In discussions of rap music (and popular music in general), people often forget that there is not always a direct correlation between personal experience and songwriting. Michael Eric Dyson describes this problem as a "thudding literalism" that limits the critic's ability to take in the full scope of a song's meaning. Instead of asking, "What does it mean that millions of young people listen to and identify with Tupac?" critics ask, "Is Tupac for real? Is he positive or negative?" As a rapper, he is evaluated based on whether his work is a good or bad influence—an approach that fails to ask the key question: "Why is he so important?" or, better yet, "What is he actually saying?"
A part of Tupac's brilliance as a writer was his ability to prolifically produce rhymes that were often based on allegory and storytelling. He wrote about prison life before ever being imprisoned, and about drug dealing even though he was never a dealer himself. He described the harsh streets he'd grown up on, making himself into every character: the gangsters, the pimps, the crack dealers and street kids. The writing was more a statement of solidarity than a strict memoir: when they were not his own stories, they were the stories of his friends, his brothers and so-called "n----z" (which Pac said stood for Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished). "Me Against the World was all out of my heart…I just try to speak about things that affect me and about things that effect our community, and I try to do it from the viewpoint of the watcher…sometimes it's just allegories or fables that have a moral, or an underlying theme" (The Lost Prison Tapes). He self-consciously molded his voice and image to identify himself with other black youth, especially those from the neglected ghettos and housing projects who had experienced violence, racism, and belittling poverty.
Of course, as Pac's life descended into a very public mess of trouble with the law, some people came to believe that this was all posturing for Tupac, that he was putting on a show of gangsterism and toughness in order to rake in the dough. But when it comes to understanding Tupac's art, criticizing him for this so-called posturing tends to fall into that "thudding literalism." It seems to demand that every performance somehow align with the rapper's "real" experience—a demand that is rarely put on any other kind of writing. The very idea of "realness" can be harmful (it seems to have encouraged Tupac to become more and more embroiled in the violence he rapped about), and it certainly prevents a more complicated reading of Tupac's writing as poetry or social commentary.
"Dear Mama" is one of Tupac's more autobiographical songs, addressing his own mother in a letter of appreciation that is also full of disappointment and conflict. But even in this highly personal tome, Pac embellishes the details, presenting himself as a dealer who'd done jail time. In fact, at the time of writing, he was a hard-working and successful musician whose success allowed him to care for his mother monetarily even when he had not fully forgiven her emotionally. Ironically, by the time the album was released, Pac was doing jail time. "Dear Mama" turns out to be a blend of autobiography, storytelling, and dark prediction.
By most accounts, Tupac's "thug poetry" was important because he told a story that millions of other poor black youth could identify with. His writing was descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning he described the world he lived in rather than scripting a suggested solution or proposing a more optimistic outlook. Even if you don't agree with his pessimism or don't identify with his pain, the meaning of Tupac's songwriting is best analyzed as a description of the conditions he believed were forced on poor black Americans by poverty and racism. In a heart-breaking song like "Dear Mama," it's clear that Tupac's writing was more social critique through storytelling than the "gangster posturing" he is accused of. Pac was as self-conscious and image-conscious as any superstar, but the picture of reality that he painted was also deeply, sometimes disturbingly, resonant. The fact that he talked so openly about a hard childhood made him an accessible hero to his fans.
Sometimes hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to controversial writing. After all, it's a bit more rare these days to accuse The Catcher in the Rye of encouraging the youth of today to go to prostitutes and/or slowly self-destruct, even though at least one person has publicly blamed the book for a violent act. Catcher's protagonist, Holden Caulfield has been described as going through "depression, nervous breakdown, impulsive spending, sexual exploration, vulgarity, and other erratic behavior," all words that could be used to summarize Tupac's opus. And these days, the book is required reading in many high schools.
Lots of people dedicated to Pac's writing feel like he should also be required reading, and that was also what Tupac hoped for. His literary idol was Shakespeare and he wanted to use rap to teach literacy. In addition to rap, he wrote volumes of poetry. He was a huge book-worm, widely informed about everyone from Alice Walker to Sun Tzu to Teilhard de Chardin (if you're thinking, "who's that?", don't worry—the man was seriously well-read). His personal bookshelf included The Catcher in the Rye and Native Son; while he was in prison he read Machiavelli and Maya Angelou. In "Dear Mama," it's evident that Tupac became what he'd aspired to become: "He narrated his life as a road map to suffering, wrenching a brutal victory from the ghetto he so loved, and the fame and fortune that both blessed and cursed him. As the supreme symbol of his generation, he embodied its reckless, audacious liberties and its ominous hopelessness," wrote Michael Eric Dyson (138). "Dear Mama" is Tupac at his best: a proud poet from the ghetto who was the voice of a disillusioned generation.