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The Softer Side of Rapper Tupac Shakur : Movies: The ‘heartless’ star of ‘Poetic Justice’ won’t admit it, but there’s a sensitive side to his fatalistic gangsta persona.

NEWSDAY

Watch Tupac Shakur--gangsta rapper, son of a Black Panther, rage-filled young man--break.

Watch as his heart breaks in John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice,” in which he plays Lucky, a young postal carrier in South-Central Los Angeles. See the honest, good-hearted laborer who has no concern over his dirty fingernails. So emotionally vulnerable that he once fell for a hooker. Hanging by a thread so thin that a cousin’s death causes it to snap and his eyes to spill over with tears.

Watch Tupac Shakur, a 22-year-old man who says society has stolen his heart, show all the heart in the world.

But don’t expect him to acknowledge any of his own vulnerability.

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“There is no softness,” he says, pointing to his chest. “That’s not what people want to see. So that’s not what I want to show.

“It’s all heartless, I told you,” he insists. “That’s how it’s gotten.”

Shakur’s chiseled handsome features and bushy brows give him a look as hard as his rough childhood on the streets of New York. In his debut film role last year, he played the murderous and reckless Bishop in Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice.” And his two rap recordings under the name 2 PAC focus on his hatred of the police and his confused prescription for championing the cause of young black men.

But “Poetic Justice,” which stars Janet Jackson, shows the introspective and sensitive side of the young man.

“Acting is a way to state your case,” he says, lounging on a couch at a Manhattan hotel in baggy purple denims, vest and T-shirt, his white socks stuffed into hiking boots.

“You tell your story. That’s what I do. I tell my story and I let go my pain by telling. I’m just letting them see it. It feels good and then I’m back to fighting.”

And Shakur, it seems, is always fighting. Just in recent months, he’s been involved in a variety of alleged infractions in the Los Angeles area, including assaulting a limousine driver, clubbing his own Mercedes, assaulting director Allen Hughes (of “Menace II Society”) after he was fired from the film, and having a loaded gun seized when he was stopped by police.

Controversies followed him to the set of “Poetic Justice,” when Jackson’s company stipulated that Shakur be given an HIV test if any love scenes between them occurred. And Shakur’s provocative music was part of the defense used by a 19-year-old Texas youth sentenced to death on July 14 for killing a state trooper. (Shakur has regularly refused to discuss the case.)

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This is not a cultivated Hollywood rebel image. Shakur does not have to jockey for street, gangster or black credentials.

His mother, Afeni Shakur, whom he lives with in the San Fernando Valley, was a member of the Black Panther Party and, as one of the New York 21, spent part of her time while she was pregnant with him in prison.

Born and raised in New York City’s Harlem, he made his acting debut with Ernie McClintock’s 127th Street Ensemble in a production of “Raisin in the Sun,” staged at the Apollo Theater. As a teen-ager he and the family moved to Baltimore, where he briefly attended that city’s High School for the Performing Arts before dropping out and moving to Marin City, outside Oakland, Calif.

Harlem, he says, gave him “slickness--you know, the whole Uptown attitude. The way you walk, the way you talk.” He says he loves to come home to New York for pizza and for food from “Chinese ghetto stores.”

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In Baltimore he learned to play around, breaking windows or snatching trick-or-treat bags. In Oakland and Los Angeles, he learned about the “underground,” the criminal world of dope dealers and thugs who he said became father figures for him.

His experiences have produced a rage, nihilism, fatalism and absence of hope that would be shocking if it didn’t capture the sentiment of so many disenfranchised youth for whom he speaks.

So how does a total thug become a movie star?

Both Dickerson and Singleton have said they cast Shakur because of his street authenticity. For his part, he says he had to “thug” to get where he is.

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“There was no spot that I filled,” he said. “Nobody said, ‘We have an opening for a young black man. Would you like it?’ I had to fight for everything I have and I didn’t get here by being nice.”

It doesn’t bother him that he might sound fatalistic. He takes no responsibility for youth he might influence. Though he expresses respect for what his mother taught him, he is frustrated that so much of what the Panthers fought for seems to have amounted to very little.

“You can wear kente cloth if you want, you can wear buttons but ain’t nothin’ changed. They can still bomb black churches . . . beat your ass and send you on your way.

“This is not a movement,” he says. “I am not trying to recruit your little kids. My mother gave her life to the struggle. So I’m not looking to be black people’s savior.”

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So he says, as he breaks ever so slightly when talking about the murder of Latasha Harlins, a Los Angeles girl shot in the head by a Korean-American grocer who thought she was stealing a carton of juice.

If it is true that all real revolutionaries are driven by love, Shakur can’t be disqualified. His rough times have hardened him to the bone but they have also given him compassion.

“A bottle of juice was not something to die for,” he pauses, his eyes widening.

Watch him break.

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