Tupac Shakur was always looking towards the end. The title of his first album, 2Pacalypse Now, directly references a cataclysmic shift, and its “Live Free or Die” mentality is made clear early on: “I’d rather die than be trapped in a living hell.” Police brutality and the difficulties of being a black man in America—both of which contribute to the all-too-often reality of a short life—were its main themes. By putting his music out, 2Pac had hoped to change the world with his voice.

Instead, he became a target. He was labeled as dangerous and violent, and then-Vice President Dan Quayle blamed a state trooper’s death on the album, calling for it to be withdrawn from stores and stating that it had “no place in our society.” Despite the controversy, it was a mild commercial success (finally being certified Gold in 1995).

Of course controversy never stopped hip-hop, and it certainly wasn’t going to stop someone as strong-willed as 2Pac, either. Arriving just 15 months after his debut, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. saw 2Pac grow as a writer. While police brutality is still a major through-line of the album, Pac widens his view of societal ills and the life of a young (and famous) African-American male. Indeed, this is clearly illustrated when he highlights a crushing irony: “But when I get my check, they taking tax out/ So we paying for these pigs to knock the blacks out”. It’s a salient point made in only 21 words. Nothing on 2Pacalypse is put this intelligently.

Armed with a broader scope, Pac allowed himself the space to touch on racism as a systemic problem rather than as simply a series of observations from the frontlines (though Strictly does contain some of that, too). Here, he reframes the problem as citywide while directly referencing the L.A. riots (“That’s why we burn shit and wreck/ ‘Cause the punk police ain’t learned shit yet”) as well as a feature, not bug, of the music industry (“Good thoughts I wait, ‘cause they hate my black tape/ Yeah, it’s on and it’s packed in the rap race/ But if ya got a black face, it’s a rat race”).

As with 2Pacalypse, violence also hangs heavily over the album. Depictions of being armed as a way of life pepper the album, with Pac at times expressing startling paranoia: “I’m 50 niggas deep, beat sleep/ With a Mossberg wrapped in my sheets,” “Still me, ‘til these motherfuckers kill me”. As a result, “The Streetz R Deathrow” finds him in extreme anxiety (“I’m starting to lose my hair ‘cause I worry/ Hustling to keep from getting buried”) to the point of nihilism (“Sick of the sirens, body bags, and the gun firing/ Tell Bush, ‘Push the button!’ cause I’m fed/ Tired of hearing these voices in my head”). Even when Pac tries unity as a rallying cry on “Last Wordz,” it’s in the form of an uprising: “United we stand, divided we fall/ They can shoot one nigga but they can’t take us all.”

But it’s not all dark clouds overhead. As proof, look no further than the title: N.I.G.G.A.Z., as 2Pac mentions here and multiple times on his debut, is short for “Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished” (‘Z’ is added to make it plural, and adds to Pac’s end-looking view). Refreshingly, there are rays of light that break through, as on the middle verse of “Representin’ 93” which is a series of shout-outs that is as fun as it is wide-ranging (example: House of Pain is referred to as “funky, blunted-ass white dudes”). Elsewhere, despite being a bitter letter to his absentee father, Pac uses the final verse of “Papa’z Song” to walk in his father’s shoes in an attempt to empathize with him: “Maybe it’s my fault for being a father living fast/ But living slow mean half the dough, and you won’t get no ass/ Hindsight shows me it was wrong all along/ I wanted to make some dough so you would grow to be so strong”. It’s a touching verse, even when viewed as a post-hoc justification.

And then there’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” the one wholly uplifting track on the entire album. Notably feminist in tone, Pac opens by flipping an adage that reduces women to sex into ancestral pride: “Some say, the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice/ I say, the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots”. From there, he encourages women to leave if they’re not respected, wonders why men rape women if they supposedly love them and pledges his support to single mothers. Above all, the song is a message of staying positive in the face of bleak adversity: “We ain’t meant to survive ‘cause it’s a setup/ And even though you’re fed up, you got to keep ya head up”.

It’s an important and powerful message, but the key to the album is in its first half. Pac’s obsession with mortality colored his writing throughout his career, and on Strictly there’s a trio of eerie premonitions about his own death. On “5 Deadly Venomz” he brags that he’ll turn a “Benz into a casket” (he was shot in a BMW). On “Guess Who’s Back” he predicts that he’ll be rich by 1996 (the year that he died). And on “Something 2 Die 4 (Interlude)” he coldly states, “You know what my momma used to tell me: If ya can’t find something to live for, then you best find something to die for.”

Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., then, has a finality to it. It was the last truly political record 2Pac made. After this, he’d turn to self-reflection before prison (Me Against the World) and unapologetic celebration upon release (All Eyez on Me). It was his last record to have boom-bap production, too. Strictly still had some The Bomb Squad-style beats carried over from 2Pacalypse (see “Last Wordz” and “Peep Game”), but it also anticipated Pac’s love of the club jam (“I Get Around”), smooth ‘80s R&B and jazz samples with a velvety hook used for social politicking à la “Changes” (“Papa’z Song”) and G-funk (“Representin’ 93”). In this way, perhaps Strictly can be seen as the beginning of the end. Indeed, this is the last time he’d lash out with both barrels, literally or figuratively.

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