What does it say that the most talked-about performer at Coachella this year was a computer projection of a man who died almost 16 years ago? Coachella featured a rare joint performance by towering icons Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, but all anyone could talk about was the Tupac hologram that “performed” a few songs with them. Even in death, Tupac has a way of upstaging anyone unfortunate enough to share a stage with him.
But the Tupac hologram is simply the latest, strangest, and tackiest manifestation of our culture-wide unwillingness to let Tupac Shakur rest in peace. Instead of allowing Shakur to exist unmistakably in our collective past, we feel a need to update him for contemporary audiences. In his lifetime, Tupac was an inveterate shit-starter who instigated beefs under the flimsiest of pretenses. In death, Tupac will collaborate with anyone, even people he hated. In life, Tupac was an explosive, rage-filled wild card. In death, Tupac will do whatever the hell his estate wants him to do. Nowhere is the perverse warping of Tupac’s legacy more glaring than in hologram Tupac posthumously performing alongside a man he called “gay-ass Dre” in “To Live And Die In L.A.” and considered a traitor to Death Row Records and, consequently, a mortal enemy. It was a little like having a holographic representation of Ted Kennedy appear at Mitt Romney rallies to deliver a stirring endorsement of the Massachusetts Republican.
But that Coachella performance wasn’t the first time dead Tupac pulled an abrupt posthumous about-face and “collaborated” with someone he despised back when he was living and breathing and capable of making choices about what he wanted to do and with whom he wanted to collaborate. In 2003, producer and Tupac super-fan Eminem—who has also “collaborated” with Pac as both a rapper and producer—engineered a ghostly truce between Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. (a rival Tupac called a “fat motherfucker” on “Hit Em’ Up,” a dis track where he also claimed to have “fucked” B.I.G.’s wife Faith Evans) via the “duet” “Runnin’ (Dying To Live)” on the soundtrack to an Oscar-nominated Tupac documentary called Tupac: Resurrection. How the hell is Tupac supposed to be resurrected when he never went away? Tupac had been dead for seven years when Tupac: Resurrection became a critical and commercial hit, but that didn’t keep the filmmakers from using audio from interviews to make it appear that Tupac was “narrating” his own story from beyond the grave.
I’m putting a lot of words in quotation marks here to underline the make-pretend nature of so much of Tupac’s prolific and multifaceted afterlife. Instead of honoring Pac’s memory, we as a culture are Weekend At Bernie-ing the poor man, crudely manipulating his memory, legacy, image, and vocals to make it appear that he’s performing with Dre and Snoop at Coachella, collaborating with people he publicly despised, and churning out album after album despite having died while still in his mid-20s.
It’s easy to see why Dre, Snoop, and plenty of other heavyweights want to “perform” with Tupac: It transformed their set from a big deal and highlight of the festival to a major cultural event, the kind of zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon that people talk about long after the festival has passed. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with the most beloved and revered rapper of all time? Collaborating with Tupac, regardless of the circumstances, has got to be a hell of an ego boost, but it’s also just plain good business. Dead or alive, Tupac makes headlines and money.
For a long time, our unwillingness to let go of Tupac manifested itself in an endless string of surrogates we desperately hoped would fill the Tupac-sized hole in our collective hearts. Some of these pretenders to Tupac’s vacated throne were impressive—particularly the fiercely talented and intense, but deeply unhinged and self-destructive DMX—but most represented grotesque caricatures of Tupac’s sensitive-thug persona, like Master P, Ja Rule, and, most successfully, 50 Cent. On his massive breakout hit “In Da Club,” 50 Cent rapped “They like me, I want them to love me like they love Pac.” For a brief moment, that actually seemed possible. 50 Cent had even gotten shot repeatedly like Tupac, but walked away with his life. Then it became apparent that 50 Cent cared about nothing but money and the pursuit of power for its own sake, and the most formidable challenger to Tupac’s throne was revealed to be a soulless fraud. I suspect that’s part of the reason people were so fascinated by the Tupac hologram: After 16 years of unsatisfactory pretenders, fans were eager for even a technological simulacrum of the real thing. People didn’t just want to hear Tupac or listen to his music. They wanted to see him and bask in his aura, even if that meant being spellbound by what is essentially a trick of light.
In death, a fierce partisan like Tupac, who drew a hard line between friends and enemies, belongs to everybody, from enemies to friends, and from his contemporaries to the generations that followed him and grew up in his oversized shadow. As in life, the dead Tupac has mastered the tricky business of being all things to all people. These bellowing, bellicose Tupac clones could never fill the void left by Pac’s demise. Tupac transcends music. The frenzy surrounding his hologram offers conclusive evidence, as if any were needed, that he has become the Elvis of hip-hop, right down to persistent rumors that he’s still alive. Like Elvis, Tupac’s legacy is swaddled in kitsch and bad taste: The Tupac hologram seems well on its way to becoming rap’s answer to a black velvet Elvis painting. The Tupac hologram has breathed new life into the booming Tupac industry even as it highlights pop culture’s childlike unwillingness to accept the man’s passing with anything resembling dignity, maturity or grace.
Since Coachella, there has been ample chatter about what’s next for the Tupac hologram. Will he tour? Perhaps star in his own Vegas extravaganza? Maybe get a reality show? Nobody can tell just what the future holds for this charismatic technological recreation of a dead man, but one thing’s for sure: When it comes to the grieving process, we as a culture never got beyond the first of the five stages of grief: denial. Literally and metaphorically, we’ve been denying Tupac’s death since the moment he was gunned down in Vegas. After 16 years, we’re still a long ways from the fifth and final stage: acceptance. With this fantastical new Tupac surrogate loose in the world, it looks increasingly doubtful we’ll ever get there.