While none of the posthumous albums of Tupac Amaru Shakur has achieved the greatness of records pressed prior to the rapper's 1996 slaying, their failure says little about the artist himself. His raspy voice and devilish laugh are still a wonder, as are his often contradictory musings on politics and thug life, but the nine recordings released since his death are only as good as their production.
No producer to date has been up to the challenge of cobbling together an album with only unreleased material, remixes and cameos to work with, and 2Pac's latest disc, "Loyal to the Game," is no exception. But with hip-hop's current commercial champ, Eminem, in charge of the board work, its shortcomings are especially disappointing.
Pairing Eminem and 2Pac on one disc is a brilliant move, in theory -- one revered, insanely famous rapper helping shape the vision of another. But the presence of Eminem, who shares executive producer duties with Pac's mother, Afeni Shakur, is surprisingly intrusive, if only because his production style is so distinctive.
Eminem's repertoire of sounds is limited: merry-go-round-music-on-methamphetamines for silly, jovial songs and dark, repetitive orchestral crescendos over steady, monotone beats for pensive ones. When rhymes require truly depressing accompaniment, he brings in British singer Dido to add mournful vocals to the mix. These techniques, all of which appear on "Loyal," have brought Eminem a sickening amount of success, but they are a poor fit for 2Pac's in-your-face subject matter and acrid delivery.
"Soldier Like Me," one of two tracks featuring Eminem vocals, bears light, staccato keys that practically scream Slim Shady. It feels off when Pac, rather than Em, comes in chanting, "Everywhere I see a soldier like me." And while the theme of the second track Eminem sings on, "Black Cotton," a song about fallen comrades and stolen opportunities, is all Pac, the music would've been more at home on Eminem's most recent disc, "Encore."
The most glaring example of Eminem imposing his own style on 2Pac's record is "Don't You Trust Me," which has Pac begging a woman to lengthen his leash. The track is a dead-ringer for Eminem's hit "Stan," complete with a Dido guest spot. Surely Eminem has other singers he can call on to provide a hook.
Finishing off the disc are several bonus songs, tracks from the album remixed by guest producers such as Scott Storch and Raphael Saadiq. Eminem is either selfless or foolish to include them, since most of them manage to show him up. Red Spyda's "Hennessey" remix is particularly good, outshining Eminem's accordion-laced version by many watts. With OutKast's crooner of choice, Sleepy Brown, cooing "ooooh ooooh ooooh" over the sound of ice cubes tickling the inside of a glass, Spyda's "Hennessey" is as smooth as the spirit itself.
Because 2Pac's work is saddled with inherent distractions, a skilled producer is a necessity. If listeners aren't wondering if the music they're hearing would meet Pac's approval, then they're scouring albums for clues that he is still alive. Eminem seems to want to move Pac devotees beyond such preoccupations and have them "imagine what Tupac could be today, if not stopped short of his full life's potential." But, as earnest as his goal may be, Eminem's work on the album is yet another distraction that prevents full immersion in 2Pac's incredible world.