Rhymes With Aguilera

On February 21, 2001, Eminem and Elton John performed “Stan” at the Grammy Awards. The performance came after nine months of controversy concerning the homophobic lyrics on Eminem’s second album, The Marshall Mathers LP, and before the show gay activist groups had protested outside the Staples Center. “Believe it or not, it was my idea to perform with Elton,” writes Eminem (with ghostwriting by Sacha Jenkins) in his recent autobiography, The Way I Am. “Elton and me—we’re friends … He’s gay! And we’re friends! And who cares?” To the protesters’ relief, Eminem failed to win Best Album that night. He lost to Steely Dan, a band named after a dildo. One song on Two Against Nature is delivered from the perspective of a pedophile.

It wasn’t just Elton’s homosexuality and Eminem’s lyrical homophobia that made the performance so significant. Twenty-five years ago, Elton John was also a white guy in black music. In May 1975, he appeared on Don Cornelius’s trendsetting variety show Soul Train to perform “Bennie and the Jets.” It was John’s first (and only) hit with black audiences, and it was not an anticipated success. MCA had not even planned to release the song as a single, but when radio stations starting picking it up in Detroit—then the epicenter of black musical cool, and home to a two-year-old Eminem—the song went number 1 on the R&B charts. The difference, a quarter century on, was that Eminem planned out his success beforehand. The Marshall Mathers LP is about the public reception of The Marshall Mathers LP; Eminem’s best music is almost always about its own cultural place.

Now Eminem has released his sixth album, Relapse, and it is hard to remember how the great white hope of hip-hop could once have provoked such anger and disgust. Along with Marilyn Manson and Britney Spears, Eminem was part of a wave of musicians who briefly turned mainstream pop into something shocking. The three of them complement each other so well it reads like a marketing plan (which it was). Manson was a religious grotesque: his best-selling album is titled Antichrist Superstar. Britney was a sexual grotesque. Eminem, more complex than Britney or Manson, put on a far bigger freak-show. He turned himself into a cartoon version of the whole pop culture, tracing out the moment’s tangle of racial confusions and running through celebrity gossip with all the focus of a blogger. His first two albums are like a Rosetta Stone for turn-of-the-century mainstream pop. They make the rest of it make sense.

G.L.A.A.D. and the U.S. Congress never really posed a threat to Eminem’s success, but black hip-hop fans did. Vanilla Ice had given them reasons to be skeptical of white rappers. As a teenager growing up in Detroit, Eminem’s best friend was a black rapper named Proof, whose violent death outside a nightclub in 2006 sent Eminem into a year of rehab (sleeping pills, among other things) and seclusion. “[Proof] was the only reason I stopped getting my ass whipped,” Eminem said. “He was my ghetto pass.” Eminem’s nationwide ghetto pass would turn out to be Dr. Dre, who heard Eminem at the Los Angeles Rap Olympics and signed him to Interscope in 1998.

Eminem’s plan was to conquer the suburbs, and the suburbs offered little resistance. From the opening line of his first hit, “My Name Is,” Eminem had his audience pegged: “Hi kids / Do you like violence? / Wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?” The fan that many of Eminem’s songs imagine is a hyperactive male adolescent who watches TRL and a lot of stupid horror movies. Eminem’s music ventriloquizes this kind of listener. Rapping over bouncy, cartoon caricatures of hip-hop beats with a high whine in his voice, he evokes nothing so much as the atmosphere of a middle-school cafeteria. He’s even got the cafeteria jokes, which are funny because they’re so dumb and blunt: “And Dr. Dre said … / Nothing, you idiots / Dr. Dre’s dead / He’s locked in my basement.” Suburban white kids had been hip-hop fans ever since they figured out what hip-hop was, but Eminem’s sales went through the roof because he talked directly to his audience. Tupac and Biggie made whites feel like voyeurs. Eminem put whites at the center. He wears hoodies and do-rags, but he never uses the word “nigga” on record.

Every other offensive word in the language, however, was fair game. Eminem pushed the logic of popular offense to its final extreme, and he was so good at it that pop musicians have now basically stopped trying to offend people. The trick was that Eminem made the performance of his own pop-cultural role the subject of his music. Instead of music about violence, he made music about our awkward, hypocritical relationship with violence. Instead of music with swear words, he made music about the moralizing around bad language. He summed this up best on “The Real Slim Shady,” where he rapped, “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records / Well I do, so fuck him and fuck you, too.” Lynne Cheney’s public campaign to persuade record companies to censor their own products was prompted by the opening lines of “Kill You,” the first song on The Marshall Mathers LP: “Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore / Till the vocal cords don’t work in the throat no more?!” At one point, Cheney made the argument that Eminem’s music eroded First Amendment rights by “ironically” convincing “good citizens” that government regulation of the entertainment industry was appropriate. It’s a measure of Eminem’s success that Cheney was forced to attack him for his irony.

What Eminem and Dre didn’t bet on was that a previous generation already knew more than enough about shocking music. Parents may have hated Eminem at first, but it wasn’t long before they began to feel a satisfying adolescent shiver—this was the kind of music they had grown up inflicting on their parents. By the end of 2002, as the media buzz surrounding his ‘not’ autobiographical film 8 Mile was getting louder, Eminem began to attract some weirdly respectable fans. Frank Rich wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine in which he asked, “Could it be that in just two years the scourge of bourgeois values is now entering the American mainstream?” As one of the ushers, Rich was in a terrific position to lead the way.

Rich made the argument, one of many in a growing chorus of mainstream columnists, that there was more to Eminem than violence and bad words, that if you cleared away the teenage venom you would find hip-hop’s great (and only) redeeming trait: social consciousness. “[8 Mile] makes a credible case for hip-hop as a positive social good,” he wrote. “After all, the rap battles that form the crux of the film … make the legitimate point that it is a rapper’s imagination that counts most in hip-hop success.” It’s hard to figure out how something as personal and intangible as imagination counts as a social good, but the code word had been dropped.

Other middle-aged converts were not so serious. “A gaggle of my girlfriends are surreptitiously smitten with Eminem,” Maureen Dowd wrote in a column called “The Boomer’s Crooner.” “They buy his posters on eBay.” Paul Slansky described the new audience of Eminem fans in the New York Observer:

You’re middle aged, you have a fabulous wife and kid, you see a shrink, you really should lose 15 pounds, you think Albert Brooks is funny and Billy Crystal is not … And sometime in the past couple of years, you had your Eminem moment.

In part, Slansky is using music like teenagers use music—as a way to reinforce finely calibrated social distinctions (“Albert Brooks is funny and Billy Crystal is not”). This music, he’s arguing, is not for every adult. It’s for the ones who are cool enough to get it. Slansky went on to write a New Yorker quiz on Eminem, which taught me that Charles Barkley—not Chris Rock—was the one who said, “You know it’s gone to hell when the best rapper out there is a white guy and the best golfer is a black guy.” He might have said that you know it’s gone to hell when, as Slansky wrote in the Observer, parents “drop off the kids, roll down the windows, and blast Eminem on the way home.”

Eminem didn’t make hip-hop palatable to suburban kids; he made hip-hop palatable to suburban parents. It’s not as though Eminem’s lyrical content was anything new in hip-hop—a lot of gangster rap is more serious, and much scarier—but Eminem enunciated so well. Pronunciation was part of his whiteness. He literally made rap intelligible to the people who had always hated it. The baby boomer generation grew up using culture to make authority figures angry, and four decades later Eminem made it possible for their children to do the same. Then, to the entertainment industry’s delight, the offended fogies began to listen to the music, and remembered that they liked culture that pushed their buttons.

Eminem’s biggest challenge on Relapse is addressing an audience who no longer think he’s offensive. The rapper’s been out of the pop culture mix for four years, and his celebrity insults come in a little behind the times. There are jokes about Sarah Palin, who is no longer in danger of becoming Vice President. There are jokes about Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, who are no longer dating. There is an entire verse devoted to Christopher Reeve, who’s been dead for half a decade.

Eminem’s not completely unaware of the problem. In recent interviews he has claimed, a little anxiously, that he only goes after people whose names rhyme with a lot of other words. (He told Jimmy Kimmel that Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t really need to worry: nimble, cymbal, and thimble isn’t a list that screams potential.) That argument doesn’t hold up too well. “Aguilera” doesn’t rhyme with much either, but Eminem attacked her along with almost every other late nineties pop star because that’s who he used to share the airwaves with. His new claim is just a subtle way of admitting that he doesn’t know the landscape like he used to. (It’s worth putting this in some kind of perspective: Eminem is still the most attended-to rapper on the planet, and Relapse is the fastest-selling album of 2009.)

What he does still know is how to rap. Eminem once characterized his obsession as literally autistic: “I have a fascination with the movie Rain Man, hence my song ‘Rain Man.’ … What it meant was, this is all I know how to do: rap.” Along with fame and family, rap is one of Eminem’s favorite subjects; it also happens to be the one that makes him most perceptive:

And since birth I’ve been cursed with this curse to just
Curse, and just blurt this beserk and bizarre shit that works,
And it sells, and it helps in itself to relieve all this
Tension, dispensin’ these sentences getting this
Stress that’s been eatin’ me recently off of this
Chest, and I rest again peacefully.

That’s from a song called “The Way I Am,” and it’s really hard to do. Eminem’s greatest talent has always been the ability to hone in on two or three isolated sounds without abandoning the natural rhythms of everyday language. His best lines sound so much like talking that you don’t notice the constricted phonetic range he’s working with (“tension, dispensin’ these sentences”).

Critics have written that the biggest problem with Relapse is that Eminem’s jokes are lame, but all of Eminem’s albums have included stale humor: rape fantasies with Dr. Dre, a slobbering homosexual named Ken Kaniff, fart noises. What makes Relapse so boring to listen to are Eminem’s rap mechanics. Trying to compensate for his diminished relevance, Eminem leans too much on his own technique. Almost every line on the record showcases an exhausting tangle of improbable rhymes, and while this kind of thing can be dazzling in thirty-second spurts, it’s exhausting when it lasts five minutes. Here, for example, are the opening lines of “We Made You,” the album’s first single:

Back by popular demand
Now pop a little Zantac or antacid if you can
You’re ready to tackle any task that is at hand
How does it feel, is it fantastic? Is it grand?
Well look at all the massive masses in the stands…

And on and on and on. It takes talent to do it, but who cares? Who ever says “massive masses”? Eminem raps well on Relapse, but he used to rap so well you almost couldn’t tell he was rapping: “Hi kids, do you like violence?” (The other problem with Relapse is Dr. Dre. As a producer, the master has completely lost his touch. Eminem raps over beats that sound like a hip-hop soundtrack to Scooby-Doo.)

The best rap happens when a rapper’s flow and a rapper’s personality are in complete agreement, when psychology and phonetics converge. On their own, things like maturity and political consciousness have no bearing on whether a song is good or not. This is why Killer Mike and T.I. are great rappers while Common and FloRida are not. The problem with Relapse isn’t that Eminem has failed to grow up. (Actually, the record contains some rather complex reflections on his addiction.) The problem is that Eminem the rapper smothers Eminem the persona. There are a few songs where he relaxes—never quite enough, but it’s a start—and these are the record’s best tracks. One of them is “Déjà Vu,” where Eminem lays out a verbal diagram for how to fall off the wagon. Early on, when he can still remember things, he raps:

And maybe if I just drink half I’ll be half-buzzed half the time
Who’s the mastermind behind that little line?
With that kind of rationale I got half a mind
To have another half a glass of wine. Sound asinine?
Yeah, I know.

Perceptive as this is, it’s not the introspection that makes the verse work. It’s the way Eminem tosses off the final non-rhyme, “Yeah, I know.” As a conversational aside, it makes him sound like a person who’s been through addiction; the rest of the verse makes him sound like a person who came up with a word puzzle about addiction. And that, in the end, is the difference between virtuosity and greatness. It’s only when Eminem simplifies that you can actually hear him speak.

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