In 2015, Eminem spoke about his experience with 2Pac’s music, penning an editorial for Paper Magazine. He took a moment to reflect on the creation of Loyal To The Game, affirming that he was personally blessed by Afeni Shakur to tackle the ambitious project. Pac’s estate had already released five posthumous albums prior, none of which were helmed by a singular producer; though The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory featured heavy involvement from Darryl "Big D" Harper, the majority of the project was recorded during 2Pac’s lifetime.
For Eminem, the opportunity marked a lifelong dream. “You wouldn't be able to tell the 18/19-year-old Marshall that he would ever be able to get his hands on some Tupac vocals and have that opportunity,” he told Paper. “It was such a significant piece of history for me and so much fun. I'm like a kid in a candy store; going nuts with the fact that I'm putting beats under his rhymes.”
It’s interesting that Eminem approached Afeni Shakur not as a personal collaborator of 2Pac, but as an ardent fan who possessed a shrewd understanding of the man’s work. Afeni spoke on Eminem’s involvement in the liner notes of Loyal To The Game. “Not until now has anyone approached me to give everything they have, and to give it with such integrity,” she wrote, alluding that it was 2Pac’s spirit who placed Eminem in her path. “I am able to receive the gift of generosity given to me by a young man who not only asked for nothing in return for his services but refused to accept anything I ordered. This is the spirit I want my son’s work created in.”
Eminem at the 2nd Annual Hip Hop Summit May 22, 2004 in Detroit, Michigan. Bill Pugliano/Getty ImagesGiven how often Eminem had referenced Pac’s work prior to taking on Loyal To The Game, it’s not surprising that he actively pursued a collaborative arrangement. The Eminem Show’s “Soldier” seemed fuelled by 2Pac’s general attitude and philosophies, and he later declared himself to be the “White Pac” on “Say What You Say.” In the midst of his feud with Ja Rule, Eminem and 50 Cent used Pac’s haunting “Hail Mary” as the backdrop. Were one to ever engage in a close reading of both catalogs, it’s likely that many thematic parallels could be found within 2Pac and Eminem’s writings. Musically, however, is where the gap widens.
Those who are familiar with Slim Shady’s production likely recognize a few distinctive qualities. Though Pac was no stranger to rapping over minor-key and vaguely eerie beats, Eminem’s instrumental instinct was quite the divergence from the g-funk stylings of the early nineties. Around the time he opted to take on Pac’s Loyal To The Game, Eminem had recently contributed extensive production to 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin, Obie Trice’s Cheers, and Second Round’s On Me, as well as D12 World and his own Encore. It’s fair to say that Em’s production style was developed around that time, a unique sound that still divides hip-hop fans; those that appreciate his use of guitar and piano, minor-key chord progressions, and off-kilter synthesizers swear by it, while skeptics feel it’s simply too niche to resonate.
2Pac Shakur at Club Amazon, July 1993. Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesIn any case, Eminem won his position at the helm of Loyal To The Game through his empathetic spirit, not to mention a sincere admiration for 2Pac’s artistic craft. The end result was a project that featured thirteen original compositions by Eminem and his longtime collaborator Luis Resto, as well as featured guest appearances from Jadakiss, Obie Trice, G-Unit, Nate Dogg, E.D.I, Noble, Sleepy Brown, and more. Em himself also contributed vocals, though not in the form of a verse; instead, he handled the hooks for “Soldier Like Me” and “Black Cotton.” An interesting case of restraint, given the temptation no doubt associated with trading bars -- even posthumously -- with Shakur. Though such a hypothesis is purely speculative, it’s possible that Em wanted to avoid seizing the narrative, as he was still at the height of his commercial prime. It’s also possible that he was looking to test his mettle as a producer, seeking validation in that regard. And now that seventeen years have passed since Loyal To The Game first dropped, perhaps this is the most appropriate lens through which the album should be examined.
As many of 2Pac’s vocal stems came from pre-recorded or otherwise existing songs, Eminem was charged with building backdrops that would effectively convey the late rapper’s messages. A tone was indeed set on opener “Soldier Like Me,” as Eminem kicked off proceedings with a somber piano riff -- one no doubt familiar to longtime fans. As the beat opens up, evocative of Em’s work on Obie Trice’s Second Rounds On Me, it admittedly takes a moment to suspend disbelief entirely. Still, Em’s eerie minor-key inclinations match nicely with Pac’s more violent lyricism, provided one can get on board with his production style. The following track “The Uppercut” remains an arguable highlight, with Em’s minimalist beat providing ample space for Pac’s commanding presence to shine. “Out On Bail” quickens the pace, and while Pac’s vocals flow convincingly enough, it’s hard not to imagine how he might have caught the beat had he been alive.
Eminem at the 2004 MTV European Music Awards -- Jon Furniss/WireImage/Getty ImagesMoving into “Ghetto Gospel,” Eminem softens his approach to capture 2Pac’s hopeful message, sampling Elton John’s 1971 track “Indian Sunset” for what would become the project’s lead single. Though not quite as immediate as the similarly-themed “Changes,” the combination of orchestral elements and universally uplifting lyricism ensured that “Ghetto Gospel” would endure as one of 2Pac’s many beloved anthems; with one-hundred-and-forty-two million views on YouTube, it’s not entirely far removed from the one-hundred-and-ninety-two million currently held by Pac’s “Changes.” Moving into the album’s second quarter, however, things start to muddy up in the slightest. That’s not to say there’s a notable dip in quality, though some of Em’s chosen beats do begin to blend together. While it’s admittedly fun to hear Pac spitting bars alongside Lloyd Banks and Young Buck, the guitar-driven instrumental feels slightly derivative of other tracks Loyal To The Game has to offer down the line. Compared to the versatility Em exhibited on Cheers, his work here feels far more limited in scope.
There are certainly highlights to be found. The Jadakiss-assisted “N.*.*.G.G.A” is exactly the sort of creeping slow-burner that Em might have laced for 50 Cent, adding a subtle layer of menace to Pac’s aggressive delivery. Percussion-free “Crooked N***a Too” deserves points for its experimental nature, though some may lament the absence of a rewarded drop. “Hennessy” feels like it was originally intended for one of Obie’s albums, but it captures the debaucherous spirit of Pac’s signature libation. And though not produced by Em, DJ Quik’s take behind the boards (as well as behind the mic for a scene-stealing verse) on “Loyal To The Game” is worthy of note. Likewise is “Thug For Life,” which finds Pac snapping over a tense sitar-driven beat, an uncommon instrument in the hip-hop realm. And of course, it’s always nice hearing 2Pac and Nate Dogg on a track together, far removed from the Death Row era as they may be.
2Pac Shakur at the Mecca Arena in Milwaukee, 1994. Raymond Boyd/Getty ImagesConsidering the very nature of Loyal To The Game’s composition, it doesn’t quite feel right to examine Pac’s lyricism or performances too closely, as many of his verses came from existing and established songs -- in other words, lacking the context that the author intended. With Em having free rein to move things around as he saw fit, Loyal To The Game is far closer to his own vision than anything resembling Pac’s. The fact that Em’s attempt at a posthumous 2Pac album manages to flow cohesively, occasionally evoking deeper emotions of defiance and optimism, should be seen as a success. Whether or not the niche production style is alienating beyond reconciliation comes down to a matter of subjective taste, though it has been at the center of many discussions surrounding the project's legacy.
With seventeen years having passed since 2Pac and Eminem's Loyal To The Game originally released in 2004, the question is a simple one: how does the project hold up?
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