2Pac’s third album, Me Against the World, was released on March 14th, 1995, while the rapper served a prison sentence for sexual abuse. It became his first full-length to debut at number one on the Billboard 200. In light of its 20th anniversary, Consequence of Sound’s Michael Madden, Jill Hopkins, Brian Josephs, and Will Hagle revisit the album to discuss where it fits in 2Pac’s discography and just how influential it’s been in the two decades since its release.
Michael Madden (MM): There’s something daunting about having to write at length about a single 2Pac album, to risk focusing too much on just one body of work. Hip-hop has arguably never seen a more complex, conflicted rapper, and seemingly all of him made it on record at some point. He was killed at 25, but he recorded so much music that you could believe he lived another decade. Though he was often dubbed a gangsta rapper, he excelled at everything from gentle introspection to incisive social commentary to (yes) unrepentant tough talk. The impact he had on his genre, if not pop culture as a whole, extends to this day. It’s easiest to look at his achievements as one vast sum, just to nod and say, yes, 2Pac was everything to hip-hop and maybe more.
Still, I think Me Against the World is the album that most quickly and cleanly gets to the heart of who 2Pac was as a man — and not just because it’s half as long as his other masterpiece, 1996’s All Eyez on Me. Right off the bat, the intro (a stream of news clips about his legal ordeals) and “If I Die 2Nite” paint him as troubled, a crucial development given that he was in prison at the time. It’s an album that’s short on hardcore rap appeal, and I like to think that if you were to listen to Me Against the World and All Eyez on Me without knowing for sure when one ends and the next begins, it’d be easy to tell that “Ambitionz Az a Ridah”, All Eyez’s menacing opener, starts a new chapter. That’s no complaint, though, because 2Pac didn’t need to show every side of himself at once. Without Me Against the World, his legacy as it stands today wouldn’t so strongly emphasize his humility.
What do you guys think? Where does Me Against the World fit in 2Pac’s discography?
Jill Hopkins (JH): Until you’d mentioned it, I’d forgotten that Pac was only 25 when he was killed. It really puts his work and, to an even larger extent, his words into perspective. I don’t know what you were doing when you were 25, but I know what I was up to, and it wasn’t writing lyrics of this kind of depth. At the risk of generalizing The Young, most people around that age are painfully self-centered, with no real sense of self-awareness — yet here’s 2Pac opening “Dear Mama” with “When I was young, me and my mama had beef/ Seventeen years old, kicked out on the streets.”
A lot had happened to 2Pac in those few years between getting kicked out of his mama’s house and the release of this album. It made him wise, but it also made him more reckless than even your dumbest 25-year-old. But I’d say the wise and introspective nature of Me Against the World made him sound like more of a tough guy than anything on the middle-fingers-up All Eyez on Me. Any rapper can talk about the “Thug Life” — it’s the perspective of youth talking there. But very few can talk about what that life does to your spirit, your mindset, and to the people who care about you. In 2Pac’s case, it’s especially impressive considering how little time he had for hindsight.
Funny that I’m writing this on the 18th anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.’s passing. I often wonder what the current state of hip-hop would be if we’d gotten more albums from him and 2Pac that weren’t just posthumous releases. What would those two have had to say in their 30s? Their 40s? Would their presence have influenced even more MCs, or would they have made some of them unnecessary? Would we have grabbed on to Nas and Talib the way we do if we still had Pac and Biggie?
Brian Josephs (BJ): I mean, to attempt to answer those questions would be like grasping at straws. It’s impossible to come across anything definitive in a genre full of what-ifs (what if Big L lived? What if N.W.A. never broke up?).
But I do think 2Pac’s existence is extraordinary because he managed to be so impactful without being an elite rapper (from a technical standpoint, that is). He just expressed his worldview so vividly and compellingly that it left imprints that have yet to fade. That’s a rarity in any medium. All Eyez on Me is the definitive 2Pac album, but Me Against the World is the most cohesive statement he made as a man — it’s the book of 2Pac the human before the mythical figure. Perhaps you can say the story of this album was something of lore; he was laying himself out during a time of duress, as he had the sexual assault charge hanging over him. What we got was clearly articulated paranoia, empathy (“Dear Mama” is as beautiful as it is painful), and world-weary brazenness (he woke up and screamed fuck the world, y’all). It’s the story of a complex mind that rarely felt exclusive.
Will Hagle (WH): Me Against the World does represent the human side of 2Pac before he became the mythical figure we know today. As Mike said, though, that side of him has become a crucial part of his legend. I’m more interested in speculating about what the current state of hip-hop would be if 2Pac never released “Dear Mama” than what it’d be like if he hadn’t died. If he made it to his 30s, I assume he’d release something like “I Wrote This Song a Long Time Ago”.
All of you mentioned the self-reflective nature of Me Against the World, and I think that’s definitely its defining characteristic. The honest, personal emotion of “Dear Mama” is what sets it apart from something like “Brenda’s Got a Baby”. 2Pac was always hyper-aware of the world around him; on this album, he expresses what he’s found in the one within.
In hindsight, it’s strange to think 2Pac was only 23 when this album came out. He was two years away from death, speaking about youth like he’d lived a lifetime. He nostalgically looks back on his younger years with the wisdom Jill referenced, and he looks at the future with a sense of hopelessness. When you understand society’s problems from the bottom to the top — from the streets to celebrity — those feelings are inevitable. Like Brian said, the looming jail sentence only heightened it all. 2Pac specifically tells us that it didn’t make things easy. His ability to clearly express all of these emotions in a personal yet relatable way is what makes this his first great album and a logical lead-in to the great one that followed.
MM: We might be focusing on the album’s lyrics at the expense of the other facets that make it a classic. Me Against the World was 2Pac’s first album to top the Billboard 200, and there’s no doubt that part of that had to do with his increase in notoriety between Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and this follow-up. But it also stemmed from the success of its lead single and his first top 10 hit, “Dear Mama”, which, like many other songs here, has an unpretentious crispness to it. The choruses on the album, whether delivered by Pac or a guest singer, are simple but effective; when those awkwardly placed lines from American Me are sampled on “Death Around the Corner” (“When we were kids…”), it just highlights how fluid these hooks generally are. The beats don’t waste time either, finding grooves that linger with bittersweet melodies.
Me Against the World, then, has to be one of rap’s most approachable masterpieces. From 2Pac’s emphatic delivery on “If I Die 2Nite” to surprisingly tender tracks like “Dear Mama” and “Can U Get Away”, it has moments that exemplify his precision as an MC (even if, like Brian said, he wasn’t always much of a technician), his heart, and his ability to build songs that flow from intro to outro. If you want to show someone what hip-hop can be, you might be better off with Me Against the World than the more ruthless Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) or even Illmatic — or am I wrong? To play devil’s advocate, 2Pac seemed increasingly concerned with selling mass quantities of records (if only to assert his dominance in rap), so I can understand the argument that Me Against the World should have been more abrasive.
JH: I don’t think the album needed to sound more abrasive to suggest dominance. Dude was in prison when it came out; he just was abrasive. In 1995, the stereotype of rappers going to jail didn’t really exist. Many wrote about being hard, and many were involved in some questionable lifestyles (Ice-T and N.W.A. come to mind), but the high-profile nature of the “Thug Life” made 2Pac the poster boy for aggression in the mid-’90s.
Me Against the World, like his role in Poetic Justice two years earlier (oh god, I wanted to be Janet Jackson so badly), showcased 2Pac’s softer side. Which, if we’re thinking of where he was in his legal fight, had to have been done on purpose. Putting out an album like All Eyez on Me while locked up for sexual assault wouldn’t have been the smartest thing in the world if you’re planning an appeal.
This record did really well on the charts and won a Soul Train award for Best Rap Album, but it lost out on the Grammy to Naughty by Nature. It was the first year the Grammys had a Best Rap Album category, and they, in typical Grammy fashion, got it wrong. I’m pretty sure no one’s writing an anniversary piece on Poverty’s Paradise right now.
BJ: I guess we could tie this into To Pimp a Butterfly, an album by one of 2Pac’s many disciples. While welcome, you don’t really need the album-ending interview to get the connection between the two. Kendrick’s and Pac’s courses of action were different, but as made clear by TPAB’s black music wanderlust, the function of their art is similar. They exist with social detritus in their line of sight. The magic of Me Against the World wasn’t simply within 2Pac’s well-developed viewpoint. There’s this sense that such expression could eviscerate the curses of his surroundings.
WH: Everything 2Pac mentions in the interview is relevant now, and Kendrick has the platform to shed light on those issues. Comparing the greats of different eras is a pointless task, but Kendrick as we know him now couldn’t exist without 2Pac before him. It’s difficult to imagine an album like Me Against the World being released in 2015. It’s not that the words or music are outdated — the opposite is true — but the cult of 2Pac’s talent, legacy, and martyrdom transcend the way music is gobbled up and disregarded in the social media era. Me Against the World is the dark and self-reflective work of a rapper who’s often regarded as the best of all time. Twenty years later, with To Pimp a Butterfly on shelves, it’s disheartening to see that the evisceration Brian mentioned hasn’t been realized.
MM: The interview at the end of TPAB points to why we’re talking about Me Against the World after all this time: 2Pac had a voice. Even when he wasn’t political, his words carried the weight of life experiences that influenced his thinking forevermore. Me Against the World has a particular focus, as if 2Pac is saying, “This is how I see things as they’re affecting me now.” In his most political music (particularly some of 2Pacalypse Now and Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.), he’s thinking ahead about what needs to be changed, galvanizing listeners to spur that change. Me Against the World isn’t as hopeful, and yet its honesty goes down surprisingly easy. I don’t know how many answers Me Against the World actually has, but it does say that sometimes you need to fix your own hot plate if you want to eat at all.
JH: There were people calling Kendrick Lamar the heir apparent to 2Pac when good kid, m.A.A.d city came out, and I was hesitant to agree, but with To Pimp a Butterfly, I’m starting to come around. If nothing else, it’s this 2Pac, the one of Me Against the World, that he’s succeeding.
Me Against the World isn’t my favorite 2Pac album, but I can say it’s the most important. It gave other MCs the permission to be more than just braggarts. It told them that the entirety of the human experience is worthy of bars. It let them know that (in the words of the elder Jeffrey Lebowski) strong men also cry. It paved the way for not just Kendrick, but for this whole generation of artists who are injecting their hip-hop with the feelings of R&B. It deserves to be celebrated and remembered for the ground it broke.
BJ: It always gets me that such impact comes from such darkness. On “Lord Knows”: “Drive-bys an everyday thang/ I done lost too many homies to this motherfuckin’ game.” On “Dear Mama”: “Even as a crack fiend, mama/ You always was a black queen, mama.” These are truly heartbreaking circumstances even when you take 2Pac’s voice out of it. On Me Against the World, he seeks to give voices to those forsaken by the system, if not everyone else, too.
WH: The impact stems not just from darkness, but also from darkness amplified by celebrity. I hate to bring up Kendrick again, but To Pimp a Butterfly exists because he reached a certain level of fame and felt it was time to express what was important to him. It won’t have the genre-changing impact that Me Against the World did (I’d argue no album ever will), but that’s a trend we’ve seen repeated over and over again. As 2Pac says, “If I’m insane, it’s the fame made a brother change.” But of course it’s not just the fame. At some point in their lives, everyone feels like it’s them against the world. 2Pac emptied those emotions on record, and a generation was able to relate. His words influenced more than just rap, and we owe it to 2Pac for the music and legacy that he left behind.