Before I vanished for a still-undetermined period of time, I received a request to review Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s debut album Conspiracy, a request fully based around the idea of "well, you wrote up all of Biggie's other albums...". I responded with some horseshit about how I needed to do something first before I could get to The Notorious B.I.G.'s weed carriers featuring Lil' Kim. But the reason why I waited so long for the M.A.F.I.A. was because I had wanted to write up 2Pac's group Thug Life around the same time. I figured that the two subjects would complement each other or something. That didn't work out as well as I had hoped, but you're still reading this, so that's something.
Why Thug Life and not Tha Outlawz, I imagine you just asked out loud to your computer screen? Well, Biggie Smalls wasn't credited as a guest on Conspiracy because he considered himself an actual member of the group. 2Pac may have worked with Tha Outlawz and played a large role in molding them into whatever the fuck they became, but he was never a part of the actual crew, unlike Thug Life, where he was a card-carrying member, even though the collective for the span of a single album (regardless of the fact that their lone project was optimistically titled Thug Life: Volume 1).
Aside from Tupac Shakur, Thug Life (which was not named after the man's infamous tattoo, regardless of what you've heard otherwise) consisted of his friends Big Syke, Macadoshis, Rated R, and his stepbrother Mopreme Shakur, most of whom he would continually work alongside throughout the rest of his short career. They recorded their debut, Thug Life: Volume 1, in late 1993 through a good chunk of 1994, a time period in which Shakur was still trying to find his way in our chosen genre, making the mistakes that people tend to make when they're presented with an appealing lifestyle that they can't fully comprehend because they live in an awed detachment of it. Pac was fantastic at taking the stories of those around him and presenting them to his audience in a way that resonated with you, but when it came to actually living that life, his luck wasn't so great: Thug Life was formed shortly after he was first charged with sexual assault (which he was eventually handed a prison sentence for) and before he was shot in an armed robbery that, it just so happens, kinda-sorta was solved just this past week.
The version of Thug Life: Volume 1 that eventually hit store shelves wasn't what Pac and his collaborators envisioned when they first hooked up: their record label, Interscope, grew wary of some of their more controversial material and left it on the cutting room floor, leaving us with a project that consists of only ten songs, a remarkable show of restraint in our chosen genre. Thug Life: Volume 1 contains no skits, interludes, or rap album intro: instead, its ten songs force the listener to jump right into the hearts and minds of its creators, and they could give a damn if you can't keep up with what's going on at any given point.
Thug Life kind of petered out shortly after 2Pac's incarceration, although, as I mentioned above, most of the crew members would continue to work alongside Shakur when he made the move to Death Row Records. The project tends to be dismissed today as a 2Pac solo effort, but although he does appear on the majority of the songs (again, without a "guest star" credit), and although he tends to walk away with the spotlight at any given opportunity (as he was wont to do, even as a hologram), this is most certainly a group effort, one that flies under the radar of today's rap music fans, especially those who believe that 2Pac was speaking directly to them even though he was killed before they were even born.
But I digress.
1. BURY ME A G (FEAT. NATASHA WALKER OF Y.N.V.)
Appropriately, Thug Life: Volume 1 kicks off with a full-on posse cut, although Pac is the only guy to receive a full verse (actually, he gets two of them to himself). Thug Music's beat sounds pretty interesting when it's made up of only drums at the very beginning: when the overly-familiar Isley Brothers sample from “For The Love Of You (Part 1 & 2)” kicks in, the song loses a bit of its luster. One doesn't look to 2Pac songs for coherence, and “Bury Me A G” is no exception: only his opening salvo has anything to do with the track's title. Hell, his hook, while catchy, doesn't make much fucking sense. Mopreme, Rated R, Big Syke, and Macadoshis all sound okay-to-middling, but they're all buried by the headliner, as none of them sound very relaxed over the production work. Weird.
2. DON'T GET IT TWISTED
This song was fascinating, though. Without Pac's influence hanging over them like a poorly-installed fluorescent light fixture that's a lawsuit just waiting to happen, Mopreme, Rated R, and Macadoshis all spit admirably (if not effortlessly) over the dark beat (provided by Jay and Mopreme himself), one which suggests Cypress Hill by way of Da Beatminerz, and yes, it sounds just as good as that description reads. Hell, you're forgiven if you mistake Mopreme's opening verse for one from Sen Dog (although a collaboration of that nature could have pulled the crew a bit more publicity back in 1994). The three rappers all sound empowered on this East Coast-ish throwback, and their taunts and threats still resonate well enough today, resulting in one of the best tracks on all of Thug Life: Volume 1. It's good that Thug Life got that whole “but would they be nearly as successful without Pac's help?” thing out of the way early on. Nice!
3. SHIT DON'T STOP (FEAT. Y.N.V.)
The production shifts firmly back to the West once 2Pac returns from his errand, and once again, he's the only guy that gets a full verse to himself. That's kind of weird: how in the fuck are the rest of these guys supposed to build their brand when they aren't even allowed to speak for more than eight bars at a time? No wonder Thug Life never managed to release a second album (well, that, and the more obvious reason, of course). Thug Music's beat sounds lazy and generic, but every actual rapper on here does what they can with it, with strangely similar results: no one man stands out (nope, not even 2Pac), and the listener never fully understands what the “shit” is that refuses to “stop”, but nobody outright shits the bed, either. Except for guest crooners Y.N.V. on the hook, though: they sound so fucking terrible that all microphones around the world should take out restraining orders against them immediately.
4. POUR OUT A LIL' LIQUOR
This song is credited to Thug Life but features only 2Pac, the same way it was labeled when it first appeared on Death Row's soundtrack for Above The Rim, a flick Pac also appeared in. I enjoyed the late Johnny “J”'s bluesy beat and Pac's verses back in 1994, and both still hold up remarkably well today, possibly because our host uncharacteristically stays on topic for nearly the entire length of the track. I remember being excited when “Pour Out A Lil' Liquor” was released as a single to the radio, hearing the familiar notes at the beginning and then laughing my ass off as Pac declared what was playing to be “the radio version” before launching into his now-family friendly verses: I just found it funny that any rapper would blatantly acknowledge that their song was censored on the actual song itself.
5. STAY TRUE (FEAT. STRETCH)
Unsurprisingly, Pac dominates this song as well, handling the bookend verses, the hook, and the craft services, but even though the other rappers involved (guest star Stretch, from the Live Squad, and only Mopreme from Thug Life, as everyone else had to take a collective shit or something) barely get any screen time. I did like the playful, old-school way Pac introduced both of them on the track, though. Thug Music's beat was alright: not what I would have chosen for a song about staying true to Thug Life, but whatever. On a morbid side note, Mopreme is the only (vocal) participant on “Stay True” who is still alive today, and it's more than a bit awkward to hear Stretch and 2Pac on the same song (given the rumors, perpetuated by Pac himself, that Stretch actually set up that infamous robbery-slash-shooting in New York, let alone Stretch's own execution-style (and possibly retaliatory) murder).
6. HOW LONG WILL THEY MOURN ME (FEAT. NATE DOGG)
I feel like an insensitive dick writing this, since “How Long Will They Mourn Me” (which was released to radio, I believe, which makes perfect sense, given the guest star who appears on the hook) is dedicated to Thug Life's fallen comrade Kato, but this song doesn't make any goddamn sense. The non-2Pac lyrics are all about how much they miss their friend and how they promise to continue supporting Kato's family in his absence, while Pac's contribution seems to consist solely of catchphrases, but the title of the track itself seems to ask the question of how long each individual member of Thug Life will be mourned, not Kato. Nice sentiment, failed execution. The Warren G. / Nate Dogg beat (I know, I was shocked that Nate is credited as a co-producer, too) was weak as shit, and the mix was terrible: you can barely hear the late crooner on the hook. This song doesn't even work as a proper dedication. See, I told you I was going to come off sounding like a dick.
7. UNDER PRESSURE (FEAT. STRETCH)
This track wasn't bad at all, though. 2Pac abandons his Thug Life cronies in favor of his boy (at the time) Stretch, but both rappers rock over this harder-than-expected Thug Music instrumental that sounds like a goddamn breath of motherfucking fresh air after that abortion that was “How Long Will They Mourn Me”. Pac and Stretch try to sound as menacing as possible, which the cold beat helps with immensely, and everything mostly works. I would have personally chopped the last minute off of the song, since the hook is repeated no fewer than ninety-three times, but otherwise, I kind of dug this.
8. STREET FAME
2Pac doesn't even clock in for work on this one, which is for the best: I'm fascinated by the idea that Thug Life managed to secure the album's two best instrumentals when their de facto leader had fuck-all to do with the selection process. The fact that those beats were so New York that they would avoid Times Square on New Year's Eve also should be noted. Anyway, the lyrics from Mopreme, Rated R, and Big Syke aren't anything special, but they sound fantastic over Stretch's dark beats, one which some enterprising young mixtape rapper should promptly steal (if that hasn't happened by the time this sentence is completed). This was the tits.
9. CRADLE TO THE GRAVE
The chorus on here almost fucks the entire song up. True fact. It sounds so fucking amateurish that it wouldn't even make it past the audition portion of a high school talent show. But Moe-Z's beat sounds smooth as shit (especially with the sly Quincy Jones “Theme from Ironside” sample hidden within – you half-expect The Bride to be standing behind you with her sword drawn), and Mopreme, Rated R, Big Syke, and Macadoshis all stay on topic with verses that are naturally bleak (given the subject matter) but heartfelt: you get the idea that these guys blew all of their serious lyrics on “Cradle To The Grave”, which left nothing else but boasts and bullshit for the remainder of Thug Life: Volume 1. But this track still holds up well enough today, even with the godawful chorus, so I'm not complaining (much).
10. STR8 BALLIN'
Thug Life: Volume 1 ends with a 2Pac solo shot that sounds out of place: Easy Mo Bee's beat may have been more at home on the Pac album that Thug Life: Volume 1 secretly wishes itself to be. Since this album was supposed to be a group effort, after all, allow me a criticism that most people don't expect to hear when Shakur is brought up in discussion: the rest of the members of Thug Life are sorely missed. Obviously 2Pac can carry a song all by his damn self, and he does just that on here as well as he always has, but one can only imagine what “Str8 Ballin'” could have been, had all of the other members also been allowed into the building to discuss how the principles of ballin' affect their own lives. Oh well.
FINAL THOUGHTS? Although the version of Thug Life: Volume 1 is much, much different than how 2Pac had envisioned it, the project has held up much better than I had anticipated. At ten tracks, it's the perfect length for discerning listeners who don't wish to commit too much of their time to gangsta rap, and for my short attention span, it's...ooh, look, a blue car! Pac and his cronies all sound mostly serviceable on here, with no man standing out more than the rest aside from the obvious star attraction, who really seemed to try his best to dial down his antics (but to no avail, of course). The backing music trends from "fantastic" to "what the fuck was that?", which seems like a fairly wide range of opinions, but I actually didn't mind it all that much, and the limited number of outside collaborators shifts the focus directly to Thug Life. Conspiracy may have been more polished (it was fashioned after a Puff Daddy-era project, after all), but 2Pac and Thug Life had no such misgivings about what they were trying to do with Thug Life: Volume 1: it's a pity that we'll never truly be able to hear what Pac was really going for on here, since the original cut of the album was never finished. So that bootleg floating around online? Claiming to be the actual unreleased Thug Life album? Until the hologram tells me otherwise (I'm having lunch with him next week; he has some notes for me regarding the blog), I remain skeptical. Still...
BUY OR BURN? ...I actually recommend that you pick this one up. It isn't perfect, but it's short, and the pluses greatly outweigh the many minuses on here.
BEST TRACKS: “Don't Get It Twisted”; “Street Fame”; “Pour Out A Lil' Liquor”; “Under Pressure”; “Cradle To The Grave”
There's more 2Pac reviews to be found by clicking here. But you had best be wearing your argument hat, because it gets pretty messy.