Atop the Charts From Behind Bars : Tupac Shakur Is Finding Ways to Promote His Hit Album From Prison
Tupac Shakur appears in the video for his current hit song, “Dear Mama,” only in a secondary role--glimpsed by his mother in old photographs and vintage video clips.
The photogenic rapper and actor, who records under the name 2Pac, wasn’t available to appear live in the video because he’s in prison--serving up to 4 1/2 years for sexual abuse at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y.
But Shakur’s incarceration hasn’t hindered the success of his third solo album, “Me Against the World,” which has been No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s weekly sales chart since Interscope Records released the collection three weeks ago.
Boosted by the success of “Dear Mama,” which is No. 7 this week on the Billboard singles chart, “Me Against the World” has sold almost 500,000 copies.
Shakur, 23, and Interscope seem to have made the most of a unique situation, launching the album with a marketing program that was in part shaped by Shakur from prison.
The rapper has granted only one jailhouse interview, telling Vibe magazine that his “thug life” was finished after several scrapes with the law and a brush with death last Nov. 30, when he was shot five times while being robbed outside a Manhattan recording studio.
Shakur, who co-starred with Janet Jackson in the 1993 film “Poetic Justice,” told Vibe that the interview would be his last.
“If I get killed, I want people to get every drop,” he said. “I want them to have the real story.”
Alan Light, editor in chief at Vibe, said reader reaction to the cover story has been stronger than for any other story since the magazine was launched by Quincy Jones and Time Life 18 months ago.
Lori Earl, head of publicity at Interscope, said the decision to give only one interview was Shakur’s, but she supported it. He has received other interview requests, she said, but declined them all.
“I think the Vibe article really says everything he’s feeling and covers all the bases,” she said.
The magazine hit newsstands early last month, as the “Dear Mama” single and video were starting to get airplay.
“Dear Mama,” a paean to Shakur’s mother, is “a rare expression of love in the rap world,” according to one reviewer, “displaying a sensitivity that outsiders would deny.”
But Tom Whalley, the Interscope executive who signed Shakur to the label in 1990, said the choice of “Dear Mama” as the album’s first single was not made with the intention of presenting the imprisoned rapper in a more positive light.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Well, Tupac’s in jail, let’s find the most sympathetic song on the record and put it out so that the audience will be sympathetic to him,’ ” Whalley said. “I just thought it was a great song, an emotional song.”
It’s not the first time Shakur has exhibited a sensitive side. His 1993 hit, “Keep Ya Head Up,” was touted for its pro-women stance. Ironically, the single was in the Top 20 at the time of his arrest for forcible sodomy of a 20-year-old woman in the fall of 1993.
Shakur was acquitted on the sodomy charge last December, but the jury found him guilty of sexual abuse, finding that he had groped and touched the victim without her consent.
“Keep Ya Head Up” was a departure from many of his songs at the time, which were more along the lines of the themes commonly found in gangsta rap--drug use, violence and misogyny.
Several black women’s groups, angered over Shakur’s nomination for a 1994 NAACP Image Award, threatened to boycott the event in Pasadena, but no protest was evident at the ceremony.
At last month’s Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles, however, rapper Queen Latifah publicly backed Shakur: “I support the brother--we can’t cast our black men aside.”
“Me Against the World” also includes some incendiary tracks, but they blend together with “Dear Mama” and other surprisingly sensitive songs to provide a portrait of a man’s troubled environment.
The video for “Dear Mama,” directed by Lionel Martin, features the rapper’s mother, Afeni Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party who was in prison during part of her pregnancy with Tupac. Actors play out scenes from Shakur’s life, including his shooting last fall.
“There was talk of visiting him in jail and sensationalizing all that’s happened to him but that’s not what I wanted to do at all,” Whalley said. “I wanted to really play to the emotion of the song and what the song is really about.”
While awaiting his Feb. 7 sentencing, Shakur met in jail with Whalley and Martin to discuss the concept for the video, and to give his go-ahead. Actress Jada Pinkett, who will direct the video for the album’s next single, “Can U Get Away,” also is expected to make a jailhouse visit.
“It slows down the process,” Whalley said of the unique situation of not having the artist available to fully participate in the promotion of his album, “but he’s still able to influence what goes on with his record.”
Down the road, however, Shakur’s absence could cut into album sales, Whalley acknowledged.
“It may become increasingly more difficult to launch things,” he said. “If he was around, he’d be profiled in the videos and there would be far more press (interviews). He probably would tour. We could put him on BET or MTV to host a show, he could do an interview with Video Jukebox--stuff that would keep him out there and keep (the album) fresh and keep it moving.
“But the fact is, if we keep releasing songs that the public (enjoys), the album is going to keep working. And I think we have four or five (strong) singles on this album. That part will be fine. Making videos is going to be difficult. We’re going to have to keep coming up with fresh ideas on how to make videos without him.”
It’s not an ideal situation, “but they can make it work,” predicted Fred Feldman, senior vice president of marketing and promotion at Profile Records, which is heavily involved in rap music. “If it was a developing artist, you’d be in trouble, but Tupac’s an exception because of his past. There’s a lot of notoriety that goes along with him. Between his movies and music and everything, he’s a celebrity along the lines of an Ice-T.”
Neither of Shakur’s first two solo albums reached higher than No. 24 on the Billboard album chart, but Interscope believed that “Me Against the World” had a chance to reach No. 1.
“Tupac became a media star,” Whalley said. “He was in the national news, in the public eye, for a long time.”
And in part because of Shakur’s high profile and unique situation, his latest album will probably have a long stay on the chart, suggested Bill Adler, a publicist for another imprisoned rapper, Slick Rick, who is serving up to 10 years for attempted murder.
“They’ve still got a lot of tools to promote this artist,” Adler said. “They’ve got a great record, they’ve got a hit single and they’ve got his story.
“There’s a way to turn this negative into a positive. I think it’s a poignant story, or at the very least, it’s an interesting story: a No. 1 record by an artist in jail. It’s never happened before. I’d ride that into the sunset.”
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