This Week In Music History 3.13.14: Tupac & The Bends
Posted by David Hayter on 03.13.2014
Tupac's Me Against the World and Radiohead's The Bends were both released this week in 1995! 411's David Hayter looks at both albums and their impact both at the time and now, nineteen years later!
Disclaimer:Each week David Hayter dives into the musical history books to revisits a crucial album, single or event. Nine times out of ten we'll be discussing classic records, but every so often we'll delve into the unknown or tackle records that may have flopped at the time but proved vital to an artist's career trajectory. Anyway, enough introductions, let's get on with the show.
The second week of March in 1995 proved pivotal in music history.
On one side of the Atlantic one of the world's greatest rappers - a lost soul whose personal and professional life teetered between ambrosia and the abyss – sat in a prison cell as the most important album of his career hits the shelves. On the other side of the ocean, in dear old Blightly, a much maligned five piece set out, not only to prove that they were more than one hit wonders, but to brutally exorcise that demon ("Creep") and create a new Alt-rock template capable of thriving in packed arenas and dingy art house bars.
That's right, This Week In Music History Tupac released Me Against The World and Radiohead dropped The Bends.
As always, with releases this acclaimed, rather than simply describing albums that have been written about a million times or more, we're going to pose some open ended questions (feel free to give your take in the comments section).
We start with some gangsta rap.
Are Tupac and Me Against The World still feel relevant in 2014?
If Tupac hadn't released Me Against The World the answer might well be no. Even when listening to the introspective reflections of Tupac's least testosterone charged album, the legendary rapper still feels a relic of a long lost age.
Make no mistake there are still gangstas, there are still viciously aggressive rap beefs and tales from the murder game remain a hip hop staple, but the tone has shifted. Listening to a Tupac record, particularly the album's that preceded and followed Me Against The World, have the feel of hearing stories from a genuinely dangerous and possibly unpleasant individual. There is an implicit menace, even when the beat is relaxed. The brutality feels routine and matter of fact – the polar opposite of the cartoonish depictions 21st Century ears are accustomed to. Even Eminem in his most macabre moments sounded like a frustrated musician or a man using music as metaphor to channel his aggression and sooth his soul. Tupac always felt decided real and straight faced by comparision.
Today's rappers feel like artists first. Production wiz kids concerned with innovation and hooks. This is not a criticism, simply an observation; Tupac feels like an individual, the barrier between artistry and actuality feels blurred or perhaps non-existent – if he wasn't spitting rhymes or starring in films, he'd be living the life.
Me Against The World along with Nas' Illmatic and Biggie's Ready To Die marked a polar shift in rap history. They changed the fundamental position of the hip hop narrator. In the wake of these colossal releases rappers would take the role of the social commentator: documenting the horrors that surrounded them from the position of the victim or the helpless onlooker. Glorification was no longer the goal, simply depiction. Equally, unlike Public Enemy, these records do not campaign or demand change, instead they tell it like it is, warts and all. They weren't the first records or rappers to pioneer this technique, but they were the most legendary and cast the longest shadow over their successors.
The trouble with Tupac (and it is a reason I've always struggled to enjoy his output) is that unlike Nas, Biggy and even Jay-Z, Pac can never shake that lingering spectre of overblown masculinity. Even when he's decrying crime, murder and the drug game, there's an undercurrent of braggadocio that makes his music either unpleasant or edgy - depending on your perspective. Many people find that moral ambiguity thrilling and, whether you love his approach or hate it, those rough edges proved all the more moving when Tupac dropped an album full of confessional fragility.
Still, even a skeptic like myself who prefers his hip hop artistic and emotional vulnerable, can appreciate the power of a self proclaimed thug catching the world of guard with observations this incisive and contradictory:
"Back in Junior High, when we was barely gettin by, when daddy died
That's when my momma started gettin high
My neighborhood was full of drivebys, couldn't survive
All our homies livin short lives, I couldn't cry
Told my momma if I did die, just put a blunt in my casket,
let me get my dead homies high….
….Now that I'm grown, I got my mind on bein somethin
Don't wanna be another statistic, out here doin nuttin
Tryin to maintain in this dirty game, keep it real
and I will even if it kills me, my young niggaz
break away from these dumb niggaz
Put down the guns and have some fun nigga, the rest'll come nigga
Fame is a fast thang, that gangbangin
puttin niggaz in a casket, murdered for hangin
at the wrong place at the wrong time, no longer livin
Cause he threw up the wrong sign, and every day
I watch the murder rate increases, and even worse
the epidemic and diseases, what is the future?"
Speaking as someone who appreciates Tupac without particularly enjoying his music, if anyone tries to claim he was a hard headed gang banger who glorified a violent life style and nothing more, point them in the direction of "Young Niggaz" and Me Against The World. Together they capture a thoughtful but conflicted young man coming to terms with the sins of his adolescence and setting about changing his ways.
The Bends is full of brilliant tracks, but is as important as the other big Radiohead releases?
The Bends isn't Radiohead's sexiest album. It is full of fantastic songs (at least seven tracks are outright, stand alone, classics - arguably more) and it has plenty of innovative flourishes that forwarded the alternative/indie sound, but compared to OK Computer, Kid A and even In Rainsbows it feels, well, normal. The Bends distorted reality and packed out arenas, but it didn't feel like an earth shattering moment when pop was inextricable altered.
However, it was did represent a crucial moment in UK pop history. The Brit Pop era was approaching its zenith. Blur and Oasis were turning into caricatures of themselves – the former undermining their artistic sensibilities with their own buffoonish behavior, the latter losing the plot atop a seeming endless mountain of cocaine. The scene as a whole was equally preposterous; one hit wonders were flying into the charts and cool Britannia was looking more like a retrospective fad than the product of Britain's latest and greatest generation.
The nadir was lurking right around the corner. Within a matter of months of The Bends release, Blur would unveil the Damien Hirst directed video for "Country House" and the entire scene would disappear up its own arse once and for all. Damon Albarn quickly came to his senses and turned Blur's sound and sense of ambition on its head (with sublime results), but the British public needed something different, a new sound to cling onto.
Something darker, something more sinister, something that would grab the you by the scruff of the next and sent you hurtling through the nearest window. Everyone had their own moment: whether it was the mind-blowing video for "Just", the seething angst of "My Iron Lung" or the rapturous bombast of "The Bends" – Radiohead provided the tracks that cut through the cringe inducing noise and felt immediate and soul crushingly poignant.
"Fake Plastic Trees" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" seemed to speak a different pop cultural language. Princess Diana was still alive (for the record I don't give two shits about the monarchy, but lots of other Brits do) and the paranoia of the rapidly approaching millennium had yet to materialize, but The Bends offered the first hint that the party might just be coming to an end. Even at its strangest and most beautiful, Radiohead's music has always conveyed a sense of emptiness. You can hear it in lingering pauses of "Fake Plastic Trees" and that lonesome strand flickers through to "No Surprises", "Pryamid Song" and still gives their music an intangible edge today.
In 1995 The Bends, behind its brazen angst, pointed to the lingering shadows and growing melancholy that would subsume the optimism and carefree hedonism of Brit Pop. The darkness was creeping in, shivers were slithering down spines and in just two years Britain would wake up and realize that the drugs don't work. When the nation was finally ready for a seismic shift, Radiohead would be ready and waiting with OK Computer, but The Bends was their subversive game changer. It wasn't overt, but the chill in the air that this album represented would one-day swallow the record industry whole.
Remember I don't pretend to always be right, these are tricky questions and fantastic albums - here at 411 we love to hear your feed back; so if you've got a different take or an alternate answer, don't keep it to yourselves, comment!
Next Week's Teaser: The Virgin Mary tops the charts with a solemn request, or something like that.