Rhyme and Reason

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Rhyme and Reason
One of the reasons Tupac still resonates in the culture is his outsized literary ambition. When it came to the themes of his music, Tupac thought big, and often in stark binaries: life and death ("Life Goes On"); love and hate ("Hail Mary"); judgment and forgiveness ("I Ain't Mad at Cha"); joy and pain ("To Live and Die in L.A."); and heaven and hell ("I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto"). He fearlessly, and poetically, explored dimensions of the male psyche neglected by his rap peers. (None of them had dared to, as tenderly or publicly, praise their mothers as Tupac praised his in "Dear Mama.") Tupac squeezed the various vulnerabilities of black life into verse without smothering its defiant hope. In "Unconditional Love" for instance, the narrator acknowledges the "urge to die" but reminds his listeners that "tomorrow comes after the dark / So you will always be in my heart, with unconditional love." Tupac's language was inflamed with love for the desperately poor. He was a ghetto Dickens who explained the plight of the downtrodden in rebellious rhyme. But like the unconventional literary masters he brought to mind think lean Genet meets Sylvia Plath--Tupac was often smeared by critics and pundits who took his words literally. The vibrant imagination that fueled Tupac's gift was often dismissed, perhaps because it was too dark, too dangerous. As with many of the "troublesome" artists who preceded him, it was Tupac's tolerance for life's gray zones that provided a constant problem for both his critics and those seeking to interpret his work. While he often decried racism and spoke about blacks and whites, he rarely thought in black and white terms. His eager embrace of ethical ambivalence came off to critics as mere hypocrisy. After all, how could the same artist--or, given the unwilling suspension of disbelief, the same man--encourage women to keep their heads up one moment and then quickly pelt them with harsh epithets? How could he proclaim...
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