Steve Granitz Archive/
Kyle Anderson
September 13, 2011 AT 03:54 PM EDT

One of Chris Rock’s best bits comes from his 2004 album Never Scared, where he talks about a government conspiracy against rap music.

He hits upon a truth about murders in the rap world and the strange air of mystery that always surrounds them. “Tupac was gunned down on the Las Vegas Strip after a Mike Tyson fight,” Rock says incredulously. “How many witnesses do you need to see some s— before you arrest somebody? More people saw Tupac get shot than the last episode of Seinfeld!”

Seven years later — and 15 years after the rapper’s passing — there still don’t appear to be any more clues about his death. Rock’s version of the story is accurate: After attending the fight between Tyson and Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand (Tyson won a first round TKO to win the WBA Heavyweight title), Pac rolled down the strip and was hit by a hail of gunfire that struck his chest, pelvis, hand, and thigh.

Unlike Biggie Smalls, who would die in similar fashion a few months later, Shakur actually fought through his initial injuries and was placed on life support after a series of surgeries. In fact, he was so adamant about getting up and leaving the hospital that he was put into an induced coma so that he could recover from the shots.

But Shakur ultimately passed away thanks to complications stemming from internal bleeding on Sept. 13, 1996. There was a certain amount of disbelief surrounding Tupac’s death; most people in the hip-hop community believed that he was going to pull through (after all, this was not the first time he had been shot). The day before, reports had even come through that his condition had been improving. But ultimately his wounds got the best of him.

When Biggie Smalls died, it was tragic because he was a clear talent taken too soon. Though Shakur also died well before his time, his passing came just as he was about to make a big crossover.

His 1996 album All Eyez on Me, the first double album in the history of hip-hop, was a gigantic commercial juggernaut that spawned a handful of hits (including “California Love”) and ultimately went platinum nine times. His acting career was also taking off, as he had received excellent marks for his performances in Juice and Poetic Justice and had three films in the can when he died; one of those movies, Gridlock’d, is actually an exceptional film.

Tupac truly seemed to be on the verge of building the sort of cross-platform entertainment empire later perfected by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Ice Cube. He was alsoactively paranoid of dying young (a worry that was apparently justified), which is why he stockpiled verses and was able to release original albums well after his death.

Those albums don’t have the same impact as Me Against the World or All Eyez on Me, though they’re far better than they have any right to be (especially 2002’s Better Dayz, which contains some surprisingly elegant verses). With all that in mind, here are the top five Shakur performances in any medium.

5. “To Live & Die in L.A.”

Though Pac grew up in Oakland, Los Angeles was where his heart was. Over one of the strongest beats in his archive (built by QDIII around a Prince sample), Tupac captures the energy of his favorite city in a slightly dark, profoundly melancholy way. Honestly, he sort of makes the City of Angels sound terrible, but he loves it anyway (you know, like New York in a Woody Allen movie).

4. Juice

Though he was never truly given the chance to flex his acting chops in a way that showed real range, Tupac was still an incredibly magnetic and charismatic screen presence, and Juice is his greatest moment on film. Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson — Spike Lee’s cinematographer who later made his biggest impact in television, directing some of the best episodes of The Wire — it’s a big of an uneven flick, but the performances are roundly excellent, and Shakur’s scenes with Omar Epps (especially this famous one) really crackle.

3. “Hit ‘Em Up”

The deaths of Biggie and Tupac put the East Coast/West Coast feud to bed, but it should probably be noted that Pac totally won that feud, and “Hit ‘Em Up” was the nail in the coffin (so to speak). It’s perhaps the most savage dis track ever recorded, and Pac spits as intensely as he ever has. It’s a shame because of how truly foul it is (it revolves around Tupac claiming he had sex with Faith Evans, who was married to Biggie Smalls at the time), but the impact is undeniable.

2. “Brenda’s Got a Baby”

Tupac was not as gifted a storyteller as Biggie, but when he did tap into that part of his lyrical abilities, the results were stirring and captivating. Over the course of four melancholy minutes, he describes the horrible ordeal of a 12-year-old girl who gets molested and tries to throw the baby away after giving birth, eventually turning to selling drugs and prostitution to make ends meet. The details are laser-sharp, and Pac’s delivery is sensitive and powerful (see also “Dear Mama”).

1. “California Love” video

“California Love” is an excellent song, though Shakur’s contribution is pretty compact (he jumps in, spits, and then gets out of the way of one of Dr. Dre’s most monstrous beats). But when you compound it with the Mad Max-inspired clip (featuring Shakur in post-apocalypse battle gear) and the fact that it was Shakur’s first statement following his release from prison (he served 11 months for sexual assault), it became a massive moment for him, and one of the biggest moments in all of hip-hop history. We’re no closer to solving Tupac’s murder, but we can still keep exploring the work.

What’s your favorite Tupac performance? Sound off in the comments below.

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