In late 1995, soon after he served time in prison for first-degree sexual abuse, Pac posed for a shoot by photographer David LaChapelle, “Becoming Clean,” which featured a now-famous overhead shot of Pac in a bathtub with gold jewelry covering his crotch, looking up. Of course, Pac caught heat from fans for being displayed so sensually. But Pac had the type of destructive beauty that appealed to everyone. In her 2020 memoir, Mariah Carey described a brief encounter with him, rolling by her in a car, as if it were a scene in a romance novel.
“He was alone, leaning back in the driver’s seat, so that the arm that gripped the leather steering wheel was nearly straight,” Carey wrote. “He propped his head back just enough that his luxurious eyelashes didn’t cast a shadow and obscure his alert and amazing dark eyes that looked into mine. ‘Hey, Mariah,’ he said softly, my name pouring out of his lips like smoke. Then that spectacular smile burst through everything. In an instant, the window went back up, and Tupac rolled away.”
Truly inhabiting the sex symbol label in hip-hop can never just be about being the finest person alive—it’s the music that completes the allure. While I felt quietly emboldened by Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, and Trina as a teen in the ’90s, I also daydreamed of being Method Man’s ride-or-die. At 14, when hip-hop was shedding its sateen finish, I hung a giant poster of DMX’s stunningly shirtless and bloody cover of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot on my bedroom wall. I mailed a handwritten letter to Ja Rule in the 2000s when fan clubs were in style. (Who knows if he ever got it.) In college, I drew a replica of another then-crush, Nelly, mean-mugging on the cover of XXL. I’m sure, in my young mind, there was danger in finding sex appeal in a hardcore hottie, and maybe part of the lust was a desire to be seen as the girl in the crew who was loved upon and seemingly protected.
As Joan Morgan put it in her influential book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, “Is it foul to say that imagining a world where you could paint your big brown lips in the most decadent of shades, pile your phat ass into your fave micro-mini, slip your freshly manicured toes into four-inch fuck-me sandals and have not one single solitary man objectify—I mean roam his eyes longingly over all the intended places—is, like, a total drag for you?… And how come no one ever admits that part of the reason women love hip-hop—as sexist as it is— is ’cuz all that in-yo-face testosterone makes our nipples hard?”