Song: "Dear Mama"
Album: Me Against The World
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If there is one thing that can be easily proven by the long history of hip-hop, it is the fact that a male emcee showing any sense of weakness or sensitivity will be exiled by his peers. Due to the overwhelming machismo that overshadowed the entire "gangsta rap" movement of the 1990's, if you weren't rapping about "bitches and money," then you simply weren't "keeping it real." Yet, there are certain circumstances where an event may lead to a massive change in a person, and such was the case when iconic emcee 2Pac Shakur released his 1995 record, Me Against The World. The album was recorded shortly after his near fatal shooting, and it was actually released while he was in prison. Having survived the shooting, Shakur had more than enough "street cred" to pretty much do anything he wanted on the album, and this shows in the fact that he gets more violent than ever, but also more introspective. His forays into more thought-provoking territory, often showing emotions that were shunned within the hip-hop world, remain today some of the most highly respected tracks in the entire history of the genre, and it was on this record that 2Pac's true talents as a writer came clearly into focus. Much of the album involved Shakur looking back on his own life, speaking of those he had already lost to violence, as well as a deep study of his own upbringing. There is not a sub-par moment anywhere on the record, and yet 2Pac outdoes himself, as he throws down the gauntlet completely when he penned one of the most powerful and touching hip-hop tracks in history in the form of his 1995 single, "Dear Mama."
From the moment "Dear Mama" begins, it is clearly unlike any other track that had been released by a "hardcore" emcee to date. With the melodic keyboards and string-type arrangement, the focus musically is far less on hard-hitting beats and more on creating the proper mood for the lyrics 2Pac had penned. The keyboard piece is actually a sample, taken from Joe Sample's song, "In Your Wildest Dreams," and the inclusion of this rather unorthodox source material is one of the many ways in which "Dear Mama" re-wrote the books on what was "acceptable" from gangsta-style emcees. The looping string section also stays in place for the entire song, and the combination of these two elements gives the song a mood that is almost like that of a eulogy. It is also largely due to this less aggressive musical arrangement that the song became more accessible to even casual hip-hop fans, and in combination with the moving lyrics, the song stormed its way up the charts, topping the "Rap Singles" and going to number three on the "Hot 100" charts. This success led to the song being one of the most famous of all of 2Pac's tracks, and fellow hip-hop icons Eminem and Snoop Dogg both repeatedly cite the track as a massive influence on their own careers. Such success and reverence are not surprising, as in many ways, "Dear Mama" strikes the perfect balance with the powerful, yet non-violent lyrics, and the smooth, almost R&B style music over which 2Pac delivers his brilliant words.
Though the music certainly adds a key element to the song, one cannot deny that the true magic behind "Dear Mama" lies within the voice and words of 2Pac himself. Never using any sort of distortion or vocal alterations, there is a mesmerizing raw and honest feel within every one of his verses across his career. On "Dear Mama," 2Pac rarely even pushes his voice behind what one assumes is his "speaking voice," and this allows for every word to come through clearly, and not only brings an amazing impact for what he is saying, but allows the spotlight to shift to his uncanny ability to work within poetic verse. Standing today as one of the most talented lyricists in history, 2Pac had already proven that he could write the most gritty and violent lyrics ever, yet here he proves that there is nothing "wrong" with an emcee turning the pen on himself. Every line of "Dear Mama" is a tribute, as he speaks of his own mother's battle with drugs, yet consistently makes points about how hard she worked to make sure that 2Pac had a "good" upbringing. Taking much of the blame for the problems between them, he states one of the most stunning lines ever in, "...I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell...huggin' on my mama from a jail cell..." Though it may seem like nothing special in retrospect, the fact of the matter is, until 2Pac dropped "Dear Mama," such introspection and almost sensitivity from emcees was simply unheard of. 2Pac later presents both sides of his mother, and clearly "buries" any issues between them with the rhyme, "...and even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen, mama..." It is lines like these that showed a completely new side of one of hip-hop's most "dangerous" rappers, and it is due largely to the courage and honestly that he showed here that 2Pac remains so highly revered in the world of hip-hop.
Though an overwhelming majority of emcees point to their "toughness" as the reason they are so much more manly than their peers, one can easily make the case that it is due to 2Pac's open and honest nature that he stands so far above the rest of the history of the genre. Clearly not caring what others may have thought, 2Pac takes full responsibility for his mistakes in childhood and "buries the hatchet" with his mother on the moving track, "Dear Mama." Yet he goes even further, promoting the virtues of finding success in life, and when he states, "...it feels good puttin' money in your mail box...I love payin' rent when the rent's due, I hope ya got the diamond necklace that I sent you...'cause when I was low you was there for me, and never left me alone because you cared for me..." It is passages like this that made it "ok" for other emcees to delve into deeper subjects, and the song is also consistent with 2Pac's overall aim to try and promote unity and forgiveness within the "street culture" from whence he came. Though he had previously dabbled in more sensitive subjects, those beyond simple street violence, before "Dear Mama," there had simply never been another such outpouring of thanks and love, and one can easily make the case that it was his more introspective songs that made 2Pac the legend he remains today. Backed by a more soulful, restrained musical arrangement, the focus shifts completely to 2Pac's magnificent lyrical talents, and there are very few songs of any era or genre that can compare to the beauty and emotion found within his monumental, genre re-defining 1995 single, "Dear Mama."