Class Clown

Eminem turns the trials of the white urban poor into a scabrous comedy with himself as the punch line--and punching bag

Will Smith left an obvious question unanswered in his self-congratulatory pop-hop ode to yuppie babydaddyhood, "Just the Two of Us." Why are there just two of you? Where's mama? Prankish MC phenom Eminem gladly did the math, and on his major label debut, The Slim Shady LP, he offers a grisly alternate version of the single-parent scenario. His "97' Bonnie & Clyde" is a father-daughter ballad that ain't gonna be replacing "Butterfly Kisses" at weddings any time soon. "It's just the two of us," Em's protagonist babbles to his little daughter as she fidgets in her car seat, because "mommy's takin' a wittle nap in the twunk." We ride along with the duo to the beach, following as ramblin', rappin' daddy rolls a body off a pier. "See, looka mama, splashin' in the water. No more fightin' with Dad; no more restrainin' order." Just the two of us. Gruesome. Offensive. Hilarious.

By now, 23-year-old hip hopper Eminem (a.k.a. Marshall Mathers), is best known for the video and radio edit of "My Name Is," a brat-rap hit showcasing the verbal skills of his alter ego, Slim Shady. Shady is everyone's homicidal horndog demon within, though his creator's twisted genius is hamstrung on the clean version ("Hi, kids/Do you like violence?/You wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?" loses a little trenchancy when the first question is scrubbed to read "Do you like Primus?"). What the radio edit can't hide, though, is that this white boy is onto something shockingly different.

He's no Everlast, earnestly preaching the anti-racist, neo-folk gospel to conflicted frat-boys, and he's not hanging tight with 3rd Bass, shrugging off bourgeois whiteness to prove how down he can be. More Korn than Company Flow, Em raps in the vernacular of the urchin army of backpack-toting, shroom-gobbling, latchkey-holding rave-hoppers "tired of eatin' with plastic silverware/Tired of workin' at Builders Square...tired of bein' white trash, broke, and always poor/Tired of takin' bottles back to the party store." This is startling, if inadvertent, class commentary articulated in the honky patois of the white urban poor. When the Beasties struck a blow for upper-middle-class underdogs, proving that nerds can get hot chicks too, what was that to someone in Eminem's Nikes--a non-hip, non-Jewish, broke, white, ninth-grade dropout, son of a no-show dad and an addict single mom in black Detroit?

His official bio (the above) admittedly smacks of identity-art myth. Before being discovered, young Marshall Mathers, we are told, was at the snapping point: fired from a $5.50-an-hour fry-cook job, out of money to feed his three-year-old daughter, "tired of not workin' at GM/Tired of wantin' to be him," as he raps on "If I Had." Just moments before heading out to price trench coats and Tec-9s--voilà!--he's whooshed off to L.A. to compete in a national MC battle royal that wins him second prize and, eventually, the triple hip-hop jackpot: a Dr. Dre collaboration, drugs, and a likely angle on the American dream.

With a flow he himself describes as a "mouthful of adjectives/Brain full of adverbs and a box full of laxatives," Mathers is the class clown on helium and Ecstasy, flipping one-man dialogues that bounce from inspired backtalk to edgy arrogance, from glazed rage to blind panic. His flat-voweled Midwestern flow can be as doofily volatile as the psycho-killer-era David Byrne, or as indignant and naturalistic as Ice Cube. But it's his dexterous and indiscriminate zest for sandblasting the sacred, even jabbing at his iconic producer, that nets Em his cred. On "Guilty Conscience," when Dre guests as a good-little-Jiminy-Cricket character who duels evil Slim Shady for control of a character's soul, Em heads straight for Dre's skeleton closet and asks the wavering lad, "You're gonna take this advice from a man who slapped [TV host] Dee Barnes?" The two rappers obviously have a special relationship that allows Mathers to propose that lyric and remain alive to record it. Unfortunately, Dre's desire to let his boy shine results in a spare production that ends up sounding like the audio equivalent of a Comedy Central set, with Mathers standing out in front of an aural brick wall in harsh spotlight glow.

This approach strips Mathers's lyrics of any sonic cushion, and has the effect of laying bare some of the most original and disturbing revenge fantasies hip hop has ever produced. True to the form's traditions, most of Mathers's violence is framed as "fantasy," like the enjambed line, "I'm steamin' mad/And by the way, when you see my dad/Tell him that I slit his throat/In this dream I had."

And he hardly skimps on the requisite helpings of hip-hop misogyny or alienating shock tactics. The free-associative bray of "As the World Turns" betrays that time-honored male fear of the insatiable sexual woman, and its violent conclusion is undeniably disturbing. This magical realist tale involves a laundromat divorcée who evades the speaker's bored and haphazard rape attempt, lures him to her bedroom, morphs into a monster and bites off his leg before he can whip out his "go-go-gadget dick." When he draws this weapon, it hits the ground and causes an earthquake, but he's nonetheless able to "stick that shit in crooked" and "fuck that fat slut to death."

Pretty tough to take, this stuff. But the reality behind these fantasies sounds a lot like impotence. Nihilism fuels Slim Shady. In "Role Model," Em admits he's "not a player, just a ill rhyme sayer/That'd spray an aerosol can up at the ozone layer." He's a loser in the self-destructive, Iggy Stooge-era punk tradition, and his darkest vignettes ultimately riff on his own irrelevance. "Since the age of 12, I felt like I was someone else," he squawks matter-of-factly, "'cause I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt." Em's bully-busting fantasies have a loner, last-resort quality that would give even a belly-laughing fan a Littleton flashback: "Never ran with a clique/I'm a posse/I'm a kamikaze/Strap the bomb across me."

This sort of schoolyard alienation defies economic brackets, but Em knows that it's less money that leads to mo' problems. Whiteness, sans power or influence, can be truly ghastly. And growing up poor and white in black hip hop makes for a specific kind of cultural invisibility. Eminem asks, "How can I be white?/I don't even exist." And before the record even begins, an intro announcement declares, "The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of anyone."

Anyone who really matters, that is. Except that Eminem, like Dre's own NWA ten years ago, has suddenly, violently, and humorously flipped the script. Eminem's good fortune as a now-celebrated loser might just prove that mattering doesn't matter as much as you think.

 

Eminem performs an all-ages show at First Avenue on Sunday, May 16. The Beatnuts and Pace-Won open; (612) 338-8388.

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