectic mixture of producers, rappers, and singers created an album that like Tupac’s own style, represented more than just one part of the country.
In addition to the star power, Tupac’s inner circle was brought to the forefront for this record. Shakur always kept a few rappers around him that were featured in each of his albums and appeared with him on stage. All Eyez On Me brought them together to form something special.
While incarcerated, Shakur spent a lot of time reading. He enjoyed reading about wars and revolutions throughout history. It was then he had the notion of creating a group where each member was named after infamous dictators, revolutionaries, or enemies of America and the other established world powers.
Tupac put the plan into place starting with a group then known as Dramacycal. The members of the group had already been touring with Tupac and had been most recently featured on “Outlaw”, the final track of Me Against The World. Shakur assigned each of them new monikers. Young Hollywood adopted the alias Yaki Kadafi after Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. K-Dog became Kastro after Fidel Castro of Cuba. Big Malcolm took on the alias E.D.I. Mean after Idi Amin of Uganda. Finally, Hellraza became Napoleon after France’s own Napoleon Bonaparte.
Next, he brought in two members of his previous group, Thug Life. The first was Mopreme Shakur (Shakur’s stepbrother), who received the name Komani after Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. The other was the unmistakable booming voice of Big Syke, who received the alias Moozaliny after Italy’s Benito Mussolini.
The final members of this massive group were Hussein Fatal, a childhood friend of Kadafi; Storm, the only female rapper in the group; and Young Noble, a friend of Kadafi and Fatal and the last to join the group. Storm and Noble would be the only two members whose names did not fit Shakur’s original vision.
Shakur adopted the pseudonym Makaveli after Niccolo Machiavelli. Together, the ten members formed the super group Outlaw Immortalz. Five songs on All Eyez On Me feature at least three members of the group while two tracks feature the majority of the group. Those two songs, “Tradin’ War Stories” and “When We Ride,” remain two of the strongest, in-your-face tracks on the album.
Unfortunately, the full potential of this group never came to fruition due to Shakur’s untimely death. As if losing Shakur was not enough, Kadafi died of an accidental gunshot to the head at the hands of Napoleon’s cousin just two months later. The two deaths shook the remaining members and the turmoil already evident at Death Row only exacerbated the situation.
Big Syke and Mopreme chose not to sign with Death Row and officially separated from the group. Hussein Fatal also refused to sign with Death Row and went solo instead. Storm remained active as a marginal member for a short period but eventually left rap altogether.
Kastro, E.D.I., Napoleon, and Young Noble signed with Death Row after Pac’s death and became The Outlawz. They went on to release multiple albums; none more successful than 1999’s Still I Rise, an album credited as Tupac and The Outlawz. While Outlaw Immortalz was a short-lived group, the songs featured on All Eyez On Me stand as examples of the hip-hop family Shakur was building and would have developed once he moved on from his obligations to Death Row.
Despite the many other voices on All Eyez On Me, Shakur is never outshined. Equally surprising is that this album is a successful amalgam of Shakur’s artist personas where his previous works each relied heavily on one more than others.
“Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” hearkens back to the painful societal tales of “Brenda’s Got A Baby” and “Part Time Mutha” on 2Pacalypse Now. The song tells the story of a promiscuous high school teenager who believes sex will be her way to success. Instead, her casual encounters lead to a lonely death at the hands of the AIDS virus. It’s a painful story seen all too often. Without even knowing this girl’s name, you feel as though you grew up with her right along Shakur.
“How Do U want It”, “Picture Me Rollin”, and “All Eyez On Me” question facets of our system like Pac did in Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Never one to pull his punches, Shakur is quick to name Bill Clinton and Bob Dole as politicians not interested in helping the have-nots of America. He mocks the prosecutor that put him behind bars, the officers inside, and the haters that wanted him gone all along. The music on these songs complements his derisive statements by opposing the themes of his lyrics. “How Do You Want It” still brings people to the dance floors today and the other two rely on bass-heavy, chill California beats.
Shakur was never shy about his appreciation of the female gender. “Run Tha Streetz” and “What’z Ya Phone #” are reminiscent of past hits like “I Get Around” and “Temptations.” Many rappers are adept at writing sexual songs but Shakur went beyond that. He was able to write actual love songs without losing his street credibility. And when the songs were about the pure act of sex, he took it to a place of passion and sensuality that appealed to women where others often come off misogynistic.
The tracks with Outlaw Immortalz and the Bay-Area anthem, “Ain’t Hard 2 Find” are aggressive, self-aggrandizing tracks with multiple voices. They present Shakur as a kind of music general who can set the tone for other rappers to step in; much like he did on Thug Life: Volume 1. “Life Goes On” is a tough perspective at lost friends that brings back the feelings present on the same album’s “Pour Out A Little Liquor” and forces us as listeners to think of the close ones we’ve lost through our own journeys.
“Only God Can Judge Me” takes us through an introspective look at the immediate aftermath of Shakur’s near-death experience of 1994. Shakur gives us partial visions of emergency procedures, suicidal thoughts, and nightmares of enemies coming back to finish the job. Combine this song with his attempt to reach out to youngsters in “Shorty Wanna Be A Thug”, the sensitivity behind “Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find”, and the questions of belonging of “I Ain’t Mad at Cha”, and you essentially form an EP that could be titled, Me Against The World 2.
All Eyez On Me was the first commercial hip-hop double album of exclusively new music. Reaching Certified Diamond status, it’s Shakur’s most successful album and one of the biggest in hip-hop history. Sadly, we would only get one more album from this revolutionary voice. On September 13, 1996—exactly seven months after the release of All Eyez On Me—Tupac Amaru Shakur would be pronounced dead.