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Blame it on demographics, or the global economy, or video games--hell, blame it on Pokémon if you want--but these days, aggression sells. Take the gladiator bombast of WWF Smackdown! or the meditative gore of Fight Club and American Psycho. Or take the sudden success of Eminem. Released in late May, the Detroit MC's second album, The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope), brought in more paper in its first week than any other hip-hop release ever. It took Eminem about four days to go platinum with a violent, hateful free-for-all stacked with unapologetic rhymes about gang rapes and shotgun blasts.
A lot can change in a year. When Eminem's debut, The Slim Shady LP, came out late last century, the hip-hop nation didn't know quite what to think of the motormouthed white boy ejaculating PG-13 couplets every afternoon on TRL. Sure, he was backed (financially and musically) by Dr. Dre, but the beats were too spare, the flow was still undeveloped. Maybe Eminem would stay in the bush leagues where Kid Rock had languished for nearly a decade, or the separate-but-equal college-radio realm populated by the Beastie Boys and Beck--a white rapper, but never a hip hopper.
But then you couldn't get away from him. He rhymed on joints with Missy Elliot and the Madd Rapper. He spat out high-velocity rage on "Forgot About Dre." He matched Notorious B.I.G.'s bloodstained swagger on the album version of "Dead Wrong." He was learning fast: The nervously tentative talkiness of Slim Shady was being channeled into a fearless flow barbed with aggressive wordplay.
On Marshall Mathers, that buzzy, manic delivery bobs and weaves and jabs around the most tightly packed, squint-your-eyes-and-say-"daaamn" rhymes since Biggie passed. Check the Columbine reference on "Remember Me?":
Sick, sick dreams/Of picnic scenes/
Two kids, sixteen/With M-16s/And ten clips each/And them shits reach/
Through six kids each/And Slim gets blamed/In Bill Clint's speech/To fix these streets?/Fuck that!
Piling on lines about bitches and faggots, Christopher Reeve's legs, and raping his mother, he dares you to take him seriously even as he defies you to laugh him off. His sarcastic tongue rolls out as many anxieties per minute as possible: "Shit, half the shit I say, I just make it up/To make you mad, so kiss my white naked ass/And if it's not a rapper that I make it as/I'm'a be a fucking rapist in a Jason mask."
Sure, Eminem is ready to take all comers in the arena of public perception. What other choice does a battle-hardened underground MC have when he's suddenly been identified by the mass media as the fountainhead of cultural miscegenation? Onstage, rocking the mic and grabbing his balls, he's the embodiment of the nightmare that white parents have dreamed for decades. Eminem is the example of the ruinous results that might occur if children consumed too much "ghetto culture"--the unspoken dread behind countless censorship debates. Shady could practically be the villain in a white-supremacist instructional video: a fatherless high school dropout with a kid of his own, driven by free-floating rage and paranoia, his disrespectful speech peppered with swear words cribbed from his dark-skinned friends.
Although publications no less mainstream than the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times have praised Marshall Mathers, many commentators still feel the need to add at least a concerned note of disapproval about Eminem's hateful lyrics. But such tongue-clucking demonstrates a basic ignorance of the rules of the rap game: Hip hop is driven by style. It's a harshly competitive game of abstract rhyming that only happens to be about street life because that's the easiest fit for the tone of confrontation that is its true subject matter. Most fans (yes, even black urban kids and white suburban teens) can distance themselves enough not to take the tough talk literally--while borrowing liberally from the music's disaffected stance. It's condescending to view kids as amoral weathervanes blowing in the winds of culture and commerce: Politicians and rock critics aren't the only ones with free will.
Eminem surely understands all this, but he still spends too much time counterpunching, reacting to the media that made him. Not that he's wrong: Yeah, Bill Clinton's a liar and Rolling Stone's a rag. But why does he insist on lashing out against pop detritus he should have the sense (and certainly has the skills) to rise above? Sure, everybody wants to hear about him and his crew rolling up on the viciously wack Insane Clown Posse, but asserting that the New Kids on the Block "suck a lot of dick" is like siccing your rottweiler on the old wino on the corner.
When Eminem turns his attention inward, he reveals the sort of nuanced psychological take on his hatred and misogyny that is often obscured by his flashier shock rhymes. In "Stan," the haunting story of a desperately obsessed fan who is psychotic yet a sympathetic figure, Eminem voices Stan's fears and needs with the reserve of a wounded boy trying desperately to keep his head together. And "Kim," in which Eminem writes about driving his estranged wife down to the river and strangling her, is noticeably lacking in crowd-pleasing rhymes. Instead, the song is a harrowing portrait of a man terrified by his own emotional vulnerability, screaming himself raw while his mind races.
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