The Number Ones

July 13, 1996

The Number Ones: 2Pac’s “How Do U Want It” (Feat. K-Ci & JoJo)

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


You make decisions, and you live with those decisions. In 1969, Billboard changed its rules, allowing double-sided singles to chart on the Hot 100. As an immediate result, the Beatles reached #1 with “Come Together” b/w “Something.” A long time ago, I decided that double-sided singles were going to make this column chaotic and unruly, and that I’d only write about the A-sides from those double-sided singles. I’m mostly happy with that decision, but I knew that there would be one big consequence. The one time that I got to write about Tupac Shakur in this column, I would not be writing about “California Love.”

“California Love” might not be the best 2Pac song, and it may not be Pac’s definitive song, either. Pac doesn’t really have a definitive song; he simply put out too many iconic tracks in his short career. I still hear “California Love” all the time now, but I hear “Hail Mary” and “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” just as much. Still, “California Love” is the song that I think of when I think of Pac, and it’s also the song I think of when I think of the state of California. So much about “California Love” is just perfect. There’s the Dr. Dre production with the royal horn-fanfares and the stabbing pianos. There’s computer-funk wizard Roger Troutman slathering his voicebox bleat all over everything. There’s Hype Williams building a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome wonderland for the video. There’s Pac himself, bringing unreal levels of charisma to his verse: “Out on bail, fresh outta jail, California dreamin’! Soon as I step on the stage, I’m hearin’ hoochies screamin’!” I love it all.

For reasons that I will never understand, “California Love” is on the second side of Pac’s “How Do U Want It” single. “California Love” is probably the main reason that the single sold as many copies as it did, but for the purposes of this column, that distinction matters. “California Love” might be the anthem that filled up the air in the summer of 1996, the song that will always be tied to my memories of those months. But “California Love” is not 2Pac’s one #1 hit. Instead, that’s “How Do U Want It.” (“California Love” would’ve been a 10, obviously.)

“How Do U Want It” is its own kind of Billboard chart milestone. It’s the first truly explicit rap song to reach #1, the first example of a reality-rap superstar refusing to sand off his own rough edges and still reaching the chart’s apex. In the years since, many more unflinching rap tracks have reached #1, and that would’ve happened with or without “How Do U Want It.” But it took a flamboyant, larger-than-life figure to get there first. In 1996, Tupac Shakur was the main character in the story of rap music in America. It’s only right that he landed a #1 hit of his own, even if his #1 hit is a relatively minor entry in the man’s own canon.

Just before the birth of Tupac Amaru Shakur, Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur got herself and 20 of her comrades out of jail. Afeni Shakur was one of the so-called Panther 21, a group of Black Panther Party members indicted for planning the bombings of two New York police stations and one Board Of Education office. Afeni had never been to law school, but she represented herself and the rest of the Panthers in court. In cross-examination, Afeni got a cop to admit that the bombings had been the idea of the three undercover agents placed among the Panthers, proving that the government had set the Panthers up. Afeni spent two years in jail, and the highly publicized trial took eight months, but she won. One month after the Panther 21 were acquitted, Tupac was born. (When Pac was born, the #1 song in America was the Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.”) Tupac was actually born under a different name, but when he was one, Afeni renamed him after an Incan revolutionary who’d fought a losing battle against Spanish rule.

When Tupac Shakur was a kid, virtually all the adults in his life were involved in revolutionary politics, and all of them came into conflict with the cops. Billy Garland, Pac’s biological father, was also a former Panther, but he wasn’t in Pac’s life much. Pac’s stepfather Mutulu Shakur spent years on the run after the 1981 robbery of a Brinks truck in which two cops and a guard were killed. He was caught in 1986, and he’s still in prison today. Pac’s godfather Geronimo Pratt was convicted of murder in 1972, and he spent 27 years in prison before his conviction was vacated because prosecutors had withheld key evidence. Pac’s godmother Assata Shakur was sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1977, but she escaped from prison two years later and made her way to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. She’s still in Cuba now, and she’s still on the FBI’s most-wanted list. As a kind, Tupac would say that he wanted to be a revolutionary when he grew up. In a way, that’s what he became.

Tupac lived with his mother in New York until he was 13, when he moved to Baltimore with his mother. I learned pretty recently that Tupac lived 19 blocks away from me when we were both kids in Baltimore. We went to the same school, too, a few years apart. (That’s Roland Park Public, where Pac went to eighth grade and where I went to fourth and fifth, not the Baltimore School For The Arts, where a teenage Pac famously studied Shakespeare and befriended Jada Pinkett.) When I was an intern at the Baltimore City Paper a few years after Pac’s death, I fact-checked an article about the rare books room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. In that room, amidst all the first editions and valuable manuscripts, you can find the handwritten lyrics of the first rap that Tupac ever wrote. When Pac first rapped, he called himself MC New York, and entered a library-sponsored rap contest. If I remember right, that first song is about staying in school.

Tupac did not stay in school. In 1988, the 17-year-old Tupac moved across the country with his mother to Marin City, in the Bay Area. Tupac had thrived in Baltimore, but his mother had serious problems with addiction, and ’80s Baltimore was not the right place for her. Soon after the move, Pac dropped out of high school and tried to make it as a rapper. Pac’s revolutionary pedigree was one of his big selling points, but his career took a turn when a manager set him up with the Oakland funk-rap group Digital Underground. (Digital Underground’s highest-charting single, the 1990 masterpiece “The Humpty Dance,” peaked at #11.) Digital Underground gave Pac a job as a roadie, then as a backup dancer and hypeman, and you can still find pictures of him dancing around onstage in a granny-style dressing gown and a shower cap.

2Pac made his on-record debut on “Same Song,” Digital Underground’s contribution to the soundtrack of the notoriously terrible Dan Aykroyd/Chevy Chase comedy Nothing But Trouble. Pac makes a cameo in the movie, too, and he really pops in his few seconds of screen time. In the “Same Song” video, Pac plays an African prince. The extremely silly video, which is full of ethnic stereotypes, has not aged terribly well, but Pac’s first onscreen appearance still has a charge to it.

Digital Underground were on Tommy Boy, and group leader Shock G tried to convince the label to sign 2Pac. Tommy Boy passed. Instead, Pac made his way to the newly-launched Interscope, and he released his debut album 2Pacalypse Now in 1991. The album positioned Pac as a Shock G protege and as a political revolutionary in his own right. Early singles like “Trapped” and “Brenda’s Got A Baby” told bleak stories about Black Americans with few options in their lives. 2Pacalypse Now eventually went gold, but its singles missed the Hot 100. Instead, the album became famous after a teenager in Texas killed a state trooper. The teenager had a cassette copy of 2Pacalypse Now in his stolen car, and the trooper’s widow — and, eventually, Vice President Dan Quayle — blamed Pac for the shooting.

2Pac scored his pop breakthrough in 1993, when he teamed up with Digital Underground’s Shock G and Money-B on the breezy, funky sex song “I Get Around.” Pac was almost absurdly good-looking, and he brought a sense of flirtatious ease to songs like “I Get Around,” which peaked at #11 on the Hot 100. Soon after, Pac made it to #12 with “Keep Ya Head Up,” a statement of solidarity with Black women. “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up” might seem like they should be diametrically opposed, but they never felt that way at the time. 2Pac always contained multitudes. He could rap about sex and violence and money and desperation and hate and love. Coming from him, it all sounded genuine.

By the time “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up” hit, Pac was already a movie star. Onscreen, Pac was always electric. He made for mesmerizing villains in 1992’s Juice and 1994’s Above The Rim, but he was also a charming romantic lead alongside Janet Jackson in 1993’s Poetic Justice. Even as he broke into Hollywood, though, Pac kept putting himself in violent situations. Depending on who you ask, Pac either quit or was fired from the 1993 movie Menace II Society, and he was later convicted of beating up co-director Allen Hughes. That same year, Pac was also arrested after he got into a gunfight with two off-duty cops in Atlanta. He actually shot and wounded both cops. He claimed self-defense, and prosecutors dropped all charges. This means that 2Pac shot cops and got away with it. In 1993, that made him a folk hero.

Pac became good friends with ascendant New York rapper Biggie Smalls, who was also coming up in the world. They recorded a few songs together, and their onstage freestyle at Madison Square Garden is the stuff of legend. But the friendship didn’t last. In 1993, Tupac and two other men were arrested for sexually assaulting a woman in a New York hotel room. A year later, while Pac was on trial for that assault, he went to New York’s Quad Studios to record a guest-verse. In the studio lobby, gunmen robbed Pac and his friends, and when Pac resisted, they shot him five times. Pac survived the shooting, and he came to believe that Biggie had set the robbery up. The resulting rivalry between the two of them mushroomed into the East Coast/West Coast feud, which became the dominant narrative in rap music in the late ’90s.

A day after the Quad Studios shooting, Pac checked himself out of the hospital and showed up to the courthouse in a wheelchair, learning that he’d been found guilty of sexual abuse. A judge sentenced Pac to between 18 months and four and a half years in prison. Pac always maintained that he was innocent of those charges, but he later implied to Vibe, in a famous jailhouse interview, that he’d been guilty of standing by and allowing bad things to happen: “Even though I’m innocent of the charge they gave me, I’m not innocent in terms of the way I was acting.” Pac wanted to appeal the conviction, but he had money problems, and his mother was about to lose her house. While Pac was locked up, his third album Me Against The World came out and debuted at #1, making Pac the first incarcerated artist ever to top the Billboard 200. Lead single “Dear Mama,” a heartfelt and loving song about Afeni, peaked at #9, becoming Pac’s first top-10 hit. (It’s a 9.)

When Pac was locked up in New York, Suge Knight came to visit him. Knight, the notorious co-founder of Death Row Records, had a proposition: He would get Pac out of jail if Pac would sign with Death Row, which was already a subsidiary of Interscope, Pac’s label. Pac agreed. Suge Knight arranged for Pac’s bond and appeal. On the same visit to New York, Suge Knight attended the Source Awards, announced that Pac was part of Death Row, and further inflamed the existing tensions between New York and Los Angeles.

From a commercial standpoint, the Death Row signing was hugely beneficial for both Pac and the label. Death Row had become a juggernaut after the 1992 release of Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic. Dre had figured out how to make West Coast reality rap into streamlined blockbuster entertainment, and he made stars out of associates like Snoop Doggy Dogg. Suge Knight maintained an air of danger, surrounding the label with actual LA gangsters and intimidating anyone who came up against the label. 2Pac already had enormous outlaw appeal. He’d never been a full-on gangster himself, but when he was at Death Row, he was surrounded with dangerous people, and he threw himself into those social circles. I’ve seen people speculating that the real-life Pac was trying to become more like Bishop, his villainous character from Juice — that he played a character so hard that the persona got out of hand.

While he was with Death Row, Pac recorded at an insane pace, cranking out songs in late-night studio sessions even when he was shooting movies. Pac released his Death Row debut, the sprawling double album All Eyez On Me, in February of 1996. The album debuted at #1 and went gold in its first week. After a couple of months, All Eyez On Me was quintuple platinum. It’s since gone diamond.

In the early Death Row days, Dr. Dre produced almost everything that came out on the label. By 1996, though, Dr. Dre was mostly on the outs with Suge Knight. Dre only produced a couple of tracks on All Eyez On Me, including “California Love.” A month after the album’s release, Dre left Death Row to found his own Aftermath label. (He’ll eventually appear in this column.) Most of the production on All Eyez On Me came from other West Coast rap producers: Tha Dogg Pound’s Daz, DJ Quik, DJ Pooh. Pac’s main collaborator on the album was probably Johnny J, a Mexican-born beatmaker raised in South Central LA. Pac and Johnny first worked together on “Pour Out A Little Liquor,” Pac’s contribution to the Death Row-released Above The Rim soundtrack. They both worked quickly, and they found a groove together.

Johnny J built the “How Do U Want It” track from a sample of “Body Heat,” a 1974 soul song that Quincy Jones recorded with singer Leon Ware. Johnny had the idea for the track and the chorus melody a few years before he and Pac met. Pac used Johnny’s beat to write an extended come-on. Pac spends most of “How Do U Want It” talking about really, really wanting to have sex with one particular person: “I love the way you activate your hips and push your ass out/ Got a n***a wantin’ it so bad, I’m about to pass out.”

Even in the context of a seduction-song, though, 2Pac still finds ways to be 2Pac. He taunts cops: “Doin’ 80 on the freeway — police, catch me if you can.” He rhymes “Hennessy” with “enemies.” He uses the phrase “alleviate your clothes,” which is pretty funny. He informs Bill Clinton and Bob Dole that they’re too old to understand the way the game’s told. He’s especially got venom for C. Dolores Tucker, the former civil rights leader who reinvented herself in the ’90s, allying with the Christian right in their anti-rap crusade. When he says her name, Pac sounds disgusted: “C. Delores Tucker, you’s a motherfucker/ Instead of tryin’ to help a n***a, you destroy a brother.” Those parts don’t have anything to do with Pac being horny, but Pac often felt free to swing wildly from one subject to another. The defiance was the point.

In a recent podcast, my friend Rob Harvilla had a great line about Pac on All Eyez On Me: That he rapped like he’d just been shot out of a cannon. As a rapper, Pac always had a certain livewire energy. Even as a young man, he rapped in a grizzled baritone, stretching his vowels into round shapes and belting out every word with a preacherly intensity. Pac was never much concerned about wordplay or cleverness. Passion was his thing. Even at his most celebratory, Pac sounded driven and angry. He sounded like a man who wanted the world to know who the fuck he was.

“How Do U Want It” is a good-life song. It’s about sex, but it’s also about living the kind of outsized baller lifestyle that often involves a whole lot of sex. But Pac was always consumed with the idea of his own death, and he even brings it up in the context of a song like this: “My only hope to survive if I wish to stay alive/ Gettin’ high, see the demons in my eyes before I die.” During the brief stretch of time that he ruled rap music, Pac always gave off the impression that he had no faith in the future. He was going to live it up while he could. When you look at Pac’s upbringing, you can see how this young man might not have placed a huge value on his own life. His recklessness came with a built-in sense of mourning — as if he knew that he wasn’t long for the world, as if he was sad about what was coming.

When Pac first recorded “How Do U Want It,” he sang the chorus himself, but he didn’t like how it turned out. So Pac reached out to Jodeci, the R&B group who’d once been mentored by Pac’s East Coast adversary Sean “Puffy” Combs. When he was still at Uptown Records, Puffy had counseled Jodeci, a group of young gospel singers from North Carolina, to wear hoodies and Timberlands, to dress and act like rappers. (Jodeci’s highest-charting single, their 1993 MTV Unplugged cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) Jodeci sang passionately and graphically about sex, and they had their own kind of rebel roughneck appeal, so the combination made sense. Jodeci member DeVante Swing produced one track on All Eyez On Me, and two other members of the group sang the “How Do U Want It” hook.

Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey was the charismatic lead singer of Jodeci. Joel “JoJo” Hailey is his deeper-voiced brother. (As a duo, K-Ci and JoJo will eventually appear in this column.) On “How Do U Want It,” the two of them sing the chorus and ad-lib over Pac’s verses. The calculation was the same one that’s driven thousands upon thousands of collaborations between rappers and R&B singers. Theoretically, at least, the singers add silky, melodic appeal, and the rappers bring the swaggering hardness. They balance each other out.

In this column, we’ll look at plenty of songs that arrive at the same calculation. Some work better than others. In the case of “How Do U Want It,” I’ve always found the chorus to be pretty bland. The hook does get stuck in my head, but I zone out a little at the end, when K-Ci and JoJo just keep singing it again and again. I wonder if the track would’ve worked better if they’d kept Pac’s original chorus. Either way, “How Do U Want It” is a solid loverman track, but the main thing it has going for it is Pac’s electric presence. When Pac isn’t rapping, I lose focus.

Pac shot a bunch of different videos for “How Do U Want It.” There’s a live-performance video, but nobody cares about that one. The video that everyone remembers is the one where Pac, K-Ci, and JoJo party with ’90s porn stars like Heather Hunter, Nina Hartley, and Angel Kelly. Porn star Ron Hightower directed the clip, and there’s also an X-rated cut of the video where all the women get naked and everyone grinds on everyone else. Even in its safe-for-broadcast form, though, you will rarely see a music video that feels this likely to turn into an outright orgy.

The fact that “How Do U Want It” reached #1 has a lot to do with “California Love,” and it has even more to do with Pac himself. In 1996, 2Pac was a true lightning rod, a man whose every move was breathlessly chronicled in the mainstream press. It’s hard to imagine how his career would’ve turned out if he’d survived. He didn’t. Less than two months after “How Do U Want It” reached #1, Pac went to a Mike Tyson match in Las Vegas with Suge Knight. After the fight, Pac and Knight were in a car together. While they were at a stoplight, a car pulled up next to them, and someone shot Pac four times. He died six days later. Tupac was 25. The murder remains unsolved.

Johnny J died young, too. The producer was arrested for driving while intoxicated in 2008. A few months later, he died in jail after a 14-foot fall. Officially, Johnny’s cause of death was listed as a suicide. His family has always believed that he was murdered. He was 39.

Ever since Pac’s death, there have been all kinds of theories about what might’ve happened — about Suge Knight setting Pac up to get killed, about Biggie supplying the gun, even about Pac faking his own death. (A few weeks ago, a character who might’ve been the still-living 2Pac popped up on Atlanta.) Tons of posthumous music came out after Pac’s death, including a whole lot of Johnny J productions. The two had been working overtime, leaving a huge backlog of unreleased music. Some of Pac’s posthumous albums have done huge numbers, but none of the singles that came out after his death made the top 10. The biggest hit of them was “Smile,” a 1997 song from the Houston legend Scarface that featured a 2Pac verse; it peaked at #12.

So Tupac Shakur won’t appear in this column again. But Tupac will linger in this column. He was an iconic figure even before his death. After he died, he became a symbol for a lot of things — Black pride, defiance, outlaw romance, unresolved internal conflicts, senseless slaughter. Pac had to overcome mind-boggling odds to score a #1 hit, and his success set the stage for much of what followed. We’ll see plenty of those after-effects in plenty of future columns.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2002 film Friday After Next where Terry Crews fantasizes about 2Pac and dances to “How Do U Want It”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tyrese remaking “How Do U Want It” as an R&B song on his 2002 track “How Do You Want It (Situations)”:

(Tyrese’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “How You Gonna Act Like That,” peaked at #7. It’s a 3.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2005 movie Havoc where Anne Hathaway sings the “How Do U Want It” hook, leaving the N-word in:

(Anne Hathaway’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “I Dreamed A Dream,” peaked at #69.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Wale’s video for “Simple Man,” the 2013 track that uses a quote from “How Do U Want It” as its hook:

(Wale’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2013 Tiara Thomas collab “Bad,” which peaked at #21. As a guest, Wale’s biggest hit is the 2010 Waka Flocka Flame track “No Hands,” which peaked at #13.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2014 movie This Is Where I Leave You where Jason Bateman walks in on his wife, Abigail Spencer, having sex with Dax Shepard while listening to “How Do U Want It”:

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