Tupac’s ‘Changes’, a literary review

For the American rapper and poet Tupac Shakur, who performed under the stage name 2pac until his death in September of 1996, Changes was, upon release, considered to be a step backward from a groundbreaking and impressive career. Though I won’t shame the critic by naming him, the critic believed that the gospel stylings in the chorus and the piano was pandering to white audiences. This may not be necessarily true on 2psc’s part; but not keeping his music exclusive to a particular culture is in the spirit of equality and therefore something to be applauded.

I don’t think this is what brought the white audience in; I think this is the musical equivalent of Ray Charles recording Georgia. It strayed away from his usual fair and, when that happens in an artist’s career, there is always the accusation of pandering, selling out, or backsliding; I think by branching out into different styles of music 2pac was able to bring in a larger audience. This is what solidified 2pac as more than just a bad boy or a thug, and turned him into a social commentator and poet.

He still had the image of the bad boy of gangster rap when Changes was released; it showed not only an unprecedented cultural and political perspective in hip-hop, but in the long run humanized a caricature, making his message harder to dismiss. Now his most well-known and beloved song, it was once named as one of his 10 worst by Rolling Stone.

If there’s any correlation between another person’s attempt at artistry which, upon release, was considered backsliding, it was The Shining by Stanley Kubrick; a man who brought us some of the most famous and revered scenes and movies in the history of cinema throughout his career, including the proverbial ‘good’ science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most visionary films ever made, despite audiences understanding it as much as the apes at the beginning of the film understood the obviously unnatural monolith. They didn’t understand it, but it changed something in them, awakened a new capacity. Keep this in mind.

To look at The Shining with modern eyes, we see one of the most iconic horror films ever made, an enduring, unnerving classic full of immortal moments; a masterpiece one could say, and one of the finest pieces of film to ever to be screened. There are many people, having watched it in the past few years, who had, by innumerable pop-culture references, seen almost every scene in the film in one medium or another; that’s how ubiquitous it is in modern culture, standing as a cultural milestone in film history. Bear with me; the relationship between The Shining and Changes will be made clear.

Stanley Kubrick is responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket— all of which received enormous critical success and frequently turn up on Top 10 and Top 100 lists. Then there was The Shining, for which Stanley Kubrick, a man responsible for masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece, received a worst director nomination for the Razzies. Worst director.

Lies are often referred to as scandals, but it’s not off the mark to consider some truths to be just as scandalous, if not more so, than your run of the mill scandal. Especially in The Shining; we are here confronted with terrors much worse than the fictions of the werewolf or the vampire, the mummy or the ghosts: there are things in this world more terrible than vampires and werewolves, mummies and warlocks and Plans 1-9 From Outer Space, and they are more terrible because they are real, and even more terrible because they’re common.

These are houses haunted by the living, living amid child abuse, alcoholism, and domestic violence. This is the relationship between 2pac’s Changes, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The horror in these poetic works is the horror of the real world. Discounting whatever Kubrick was going for with the ending, the abusive father and husband, an alcoholic and egotist, terrorizes his family in very real, very human ways. And 2pac’s Changes evokes the same sense of real life horror. The horror is not in its novelty, its singularity; the horror is in its frequency, its pervasiveness—not only in American slums but around the world.

They are both horror stories, hauntings, and Changes is a world of teenage ghosts who died for shoes or change; shot in the streets for their watch or misplaced rage stemming from hopelessness and a crushing sense of futility, their spirits giving resonance to the evocative but ironically flat and passive refrain, ‘hey, that’s the way it is,’ – a quietus, acknowledged as an accepted absurdity in wistfulness, and these young men and women imbue the delicacies of the piano sampling, the echo effects being reminiscent of the lost; echoes as they are, emanations Tupac channels in his lyrics. The horrors in this song aren’t just a family trapped in a haunted house; it’s a nation trapped in haunted house full of the ghosts of racism, poverty, distrust and vendetta.

In a concrete prison, each war a maze of alleyways to nowhere, a Minotaur at the end of every corner, a world transformed into a permanent purgatory and Tupac expresses this purgatory and the nonchalance, or suspected nonchalance of the ineffectual response in government. This is what upset the stomach of the 5 star restaurant crowd, putting them off their lobster and linguini; a land of the free in which an entire culture is without the afforded liberty to give expression to their rage and their confusion and their anger. In a way that Shakespeare gave the English a sense of who they were, what their struggles were to be in life, Tupac Shakur was this to millions of people in ghettos and poverty stricken neighborhoods.

With some of the best lyrical structures of his career, and a chorus channeling the ghosts to whom Tupac is giving voice, add up to a socially conscious song that, in the abstract, encapsulated a confused point in a culture’s arrested evolution caught between inarticulate screaming and a measured, silent response to a government unconcerned with poverty stricken neighborhoods.

2pac the rapper is a character within the song, and Tupac the person is as well, as a cynic, an optimist, and social critic, as well as what would get him dubbed a preacher and a visionary. There is also another narrative voice, the common man, the streetwalker, trapped by debt and lack of economic opportunity. Drug trafficking in these communities is rigorously opposed by cops. This is by design.

The likelihood of going to college is low; a high school diploma guarantees nothing. They are left in a permanent economic depression, a limbo somewhere between poverty and lower class.

Selling crack is perhaps the biggest cliché about ghetto culture and is used as a way to malign someone’s character. It is not a reflection of the moral decay of an individual; it’s a reflection of the decay at the root of a system that creates beggars—starvation in between buffets.

Drugs are gasoline for cars that cannot run on gas, or cars that can but just can’t will themselves to do so; it is fuel for working cars that think they’re broken. Changes is a rich literary work and will take some effort to unpack and do a proper critical study; but, as this is kind of what this book is for, that’s what’s going to happen.

 

 

 

Cont.

 

Perspectives emerge through contextual correlation. It begins with Tupac the person reflecting from the perspective of the streetwalker narrator, a narrator whose perspective is from a life of drugs and crime and violence, an exaggerated parody of what Tupac’s critics believed him to be; this voice comes in after the first two lines. This is a thematic response to contrary perspectives within the stanza. Tupac reflects before it’s made implicit; as it is a written piece, it isn’t necessary to be linear to make a cohesive whole.

The first line sees Tupac the person–the person behind songs like this, not 2pac the rapper behind songs like Hail Mary– waking up; this has been related to enlightenment, to a heightened awareness, and it is an ancient dramatic device which evokes the revelatory and poignant by appealing to the best within us all.

The first lines come chronologically, within the song, after the first lines are spoken, as the first two lines are a reflection of the third and fourth lines. The streetwalker narrator’s interplay with Tupac the person plays a big part in the first verse; the contrast between someone living the life and someone reflecting on that life.

It is possible, if not probable, that the contrast is between what a person is–disenchanted with being a streetwalker– reflecting on the way they were preemptively to provide context for such remarks, as they’re often augmented by the Tupac voice before they’re made or immediately–sometimes midline–after they’re spoken. Tupac the thug shows up too, in later lines, but Tupac the person begins in reflection:

I see no changes;

Wake up in the morning and I ask myself 

Is life worth living, should I blast myself?

If the change is not between different narrative aspects, it is interesting to consider: the narrator’s first thoughts upon awakening are of suicide.

I’m tired of feeling poor, and even worse, I’m black       My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch.

By immediately linking crime to poverty the discourse is forced to look at the roots of crime, to poverty. The character is being imbued with a crisis of conscience because of what he feels is necessary just to eat. The suggestion that criminals are not by default born to be criminals again asks the listener to consider what can justify the actions behind this kind of crime and the character behind the actions of what used to be easily dismissible criminals without motive beyond self-gratification.

It may be this realization that led to the initial crisis:: the likelihood of positive change taking place in his lifetime can seem to be a naïve dream.  In the face of hopelessness, many people feel that suicide is the only answer, which leads to the following, highly charged interplay between Tupac the person and the streetwalker narrator.

Cops give a damn about a negro,

         Pull the trigger, kill a nigger,    He’s a hero. 

As irreverent as this sentiment seems, it is a harsh, but sharp analysis of life as seen through the eyes only a poet or philosopher can put to use; to take in knowledge for storage is education; education and creativity is the synthesis through which true intelligence is expressed. Genius is the degree of poignancy and depth the expression possesses.

The poet is always present; as you can see how he interjects more rhythm with the false stop between what would be two end-sentence word rhymes with the ‘pull the trigger, kill the nigger’ line. It’s crude, but it’s an elegant technique to interject a degree of thematic resonance into what could’ve just moved the song along.  The best writers always find a way to make words within end-rhyme structured sentences connect each other in more ways than rhyme; and in this rhyme he ties trigger and with nigger, in rhyme and, at the same time, negro and hero along with all that implies.

Sensitive as he is, making such a comment ‘pull the trigger, kill a nigger, he’s a hero’ with such distance and frequency has left him undoubtedly callous and jaded. This is another facet of the artist, prismatic in contrasting internal conflict. While the streetwalker voice may be desperate, the cynic is what he is because of a life mired in not only a miserable cycle, but a tiring, taxing, emotionally draining cycle, making old men of teenagers. The next verse is a direct exchange between narrative voices:

Give crack to the kids

(Who the hell cares?)

         One less hungry mouth on the welfare.

And he continues in the same, ironic voice, this time in the third person:

 First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers

Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other.

The commonality of black on black crime in the 90’s got to the point where it wasn’t turning any heads.

         ‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said.

         Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.

This moment is transformative; in the presence of death, Tupac becomes a sharp social critic and voice of a generation of disenfranchised, disaffected youths whilst simultaneously broadening awareness and pushing for change in other communities that might not have cared had he not tackled these issues, had he continued to play it safe. When the optimist within him comes to the forefront in the presence of tragedy, he is a grand consoler; and he realizes that although there is some hope for the hopeless, he still hasn’t shed his doubt completely and wont, but in making this song, it is the embodiment of the famous Rosa Parks aphorism:

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

The narrative voices are still conflicting. The interlocutor, the operating consciousness, is expressing solidarity, consolation; perhaps by recognizing these elements within himself, he finally achieves a sort of peace and in making peace with himself sees how peace is possible for all men and women:

 I got love for my brother,

 but we can never go nowhere 

unless we share with each other. 

We gotta start making changes, 

learn to see each other as a brother

instead of two  different strangers.

Although he sees the need for changes, he unconsciously ties the rhyme of changes with strangers. Earlier in the song, he tied negro and hero, trigger and nigger; now he’s tying changes and strangers—after saying earlier he wished he could go back to the way things were when he was a kid–after changing. He understands that the type of change he is suggesting is tantamount to a cultural death, the death of a shared hardship having created, and broken, so many bonds; and the loss of that identity is not something to be mourned because he sees it as poverty, drugs, crime, and death.

Although shedding a cultural identity is long and hard, people are addicted, psychologically, and are dedicated to remain ‘true’ to who they are, even if who they are is destructive to themselves and others in some way or another. As the Tupac narrative voice realizes, he has a cultivated image, which allows him to prevaricate between critic, satirist, and the stereotypical thug introduced in the first verse; his personality and identity is something to which he is dedicated. Even as he rebukes this caricature, the revolutionary he invokes is killed; and this is what it takes—horror of the highest order—to truly bring people together as a truly human family whose patriotism is to the world shared by us all. It’s a harsh truth that while murder can bring out the worst in people—in revenge killings, wars—it can also permeate higher social strata and breathe life into advocacy that is capable of making lasting change.

         And that’s how it’s supposed to be,     how can the devil take a brother

         when he’s close to me?

Even this optimism changes when he realizes that change isn’t a cure-all; it won’t bring back any friends or family, to be able to rewind the tape of history and leave the pain on the cutting room floor, with only childhood left enchanted, PG, not a horror movie. He says as much with the following:

I’d love to go back to when we played as kids, 

but things have changed,

and that’s the way it is.

Even though his anaphoric usage of ‘I see no changes,’ is not only a master class in rhetoric, it is each time, by the end of the verse, revised as Tupac realizes that all things change; it’s how we know that time is happening. The idea, however, is that now, although change is inevitable, he has a particular idea of what changes could take place to improve the lives of millions of people.

The bridge between verses has a touch of irony in it which always fascinated me The idea that change, even if it’s for a greater good, which the positivist narrator seems to be endorsing, the change that narrative voice longs for creates strangers. Habits are hard to break, even when they’re unhealthy; smoking, drinking, writing. Although these things are known to be bad for our health, it’s hard to give it up.

That’s just the way it is,

This line is important in establishing a sense of permanence to the situation advocated by the positivist narrator. The second line flatly contradicts it by stating that everything changes;

Things will never be the same.

That’s ‘the way it is’ establishes the idea of a hopeless society on the verge of self-destruction, and ‘things will never be the same’ contrasts combative attitudes towards what change is within the writer, between the different narrative voices, and what is in the realm of possibility.

I see no changes,

all I see is racist faces,     ]

misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under. 

I believe this misplaced hate is a reference to the pervasiveness, or perceived pervasiveness of black on black crime in the inner cities; this ‘misplaced hate’ is an embarrassment to Tupac, because he believes this kind of behavior reinforces the negative opinions of black culture, and is especially embarrassing to the races he feels that black people are ‘under’ in his view of America’s caste system. The previous narrative points of view are abandoned; excepting the invented dialogue later in the verse, which is a dialogue between what Tupac knows people have to do, and his own idealism towards what the streetwalker character has to do to survive.

The reason behind Tupac’s legacy as the greatest rapper in the history of hip-hop is because of this level of thoughtfulness and poetic sensibility, as well as his gift for rhythm and performance. It was something that hip-hop until then had lacked, or at least was rare. Public enemy was a political force, for sure, and empowering. But with delicate rhyme structures and intermixed commentary, the setup for the last verse is Tupac’s rediscovery of who he is and what he has to do.

I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…

This philosophical epithet is punctuated by two perfect rhymes, takes and make, and one family rhyme, place. It could be said that Tupac could have gotten his message across in ways other than rap, but since he was so good with words it made him available to a larger audience, an audience that replays their music over and over in a way that isn’t possible with books or traditional speeches and is much more accessible. He also recognizes that the good within is motivated by the American promise of opportunity and that is not something which should be color coded.

Take the evil out the people,

Although I can understand the interpretation that there is a defensiveness and maybe even hostility towards white culture—or at least a subset within it—people wasn’t just used here because it rhymed well; all are created equal—a statement which has no asterisk.

…They’ll be acting right,

‘Cause both black and white are smoking crack tonight.

The reason this song could be made is because of how good Tupac could rap and write; he had a wonderful voice to give expression to his thought. In the next bar, his multisyllabic and intricate rhyme structures demonstrate his versatility. It’s easy to forget the weight behind the statement because of how well it flows and how well it works as just music.

And the only time we chill is when we kill each other     It takes skill to be real time to heal each other. 

It’s easy for the message to be overlooked when it’s packaged in this manner. Tupac obliges in the last verse with typical rap fodder, perhaps as a reward for our patience. He recognizes more and more how truly equal we really are throughout. He doesn’t refuse to acknowledge what he sees as universal, what is present in everybody, and it’s unclear in my reading of the song how he would suggest this be changed, or even if he thought it could be. Throughout the song, he acknowledges behavior he’s not proud of, shown drug trafficking and usage. But true equality in deed does not equal equality in prosecution and this hasn’t ever really been a secret.

It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact

The penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with blacks.

In all works of art, literature and poetry, there is a level of ambiguity; sometimes it is intentional, sometimes the artist didn’t really know what the fuck he was talking about, and sometimes it is another instance of the connection-correlation-conclusion method of proof, at least in academic theory.

There are conflicting characters in this work, and it comes down to the simple observation that these conflicting characters are not just conflicting views held by the author, but a microcosm for a culture at war with itself, an internal struggle that manifests in violence and hate.

As for change: the song is full with different ideas on what this is, what it should be, what it’d make better, what it’d make worse; the good parts and the bad. In the first verse, one conflicting narrative voice considers change as the nature of the way things are. Near the end of the second verse, there is a reflective denouncement of this idea coming from another aspect of the same person.

But sometimes things will never change Try to show another way  but they stayin in the dope game

         But tell me what’s a mother to do

        Being real don’t appeal to the brother in you.

         You gotta operate the easy way.         “I made a G today.” 

         But you made it in a sleazy way

         Sellin’ crack to the kids

          I gotta get paid.”

         Well hey, that’s the way it is.

When someone of great persuasion and authority says something real but unfortunate, it will always be politically incorrect. The concept of political correctness comes from a type of censorship regarding the way we address certain aspects of culture and aspects of other people’s culture. Unfortunately, this doesn’t win you any popularity contests. Tupac was a controversial writer up until the time of his death–at the age of 25!–and the media never looked at his death as anything other than typical black on black violence, something which, earlier in the song, Tupac considered an embarrassment to his culture.

In the monologue between the second and final verse, he offers a plea not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s when he finally spoke at the end of The Great Dictator:

Charlie Chapman:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate or despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

The monologue Tupac gives is in the same spirit as Chaplin’s.

We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start making some   changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working
so it’s on us to do  what we gotta do, to survive.

It’s hard to pin down where Tupac is leaning idealistically in this song. He had the capacity to look at it from every realistic point of view, and it’s not clear if he’s even happy with having made the song, in his identification with Huey; he certainly saw poverty as penultimate to crime, and desperation to drug use and sell, but it’s not clear whether or not he believes positive change is even possible. In one line, he despairs of change; in another, he longs for the innocence and purity of a youth not yet disillusioned by experience and cynicism.

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