On September 7, 1996, while stopped at a red light on the Las Vegas Strip, Tupac Shakur was shot numerous times. I was a high school junior at the time. Having already survived five shots, I wasn’t really surprised he did not die immediately. Shakur had already proven to be a fighter. This was the primary topic of discussion at school when the week began. As the days passed, we all began to expect the outcome. It was still a shock when his death was announced Friday, September 13, at 4:03 p.m.
If we begin his career from his breakout song with Digital Underground, “Same Song,” we really only knew Shakur for five years. This fact seems false now because of the amount of recorded music left behind and the impact he continues to have on society. He gave us six albums in those five years. The final album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, was recorded shortly before his death.
I spent the days after Shakur’s death listening to All Eyez On Me. At home, one of the two CDs was constantly spinning in a small boom box. Outside the house, I carried two tapes dubbed from the album. Still, All Eyez On Me never felt like the exclamation point to an artist so outspoken and controversial.
It cannot be denied that All Eyez On Me is a great album. It is also a record Tupac wrote knowing what Death Row expected of him. It is a breakout album written for the label and the masses. Shakur’s last album should resemble something as touching as Me Against The World or as radical as 2Pacalypse Now. The 7 Day Theory accomplishes both feats.
The album opens with a news broadcast discussing Tupac’s latest release (the very album that is playing) and how the mere mention of a new Shakur record makes other rappers feel inadequate. The broadcaster turns it over to a statement from Shakur, “It’s not about east and west. It’s about niggaz and bitches, power and money, ridaz and punks. Which side are you on?” From there, a gun is cocked and four deafening shots are fired. The shots, precursors to the lyrical assault you are about experience.
On previous 2Pac records, Shakur would often portray himself as a victim of circumstance. Makaveli, the persona that takes over this album, accepts trouble is always with him and is always prepared for it.
In the first song, “Bomb First,” Shakur calls himself a Bad Boy killer and exclaims he wants Jay-Z to suffer the same fate as his Bad Boy enemies. He brags about having an ample gun supply and enough support behind him to take on all challengers. He passes the microphone off to E.D.I. Mean and Young Noble of The Outlawz to prove it. They proceed to spit equally vicious verses.
It is after “Bomb First” that we begin to see the brilliance of The 7 Day Theory. Shakur does not take you into another war track. Instead, we get “Hail Mary.” The song is a cry for help in a life that seldom goes our way. It poses Makaveli and The Outlawz as willing to do what it takes to come out ahead after starting with little to nothing in terms of resources.
“Toss It Up” is the album’s club single. It was destined to be a hit with a Danny Boy beat, a K-Ci & JoJo hook, and Tupac rapping about sexual adventures. In the last verse, Tupac seemingly diverges from topic to attack Dr. Dre for leaving Death Row behind. Shakur masterfully keeps the verse from losing its way by switching the meaning of the song’s titular phrase. He blends two discrete messages into one song without losing the original party feel.
After an excerpt of the Street Science radio show, in which the host calls into question Shakur’s influence on society, we are taken for a ride through the city he last called home. “To Live And Die In L.A.” navigates the convoluted lifestyle of Los Angeles where reality and fantasy are not always clear.
Los Angeles is a unique environment. We may live in the best climate but your guard must always be up, “Writing to my peoples when they ask for pictures, thinking Cali’s just fun and bitches. Better learn about the dress code, B’s and C’s.” We strive to make our largest dreams reality despite the constant reminders that not everyone gets there, “Who was a friend, now a ghost in the dark. Cold part about it nigga got smoked by a fiend. Trying to floss on him, blind to a broken man’s dream.” In the end, we do the best we can and hope for the best; “I hit the studio and drop a jewel, hoping it pay. Getting high watching time fly. To live and die in L.A.”
The calm vibe dissipates quickly as Pac questions all spiritual beliefs in “Blasphemy.” The song strikes as written by a man exhausted of the struggle and at the brink of the end. Makaveli struggles with the possibility that life is actually Hell, “We’re probably in Hell already, our dumb-asses not knowing. Everybody kissin’ ass to go to Heaven ain’t going.” At the other end, it’s highly possible the afterlife we all search for is nothing but the start of a new misery, “I leave this and hope God see my heart is pure. Is Heaven just another door?”
As the album continues, The Outlawz join their general in “Life of an Outlaw” to share the struggles in their lives. That’s followed by “Just Like Daddy,” which speaks to the couples that remain strong through the darkest times. Hooking up with rapper Bad Azz, “Krazy” is a song of loneliness and despair. The emotional tension these songs build leave you particularly vulnerable for the song that comes next.
“White Man’z World” is simultaneously an apologetic letter to black women from Shakur while at the same time being his best call for a revolution. He recounts the reality of a black child coming to grips with poverty and racism all at once in haunting manner, “My homeboy doing life, baby momma be stressin’. Shedding tears when her son finally asks the questions: Where my daddy at? Mama, why we live so poor? Heard you late night through my bedroom door. Now do you love me, momma? Why they keep on calling me nigga? Get my weight up with my hate and pay them back when I’m bigger!”
The lyrics of the song express a sense of hopelessness. Yet, the impact with which Shakur delivers them forces you to strive to rise above the nation’s deeply engrained hatred. A hatred that constantly tells us we are not wanted and not welcome in America no matter how hard we work.
You have to fight back tears to recite the lyrics along with Shakur. That fight is lost by the time we reach the conclusion of the song. The music fades out into a recorded speech from Minister Louis Farrakhan in which he states, “The seal and the Constitution reflect the thinking of the Founding Fathers that this was to be a nation by white people, and for white people. Native Americans, blacks, and all other non-white people, were to be the burden bearers for the real citizens of this nation.” Any person of color growing up in America, and especially we Latinos in 2017, can easily relate to the message behind this song.
We transition from strong words of racism to a violent war cry: “Shit. You motherfucking right. I’m the bitch that’s keepin’ live and keepin it hot.” The song is “Me And My Girlfriend” and it is a brilliant example of personification in music.
Throughout the song, Pac refers to going on a crime spree with his girlfriend à la Bonnie & Clyde. Makaveli describes their assaults, robberies, and sexual escapades in vivid detail. As the song continues, and if you pay attention to the lyrics, you realize his “girlfriend” is a reference to the various guns he’s used to commit these crimes. The explicit sexual words refer to ways of holding, squeezing, and firing “her.” Shakur perfectly captures the intimacy that comes with taking such a powerful tool into your hand.
“Hold Ya Head” flips back to the heartfelt conversation that is The 7 Day Theory. Shakur speaks of prisoners needing all their strength to get through their sentences and of a society that predisposes minorities to living incarcerated. Ultimately, it’s an open letter reflecting on his inner struggles. He often wonders if everything he does is leading to more jail time or perhaps an early end.
Appropriately, a song consisting of Shakur’s deepest thoughts and fears leads to the song he claims to be “the realest shit I ever wrote.” The final track of The 7 Day Theory, “Against All Odds,” is essentially a continuation of “Bomb First.” The two songs serve as militant bookends to a profound album.
Just like in “Bomb First,” Shakur does not hide the names of his targets. In just one verse he berates Nas, Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep, and Puffy (now Diddy). He finishes by comparing older rappers to a “flabby” Larry Holmes and insists they keep silent and step aside with any dignity they have left.
The real bombshell comes in the second verse where he calls out Haitian Jack as the main witness of the sexual assault trial that landed Shakur in prison. He also mentions getting payback on Jimmy Henchman, the man he believed was behind the shooting in New York. Many rappers have insulted other artists by name but in this particular case, Shakur steps out of the rap game to make personal accusations at two people who allegedly are not to be played with.
The album’s conclusion consists of distant explosions and gunshots as Shakur delivers a final message: “To all you bitch-made niggas, I’m comin’ for you—against all odds. I don’t care who the fuck you is. You touch me, I’m at you. I know you motherfuckers didn’t think I forgot. Hell nah, I ain’t forgot. I just remember what you told me. You said don’t go to war unless I got my money right. Well, I got my money right now. Now I want war.”
Shakur did not see the release of The 7 Day Theory. The album was set to drop in 1997 but Suge Knight pushed it up after Shakur’s death and it was released November 5th, 1996. The full record was recorded and mixed in seven days—hence the title.
“Bomb First” and “Against All Odds” are meant to incite anger and violence. The real soul of the album is represented by the 10 other tracks. Those are the songs that elicit tears, smiles, and empathy. They force us to question our government, our society, even ourselves as human beings.
Tupac “Makaveli” Shakur was a talented actor and one of the greatest rappers of our time. He was also candid, loud, rebellious, unruly, and at times violent. Above all else, Tupac Amaru Shakur was a poet, political activist, and social leader. Today, his words continue to ring true as the injustices he detailed are more present now than when he originally wrote them. It is now that his voice is most needed and should be played at its loudest.