The fall of 1996 was a dark time in hip-hop. 2Pac's death that September 13 reverberated throughout the culture; he'd been rap's most polarizing figure for almost two years--a source of admiration and scorn; praised and criticized in equal measure. After he was shot on that fateful night in Las Vegas, dying in the hospital 7 days later, there were more questions than answers. And as an artist who'd come to epitomize romanticized fatalism in hip-hop--his murder itself almost immediately became a part of his lore.

To a generation, 2Pac was now the tragic hero of hip-hop; a thoughtful poet who was also an unflinching hard rock--ready to ride, ready to die, and always down for his. Now that he was dead--there was no way he wouldn't become a martyr to the audience that had adored him. And his last "real" album only magnified the myth-making following his demise. In early November, Death Row Records would release Pac's final studio album--a record shrouded in mystery and mythology; an epitaph for a troubled artist who'd risen through hip-hop's ranks to become a messianic figure for an audience of disillusioned and disenfranchised Black youth.

Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory was a must-hear album from the moment it was released that November. 2Pac had been anointed an urban folk hero a year earlier, as he was sitting in prison following a sexual assault conviction; and he'd gained megastar status upon his release, when he signed with Death Row Records and declared verbal war on the New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment; the label founded by Sean Combs that boasted the Notorious B.I.G. as it's biggest star. Pac had blamed Combs and Biggie for the November 1994 shooting that almost killed him and preceded his prison stint, and he'd spent much of 1996 pouring gasoline on a fire brewing between East Coast and West Coast artists.

But despite his defiant public stance, 2Pac had been regretting the way things had spiraled out of control. In the months leading up to his death, Pac had reached out to East Coast artists with whom he had good relations and started recording tracks for a solidarity-themed project dubbed One Nation. And though Death Row founder Suge Knight had posted Pac's bail in late 1995 and guided his tenure thus far at the label, there has been rampant conversation suggesting that Pac was ready to rid himself of the Death Row affiliation that had come with his freedom. His newfound focus was reflected in his new alias--one inspired by Machiavelli's The Prince and the idea of reinvention and reincarnation. He'd called himself "Makaveli" on previous tracks, but now it would inform his entire approach. His new project would be centered on his new persona--a rebirth for the artist.

That project would also see 2Pac reclaim some artistic autonomy after the Death Row-celebrating All Eyez On Me. Released in February 1996, that double album had been 2Pac's coronation as the newest star on the most dangerous label in hip-hop; but it often felt like Pac's persona was too immersed in the standard blunts-and-bitches fare that Death Row had been known for since 1992. On his follow-up, Pac didn't lean so heavily on the typical Death Row hitmakers and sounds, recruiting his own set of producers and minimizing the guest appearances from label mainstays. There would be no contributions from Dr. Dre this time around, as he'd acrimoniously departed Death Row within months of All Eyez On Me's release. As a result of his defection, it was understandable that Dre would be persona non grata at Death Row; but Snoop Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound weren't to be featured on 2Pac's new album, either. It was clear that Pac wanted this album to be his album.

Foregoing longtime collaborators like Johnny J and Shock G, as well as hitmakers like Daz Dillinger and DJ Quik, Pac instead recruited low-rung Death Row beatmakers Hurt-M-Badd and Darryl “Big D” Harper--while also co-producing much of the album himself. The result was a lot less glossy than All Eyez On Me; despite retaining that album's melodic grooves, Don Killuminati was a darker album, both sonically and thematically. If All Eyez On Me reveled in Thug Life and ballerism, this would be the sober reality of what that life brings.

Released on November 5, 1996, under his pseudonym "Makaveli," Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory is arguably the quintessential 2Pac album. No album embraces the fallen rapper's self-mythologized image more; but it also represents a summation of all of his conflicted and contradictory personas. The righteous rage of his early work is present; as is the confrontational menace that became a hallmark of All Eyez...; but he also exhibits his trademark sensitivity and penchant for introspection--which had been a cornerstone of 1995s Me Against the World.

The album's lead single was "Toss It Up," a rather uninspired sex romp that echoed earlier 2Pac hits like "I Get Around" and "How Do U Want It?" Rush-released just weeks after Pac's death, the song was a moderate hit--on par with the kind of chart success most of the lesser singles from All Eyez On Me had seen. But the album opener "Bomb First (My Second Reply)" is much more indicative of the spirit of Don Killuminati...: a sinister track that announces that 2Pac is ready to battle the lengthy list of enemies he'd amassed by mid-1996. Built on a bouncing bassline borrowed from Naughty By Nature's "Uptown Anthem"--which featured Pac in the video back in 1991--its sentiment of paranoid rage permeates the entire album. "A born leader--never leave the block without my heater," he raps. "Two big pits--I call them my bitch nigga eaters/And not a whimper 'til I'm gone/Thug Life runnin' through my veins, so I'm strong."

"Hail Mary" has become one of 2Pac's definitive songs. With a haunting, echo-heavy backdrop amplified with the kind of ominous church bells that would've made Black Sabbath proud, Hurt-M-Badd gives 2Pac his most eerie track on which to lay raps that celebrate the rapper's sense of self-mythology. Speaking about himself in almost supernatural terms, Pac sounds ghostly and vengeful as he asks "Do you wanna ride or die?" Released just weeks after he'd died, the song sounded like a spectral anthem from beyond the grave in the fall of 1996--a quality that it has largely retained in the two decades since.

"To Live & Die In L.A." was the album's second single and one of the few moments of levity on an otherwise unapologetically fatalistic album. Produced by QDIII and featuring a sample of Prince's "Do Me, Baby" the song is christened as "California Love, Part 2" by Pac on its outro, before he adds one of several disses aimed at former Death Row mainstay Dr. Dre and his exit from the label.

Adding to the sense of foreboding dread and myth-making, "Blasphemy" is another song that embraces 2Pac's mythology, this time framing it alongside Biblical imagery. Featuring similarly haunting production as "Hail Mary," Hurt-M-Badd once again gives Pac a dark canvass on which to paint his thug poetry--featuring his reminiscing on wisdom that he'd been exposed to as a child, and the application of that wisdom in dealing with his enemies. It's a brilliantly evocative track, as Pac acknowledges that "the media be crucifying brothers severely."

"Life of An Outlaw" feels most similar to the G'ed up fare on All Eyez On Me, as Pac's tone is once again a middle-finger to anyone who has an issue with his lifestyle. It's another one of the songs that came to epitomize that side of his persona--the 2Pac that spits at the camera and gleefully bounces out of court while facing felonies. "Just Like Daddy" is another rare moment of light--with Pac revisiting his more charming side as he flirts with a woman who has caught his interest. It's a testament to his varied artistic voice that moments like this never feel shoehorned onto an album full of blood and anger--it's as honest a portrait of 2Pac as his more antagonistic moments. But the sun never lasts.

One of the most mournful songs he ever recorded, 2Pac rarely sounded as mentally and psychologically exhausted as he sounds on "Krazy." Against Big D's guitar-laden production, Makaveli wearily raps "Time goes by, puffin' on lye--hopin' that it gets me high..." as he ponders mortality, pain in his community and broken family ties. The conflict in his voice is palpable and painful--it's hard to hear a man who sounds like his world is closing in on him--especially weeks after he was gunned down.

The album's most topical moment is undoubtedly "White Man's World;" the most explicitly socially aware track 2Pac had released during his few months on Death Row Records. On the surface, the song covers well-worn territory for Pac:  a scrutinizing eye aimed at a system designed to subjugate a young Black male. But in framing much of the song as an empathetic look at how that system has affected Black women by way of Black male self-destructiveness, 2Pac turns the song into a near-apology for his incarceration and sexual assault conviction from the year prior.

"Me & My Girlfriend" is one of the album's most notorious moments; as 2Pac offers an extended metaphor built around his love affair with his weapon. According to later interviews with the Outlawz, the song was inspired by Nas' "I Gave You Power," which had been released a few months earlier on his sophomore album It Was Written. Nas is a target of Pac's scorn in other moments on the album and it was revealed years later that the two settled their differences before 2Pac's death. This song serves as evidence of at least a creative respect for the Queensbridge emcee--we'll never know if any of those Nas disses would've made the final cut had Pac been alive to oversee the final stages of the album's production. Nonetheless, "...Girlfriend" has become one of the "Makaveli" album's most quoted and referenced tracks--most notably serving as the foundation for Jay Z's 2003 hit "03 Bonnie & Clyde" with Beyonce.

"Against All Odds" was a confrontational sequel of sorts to "Hit 'Em Up," the inflammatory b-side 2Pac had released in spring 1996. "Hit 'Em Up" was Pac's lyrical body slam of the Notorious B.I.G. and "Puffy" Combs, as well as other East Coast rappers like Mobb Deep and Chino XL. On "Against All Odds," his rhetoric was just as venomous--this time taking shots at everyone from Jimmy "Henchman" Rosemond to Nas to De La Soul. In the last months of his life, 2Pac's paranoia had increased--and he showed no qualms about going after any and everyone who'd uttered a word against his behavior. It's a final punch in the face to anyone who'd stood against him, and as such, it's a definitive portrait of the anger of his final days.

It's virtually impossible to separate Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory from the drama surrounding those months in fall 1996. It's important to remember that, at the time of it's release, the Notorious B.I.G. was still alive; so 2Pac's death was singularly devastating for fans. With this album's release, it felt as though that death had made 2Pac something bigger, darker and more powerful. In many ways it did--2Pac would become even more celebrated posthumously than he was when he was alive; and a generation too young to remember the specifics of his all-too-brief career would come of age with the revised version that was born of the adulation that occurred in his final few months and after he was gone.

Also, over the next several years, bootlegs, reissues and an endless stream of posthumous reworkings of his material would water down a lot of the power of Don Killuminati... For many contemporary listeners, it just sounds like the 2Pac they've been force-fed for 20 years--removed from the time when it was initially heard by the public. But none of that diminishes the significance of Tupac Shakur's last creative statement. Many have tried to deliver an album this self-aware, this purposeful and one that rewrote their image so effectively. But they don't have 2Pac's vision. They don't have 2Pac's honesty. And they don't have 2Pac's power. He gave the world his dark musings and let you make your determination as to it's value. It was just his reality. And some of his fantasies. But he called it as he saw it. And he called it what it was:

The realest shit he ever wrote.

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