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Poetic injustice

Why Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson should’ve been a package deal for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Tupac Shakur continues to rewrite hip-hop history 20 years following his death.

‘Pac joined Pearl Jam, Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra, Journey and Yes in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 32nd class. Acts become eligible 25 years following their first recording. Shakur’s debut album 2Pacalypse Now celebrated its quarter-century anniversary in 2016, making him qualified for the honor that seemed all but guaranteed in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement. He joins Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five (2007), Run D.M.C. (2009), Public Enemy (2011), the Beastie Boys (2012) and N.W.A. (2016) as the only hip-hop acts to grace the Rock’s hallowed halls in Cleveland.

Whether ‘Pac should have been rap’s first solo act to earn the distinction or not certainly warrants merit. Names such as LL Cool J — arguably rap’s first solo superstar — and Ice Cube easily come to mind. However, ‘Pac is undoubtedly rap’s most iconic martyr and its most influential spirit to date. Ironically, he also preached, albeit passionately and self-destructively, throughout his life he would never live to see similar honors.

“I don’t wanna be 50 years old at a BET ‘We Shall Overcome’ Achievement Awards,” he said in 1994. “Uh uh. Not me. I want when they see me every day, I’m breathing. It’s for us to go farther.”

Mission accomplished. His presence and overwhelming legacy has elevated hip-hop into further stratospheres of cultural relevance. And a tour de force beyond deserving of further immortalization. Yet, despite ‘Pac’s honor, there’s a glaring omission of another act. One he is inextricably linked with — Janet Jackson. Her snub again calls to mind the years-long cry for rap and R&B to have their own separate sanctuary. Jackson’s credentials speak for themselves:

  • Her seven No. 1 albums rank third in music history among women, behind only Barbra Streisand (10) and Madonna (eight)
  • Eighteen consecutive top 10 hits
  • More than 140 million records sold
  • One of nine artists with at least 10 Hot 100 No. 1 hits, tallying them between 1986 and 2001 — one of the greatest and most significant runs of any artist in any genre, male or female
  • Jackson’s 27 top 10s are tied for fifth all time with Mariah Carey and Elton John
  • One of only three acts ever to have No. 1 albums in the last four decades (the aforementioned Streisand and Bruce Springsteen being the others)
  • A direct influence to current pop culture starlets such as Beyoncé and Rihanna and even posthumous acts like Aaliyah

And perhaps her most impressive feat is separating herself and creating her own dominating legacy independent from that of her famous brother, Michael Jackson — arguably the single greatest musician to ever live. As the saying goes, though, a person either dies a hero or lives long enough to see himself become a villain. Or, in Janet Jackson’s case, lives long enough to see gaffes supersede the music. It’s no secret several of her albums following 2001’s All For You failed to move the needle, an expected occurrence for a career spanning decades and now five (soon to be six) presidential administrations. It’s also no secret that pundits and the media grossly and unfairly singled her out following the infamous “Nipplegate” incident with Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.

Nevertheless, she’s still Janet Jackson. Her body of work speaks for itself, or at least should. Her omission shouldn’t taint Tupac’s admission the same way Tupac’s achievement shouldn’t overshadow her absence. While their catalogs operate in two disparate worlds, nostalgia makes it all but impossible to split Janet and Tupac. They’re always going to be Justice and Lucky, their characters from the 1993 John Singleton-directed film Poetic Justice.

Shakur and Jackson entered each other’s lives at pivotal points during their respective careers. She was the child star turned adult superstar. He was the thugged-out, yet poetic son of a Black Panther, who struggled to make a dollar out of 15 cents. Tupac, only 22 at the time of the film’s release, had already established himself as rap’s most flamboyant, outspoken and militant live wire. He took on the role of Lucky — the polar opposite of his psychotic, vindictive role of Bishop in the 1992 film Juice — as a means to show a side of young black men that he felt was largely downplayed in society. Jackson, 27 at the time, was the highest paid woman in pop music, the new face of high-profile sensuality and sexuality in R&B and a direct descendant of music’s first family. While the film helped further establish ‘Pac’s acting career and springboard Jackson’s, it’s off camera where the two became close.

In a 1993 EBONY profile, Jackson credited the movie — and Tupac, by proxy — with helping her overcome her shyness and, more importantly, “fortify her sense of blackness.” There was an edge about ‘Pac she was admittedly captivated by, as most were, positively and negatively at the time.

“I think she liked him,” Tupac’s half-brother, Mopreme, reflected in a 2014 interview, “but she was apprehensive. ‘Pac was wild.”

Singer Natasha Walker remembered ‘Pac, at the time, had 13 different lawsuits with eight different lawyers and had nowhere to live during the filming of Poetic Justice.

Yet, it was Shakur who fell head over heels for his internationally famous co-star (who was, then, secretly married to music director Rene Elizondo). Where Jackson saw a James Dean-like character in ‘Pac, he saw grace and stability in her, in part because it’s what he felt the role called for, but more so because that’s who he was — a deeply flawed young man in his 20s, but one who loved passionately, deeply and publicly.

“For me to do this right, I gotta really, truly indeed, fall in love with Janet Jackson,” he said. “And I did that.”

Shakur and Jackson kicked it heavily off camera during production. She was originally slated to appear in his If My Homie Calls video. And ‘Pac spent much time with the Jacksons, even allegedly winning over Janet’s mother, Katherine. Similar to the varying levels of attraction, though, there was also a discrepancy that made media rounds following the release of the film. It involved a sex scene and an AIDS test.

Shakur felt disrespected by the request from Jackson’s camp to submit to a test for a kissing scene.

“I did not disagree [to it] if we were really gonna make love,” he said in a 1993 interview. “I said, ‘If I can make love with Janet Jackson, I’ll take four AIDS tests.’ But if I’m gonna do a love scene with her just like somebody else did, and they didn’t take a test, I’m not taking a test. Not only am I not taking the test, but get out of my trailer.”

Conversely, Jackson told Rolling Stone in September 1993 that the lovemaking scenes cut from the movie were not at her request, but rather at the vision of director John Singleton.

“John had originally written in some lovemaking scenes between me and Tupac Shakur, and I was willing to get under the sheets with him,” she said. “I was not willing, though, to show my short and curlies. None of that happened, not even the lovemaking scene, because the story wouldn’t allow it.”

She continued, “The story is really about two people — both wounded by tragedy — learning to touch and be touched all over again. John could have heated up the thing with some steamy bumping, but he was more interested in incorporating the poetry of Maya Angelou. Rather than sensationalize, he wanted to give the work substance.”

‘Pac’s label as a brilliant thinker, tremendous orator and revolutionary spirit had already manifested itself by the time he was 22. He understood the plight of young black men while openly caping for black women he believed were oftentimes shunned by society and their own community. But ‘Pac, credit to the lifestyle he led, was immature and oftentimes misspoke. There was also a self-accountability factor that resided in him.

He had spoken out in the media about the AIDS test. And also about how Jackson stopped associating with him after Poetic Justice finished filming. The final year of his life was spent careening toward a violent end that he spoke so vividly of in his music and interviews. But he also admitted his faults in how he handled his dissolved friendship with Jackson. My lyrics motivate the planet, he rapped on Got My Mind Made Up on the 1996 album All Eyez On Me, It’s similar to Rhythm Nation, but thugged out / Forgive me, Janet.

“I feel like she got s— twisted and people gon’ made her my enemy. She ain’t my enemy. I ain’t mad at her. I want her to know that,” he told legendary radio personality and rapper Sway Calloway in April 1996. “She met me at a time in my life when I was real immature. I was coming up and going through a lot. Now, she probably sees me in a whole different light. Maybe not and maybe she will. I want that opportunity. When I see Janet, I’m gonna try to make right where we made wrong.”

Whether the two were able to break bread in the final five tumultuous months of ‘Pac’s life is unclear. His relationship with Jackson, like many of chapters in his life, was left eternally unfinished.

A lot changes in 20 years, though. It’s both impossible and painful to think who and what Tupac would have become had he survived the Las Vegas shooting. But it’s fairly reasonable to assume his willingness to voice his opinion would have only grown louder and more resonate. He likely would’ve campaigned for Jackson’s inclusion as much, if not more, than his own, given the gifts of age, wisdom, hindsight and the ability to make good on the apology he wanted to deliver. Hence the reason that, in a purely nostalgic sense, seeing the two sharing the same stage — in spirit — one final time would have been a fitting climax to a bond that was as passionate as it was brief.

In 2010, Jackson reflected on Shakur, a body of energy she referred to as “silly” and “sweet.”

“I adored him — he liked to play and laugh,” she told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph. “I remember when he said he was going back to L.A. to get a tattoo. And I said, ‘Why are you going to L.A.? We’re not supposed to leave, we have a shoot tomorrow.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Square!’ When he came back, he showed me the tattoo he got on his stomach. He was sweet. Granted, there was another side, but he wouldn’t snap or go crazy out of nowhere. There had to be something that triggered that.

“I miss him.”

Just like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame missed out on a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.