California Love is a rap song about how much fun it is to live in California. It was the reverse engineering of the gangsta rapper, who was—at this moment—styled in Tupac’s mold. It also married gangsta rap and G- Funk.
The first proper single of Tupac’s career was “Brenda’s Got a Baby” in 1991, and that’s kind of insane to think about, and it’s insane in two different ways: (1) because of what it is about, and (2) because of what Tupac eventually came to represent in rap.
“Brenda’s Got a Baby” is about an illiterate twelve-year-old girl who gets impregnated by her older cousin, secretly gives birth to the baby on a bathroom floor, puts the baby in a Dumpster, gets kicked out of her house, attempts to become a crack dealer, gets robbed, becomes a prostitute, then gets murdered. It’s as “socially conscious” a rap song as has ever been written.
The singles that followed either replicated the tone (though rarely to such extremes) or spun in the other direction altogether. Over one very eager stretch of six months in 1993, he released “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” a frustration anthem and his very best Public Enemy impersonation, followed by “Keep Ya Head Up,” a female empowerment song, followed by “I Get Around,” which is about having lots of sex with lots of females. The contradiction was an early indication of the kind of in-the-moment, emotionally reflective artist Tupac was, and would become, and that’s how we get to what Tupac came to represent:
Distilled down to its pith, the entirety of gangsta rap imagery is Tupac; he is the archetypal gangsta rapper, and he has come to stand in for any and all other rappers in the subgenre.
That’s an easy claim to make because he, in fact, perfected gangsta rap, but it’s also slightly tricky. He was so convincing in the role that he effectively rendered all other portrayals obsolete, or, worse still, uncool. (Nearly) all of the images we’ve come to associate with gangsta rap are images he presented. And the origination of that version of him was him on “California Love,” when Dr. Dre stood back behind him in the Thunderdome and framed his mania, and it was so exciting and obvious when it happened.
“California Love” is a great song. It’s a funky, chirping, fever of noise, the sonic weirdness is boxed in by Roger Troutman’s robo charm, pummeled into acquiescence by Tupac’s fury, and weighed and measured by Dre’s steadiness. All three parts play perfectly together. Examined free of the context of Tupac’s career, it would have lived a perfectly pleasant life, and likely even still managed to become critical to the rap genre.
But it arrived to an almost unfathomably perfect orchestra of circumstance, and so it is endlessly important today, and forever, on earth and in heaven and anywhere else they listen to rap. To wit:
It was the first song Tupac released when he got out of prison in 1996, and that would’ve been gigantic all by itself. But the insanity surrounding his court case at the time of his sentencing had grown his indestructible gangster myth tenfold,9 so Tupac getting out of prison was less him getting out of prison and more him rolling away the stone and stepping up out of the tomb.
It was the first song from his new album, All Eyez on Me, which was coming behind Me Against the World, his most successful album to that point, commercially (it moved more than 3.5 million units) and critically.
It was the first thing he delivered under Death Row, a label that was, at that moment, the biggest and baddest and most overwhelming in rap.
It was produced by Dr. Dre.
And his amazing film run from 1992 to 1994 (Juice, Poetic Justice, Above the Rim) stretched his name well beyond the parameters of just rap, and even just music.
You can imagine the sort of fervor that surrounded this song when it dropped. It was his biggest song figuratively, because of its commercial success, but also literally. Up to that point he’d mostly been an insular artist, with ideas and thoughts aimed in specific directions. “California Love” gave him the wide-screen treatment we’d watch the Notorious B.I.G. get later. It was a glimpse at what he was going to do as a proper superstar, and also pointed toward where Puff Daddy would eventually take rap.
“California Love” was not originally Tupac’s song. There are two conflicting stories on how he nabbed it. One comes from Chris “The Glove” Taylor, who claims he helped produce the track (though he received no credit for it), and the other from Death Row’s cofounder and former CEO Suge Knight, who is like if an angry rhino began morphing into a human and then stopped halfway through and so that’s just how he was stuck.
The parts that they quibble about are the parts you’d expect (Taylor says he helped piece together the track with Dr. Dre at his house, while Knight tells some overly complex story about a stylist wearing a leather suit and that’s where the Mad Max theme for the video came from, or something), but they both agree on one point: It belonged to Dr. Dre before it belonged to Tupac.
Taylor says he and Dre made it at Dre’s house during a get-together, and then Tupac showed up and was in the studio so he recorded a verse for it. Knight says that the song had been written for Dre, but since The Chronic had already been out, and since Tupac’s album was on its way, Suge thought the song should go to Tupac.
There’s a moment during Suge’s explanation where he basically congratulates himself for not blatantly stealing the whole song by allowing Dre to remain on it, and it’s easy to see how Suge eventually pile-drove Death Row into nothingness.
Roger Troutman’s Zapp band had a very clear influence on G-Funk. Dr. Dre choosing to use him for the hook on “California Love” indicates a new stage in rap: having precedents and heroes and the ability to incorporate them into the new music being made from their seeds.
That he was being featured on a song that was connecting gangsta rap with G-Funk for this new thing feels significant, too, as does the fact that this celebration of Cali counterculture was happening while the ground was still vibrating from the police batons and boots that had swung at and stomped on Rodney King. “California Love” was Tupac’s turn as the biggest gangsta rapper in the world. He was dead nine months later.