So much has been written about rapper and actor Tupac Shakur since his 1996 shooting death that anyone attempting to cover his life is at a disadvantage when it comes to finding new angles. But because he traversed so many important cultural crossroads—the son of Black Panthers, mother a crack addict in the ’80s, hugely popular hip-hop star, unsolved shooting death—history professor Fred Johnson and When Rap Music Had A Conscience author Tayannah Lee McQuillar take a sensible approach in Tupac Shakur: The Life Of An American Icon, by presenting Shakur’s life and the social and political environment of his lifetime as equals.
American Icon makes a lot of connections between its subject and larger forces at work, but the writing is distractingly clunky. When the authors print bullet-pointed lists of the tactics COINTELPRO utilized against the Panthers, and quote in full the Panthers’ 10-point revolutionary platform, it gives the book the whiff of a thesis reheated into a bio with the occasional revolutionary rhetorical flourish, as when Tupac, age 13, moves to Baltimore in 1984: “But the major news was the Baltimore Colts’ move to Indianapolis, Indiana. The poverty, crime, unemployment, and the desperation of the underclass was sad competition against headlines concerning the machinations of super wealthy sports team owners and their rich athletes.” On other occasions, the writing just goes flat, as with this forced transition during a discussion of Vietnam War veterans: “These powerless and voiceless citizens had borne the burden of the country’s missteps in Indochina, returning home in shame and bitterness. The angst of the period was captured in popular culture,” followed by a short laundry list of movies and books about the war.
The details of Shakur’s life are rendered with similar stiffness. When he steps into a conflagration and shoots two police officers in Atlanta, the exchange is boiled down to “Years of conditioning demanded that he do something, so he intervened. Words were exchanged. Tempers flared and shots were fired. The two men harassing the motorist were hit.” The authors’ psychological insights are as pat as their storytelling, and their critical acumen is several steps below, as when they write of Shakur’s vicious Notorious B.I.G. dis, “‘Hit Em Up’ was not a battle record. It was not a song. It shouldn’t even be called music. It was simply rage unhinged.” That’s a statement for scolds, not historians.