‘Naming is the origin of all particular things.’ – Saul Williams, ‘The Future of Language‘.
Though now I forget how, I got my hands on this work called Universals and Particulars. Might could be about time for a re-approach as its theme has hunted my thoughts of late, no less now that I’m on the train from the Palace Theatre after checking out a performance of Holler If Ya Hear Me. In the name of interconnectivity, then, I’d like to discuss ‘Pac, Biggie, and online message boards.
One of the threads that I recall most clearly from the Nas web forum I once frequented is that which compared Biggie Small’s music to Tupac Shakur’s (‘Who’s the GOAT?’). East coast hip-hop loyalist that I was, my position to this age-old debate couldn’t have been clearer. Citing BIG’s unmatched wordplay, intricate narratives and the effortlessness that he brought to verse forms others weren’t trying to approach, I’d run down my patter with that middle school certainty. One forum poster, though, threw an unfamiliar term in my Big>’Pac equation which called its foregone form into question. Very matter-of-factly they broke down their ‘Pacward leanings along these lines: ‘look at his catalogue—2pac speaks to everyone.’
Holler If Ya Hear Me brings the above mentioned forumgoers assertion to life, weaving 2pac’s lyrics and biography into the fabric of its narrative in a translational exercise that’s at least as comprehensible as it is comprehensive. I won’t go in on the particulars too much because I think you should see it. As for the universals, they’re those that Pac’s listeners have come to expect: violence, struggle, family, game. By the time John (played by Saul Williams) began reciting a verse from ‘Unconditional Love’, the woman across the aisle to my right, tipped off by the first faint strains of the instrumental was already three or four lines deep, rapping along for the track’s duration. This was not the exception, just one of the more noticeable examples.
Anthems like ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘California Love’ invoked in the audience the participatory feel of a music video set, crowd rapping along and gesticulating wildly to the former as those on stage (spoiler alert?), each took their turn on the mic while enacting their battle preparations. As for the latter, accompanied by a squad deep purple Cadillacs complete with stagecraft hydraulics and heads breakdancing around as it spun (‘…they spinnin!‘), there is no question in my mind that folks less familiar with the track going in found themselves bumping it on their way home.
‘…every album if you go backwards, people who are just getting turned on to me, if you go backwards and you listen to the other albums I put it out, it was a prophecy.’ (Tupac Amaru Shakur, Interview at the Clinton Correctional Facility)
As with much of ‘Pac’s work, there is some eerie undercurrent that permeates Holler If Ya Hear Me‘s atmosphere throughout. Amidst all the humor, impressive vocals, live instrumentation (shouts to the pit) and pinpoint choreography, there is a looming presence which keeps outbursts of laughter from going completely unchecked. Seeing the sheer range of ages, ethnicities &c. in well-lit moments between scenes, only serves to further highlight the musical’s poignant tagline, from Loyal to the Game‘s ‘Ghetto Gospel‘. In ‘The Future of Language’, Saul Williams asks: ‘if biggie’s album had not been entitled ready to die would he still be alive today? did his vocalized profession dictate his destination?’
On seeing Tupac’s work interpreted for the stage, nearly two decades after his murder, it’s hard to hear the lyrics on a track like ‘On My Block’ (the opening song for both acts of Holler) and disentangle them from the destination’s grim realities. Nonetheless, Holler If You Hear Me provides for an even wider net to be cast by ‘Pac’s ever-expanding message to the people.