The street runs red with racialized paranoia; rigid barricades are built brick by brick with stereotypes and ignorance. There are no shades of gray, merely blinding whiteness and engulfing blackness. Compromise does not exist when it comes to survival; one second of delay and life is the debt to pay. Life on the streets is a hard game to play, and a friend today is an enemy the next day. Severe poverty and crime are plainly overlooked by rosy-eyed men in hollowed smoke suits, who only perceive pleasing pink hues. Crimson track marks line punctured skin; freckled targets denote the deadly sin. Addictions engulf alleys, parks, and homes but are not limited to the strung-out junkies. Power is the most intoxicating amphetamine, particularly when laced with blue bias and golden corruption. The police become a symbol for fear rather than protection: a dystopian further entrenched with chaos and dreary gloom. Between sirens and gunshots, there is silence; voices of a nation…silenced. Enter Tupac Shakur’s”Changes”. Shakur’s lyrics attempt to give voice to the marginalized voices within his community; specifically to an impoverished African-American demographic situated in the rough neighbourhoods of Harlem. His words incite a need for a social revolution in order to ascertain a stronger sense of equality for those on the fringes of society; however, his structural and lyrical choices suggest a cynicism regarding the possibility of transformation within a community ingrained in racial oppression.
A noticeable element of “Changes”is the artful sampling of Bruce Hornsby’s successful 1986 hit, “The Way It Is”.The contrast between the two songs is rich however; the predominant binary is between authorial perspectives: the witness and the victim. Tupac’s narrative is a response of sorts to the detached and unaffected perspective of “The Way It Is”. Hornsby asserts the idyllic possibility of change by consciously rejecting ignorance and intolerance. In response to acts of ignorance and intolerance, the chorus insists:
That’s just the way it is
Some things will never change.
That’s just the way it is
But don’t you believe them (Hornsby 7-10).
Hornsby’s authorial voice is that of an empowered white male. His sentiments, although positive, are seemingly unrealistic and border the Utopic. The voice is rather passive and non-threatening as there is no vigorous call for action. The song is a reactionary piece in regards to social injustice and yet hides within the safety of popular music and its history of ambiguous racial conflict. Shakur problematizes the voice of the observer, as it does not accurately reflect the tribulations of marginalized victims of societal oppression. Shakur drastically subverts Hornsby’s impersonal witness accounts within personal victimization in the confines of a violent and racial context. Contrasted with Hornsby’s vague instances of racial segregation and persecution is Shakur’s unambiguous reference to Huey Newton’s death. Newton’s influence as an intellectual and college educated founder of the Black Panthers and his attempts to organize stimulating community activities for impoverished African American brethren stood for an ideal symbol within harsh neighbourhoods. Newton’s death, shrouded in haziness and controversy, arguably marks the demise of Shakur’s hope for regeneration within the African American community. The rallying sentiment, “It’s time to fight back, that’s what Huey said,” (11) implies that social and racial reformation died alongside the public symbol. Huey represented a Messiah eradicated in his prime; his death reminds the community of the futility in finding a promising Messiah figure to represent the African American populace, as they frequently fall victim to hostility and violence.
The word “crack” is sparingly used throughout Shakur’s lyrical conquest. Each verse stanza utilizes the word only once. In two out of the three cases, the word is explicitly used as a drug reference; however, the persistence of the word suggests a larger thematic significance, illustrating Shakur’s uncertainty of systematic change. The proverbial wall of regulated oppression possesses cracks and fissures running throughout its mass, allowing onlookers to catch a fleeting glimpse of the other side, nonetheless the structure stands sturdy and impenetrable. Reflected within the poetic structure and arrangement is a fatalistic belief in a perpetual vicious cycle. Like most songs, a specific structure is followed; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and a strategically placed bridge or adlib. The Rap form, unlike traditionally rigid popular genres, allows a higher sense of freedom due to its foundation within an oral convention. Shakur’s structure follows this archetype until the fifth stanza: a talking adlib appears, differing from the previously established poetic prototype. The tone changes from a pessimistic observation of societal injustices to a positive call to action regarding personal strides to implement change. This break from the structure breathes positivity into the depressing nature of despondency; however, the sixth stanza replicates the futility and impossibility of change in a community engulfed by nihilistic propensities. If Shakur believed in the chances of societal change, his rap would arguably end with a section of improvised adlib illustrating a revolutionary and positive tonality. Conversely, the last words insist, “Some things will never change” (95).
The threat of violence and physical brutality are reoccurring images throughout the poetic narrative. It is difficult to ignore the explicit lyrics pertaining to this looming threat. The first two lines alone set a dark tone with reference to suicide followed by a description of homicidal tendencies possessed by the police department. Aside from the textual references to explicit examples of violence, Shakur employs various poetic techniques to reinforce the sensual evocation of violence. Throughout all of the verse stanzas, there are both explicit and implicit illusions to redness and blood. The first stanza exemplifies a feeling of spilled blood flowing due to racial tension as the implication of redness evenly floods Shakur’s lyrical expressions of violence. The following lines evocate the reoccurring allusions to blood:
[…] wake up in the morning and I ask myself
Is life worth living should I blast myself?
[…] Cops give a damn about a negro,
Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.
[…] Give ‘em guns step back, watch ‘em kill each other
It’s time to fight back, that’s what Huey said
Two shots in the dark now Huey’s dead (1-2, 5-6, 10-12).
Nearly every line captured in the first stanza drips of a bloody occurrence experienced by the African American population. Their struggles and identities here become nothing more than faceless blood baths of existence. Further highlighted is the inescapable verbalization of gun related violence within the last lines of the final verse stanza. The use of the onomatopoeia “Rat-tat-tat-tat” (86) forces the audience to experience, at least sonically, the ruthless and haunting sensual experience of a sadistic milieu. The sounds and sights of the streets cannot be ignored as Shakur presents a perspective so vividly and accurately. Additionally, each verse stanza is approximately forty-four seconds long consisting of twenty lines and more than one-hundred and seventy-five words, averaging roughly four words per second. This fast-paced verbal bombardment resembles quick exchanges of street violence. The form visually renders the act of a drive by shooting or a battle confined in the shrouded streets. The strategic use of enjambment assists in this technique as the long lyrical lines suggest a non-stop exchange between the narrator, Shakur, and the audience. This ensures an undivided engagement between the audience and the presented harsh realities.
The words needing to be said have been said; recalling premature visions of the dead. The streets remain harsh and the bloodstains removed with great difficulty from the cold concrete coffin. Polarities linger and the extremities splattered with thick deep-set redness. The world still turns as it always has and the axis is still unfairly slanted. The suited men are internally promoted while stray bullets internally maim the youth of the nation. Conceivably rosy visions now allow glimpses of bright red but the new spectrum is easily wiped from the lens. The destitute are perpetually forced to line up to receive bare necessities for survival. Blue and red lights burn and harass those assumed guilty of an unseen crime: people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Equality remains an unimplemented idea; nothing more than an eight letter word with four syllables. Marginality reigns supreme. Perhaps things slowly progress and alter over the passing of time, but ultimately some things never [completely] change.