I think it's fair to say that 2pac Shakur is to hip hop what The Beatles are to Western popular music and Bob Marley is to reggae. That is, an artist occupying a position atop a lofty pedestal within their genre that garners them critical acclaim that, at the same time, provides such exposure for their identity that even people with no interest 'in that sort of thing' recognise them. Not that that makes them immune to criticism of course; The Beatles alone have no end of detractors happy to grind an axe to cut them down from their tallest tree perch, but to my mind such people always have the added burden of having to work that little bit harder in presenting their views so as to overcome the overwhelming common consensus that rails against them and is only too happy to dismiss them with a roll of the eyes as bloody minded cranks.
Perhaps Eminem had usurped him by 2005 (and perhaps Jay Z in latter years), but at the point of his shooting in 1996, Shakur certainly held the crown of the most famous/recognisable rapper in town, if only for his name and manner of death and not his face and the body of work he created in life - far fewer people would recognise 'California' as his work than they would recognise 'Strawberry Fields Forever' or 'No Woman No Cry' than they would his name and his shooting. And his fame was such to warrant 'afterlife' releases long after his death; 'Ghetto Gospel' is in fact taken from his posthumous 2004 album 'Loyal To The Game' and produced by Eminem in a neat handing over of the baton.
Eminem's input here is important; the 'featuring Elton John' credit is not reference to a duet recorded with Shakur his lifetime but a later sample from John's 1971 'Indian Sunset' that was overdubbed later (it's not on Shakur's original take). Why? Well, though 'Indian Summer' ostensibly relates the saga of the native American Indian being usurped by the white man, the sample lines "Those who wish to follow me I welcome with my hands. And the red sun sinks at last into the hills of gold, and peace to this young warrior without the sound of guns" chimes well with 'Ghetto Gospel's own appeal for unity and an end to gang warfare and sets up Shakur as the Messiah ("Those who wish to follow me I welcome with my hands") to deliver it. With 'Ghetto Gospel', the message is more important than the medium, and with the a generic hip hop beat backing him, it's a track that stands or falls on the delivery of that message.
And therein lies the problem; regardless of reputation, past glories or the way Shakur spits out his lines with venom, the rhymes come with a flat edge of predictability ("Don't them let me get teary, the world looks dreary, but when you wipe your eyes, see it clearly") that cushions their impact, an outcome not helped by Eminem slowing Shakur's original take (presumably to better accommodate the John sample) until Shakur's free flow turns to sludge with none of the sparky rhyming crash. And though it might be too harsh to see the John sample as taking its cue from 'Stan' to throw a bone to white audiences in the name of greater commercial appeal (an obscure 1971 Elton John song wouldn't be the best vehicle for that anyway), the blend of artistic style is nevertheless of oil and water, a paring that sounds as out of place and out of time as a seventies, piano led ballad being crudely pasted onto a contemporary hip hop tune. Which is what it is really. As a song, 'Ghetto Gospel' is clunkily competent, but as 2pac Shakur tracks go, it's not one of his greatest. And while it no doubt provides a further boost for that legacy the way every Bob Marley or Beatles re-release does, it also provides its own ammunition for those who would seek to detract.