Rappers were vulnerable on record before 2Pac, but his emotional bravery and transparency were unprecedented in his time. The New York-born poet and actor turned West Coast gangsta rap icon bared every part of his soul and psyche in his lyrics, connecting deeply with fans while breaking down a wall for his contemporaries and successors. 2Pac gave listeners and rappers license to communicate their sadness, frustrations, traumas, and anxieties with less fear of retribution. Thugs cried before 2Pac, but they could cry more openly after him.
“Dear Mama” is the prime example of 2Pac’s gift for conveying complex emotions in song. It’s a raw and honest account of his relationship with his mother, Afeni Shakur, distilled into simple yet poignant scenes: his mother kicking him out of the house, his mother becoming a crack addict, his mother creating bountiful Thanksgivings on a shoestring budget, 2Pac hugging her from behind bars. 2Pac isn’t critical of her missteps, he’s just real. At the same time that he articulates the difficulties of growing up with a single mother, he voices his appreciation for her undying love and support.
“Dear Mama” is just a small part of 2Pac’s 1995 album, Me Against the World. The record can now be seen as the beginning of 2Pac’s final act. He’d moved on from the poetic and militant sociopolitical screeds of his previous two albums, 2Pacalypse Now (1991) and Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.. (1993) and become the thug outlaw and martyr. With a hair-trigger temper and ceaseless paranoia, he saw enemies and death around every corner. Yet somewhere between the fatalistic “If I Die 2nite” and the lustful “Temptations,” there was “Dear Mama.” In an interview with MTV, 2Pac claimed he wrote the “love song to [his] mama” one morning while on the toilet and then called his mother to rap the song to her.
“I always play my music for [my mom] before it comes out,” 2Pac told the Los Angeles Times in a 1995 interview. “Why do you think I wrote ‘Dear Mama’? I wrote it for my mama because I love her and I felt I owed her something deep.”
When it was released, critics praised the song. The Source gave Me Against the World four of five mics and singled out “Dear Mama,” writing, “On a more sensitive note, ‘Dear Mama’ will be the Mother’s Day theme for all the hard-headz who love their mama and recognize the sacrifices that are made through thick and thin.” In their laudatory review of Me Against the World, Rolling Stone wrote, “‘Dear Mama’ is a heartfelt, sometimes harsh dedication of love for his mother that deals with the trials and tribulations each has put the other through.” The magazine also said that Me Against the World was the “first time 2Pac [had] taken the conflicting forces tugging at his psyche head-on.”
The vulnerability and emotional nuance of “Dear Mama” (and Me Against the World) has also inspired some of the greatest rappers of the 2000s and 2010s. Eminem reportedly listened to “Dear Mama” in his car for a year after 2Pac released the single. (This help explains Eminem’s willingness to examine his own turbulent relationship with his mother throughout his discography.) Without “Dear Mama,” Drake may never have recorded songs such as “You & the 6,” a heartfelt dedication to his mother that also grapples with their strained connection with Drake’s father. Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer-winning Compton rapper whose West Coast upbringing virtually ensured 2Pac’s influence on his culture-shifting catalog, cited “Dear Mama” as a direct inspiration. “I can really go back and appreciate the value of vulnerability and being able to express yourself and not being scared to express yourself,” Lamar once told XXL. “[My mother] made some mistakes in her life, but that never changed the way I looked at her… Me looking back at that, I salute Tupac.”
Today, “Dear Mama” is one of three rap songs in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. It’s easy to understand why. The greatest maternal dedication in rap, “Dear Mama” invites everyone to love, appreciate, forgive, and celebrate the woman who raised them. It will ring out every Mother’s Day from now until the end of time.