There’s a clip in Adam Curtis’s documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head of an interview Tupac Shakur gave when he was a high school student in California in 1988. Even as an unknown teenager, he flares with charisma as he talks about reviving the revolutionary spirit of the Black Panthers. His mother, Afeni Shakur, gave birth just weeks after she was acquitted in the 1971 trial of the Panther 21, and raised him to think that he was “the Black Prince of the revolution”. When we see him again, in an interview from 1995, some vital part of him has shut down. He talks instead of survival and revenge: “Fear is stronger than love.” The following year, he was shot dead at the age of 25.
Tupac’s brief, protean life has taken on allegorical power and New Yorker writer Sheldon Pearce’s oral history clarifies the turning points. Tupac was always one to watch. Former teachers and students at his two high schools, where he played Othello and the Mouse King, remember him as a sweet, thoughtful theatre kid who loved poetry and dance. He landed his first movie role in 1991, the same year he released his debut album. Rappers often make good actors because they are role-players and storytellers. In early songs such as Keep Ya Head Up and Brenda’s Got a Baby, Tupac was still the Panther’s son, sensitive to injustice. But once gangsta rap took off, he sculpted himself into someone harder and meaner, lest anyone think his lyrics weren’t the real deal.
He committed too fully to a role that he might have outgrown were it not for the events of 1994. While on trial for sexual abuse, sodomy and weapons charges, he was shot at a recording studio, a murder attempt he blamed on New York hip-hop stars Sean “Puffy” Combs and the Notorious BIG. Sentenced to prison on the sexual abuse charge, he was broke, paranoid and humiliated – vulnerabilities that were thoroughly exploited by Suge Knight, CEO of Death Row Records. A former linebacker and bodyguard with a reputation for violence and criminality, Knight bailed out Tupac pending appeal and shoved him into the frontline of a feud between east and west coast rappers that was partly the result of real personal grudges and partly a reckless marketing ploy. “The dude is a ticking time bomb,” says journalist Justin Tinsley. “He just needed someone to pull the pin out of the grenade and throw him in somebody’s direction. Suge was that dude.”
Soon, Tupac was talking about leaving the increasingly rackety Death Row and focusing on acting but he died in Las Vegas in September 1996 after a drive-by shooting. While the case is officially unsolved, it’s almost certain that the gunman was Orlando Anderson, a Crips gang member who was himself murdered in 1998. The sheer waste of it can still punch you in the gut.
Changes lacks the polyphonic vitality of the best oral histories, a format that better serves the story of a collective endeavour than a single life. With so many key players dead, incarcerated or otherwise inaccessible, Pearce’s principled refusal to plug the gaps with archive material can be frustrating. He does, however, track down unfamiliar voices, including doctors, journalists and a jury member, to elaborate the broader context of gang warfare, racist policing and moral hysteria around hip-hop. Tupac made some horrendous choices but he had good reason to be paranoid.
Tupac would be 50 now and the last chapter asks: what if he had lived? That’s hard to answer because his messiah-like international reputation largely stems from the fact that he didn’t. Strikingly, he is compared to James Baldwin, Fred Hampton, Barack Obama and Malcolm X but no other rappers, as if it would be disrespectful to imagine him ending up, like former Death Row labelmates Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, comfortably mainstream. Whether he would really have become a thought leader who reawakened black power for a new generation can never be known because he died during the most chaotic period of his life, when his worst instincts were nurtured and his best ones stifled. The wisest voices in Changes avoid grand claims and say simply that Tupac – so young, so conflicted – was robbed of the chance to rewrite the script.
• Changes: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur by Sheldon Pearce is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply