After being shot five times and sitting in prison for a crime he believed he didn’t commit, Tupac Shakur hit the studio with a vengeance when he touched down in California in October of 1996. The result was All Eyez on Me, an album that helped define both a genre and his own career.
As brazen as it was ambitious—it was hip-hop’s first double album, his fourth LP overall—the project is coated with winding West Coast synths, shameless boasts, death threats and “thug life” aphorisms. The LP showcases ’Pac in all of his Gemini multitudes, bigger, bolder and better. He could be vengeful one moment, as demonstrated on “Ambitions Az a Ridah” and “When We Ride,” and touching the next, displayed on “I Ain’t Mad At Cha.” The contradictions weren’t new; he’d been flipping the switch since his 1993 LP, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…. But AEOM was noticeably more intense.
Though the stylistic DNA of All Eyez on Me existed before he actually dropped the album, the then 24-year-old rapper was harsher and more unapologetic than he was on his 1995 album, Me Against the World. Before, he’d been ambivalent about a thuggish lifestyle. He grips an AK-47, but only in response to danger. On All Eyez on Me, he shoots first, and there’s no mercy.
Songs like “When We Ride,” “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” and “Ain’t Hard 2 Find” see him provoking his would-be killers from the year before. On “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” he posits himself as one of America’s most-wanted criminals, teaming up with Snoop Dogg, who was facing a murder charge at the time, in the process. With slick bars and a hard beat, the two created an indelible anthem.
Meanwhile, on his more sentimental side, ’Pac delivered an ode to old homies with “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” and a song dedicated to friends he lost in the streets on “Life Goes On.” Sometimes, he just focused on flossing, basking in the moment he’d been waiting for as he sat behind prison walls in upstate New York. On “Picture Me Rollin’,” he taunts the judge and anyone else who doubted him as he paints a picture of himself in 4-D. Anyone that wants to imagine ’Pac at his best only had to play this album.
Contradictory, poignant and compelling, All Eyez on Me is ’Pac at his best. Today, in celebration of the album’s 25th anniversary, which is on Feb. 13, XXL ranks the tracks on the project. Peep the rankings for yourself below.