Rapper Tupac Shakur--shot in the chest in a gang-style hit late Saturday night near the crowded Las Vegas casino strip--remains in critical condition this afternoon after doctors removed his right lung Sunday.

Shakur and Marion "Suge" Knight--head of Shakur's Death Row Records label--were heading to a nightclub after the Mike Tyson bout, when a white Cadillac approached their ten-car convoy. The car pulled next to Knight's black BMW and a passenger riddled the BMW with bullets, hitting Shakur several times, including twice in the chest. Knight, 31, was grazed in the head but only suffered minor injuries.

Paramedics took the 25-year-old rapper to a nearby hospital. Doctors initially gave Shakur a 50-50 chance to live, describing his injuries as "very severe, very traumatic." But after two operations, his condition, although critical, has stabilized. Knight was treated and released.

No arrests have been made and police have not speculated on a motive for the crime. Las Vegas Police Sgt. Kevin Manning said today that witnesses weren't talking. "We did not receive a whole lot of cooperation from most of [Shakur's] entourage," Manning said. "It amazes me when they have professional bodyguards that they can't even give us an accurate description of the vehicle."

Industry observers have their own theories for the incident. Some think it was a retaliation from an earlier run-in with the Crips gang (Knight allegedly has ties to rival gang the Bloods). Others suggest that the hit was sponsored by East Coast rappers upping the ante in the much-ballyhooed coastal rap wars--police had to separate Shakur and other West Coast rappers from New York adversaries at the MTV Video Music Awards last Wednesday.

Inevitably, the shooting of Shakur raises questions about whether rap promotes violence--questions that trouble even industry executives and musicians. "The music's so personal, so directed, so violent that we wondered [when] someone would take it too far," said Bruce St. James, program director for Los Angeles' largest rap station, KPWR.

But several artists say their music merely reflects their environment. "I see myself as a ghetto reporter," Warren G said earlier this year. "I try to teach the kids and people my age how not to get into trouble." Knight himself has said that his rappers can't forget where they came from. "We called it Death Row 'cause most everybody had been involved with the law," Knight told Vibe magazine in February. "A majority of our people was parolees or incarcerated--it's no joke. We got people really was on death row and still is."

Indeed, Tupac Shakur's notoriety has come as much from his hard-core hip hop as his troubled life.

In November 1994, Shakur was shot five times during a robbery as he left a Manhattan recording studio. He later recalled the incident on his multi-platinum All Eyez On Me, singing: "Five shots and they still couldn't kill me."

The rapper also has been arrested six times in the last three years. He served eight months in a New York prison for sexual abuse and was released last year.

However, Shakur has recently tried to put his violent past behind him. "This thug life stuff, it was just ignorance," he told Vibe last year. "I'm going to show people my true intentions and true heart. I'm going to show them the man that my mother raised."

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