Perhaps the most underappreciated album of 2Pac's lifetime is an important transitional document—the pivot point in one of hip-hop's most storied creative evolutions. Released in September 1994, weeks before he survived a shooting at a Times Square studio, Thug Life: Vol. 1 serves as the doorway between 2Pac the Molotov-tossing political firebrand of 1993's Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and 2Pac the introspective, confessional poet of 1995's Me Against the World. His darker and more nihilistic moods begin here, as well as his more immediate, less flashy rhyme style. Thug Life, the group, was a supergroup of sorts: 2Pac, his stepbrother Mopreme (who had been on a Top 10 single for Tony! Toni! Toné!), future Outlawz member Big Syke, Macadoshis, Rated R, and plenty of assistance from Stretch of the Tommy Boy-signed New York duo Live Squad, who was murdered a year later. However, the Thug Life MCs all seemed to share one bleak vision, spinning emotion-rich tales of rough upbringings and the horrors of ghetto life.
The group produced most of the album themselves, loading it with warm samples of cruise-ready tunes by The O'Jays, Parliament, and Curtis Mayfield. But the album's most expressively raw track, "How Long Will They Mourn Me?", is a masterful piece of poignant G-funk built by 1994's breakout producer/singer duo Warren G and Nate Dogg. Throughout, Thug Life: Vol. 1 is a desperate and unflinching look at street life, from the paper chase ("Bury Me a G") to the friends they lost to the system ("Pour Out a Little Liquor") to the mental toll of prison ("Under Pressure") to creative ways to say they aren't to be messed with ("S**t Don't Stop").