We (Still) Can’t Be Stopped: A Geto Retrospective

Deep Dives

We (Still) Can’t Be Stopped: A Geto Retrospective

Posted by on Jul 9, 2021

Disclaimer: This article contains images and descriptions of violence that some may find upsetting.

Reader discretion advised.

On July 9th, 1991, Houston hip-hop group Geto Boys released their third album,We Can’t Be Stopped, through hometown label Rap-A-Lot Records. These days the album is mainly remembered for its infamous album cover and breakout single, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”. But a listen back thirty years after its release gives us the hindsight to recognize We Can’t Be Stopped as the defining Geto Boys record and a major milestone in the evolution of Southern hip-hop.

by Jack Anderson

Making Trouble: Birth of the Geto

The Ghetto Boys (as they were then known) first popped up in Houston’s Fifth Ward community in 1986 but before the year was out, they lost two of their three founding members. Raheem and Sir Rap-A-Lot ditched the picture just as quickly as they’d arrived, leaving the sole survivor, The Sire Jukebox, to rebuild Ghetto Boys with DJ Ready RedPrince Johnny C, and eccentric dancer/hype man Little Billy. Ghetto Boys followed up their debut single “Car Freak” with the 1987  “You Ain’t Nothin’/I Run This” and “Be Down” the following year, culminating in the release of their debut album Making Trouble on February 17th, 1988. Recorded on the heels of the triple-platinum success of Run D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, Making Trouble pastiched Run-D.M.C.’s mid-decade style, emulating their beats, rapid trade-off rhyme style, shouted vocal deliveries, and even their outfits. Check it out below and judge for yourself.

(L-R) The original 1988 ‘Making Trouble’ cassette artwork, the re-issued 1991 ‘Making Trouble’ cassette artwork, and the 1988 album artwork for ‘Tougher Than Leather’. Anything look familiar?

Yet D.M.C.’s follow-up album, Tougher Than Leather (released mid-May of ’88) marked a significant departure from their style by emphasizing sample-heavy beats and more nuanced deliveries, becoming Platinum-certified by July. The Geto Boys’ Making Trouble, released a mere two months before Tougher Than Leather, received negative reviews and failed to gain any significant traction. In the wake of the critical and commercial disappointment, Rap-A-Lot Records CEO J. Prince (who’d launched the label with “Car Freak” and invested his full budget in the group) noted the derivative nature of Sire Jukebox and Prince Johnny C and dropped them from the group to pursue a new direction. DJ Ready Red and Little Billy (who’d transitioned into a full-time lyricist under the stage name Bushwick Bill) remained. J. Prince asked already-signed solo act Willie D. to join the Ghetto Boys as a favor, and the rapper accepted, albeit reluctantly. Insisting on the strength of a four-piece, Prince then had to choose between two candidates: his own brother, or a notorious Houston wordsmith known as “Akshen“. Prince set up DJ Ready Red’s house as an audition space and invited the two contenders to compete over Red’s instrumentals. Prince was struck by Akshen’s stern delivery and far-from-playful lyrics, both of which steered from the norm of hip-hop in the late ’80s, and recruited Akshen as the final member of Ghetto Boys’ new lineup.

Getting to That Other Level

(L-R) Willie D, “Akshen”, Bushwick Bill, and DJ Ready Red posing for the cover of ‘Grip It! On That Other Level’. (SouthernRap.club)

1988 was a pivotal year for hip-hop. Some of the biggest records were Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader, Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live the Kane, and the aforementioned Tougher Than Leather from Run-D.M.C.. Each album challenged the way producers thought about flipping samples just as much as they drew the line between acceptable controversy and tastelessness. In other words, it was the perfect time for Ghetto Boys to take a hard left rather than chase a stagnant fad.

Whatever path Ghetto Boys took, J. Prince was going for broke, literally. Unbeknownst to the Boys, Prince was weighing the future of Rap-A-Lot Records on the outcome of Ghetto Boys’ next release, and had resolved to shut down Rap-A-Lot and leave the music biz for good if it didn’t do well. Sessions for the new album began in late ’88 and by Spring of ’89 Grip It! On That Other Level was ready to ship.

Grip It! On That Other Level far surpassed the lackluster reception to Makin’ Trouble, reaching 166 on the Billboard’s Top 200 and coming in at #19 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Through its versatile sample selection, inter-bar chemistry, and brutally gratuitous lyrics, Grip It! On That Other Level exposed hip-hop listeners to what Texas (A.K.A. the “Third Coast“) had to offer. The East Coast/West Coast rivalry was unheard of at the time, and overall the hip-hop community was more inviting when it came to Ghetto Boys’ idiosyncratic, southern style. In particular, the rappers’ regional drawl and penchant for nightmarish depictions of violence drew plenty of attention to the group.

‘The Geto Boys’ 1990 CD cover, complete with the album-specific warning label. (Discogs.com)

By the turn of the decade, Ghetto Boys and Rap-A-Lot Records were finally making a return on J. Prince’s investment. Reputation and capital in hand, J. Prince enlisted Def Jam Records co-founder Rick Rubin to remix Grip It! On That Other Level and re-release it for the masses on CD. Imagine the sense of accomplishment Prince must’ve felt; fool-hearted first iteration of Ghetto Boys had tried to beat Run-D.M.C. at their own game, and now, just a couple years down the road, the group was working with their co-producer. Rubin put his renowned skills to work, re-recording ten of Grip It!‘s songs, “Assassins” off of Makin’ Trouble, and two new originals, “Fuck ‘Em” and “City Under Siege” (serving as the record opener and closer, respectively). The resulting compilation was completed and released in 1990 as The Geto Boys. It marked the first appearance of the group’s signature misspelling and seemed to market itself as the true debut for the Geto Boys. Def Jam subsidiary Def American Recordings took extra care in presenting the sensitive content by packaging The Geto Boys with a one-of-a-kind warning label: “Def American Recordings is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do no condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist and indecent.” A message like that plastered right on the cover might’ve scared off most, but for The Geto Boys, that was exactly the kind of notoriety they craved. Yet by setting the bar for shock value so high, The Geto Boys might have been setting themselves on a path towards self-destruction.

We Can’t Be Stopped

“If you look at my face on the We Can’t Be Stopped album cover you can tell I didn’t want to be a part of that photoshoot. Bill was still in the hospital. He was highly sedated, man. We took that picture at the actual hospital where Bill was at. And Chief, who was our manager at the time, said, ‘Bill, take the eye patch down.’ And I was like, ‘Awww fuck! Man, this is some bullshit.’ I strongly believe that what goes on in this house stays in this house. I didn’t really want to put Bill out there like that. How many people have gotten their eye shot out and captured it on an album cover for everyone to remember? It’s hard to wake up in the morning and deal with that one.” – Scarface (Vibe.com)
“It still hurts me to look at that cover because that was a personal thing I went through… I still feel the pain from the fact I’ve got a bullet in my brain… I think it was pretty wrong to do it, even though I went along with the program at first.” – Bushwick Bill

In the immediate aftermath of The Geto Boys, the group underwent some clear changes. Rapper “Akshen” had time and again drawn parallels between the fictional rise of Tony Montana and his own life, and officially adopted a new handle, Scarface. And in the midst of recording their next LP, founding member DJ Ready Red left the group, citing personal reasons. Sure, times were tumultuous, but the Boys had been through worse, right?

Bushwick Bill candidly recounts the 1991 shooting incident on San Francisco’s KUSF radio.

Cut to the early hours of Juneteenth, 1991. After a day-long bender of drinking grain alcohol and using various drugs, Bushwick Bill returned home inebriated, erratic, and outwardly depressed. He retrieved a pistol, woke up his then-girlfriend, and demanded she kill him. When she refused, Bushwick fired at her and their three-month old child, then attempted to assault the former with a vacuum cleaner head but missed. In the chaos, Bill forfeited the pistol to his girlfriend, then advanced towards her when the barrel was facing him, fumbling for the trigger. Two pairs of hands scrambled for control of the gun. The struggle abruptly ended when a round was fired point blank into Bushwick Bill’s right eye socket.

When the news hit Geto Boys’ management team, they smelled an opportunity. In a matter of days, Scarface and Willie D were called to the hospital treating Bill for a disturbing project: capturing the tragedy on camera and using it for their recently completed album’s artwork. Bill was wheeled out of his room on a gurney, and later, a wood-backed wheelchair, while Geto Boys manager “Chief” snapped photos. At one point Chief insisted Bill lower his eyepatch to expose the physical trauma.

The controversial album artwork for ‘We Can’t Be Stopped’, featuring Willie D (left), Bushwick Bill (center), and Scarface (right).

The “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” cassette single artwork, from the same photoshoot as the album cover.

It’s an indescribably bizarre pair of images. Where previous press photos depicted Geto Boys posing as “hard”, or “toughened by the streets”, these images saw Willie D sullen with grief, Scarface agitated and unamused, and Bushwick Bill sedated into near-dissociation. Bill’s hospital gown is oddly contrasted with a bulky cell phone and a cap repping 5th Ward Posse. Willie D sports a vibrant, frayed jean jacket over a T-shirt while Scarface’s outfit seems more akin to Southern church attire. Their stark expressions suggest nothing close to being “badass”, further lending to the tense reality of an already bleak snapshot.

The high-profile incident built anticipation for the upcoming record and within weeks Geto Boys’ collective discomfort became immortalized on the cover of We Can’t Be Stopped. The title was originally a response to Geffen Records ending their distribution deal with Def American after The Geto Boys but could be interpreted more literally when paired with the image of Bushwick Bill essentially clinging to life. We Can’t Be Stopped dropped on July 9th, 1991, packing nine solo tracks (three per member) and three full-group arrangements. The album’s grisly lyrics did little to subdue the notion of danger implied on the cover photo, and sold well in the early days of the Parental Advisory label. Its emphasis on andante tempo, soul-funk samples, and dry, abrasive snares meshed well with the mainstream progression of hip-hop, and by early 1992, We Can’t Be Stopped reached Platinum.

“Mind Playing Tricks On Me”

“I think my manic depressive state and suicidal tendencies played a huge role on who I was back then. “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” was one of the numerous songs I wrote and produced myself. There were three verses: my first two verses—the verse that Bill rapped was my own third verse. It was a record I originally recorded for my solo album, but nobody wanted that song. I swear…nobody. Willie D. didn’t think the record would work, but he wrote a verse to it anyway after J had done his research on this song. He found some people who were really feeling it. He wanted everybody to rap on it. It became a Geto Boys record.” – Scarface (Vibe.com)

Music Journalist Brian Coleman does an outstanding job of breaking down We Can’t Be Stopped in his collection Check the Technique, so instead of a track-by-track analysis, let’s just tackle the album’s most-lauded original, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me. Self-produced by Scarface (who wrote three of the four verses) and originally intended for his debut solo LP Mr. Scarface Is Back (released on October 8th, 1991), the beat follows the fairly common formula of slowing (or “screwing”) and looping a vintage instrumental refrain, in this case Isaac Hayes‘ 1974 track “Hung Up On My Baby”.

Between the raw vinyl scratches in the sample and Scarface’s deadpan scene-setter, “I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles…”, there’s so much sinister weight in those first four seconds. Everything coalesces at the top of the first verse, when the screwed breakbeat from Graham Central Station‘s 1975 original “The Jam” complements a simple, monotone subwoofer-lovin’ 808 boom bass line.

All these small pieces put together make for a brilliantly hypnotic groove, allowing us to be fully mesmerized by the sequence of unreliable narrators, all coping with their own self-destructive urges and urban hallucinations. It’s a phenomenal example of how horrorcore hip-hop can actually sound pretty smooth, given the contrast between the soulful beat and morose lyrics. The technique of stating the song’s title in a verse’s final line before an instrumental-only chorus had already been implemented elsewhere in hip-hop, particularly with Eric B. & Rakim and N.W.A., but I’d argue that its use in “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” is the finest of the genre.

Geto Legacies

We Can’t Be Stopped has since been heralded as a landmark album for Southern rap, pioneering a sound later elaborated on by acts like Outkast, UGK, Fat Pat, and Goodie Mob. With Houston as a focal point, We Can’t Be Stopped secured the South as a hub in the hip-hop world, thereby paving the way for H-Town’s early-mid-’00s resurgence with Chamillionaire, Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug, Lil Keke and others. It made Houston a household name all the way to New York, having clearly caught the ear of The Notorious B.I.G., as heard in the lines, “I’m not from Houston but I Rap-A-Lot” (from the remix of Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear”) and a more direct reference in “One More Chance”‘s verse two opener, “Is my mind playing tricks/like Scarface and Bushwick, Willie D/having nightmares of girls killing me”.

Willie D left the group shortly after We Can’t Be Stopped came out, not to return until 1996’s The Resurrection, thereby making it the final appearance of Geto Boys’ “true” lineup for many. As with many other records to receive a Parental Advisory sticker in the early ’90s, We Can’t Be Stopped came under fire from prominent American politicians wanting to scapegoat “gangsta rap” for other underlying moral insecurities. In terms of its album artwork, one could equivocate We Can’t Be Stopped as a tasteless attempt to cash in on a disturbing image, comparable to Mayhem’s (discretion advised) The Dawn of the Black Hearts. I’ve always thought that the gritty-but-cinematic vibe seen on Mr. Scarface Is Back is what Geto Boys’ management intended to portray, but there’s no denying the instant impact of We Can’t Be Stopped‘s chilling realism. That picture is truly worth a thousand words.

“Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and We Can’t Be Stopped put Geto Boys on the fast track to superstardom, a period of success that ebbed in the mid-’90s then flowed once again with the prominent inclusion of ’92’s “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” and ’96’s “Still” in Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space. It may seem trivial at first, but the use of a Houston group by Judge (a fellow Texan) to represent rebellion and outrage against polite, milquetoast corporate banality couldn’t have been executed better. And the film’s status as a cult classic catapulted Geto Boys’ music to an even wider audience.

Scarface, Bushwick Bill, and Willie D each thrived with their own solo discography after the success of We Can’t Be Stopped. When the three did collaborate as Geto Boys, reception was positive, as evidenced by 1996’s The Resurrection and Geto Boys’ final album, The Foundation from 2005. The three are frequently cited as pioneers and innovators of the horrorcore hip-hop subgenre, a style that permeates today with the dark, unhinged nature of Southern rap. In a press interview surrounding his 2015 solo album, Deeply Rooted, Scarface stated he would not take part in another Geto Boys album.

Bushwick Bill continued to struggle with health and legal issues, both unrelated to his 1991 injury. A May 2010 possession charge led to a threat of deportation back to his native Jamaica, though his sentencing ended up being much lighter. Oddly enough, Bushwick Bill became somewhat of an Austin urban legend, making his way backstage countless times and it seems like at least half of the music community has a good Bushwick Bill story. When Bill received a stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he announced a farewell tour, one that was cancelled at the last minute. He would pass away at age 52  on June 9th, 2019, nearing the 28th anniversary of his shooting. Less than a year before, in August of 2018, founding member DJ Ready Red passed away from heart complications at age 53.

Though it’s inherently a relic of ’90s, We Can’t Be Stopped walks a tightrope of timelessness, and you can stream the album in its entirety (both the original and DJ Spice’s chopped & screwed version) in the Spotify player below.

Jack Anderson

“All Eyez on Me”: Looking Back

Deep Dives

“All Eyez on Me”: Looking Back

Posted by on Feb 13, 2021

It’s been twenty-five years since Death Row and Interscope Records issued All Eyez on Me, the fourth album from California-based rapper 2Pac. At a whopping twenty-seven tracks, All Eyez became the first-ever double LP for a solo hip-hop artist, and its release, exactly seven months before 2Pac’s death, made it the final record of his lifetime. Listening again in 2021, All Eyez on Me still hits hard with its expansive G-Funk sound, ensemble cast of collaborators, and some of the finest rhymes 2Pac’s career had to offer.

2Pac Against the World

If there ever was a Renaissance man of the 1990s, it was Tupac Shakur. Born in East Harlem to a family of several prominent Black Panthers and re-christened Túpac Amaru at age one (after the executed Peruvian rebel of the same name), Shakur’s characteristic defiance developed alongside his insatiable creativity. When he was thirteen, Shakur and his family moved to Maryland, where he flourished at the Baltimore School for the Arts, through poetry, acting, jazz, and yes, even ballet. Shakur’s humor and steady reputation as the school’s best rapper earned him friends of all kinds, including future Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett, though their budding relationship was cut short in 1988 when Shakur moved to Marin City, California, just north of San Francisco.

Uprooted again and adapting to a new life on the West Coast under the handle MC New York, Shakur began brushing up his poetry skills at The Microphone Sessions, a writing workshop in nearby Oakland led by Shakur’s soon-to-be manager Leila Steinberg. Steinberg recognized Shakur’s talent right off the bat, and after securing a concert for Shakur’s group Strictly Dope, she got Shakur’s name across to Digital Underground manager Atron Gregory. Impressed by Tupac’s outgoing energy, physical prowess, and natural showmanship, Gregory recruited Shakur into Digital Underground as a backup dancer and stagehand in 1990. Shakur soon advanced into a more integral role and in January 1991, 2Pac made his premiere appearance on “Same Song”, the album opener for Digital Underground’s This Is an EP Release.

Fast forward to the mid-’90s. Tupac Shakur had become a household name thanks to his back-to-back breakout roles in Juice and in Poetic Justice, opposite Janet Jackson. He’d accrued considerable praise and controversy from his first two solo albums and had rounded out the lineup of his group Thug Life, who released their sole eponymous album just weeks before 2Pac was non-fatally shot in an armed robbery late ’94. 2Pac recovered remarkably quickly but his unwillingness to overlook suspicious circumstances surrounding the robbery soon led him to end relations (personal and professional) with Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy (both of New York’s Bad Boy Entertainment) as well as Thug Life member Stretch.

Recorded from ’93 to ’94 and distributed by Interscope in March of 1995, Me Against the World became the most acclaimed album of Tupac’s lifetime. And though Shakur’s allegiances to New York were already dwindling by then, his incarceration at Clinton Correctional Facility beginning in February of ’95 was simply a tie he couldn’t sever. Fortunately for ‘Pac, the prospect of signing an East Coast ex-pat was far too good to pass up for Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight.

All Eyez on Me

“It’s called All Eyez On Me. That’s how I feel it is. I got the police watching me, the Feds. I got the females that want to charge me with false charges and sue me and all that. I got the females that like me. I got the jealous homeboys and I got the homies that roll with me. Everybody’s looking to see what I’mma do now so All Eyez On Me.” (December 1995 interview with MTV’s Bill Bellamy)
Tupac gesturing the night of November 30th, 1994. (2PacWorld)

Tupac the night of November 30th, 1994. (2PacWorld)

Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, and ‘Pac. (Pinterest)

Between his substantial arrest record, vexing public persona, and eagerness to “play” for the West Coast, 2Pac made for an ideal Death Row “inmate”. Knight acknowledged the potential to cash in on Biggie and ‘Pac’s beef within the burgeoning East Coast-West Coast rivalry, and, after negotiating with Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine, paid Shakur’s $1.4 million bond on the condition that he release three albums with Death Row Records. Shakur, elated by the early liberation in October of ’95, and aching to rekindle his creative spirit, got straight to work.

With Death Row Records as their platform, former N.W.A. mastermind Dr. Dre and his disciples revolutionized rap; Dre with The Chronic in 1992, Snoop Doggy Dogg on ’93’s Doggystyle, and The Dogg Pound two years later with Dogg Food. All three debuts showcased explicit, gang-minded lyrics on top of slick, sample-heavy beats, with production overseen by Dre himself. Dre recycled sounds made popular by Parliament-Funkadelic (“P-Funk”) and others in the late-’70s/early-’80s, (particularly high-pitched synth melodies and deep, crunchy basslines), over instrumental soul riffs and processed drum breaks. The style referred to as “Gangster Funk” or “G-Funk” defined Death Row’s heyday.

2Pac’s voice was practically made for G-Funk. “California Love” and “How Do U Want It” dropped as a double A-side just two months after Shakur’s bail was posted, inaugurating ‘Pac into Death Row with two of his most successful singles. Pent up for months and under constant threat of re-entering prison, Shakur was determined to record as much as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, “One-Take Tupac” ended up recording dozens of songs before the sessions wrapped in December. He ditched the working title Euthanasia along with his plan to release the album on Christmas, due to his seemingly unstoppable recording drive and work on promotional music videos. And on February 13th, 1996, nearing the height of his superstardom, 2Pac released All Eyez on Me.

Track by Track

“Ambitionz Az A Ridah” is one hell of a fast-acting mood maker. It’s incredible how full five seconds can feel despite such a simple arrangement of vocals, piano, and MIDI strings – all before the kick comes in. “Ambitionz” is the first of several tracks produced by gangsta rap trailblazer Daz Dillinger, whose sparse use of percussion and atmospheric legatos allow 2Pac to charge right out of the gate. Recorded within hours of his prison release, 2Pac gives a stellar performance even by his own comparison, dominating with rapped verses and sung choruses. A great jumping off point for newcomers, the instant recognizability of “Ambitionz” preserves a legacy as an iconic album opener and textbook-worthy example of gangsta rap.

G-Funk producer Johnny “J” allegedly recorded more than a hundred songs with 2Pac during the All Eyez sessions, and “All About U” is one of the best that made the cut. ‘Pac delivers the first two verses then eschews his time to two members of Shakur’s fledgling project The OutlawzHussein Fatal and Yaki Kadafi. Hooks from Death Row’s vocal virtuoso Nate Dogg provide some good pacing to the song, and the still-blooming Snoop Dogg does his pseudo-pimp shtick to wrap it up. Also, gotta mention ‘Pac’s all-purple bedroom in the music video.

Carrying the momentum of “All About U”, Nate Dogg adds some major points to the accessibility of “Skandalouz” with gliding hooks and flourishes. Blunted out or ready to party, Daz Dillinger’s beat (heavily derived from “Candy” by Cameo) brings the out best of both worlds on this melancholy, talkbox-fueled G-Funk banger.

Speaking of Daz, he makes his sole appearance as both rapper and producer on “Got My Mind Made Up”, an interpolation of the Instant Funk song of the same name. As a die-hard Wu-Tang fan, this may just be my personal favorite from All Eyez on Me. Method Man‘s laid-back flow, Redman‘s exaggerated style, and ‘Pac’s bombastic bars play well off each other, and when you toss Death Row veterans Kurupt and Daz in the mix… you’ve got something spectacular. Fun fact: Meth’s contribution here and on “The What” by Notorious B.I.G. makes Method Man the only artist to be featured by both 2Pac and Biggie in their respective lifetimes.

“How Do U Want It” may be the most radio-friendly 2Pac song out there (no surprise given its 1997 Grammy nomination). Johnny J’s simple flip of “Body Heat” by Quincy Jones anchors the soaring choruses from K-Ci & JoJo, and grooves well under ‘Pac’s dynamic flow.

As much as I hate to say it, I sort of wish I could preview what Biggie would’ve sounded like on “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted” instead of Snoop. That said, you get exactly the quality you’d expect from 2Pac and Snoop Dogg (SnooPac?) together over one of Daz’s more menacing beats.

“No More Pain” is so, so, sooo far ahead of its time. R&B producer DeVante Swing knocked it out of the park with this Dirty South/Texas-style beat and the triplets in ‘Pac’s flow fit well. I bet if you tinkered with some of the drum programming to give it a more modern finish, this would kill on current trap playlists…oh wait.

If “Heartz of Men” was produced by anyone other than DJ Quik, you’d have to call it derivative. Its egregious swing, chopped up horn samples, and Richard Pryor inserts make it seem like a novelty at first. But because it’s 2Pac and DJ Quik, the tone steers clear of silliness and takes a more silky, serious route.

“Life Goes On” admittedly has a beautiful message, one that reveals another sympathetic layer to 2Pac’s complicated psyche. That said, as cold as it sounds, it’s not Johnny J’s best instrumental by a long shot.

“Top Billin” from Audio Two contains one of my all-time favorite sample flips, so I have a heavy bias towards “Only God Can Judge Me” since it features the same breakbeat pretty prominently. And I don’t know who played bass on this song, but whoever it does a bang-up job.

Ostensibly a proof-of-concept for The Outlawz (or Outlaw Immortalz), “Tradin War Stories” is definitely better suited for the folks who appreciate lyrical content over the bop factor. True to its name, this four-way lyrical exchange scores major points for narrative quality.

I first heard All Eyez on Me around the same time I was discovering Zapp, so naturally my high school self fell in love with the “California Love” (remix). I had somehow never heard the original ’til then, and never being a huge Joe Cocker fan, I still prefer the remix version to the pre-album single. Dr. Dre gives a sneak peak into the futuristic, orchestral sound he would spearhead with 2001 and Zapp’s Roger Troutman gives one of the most memorable studio performances of his life.

Recorded immediately after “Ambitionz” on the day of his release, “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” is like a time capsule of 2Pac’s passion. As the final single released ahead of All Eyez on Me (and Daz’s final track on the record), this one is truly lightning caught in a bottle. If you haven’t seen the music video, drop what you’re doing and treat yourself.

There’s…not much to be said about “Whatz Ya Phone #”. But given that it’s co-produced by Johnny J and 2Pac himself, I suppose it’s exactly what 2Pac wanted. Just silly, sexy ’80s nonsense. And it certainly closes “Book 1” of All Eyez on Me‘s on an intriguing note.

All Eyez’s “C-Side” kicks off with “Can’t C Me”, where Dr. Dre revives the beat from Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” and interpolates George Clinton‘s “Atomic Dog” yet again. Except this time, they actually get George Clinton to appear on the recording! Just goes to show that G-Funk dreams really do come true.

The samples in “Shorty Wanna Be A Thug” may use some pretty scratchy chops (Hank Crawford’s “Wildflower” by the way), but Johnny J manages to smooth out the edges for some synth-heavy G-Funk on “Book 2″‘s sophomore song.

Having already appeared with Clinton on “Can’t C Me”, Death Row’s resident vocalista-for-hire Nanci Fletcher brings back her falsetto heat on “Holla At Me”. It’s the only “Bobcat” Ervin beat on All Eyez and to me, it honestly sounds a little muddy. But I just can’t say no to the sax squeaks and vibraslap!

Without commenting too much on the Biggie-‘Pac beef, “Wonda Why They Call U B____” had originally featured Big’s wife, Bad Boy Records singer Faith Evans. Her vocal takes eventually got scrapped (check out the demo version below), but speculation about Faith and ‘Pac’s indeterminate relationship would remain a key component to the rappers’ quarrel. Nevertheless this Johnny J/2Pac co-production totes all the bells and whistles of a G-Funk classic.

The final performance from both Nanci Fletcher and The Outlaw Immortalz on All Eyez, “When We Ride” peddles a more hardcore sound than its predecessors. That shouldn’t come as a shock considering the beat is crafted by Ice Cube producer DJ Pooh. Abstract but soulful, the low-end bounce could only be figured out by an innovator like Pooh.

For the uninitiated, a big chunk of 2Pac’s career was spent re-conceptualizing the idea of a “thug” from a derisive term into the notion of an underdog, one who keeps their chest puffed out and head held high despite having nothing. That sentiment echoes across the group track “Thug Passion”, featuring Jewell, Dramacydal, and Storm over a Zapp-centric Johnny J beat.

Johnny J goes on a streak of sorts at this point in the album, guiding us through “Picture Me Rollin'” and “Check Out Time”, before “All Eyez on Me” and “Run Tha Streetz”. There’s a distinct sound across these four tracks, characterized by gentle sine wave synths, thumping kicks, and R&B-inspired bass runs.

Richie Rich feature “Ratha Be Ya N____” appears between “Check Out Time” and the title track, flaunting a contemporary take on Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be with You” that’s…actually a pretty good cover!

Then, having adequately cooled down from his production on “Tradin War Stories”, Rick Rock chills out for another extended posse cut, the penultimate “Ain’t Hard 2 Find”.

“Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find” draws All Eyez on Me to a close, and thanks to work from yet another Ice Cube collaborator, QDIII, and a looong fadeout, it’s the perfect comedown at the end of the experience.

All Eyez in Hindsight

All Eyez on Me sold over half a million copies in its first week, and charted number one on Billboard. “How Do U Want It” and “California Love” both became number-one singles on Billboard. In July of 2014, after five million sales and a wave of awards (in-person and post-humous), All Eyez on Me reached RIAA “Diamond” status. By releasing the very first hip-hop double-LP, 2Pac had set a new standard for the genre and helped legitimize the gangsta rap movement in the eyes of many. The album’s international popularity was met with just as much outrage, pushing ‘Pac to a level of stardom he couldn’t have imagined less than a year earlier. However, the tragedy of All Eyez’s warm reception is that it partially stemmed from the coverage of Biggie and 2Pac’s feud at its most profitable and destructive pinnacle.

Tupac Shakur was shot in Las Vegas on September 7th, 1996, and passed away on September 13th, precisely seven months after All Eyez on Me hit stores. Notorious B.I.G. would be slain in Los Angeles on March 9th, 1997, two weeks before the release of his own double-LP, (the eerily prescient) Life After Death. After the brutal loss of figureheads on both sides, the East/West Coast rivalry quickly petered out.

With its gargantuan one hundred and thirty-six minute runtime, All Eyez on Me is unquestionably one best representations of G-Funk in its prime. ‘Pac’s adoption of the gangster persona permeates unapologetically throughout the who’s-who of producers and vocalists. And on an objective plane, 2Pac’s ability to polish twenty-seven songs in a matter of weeks is nothing short of astounding.

Shakur’s tireless work ethic, urban persona (down to the spelling of his song titles), blunt honesty (no matter how many enemies he made through lyrics or interviews), and groundbreaking visual style (yes, even down to his suspender fashion) provided a benchmark for a whole new generation of artists. 2Pac’s refrain of “Thug life” has since been immortalized and his portrait on the album cover has become emblematic in hip-hop. The record’s sound is decidedly ’90s, and some of the language hasn’t aged well, but the songwriting and production quality captured at the height of Shakur’s fame makes All Eyez on Me an incredible historical document and a collection still worth tossing into your rotation all these years later.

Jack Anderson