Epic Poems Have a Place in Rap and Hip/Hop
Source/Lyric Credits: Lyric Find
Songwriters: Johnny Lee Jackson / Tupac Amaru Shakur
The Iliad. The Odyssey. Homer (not the Simpsons one), made high school life even more confusing than it probably was. The Odyssey is an epic journey/poem, about a young man who must grow up in the absence of his father. The epic poem was a way to recite and remember stories, before writing tools, like bar napkins and chewed up pencils, were invented. It’s a lengthy narrative, but it told a story. “Unconditional Love” by Tupac might only be four minutes, but it embodies the epic narrative/story, hidden in a song about love, suffering, growth, and God.
First, Have a Listen:
"Come listen to my truest thoughts, my truest feelings All my peers doing years beyond drug dealing How many caskets can we witness Before we see it's hard to live This life without God, so we must ask forgiveness Ask mama I got this urge to die Witness the tears falling free from my eyes Before she could reply Though we were born without a silver spoon My broken down TV, show cartoons in my living room (hey) One day I hope to make it A player in this game Mama don't cry, long as we try Maybe things change Perhaps it's just a fantasy A life where we don't need no welfare S*** with our whole family Maybe it's me that caused it The fighting and the hurting In my room crying cause I didn't want to be a burden Watch mama open up her arms to hug me And I ain't worried bout a damn thing, with unconditional love"
We start with Tupac, telling us something from his heart. Something true. He reflects about his surroundings, his life, the people that have gone. He questions “How many caskets can we witness / Before we see it’s hard to live / This life without God, so we must ask forgiveness.” He wants to know why the suffering never changes. He wants to know why we only turn to God when there is suffering. Also, why does the journey of the poor and desolate remain the same? He describes it with his TV and cartoons, and “silver spoons”. “Ask mama I got this urge to die”. He questions whether he should even continue when there’s no hope. He cries about it. It hurts him that much. What can we turn to when we’re faced with our problems? Then, he gives us a glimpse at hope. “Maybe things change / Perhaps it’s just a fantasy”. Hope. It can come from the Bible. It can come from mama when “mama open(s) up her arms to hug me”. The presence of mama gives us the idea that he’s young. He’s a kid. A teenager. He's not a burden. He’s at the beginning of his journey.
"In this game the lesson's in your eyes to see Though things change, the future's still inside of me We must remember that tomorrow comes after the dark So you will always be in my heart, with unconditional love"
These lines are the embodiment of hope. Who’s always going to be in “my heart”? Hope. Love. God. No matter what happens. No matter what we see. Unconditional love in our hearts can conquer. It’s what’s in our hearts that matter. We'll compare the Chorus more in Stanza 2 and 3.
"Just got the message you've been calling all week Been out here hustling on these streets, ain't had a chance to speak But you know, with you and me it's on G We could never be enemies, cause you been such a good friend to me Where would I be without my dogs No wonder why when times get hard Cause it ain't easy being who we are Driven by my ambitions, desire higher positions So I proceed to make Gs, eternally in my mission Is to be more than just a rap musician The elevation of today's generation If could make 'em listen Prison ain't what we need, no longer stuck in greed Time to play and strategize, my family's gotta eat When we make somethin' out of nothing No pleasure in the suffering, neighborhood would be good If they could cut out all the busting The liquor and the weed the cussing Sending love out to my block The struggle never stops (unconditional love)"
Time has passed. Someone has been reaching out. Is it a friend or God? “We could never be enemies, cause you been such a good friend to me”. Indeed. His “friend” has been good to him, no matter who it is, even if it’s MC Hammer. Either way, he’s learned to believe. This is how he’s been surviving; how he gets by every day. Then, he offers another sense of hope, in the form of his “mission”. “The struggle never stops,” and the way to get pass it is to elevate beyond the negativity. To believe. Elevate beyond the life of the streets, the poverty, the prison, the drugs. The stereotypes. The shackles that come with being poor. The life that the poor are supposed to be destined to. When we go back to the chorus, “Though things change, the future is still inside of me,” has a poignant meaning now. The cycle can be broken by acting, believing in your heart (“if I could make them listen”), and making change, whether spiritually or physically.
"I'll probably never understand ya ways With everyday I swear I hear ya Trying to change your ways while gettin' paid at the same time Just had a baby with the same eyes Something inside, please let me die these are strange times How come I never made it Maybe it's the way the played it in my heart I knew one day I gotta be a star My hopes and all my wishes So many vivid pictures, and all the currency I'll never even get to see This fast life soon shatters Cause after all the lights and screams Nothing but my dreams matter Hoping for better days Maybe a peaceful night, baby don't cry Cause everything gonna be alright Just lay your head on my shoulder Don't worry bout a thing baby Girl I'm a soldier (huh) Never treated me bad, no matter who I was You still came with that, unconditional love"
Stanza 3 brings our epic journey to an end. More time has passed. He doesn’t understand why, his friend, after trying to break the cycle, after believing; that they’re still stuck in the same position. In fact, he “just had a baby with the same eyes”. When we go back to the chorus, he sings “In this game the lesson’s in your eyes to see.” This is not coincidence. Tupac is saying that the next generation, is still seeing the same struggle and suffering. They will face it no matter what. Society, at least in view, is about the cycle of suffering. “Something inside, please let me die these are strange times.” He’s still hopeless. The world is strangely hopeless. He then questions “How come I never made it / Maybe it’s the way the (I) played it in my heart.” Is it because he didn’t believe in hope, love, and God enough? It’s easy to second guess, but then he tells us more importantly, that it doesn’t matter. “This fast life soon shatters / Cause after all the lights and screams / Nothing but my dreams matter / Hoping for better days.” No need to second guess. Life is too short. Just live it. Believe in unconditional love or hope, no matter what happens, no matter where it comes from, be it Mom or God. “Never treated me bad, no matter who I was / You still came with that, unconditional love.” “You” can be anybody that loves unconditionally.
In a sense, Tupac wants us to believe in God and to have God in our hearts. In a sense, he says with unconditional love in our hearts from anybody, we can get through anything.
We believe that’s the point. Either way, it doesn’t matter; without hope and/or love in our hearts, we are lost anyways, and we have no chance. We just have to believe in something.
The song evokes images of modern-day suffering (the poor, the ghetto) being the same as suffering in any time (E.G the Bible/God/Jesus). It’s epic because it takes us through this story, through the eyes of a poor common man, across centuries, B.C. to A.D.
Shame we’ll never know Tupac’s thoughts about today’s world. He already knew so much back then.