NEW YORK – In the years since hip-hop lost its most dynamic figure, several superstars have embodied the qualities that made Tupac Shakur such a legend.
50 Cent's vicious raps and bullet-scarred body recall Shakur's reckless, dangerous side. Eminem's tortured lyrics remind us of Shakur's dark and depressing images of life. Jay-Z's many hits are reminiscent of Shakur's prolific output.
But 10 years after Shakur died on Sept. 13, 1996, the victim of a drive-by shooting, no rapper is as complex, as multifaceted, as challenging. A handsome and charismatic actor, a violent felon, a brilliant songwriter, a reckless celebrity, a misogynist and a visionary — Shakur still fascinates from the grave.
"I want to be in the future known as somebody," Shakur once said. "I want people to be talking about me, like, 'Remember when he was real bad?"'
They're still talking. Unlike so many other rap stars, Shakur represented an actual character, instead of a caricature.
"His messages were really strong and heartfelt, and he was a real person. He could go from saying 'Keep your head' up to using the word b—— in the next song," Kanye West told The Associated Press. "There was no box that he was put in, and he lived and died by what he said."
Though just 25 when an assailant sprayed his car with bullets as he rode shotgun down a Las Vegas street, Shakur has been the subject of numerous books, film and stage productions have explored his colorful life, and college courses have dissected his songs ranging from the player anthem "I Get Around" to the prophetic "How Long Will They Mourn Me?"
But why? Though some have anointed Shakur as the greatest rapper ever, largely due to his passion that could stir even casual listeners, the assessment is hardly universal. Others would give that title to The Notorious B.I.G., Shakur's foil who was killed months after Shakur. Others say Jay-Z reigns supreme.
As an actor in films like "Juice" and "Poetic Justice," it was clear Shakur was an explosive, raw talent — but one that needed refinement. And his personal life exposed perhaps his most troubling personal traits: In 1994 he was convicted of sexual assault, and though he espoused black empowerment, he spent the last months of his life inciting a rap war through hateful rhymes.
Yet Shakur's fallibility may ultimately explain why he remains so beloved.
"Nothing that I can answer is really going to get at it, or it's going to sound emotional and corny, but the fact of the matter is he was just a very special human being," said Vibe magazine editor in chief Danyel Smith, who knew Shakur before he became a superstar.
"He was the kind of heroic figure — very flawed, very passionate, very handsome, very outspoken, very talented — who comes along once in a lifetime," she said.
"He stood for something and he really talked about life — it wasn't just street life," OutKast's Big Boi told The AP. "He was an intelligent guy."
Tupac Amaru Shakur was born to former Black Panther Afeni Shakur in 1971 — his father wasn't around. Afeni was pregnant and incarcerated while she and other Panthers faced conspiracy charges that were later dismissed.
His mother's revolutionary qualities infused many of Shakur's raps, like the angry "Souljah's Revenge" or "Words of Wisdom." But Shakur's lyrics also reflect his unstable childhood — his mother battled drug addiction and he and his sister lived in poverty. That pain, frustration, anger and bewilderment became the inspiration for some of his most poignant, searing songs.
"He had a view that I think extended to what we would think of various kinds of sociological arguments, humanistic arguments, arguments around morality," said Marcyliena Morgan, a Stanford University associate professor and director of the school's Hiphop Archive.
Though he attended a school for talented teens while living in Baltimore, by the time he reached the California Bay Area, he was dabbling in street life. Soon his rap talent would lead him into another world that would prove just as turbulent.
As Shakur said after one arrest — "(I didn't have) no police record until I made a record."
With each platinum album, trouble found him anew. He was criticized by national figures like C. Dolores Tucker and former Vice President Dan Quayle and involved in a gunfight with off-duty police officers in Atlanta. While his pro-woman anthem "Keep Ya Head Up" scaled the charts, he was accused of leading a group in sexually assaulting a young woman in a hotel. While on trial for those charges, he survived a shooting at a recording studio where Biggie Smalls and Sean "Diddy" Combs were present.
Shakur was convicted of some charges at his sexual assault trial, and spent several months in a maximum security prison before the fearsome Suge Knight got him out on bail pending an appeal and signed Shakur to his Death Row label.
In the last year of his life, Shakur was at his most popular and sensational — and his most reckless. He ignited the so-called East Coast-West Coast war, claiming that Biggie and Diddy were responsible for his shooting (which they denied).
On the last night of his life, Shakur, Knight and their entourage delivered a violent beatdown to a rival gang member in a Las Vegas casino. Hours later, while riding in the passenger seat of Knight's BMW, Shakur was riddled with bullets. Police arrested and questioned the gang member who was stomped in the casino, but no charges have ever been filed.
While other dead celebrities are celebrated as nostalgia acts for what they once represented, Shakur remains a vital presence in today's rap world. Perhaps that's due to the volume of material he left behind. So many albums of previously unreleased songs have been issued since his death, a few people are convinced that he's still alive.
However, it may be the words of Shakur — often overshadowed by the controversy that dogged him — where his brilliance is most notable. Rather than becoming dated, songs like "So Many Tears" and "Changes" still speak to the despair and pain that remain very real in urban America.
"He was one of a kind," said Smith, "and I think whenever you want to ask yourself who Tupac is, as much as I'm a journalist and I live by headlines, don't go to the headlines to find out who Tupac was, go to the music. You will not be disappointed."