It may seem odd to fans who discovered Tupac Shakur as an already-martyred legend, but there was a time when he wasn't the biggest rapper in hip-hop. Hell, there was a time when he wasn't even the biggest rapper on the West Coast.

When 2Pac's debut album dropped in late 1991, Ice Cube had become the most controversial and polarizing artist in hip-hop (a mantle that he'd only recently assumed from Public Enemy's Chuck D--who was also still a force in the culture) and Cube was viewed by many as the definitive rap voice on black rage; by 1993, Snoop (then Doggy) Dogg had emerged as both the most famous rapper in the game and America's new favorite bad guy, armed with hit songs and a quasi-gangbanger image that made him irresistible to suburban teens and repulsive to their parents. When the Notorious B.I.G. debuted in the late summer of 1994 with his hit single "Juicy" and the multi-platinum-selling album Ready To Die dropped that fall, 2Pac hadn't yet delivered the kind of album that fans expected of the most revered artists in hip-hop. He hadn't dropped a Death Certificate or a Doggy Style. Movie roles and hit singles had made him famous, run-ins with the law had made him notorious, but Pac hadn't exactly done anything truly great from a musical standpoint beyond those standout singles like "Brenda's Got A Baby," "Holler If Ya Hear Me," "Keep Ya Head Up" and "I Get Around." You would've had to search far and wide to find anyone who considered 2Pacalypse Now or Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. "classic albums."

Of course, late 1994 is when 2Pac's story shifts into high melodrama and even the most casual hip-hop fan can recite the litany of things that led up to All Eyez On Me in early 1996. He was famously shot in what was called a robbery outside Quad Studios in Manhattan that November. He emerged from the hospital blaming his former friends Sean "Puffy" Combs and the Notorious B.I.G. for the shooting that he now considered a set-up; and he had a sexual assault trial looming. In February 1995, he was sentenced to 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years in prison for that assault and would spend the next nine months at Clinton Correctional Facility in New York. While in prison, 2Pac's seminal third album Me Against the World was released. An introspective, morbid and thoroughly engrossing collection of songs informed by the anger, regret and frustration he was feeling in the wake of the sexual assault case and shooting, Me Against the World was the first 2Pac album to garner the kind of reception contemporaneous records like Illmatic and Ready To Die had enjoyed. Arriving in the midst of such well-publicized turmoil meant that there was a lot of attention on Pac, but the music on the album finally matched the rapper's infamy. As Shakur sat in prison, offering interviews that reflected how committed he was to changing his worldview, his legend grew on the back of what many still consider his definitive album. It would sell more than 2 million copies before the end of that year.

But while Pac was in prison, a storm was brewing in hip-hop. Combs's Bad Boy Entertainment had become a major commercial force in the industry, eating into space that had been solely occupied by Suge Knight's Death Row Records for the previous three years. Knight hated Combs, and, following the Quad City shooting, 2Pac had bitterness towards the Bad Boy head honcho and the label's biggest star: the Notorious B.I.G. At the Source Awards in August 1995, Knight famously dissed Combs and Bad Boy onstage, adding fuel to what was already becoming a tense rivalry. But none of these things were intertwined until October 1995, when Knight posted Shakur's $1.4 million bail and signed him to Death Row Records. Now, the most notorious label in hip-hop was home to the most notorious artist; and they had a common enemy.

All of that set the stage for the glossy double album that would serve as both 2Pac's Death Row coming-out party and as the label's counterpunch to the emergence of Bad Boy (Death Row superstar Snoop hadn't been able to release a follow-up to his smash 1993 debut Doggy Style because he himself was embroiled in a murder case.) The Tupac Shakur that fans got once he'd been released from prison was wildly different from the man who'd talked about atonement and self-awareness while inside; he was angrier, bitter and antagonistic. With Pac's bravado now connected to Knight's glowering menace, Death Row proudly marketed itself as the most dangerous label in music and Pac's new album was a celebration of that reputation.

All Eyez On Me is a more varied album that some critics acknowledge; Pac vacillates from darkly threatening ("No More Pain") to hopeful and optimistic ("Heaven Ain't Hard 2 Find") to standard horn-dogging ("What's Ya Phone #"), but the most obvious and pervasive theme is anger. From the opening seconds of "Ambitionz As a Ridah" it's obvious that this isn't the 2Pac who was "falling to the floor, waiting for the Lord to let me enter heaven's door" from "So Many Tears" of a year previous; this was a middle finger to every enemy--real or perceived--that had tried to slow him down. Recorded swiftly in the weeks following his release, All Eyez On Me has everything one would expect from an album made by an artist who was young, rich and notorious and who'd spent the last several months incarcerated and seething.

"California Love" became the album's first single and Pac's biggest chart hit, largely on the strength of it's eye-popping Mad Max-themed video and the hype following Pac's Death Row signing. The DeBarge-sampling "I Ain't Mad At Cha" was one of the few reflective moments on the album and would become another hit single when released later in the year; as would "How Do U Want It" another sex anthem that traded on an air of defiance coming from a man who'd just served time for sexual assault. The rest of the album was comprised of taunts towards those enemies and odes to the simple albeit self-destructive joys of "thug life;" which had always been an element of Pac's music and image but now seemed to be his obsession.

All Eyez On Me also featured the glossiest, most radio-friendly production that 2Pac had enjoyed up to that point. Gone were the Shock G, Bobcat and Easy Mo Bee beats that had populated most of his previous three solo albums and the underrated Thug Life, Vol. 1, these were slick sounds helmed by Daz, DJ Qwik, DeVante Swing, Dr. Dre and longtime Pac collaborator Johnny J and they were obviously aimed squarely at countering Bad Boy's R&B-flavored hookiness. On a double album that featured more than it's fair share of filler, there was no denying that these songs were immaculately produced. It all made for a major crossover album for an artist who was already famous enough to land major magazine covers and it gave mainstream media an in-roads for covering the "East Coast/West Coast" beef that had been threatening to explode within hip-hop over the previous months. 2Pac was at the center of it all. If there has ever been an album that earned its title, it was Pac's All Eyez On Me.

Of course, it's hard to look back at the album and the drama surrounding it now; we know that in just a few months, Tupac Shakur would be murdered, Death Row would crumble and the Notorious B.I.G. would also be shot and killed shortly thereafter. It's hard not to view the album as a document of a poisonous time in the life of an artist who seemed to be on the precipice of something more; and as evidence that hip-hop was losing it's soul to glamorized thuggery.

There has also been a lingering belief that this wasn't "the real" Tupac Shakur. This was a self-destructive alter-ego that a troubled young man embraced after he was cornered by a malevolent benefactor in Knight. Had Pac sold his soul for notoriety and an alliance with the most feared man in music? Had the thoughtful, rebellious poet been devoured by Knight's gangsterism in an effort to "prove" his loyalty to the man who'd bailed him out of prison? We may never really know.

But it would be misguided to let all of that take away from the strength of the material itself. For better and worse, All Eyez On Me is just as definitively 2Pac as Me Against the World; both albums feature some reflection and some rage--they're just in inversely proportionate amounts on the two albums. Both albums are essential listening for anyone trying to understand Tupac Shakur as a recording artist and All Eyez On Me is an album that countless rappers have tried to imitate -- with more time and ever-diminishing returns.

However you may feel about 2Pac and his most polarizing and most successful album, there's no denying that All Eyez On Me is as important as any hip-hop album ever made. Even if Pac had to sacrifice some of himself to make it.

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