Tupac Shakur wasn't easy to classify. The late rapper was a walking contradiction, a study in dichotomy so fierce that even his friends and family never could get a firm grasp on the guy. His poetry, thoughtful and elegant, spoke of life as a black man at the end of the 20th century; he was a Langston Hughes for the street generation he represented. He was also, as the tattoo that took up a good part of his upper body proclaimed, a thug. His fists often acted quicker than his brain, and his addiction to trouble often superseded his work. That his life would end bloody and messy was inevitable. Four years after his death, Tupac's vaults still aren't empty.
Based on the book of poetry released last year, Tupac Shakur: The Rose That Grew From Concrete Vol. I is a tribute album designed to shed some light on Tupac as the renaissance man. And, comparably, it's some smart stuff. His music, always overrated and never quite approaching the status it's often allocated, played to his audience in the most obvious of ways, with its thug tales, odes to mama, and booty calls. His poetry, though, taps into the Tupac that that audience may not have readily and easily accepted. It's consciousness-raising material, gleaming the tip of activism planted by his mother, Afeni, the catalyst behind this project and a onetime Black Panther. And read, sung, and rapped by such capable talents as Mos Def, Danny Glover, Q-Tip, Quincy Jones, and the Run-D.M.C. guys, The Rose That Grew From Concrete strips away Tupac's tough-guy facade to reveal a sensitive and thinking artist dedicated to social activism. It does lean a bit heavily on the antiquated ideals of his mother at times, and some of the artists steamroll over the often-eloquent material, but most get it. But leave it to 'Pac himself to steal his own posthumous show: The interlude that opens the disc is a brief explanation of his poetry's -- and essentially his life's -- objective. He sounds virtuous, dedicated, and vulnerable. In a word, human.