Sunday, March 07, 2010

Biography: Tupac Shakur: The Life of an American Icon by Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred Johnson

While the death of Tupac Shakur may not have a universal “Where were you when you heard the news?” sort of reverberation, for some people it was as intense a moment as the death of Elvis, JFK or Michael Jackson might have been for others. That is to say that a great many people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on September 13, 1996 when they heard the news that Tupac Amaru Shakur had been killed by an unknown assailant in Las Vegas.

Fourteen years on, there are those who argue that Shakur was bigger dead than he would have been alive. Five posthumous albums and eight top ten Billboard singles -- not to mention some faintly weird tribute albums -- after his death cemented his position as one of the most important voices in contemporary urban music. To me, sometimes it still seems impossible to think that that voice has been stilled forever.

Though authors Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred Johnson have the right creds and background for this to be an astonishingly good book about Shakur’s life, somehow Tupac Shakur: The Life of An American Icon (Da Capo) falls short. McQuillar is the author of When Rap Music Had a Conscience and Fred L. Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Michigan’s Hope College. In some regards, this seems like a dream team for a book not only about Tupac Shakur, but on the impact his life -- and death -- have had on the type of music the artist made and on his various communities. But that isn’t this book. Instead we have what is a, for the most part, stiff and ponderous retelling of the life and death of Tupac Shakur. His significance is commented upon, but most often this is seeded within passages of McQuillar and Johnson’s irritatingly careful prose. The result is a book that, while informative and well enough researched, never lifts us beyond the place we have been lifted. While Tupac Shakur: The Life of An American Icon is certainly far beyond your standard unauthorized celebrity bio, it’s impossible not to feel that it could have been so much more.

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