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How Tupac Shakur Remained a Defining Rap Figure After His Death

Tupac Shakur has been dead for longer than the 25 years he lived. During his lifetime, he rose to levels of stardom matched by few other rappers, rocketing quickly from a Digital Underground backup dancer to a chart-topper and movie star, all while courting controversy with law enforcement and presidential administrations. In the decades since his 1996 murder in Las Vegas, he has endured as one of the genre’s defining figures, in no small part because of the mystery surrounding his death.

The Friday arrest of Duane Keith Davis in connection with Shakur’s killing — he was indicted on a murder charge — is a step in solving one of hip-hop’s greatest tragedies and longest mysteries. Nearly two years before his death, Shakur had been ambushed and shot in New York. The assault instigated a visceral feud between Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., a New York rapper who was slain nearly six months after Shakur, forever linking the rivals and the coastal feud that hung over ’90s hip-hop.

Shakur’s breadth as a rapper included enduring anthems like “Dear Mama,” “Keep Ya Head Up” and “California Love,” while also featuring songs laced with misogyny and vengeance. He poignantly rapped about social activism and the oppression of Black Americans, which helps his music resonate just as strong today as it did in the ’90s.

“His death caused people to really magnify what he was doing musically and when they saw it, they were like, ‘Oh my Lord,’” said Greg Mack, a radio programmer who helped bring hip-hop music into the mainstream on the West Coast. “We didn’t know that’s who we had.”

Part of Shakur’s staying power is because his murder investigation stayed open longer than he lived, allowing fans to offer up theories about what may have happened. Almost immediately after his Sept. 13, 1996, death was announced, rumors circulated that Shakur was actually alive and well, recording in solitude on some far-off island. These wild theories continued with regularity over the years.

(In one 2011 example, hackers gained access to the PBS website and wrote that Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were living together in a small New Zealand town. The story spread quickly on social media even after PBS removed it.)

Shakur often prophesied an early death in lyrics and interviews. He recorded a trove of music during his lifetime, and much of that material saw the light of day after his death. Over the course of a decade, Shakur’s estate released several albums that culminated with 2006’s “Pac’s Life.”

His posthumous output extends beyond his own albums. A holographic image of Shakur memorably performed at 2012’s Coachella festival. Kendrick Lamar used excerpts from a rare 1994 Shakur interview for the two to engage in a conversation on his influential album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” In June, Shakur received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Actors including Anthony Mackie and Demetrius Shipp Jr. have portrayed him in films.

More than a dozen documentaries, plays and books have been shot, acted and written to display and dissect Shakur’s short life, including 2003’s “Tupac: Resurrection,” which earned an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature.

This year, the director Allen Hughes released “Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur,” a five-part docuseries that examines Shakur’s relationship with his mother, Afeni Shakur. (Tupac Shakur once assaulted Hughes for firing him from the movie “Menace II Society.”) Next month, Staci Robinson, who knew Shakur in high school, will publish the first estate-approved biography on Shakur, a book she worked on for more than 20 years.

“Tupac Shakur no longer belongs to Tupac Shakur,” Neil Strauss of The New York Times wrote in 2001. “Soon he won’t even belong to Afeni Shakur. He will belong to playwrights, filmmakers, novelists, television executives and other modern-day mythmakers. ” That prediction has largely rung true.

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