Reviews: Dear Mama by Tupac

Dear Mama is about retrograde appreciation of a mother, and for mothers in general. Because everyone loves their mother, or at least loves the idea of a mother, so it had a reach that extended outward for infinity. And this was the vulnerable version of Tupac, which is the second most intriguing version of him, at his most beautiful and captivating.

There’s a great scene early in Juice, Ernest R. Dickerson’s brilliant 1992 film about a series of events that unfold among four friends in Harlem.It takes place in an arcade run by Samuel L. Jackson, who is playing a bit part in the movie, because he has at least a bit part in every movie if you pay close enough attention.

In the scene, Tupac, playing a character named Bishop who eventually evolves into the movie’s terrifying antagonist, glides up next to Steel, one of Juice’s other stars (he’s played by Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins, whom you might more readily remember as “the fat kid” from Lean on Me). He challenges Steel to a game of Street Fighter.

Steel, effervescent and confident, laughs. “What makes you think you can beat me? Tell me. I’d like to know.” Shakur’s bright eyes briefly lose all of their light. He pauses just long enough to establish that his mood is flickering. “Two reasons,” he begins. “For one, if I lose, I’ma beat that ass. For two, if I lose, I’ma beat that ass. So if you don’t put two motherfucking quarters in and get this goddamn game started…”

Steel relents.

Truant officers rush into the arcade shortly after, forcing an unfinished end to their game. However, the dynamic of Tupac’s character has already been established, and it is a metaphor that extends beyond the role Tupac plays in just that movie and into his real life: He doesn’t lose; not even when he’s bound to lose. Which is how he took what was (it would appear to be) a turbulent relationship with his drug-addicted mother and turned it into “Dear Mama,” one of the greatest rap songs that’s ever been.

Quick aside: Tupac was named after Túpac Amaru II, a rebellious Peruvian leader who was eventually sentenced to death by his captors. He had his tongue cut out and his arms and legs each tied to a separate horse and yanked from his body. They removed his head, too. This all came after he’d watched his family get executed. Don’t break any laws in Peru, is basically what I’m telling you.

Given that this article is about a song that’s about Tupac and his view of his mother when he was growing up, it seems to make sense to at least have a section here about Tupac growing up, so that’s what this section is. I will try to keep it as direct as possible:

Tupac was born of an affair between Afeni Shakur and Billy Garland, both then-members of the Black Panther Party. He arrived in 1971, one month after Afeni had successfully argued on her own behalf and was acquitted of 156 counts(!!) of conspiracy against the U.S. government.

Garland disappeared when Tupac was five years old, marrying another woman and losing contact with Afeni. In a 2011 interview with XXL, Garland explained that he’d actually not even seen Tupac after he left Afeni until he watched him in Juice,7 somehow managing to sound slightly charming about the whole thing. “I’m sitting here watching Juice, and I am crying. I saw the advertisement. I didn’t know which kid was mine until I saw him.”

Afeni struggled to raise Tupac and his younger half sister, Sekyiwa Shakur, moving from city to city—from New York to Baltimore to Marin City, California. They were impoverished, but that was mostly an extension of Afeni’s drug addiction, which was especially devastating to her son. She was, as she’s said in numerous interviews, almost to the point of being considered an absentee mother much of the time. And from that, Tupac culled and cultivated the angst that propelled him.

Jada Pinkett Smith, whom Tupac befriended while attending the Baltimore School for the Arts and whose own mother was also a drug user, explained the schism Afeni’s chaotic lifestyle had on Tupac in Michael Eric Dyson’s 2006 book Holler If You Hear Me. “Your mother is your pulse to the world. And if that pulse ain’t right, ain’t much else going to be right. I don’t think he ever reconciled [that] within himself.”

“Dear Mama” was the first single from Me Against the World, the third album from Tupac and one that managed to go double platinum that year despite his being in the thick of serving a prison term when it was released.8 While he’d already shown a superheroic ability to process a milieu that extended beyond himself and produce from that a compelling arc— particularly with regard to women, 1991’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and 1993’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” most courageously—“Dear Mama” outpaced everything he had previously achieved.

The song was produced by Tony Pizarro, and it splices together the Spinners’ “Sadie” (1974), which also happens to be about mothers, with Joe Sample’s “In All My Wildest Dreams” (1978), which doesn’t have any words in it but still might also be about mothers.9 It is warm and nearly sunburnt and definitely emotive.

Despite the obvious complexities of the relationship between Afeni and Tupac, “Dear Mama” is a gorgeous, entirely gripping matriarchal appreciation. In the song’s most expository moment, and maybe the most famous line of his career, Tupac floats out the bar “And even as a crack fiend, Mama / You always was a black queen, Mama.”

This, more than any other lyric, more than any other truth, was undeniable to Tupac.

Sweep aside the statistical merits “Dear Mama” collected. It: was certified a platinum single months after its release; was number one on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart for five straight weeks (again: Tupac was in prison while this was happening, and he only gave one interview the entire time); was picked by Rolling Stone as the eighteenth greatest hip-hop song of all time; earned a Grammy nomination (Best Rap Solo Performance); and was added to the National Recording Registry for preservation by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance, of which had only happened thrice before for rappers.

But move all that out of the way. And you’re left with Tupac, those big eyes and bigger teeth and emotions that are bigger still.

His succinct, crucial explanation of the song that I just spent two thousand words talking about and that countless others have written countless more words about:

“It’s a love song to my mama.”

Fewer things are simpler. Fewer still are more complex.

Quick couple of notes about the video, which was an achievement in itself because they filmed it without Tupac there: 

(1) In it, two guys and a girl sit around a kitchen table playing a board game called Thug Life, which is a variation of the real board game Life. 

(2) It opens with just this wonderful quote from Afeni: “When I was pregnant, in jail, I thought I was gonna have a baby and the baby would never be with me. But I was acquitted a month and three days before Tupac was born. I was real happy, because I had a son.” 

(3) An adolescent Tupac, who is supposed to be on his way to school in the video, ditches his books by placing them under a tree in the front yard. That’s adorable. This seems like a good time to point out that Tupac never had any true issues with the police until after he became a rapper. This was addressed indirectly in the most endearing fashion in the 2003 documentary Resurrection, where Tupac talks about the time he attempted to be a drug dealer: “I tried selling drugs for maybe two weeks. Then the dude was like, ‘Aw, man. Gimme my drugs back.’ ’Cuz I didn’t know how to do it!” A drug dealer told Tupac Shakur “Gimme my drugs back.” I’ve never heard of a thing so perfect.

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