The rapper's high-tech resurrection at Coachella this past weekend embodied what Shakur has become in death: pure image, nostalgic totem, and ghastly spectacle.
In 1981, Rolling Stone famously slapped a photo of Jim Morrison on its cover to go with the headline: "He's Hot, He's Sexy and He's Dead." It's an important moment in the history of commodified nostalgia, the start of rock's most iconic publication selling magazines off memories of its own adolescence. After all, Rolling Stone began publication in late 1967, only a few months after Morrison's band broke through with "Light My Fire." The headline is catchy but slightly unseemly, the "He's Hot, He's Sexy" tinged with insistence. Here was rock music awkwardly reckoning with encroaching middle-age: Ten years after Morrison had successfully died before he'd gotten old, a whole world of people were starting to realize they hadn't.
On Sunday night at the Coachella Festival in Indio, California, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg shared a stage with a holographic rendering of Tupac Shakur. Within a few hours the performance had exploded on YouTube, creating a veritable symphony of simulacra and simulation that's sure to launch an entire subfield of academic media studies, replete with endless, groan-inducing "All Eyez On Me" puns. Sure, Hologram Tupac can tell us a lot of things about technology and representation and the internets and The Power of Social Media, but they are all things that we already know, and this latest development just takes them to discomfiting extremes. In other words, it's not shocking that Hologram Tupac exists; it's shocking that it's taken so long.
Hologram Tupac is an inheritance of arena-rock one-upsmanship, the latest step in rap's forced march on Spinal Tap-ism.
Tupac may have been the James Dean of rap, a figure whose status as a cultural icon is only in relatively small part related to the his creative output. For a while it was fashionable to have "Tupac vs. Biggie" debates, but those were never really serious conversations. Tupac's catalogue is pocked with greatness but frustratingly uneven, and a lot of the things we remember about him are extramusical, or at least musically unspecific: the fierce intelligence, the blazing charisma, the ridiculous physical magnetism. I have a friend who likes to argue that our entire imagining of Tupac is based on Bishop, the character he played in Juice, and that without that performance we'd talk about Pac and his music completely differently. But that's precisely the point: Tupac was a movie star, and Hologram Tupac is an appropriately shimmering projection, translucent and impossible.
Of course, Hologram Tupac is also a memorial. Hip-hop is obsessed with memory, and for at least five years after Pac and Biggie's murders, it felt like a transgressive affront whenever a rapper's album didn't give a shout out to the two. Hologram Tupac re-emphasizes this fetish for the past, and indicates that the question posed here remains unanswered.
And yet it feels like there's something different this time, something closer to that 1981 Rolling Stone cover and a necessary byproduct of the last 16 years. In the 21st century, hip-hop has grown into a global-capitalist enormity, with the paths blazed by Tupac, Biggie, and countless others before them opening onto unimagined frontiers of accumulation and prestige, excess, and access. As detailed in David Samuels's feature for the May issue of The Atlantic on Watch the Throne-period Kanye West, at its highest echelons rap music has become a multinational industry of spectacle. Hologram Tupac is this, too, an inheritance of arena-rock one-upsmanship, the latest step in a forced march on Spinal Tap-ism: This one goes to eleven.