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LOSING SLIM { SHADY

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Ten Years after The Marshall Mathers LP

H

e seemed to glare straight through the television set, as if the glass tube was barring him from ripping your face off. Because you were in fact part of the problem. You were buying his records in droves. You loved Slim Shady, couldn’t get enough of the misogyny and homophobia. Not that you agreed with him. It was just clever and edgy and quite frankly, Shady gave voice to the release you all sought. So you

hid Shady in the back of the closet. You hid Shady from your kids. You hid Shady from your coworkers and your church group. But you bought. You bought a lot. You bought enough of his records to place Eminem on a tier alongside Britney, Christina, and some guys from Orlando. But then Eminem did something he wasn’t supposed to do. He got earnest. He made a pretty good movie and acted a decent role. He wrote

By Chris Copeland

a song for that movie. He won an Oscar. And he didn’t flip anyone off when he took the podium to accept the Academy Award bestowed upon him for “Lose Yourself.” Maybe Eminem was growing up. Maybe he had stopped playing games with his imaginary friend, Slim. “Lose Yourself” begins on a ghostly note, triggered by a piano overture in a minor key that cedes control to a pair of slightly distorted guitar notes. Plucked


at a steady cadence, the D and the A presage a looming apprehension. After a measure, the A shudders one half note up the scale, and the pair, now a D and an A minor become portents—by the time this song ends, Eminem will have his foot on the throat of linguistic possibility, bending language through space and time to conform it to his will. “Lose Yourself” is the musical version of Philip Petite’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. It is rap’s dunk from the free throw line. Eminem’s called shot. The Miracle on Vinyl. “Lose Yourself” is also merely a coda, a postlude to the centerpiece of the madness, The Marshall Mathers LP. On that record, Eminem and Shady converged and split like the notes of “Lose Yourself,” a brilliant game of identity politics played on the surface of American culture. Unfortunately, The Marshall Mathers LP, an astounding product of the popular music business, was also a last gasp. All those records we bought—our cash was lighter fluid to the suits at Interscope. They poured it over the record industry, squeezed

every last drop from it. In the ensuing inferno, they burned down their own house while Eminem was still sleeping inside.

You placed Eminem on a tier alongside Britney, Christina, and some guys from Orlando.

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Nearly a decade ago the American music industry seemed indomitable. MTV had burst the seams of the format that initially had made it successful, and record companies grossed obscene amounts of money on artists that should have been merely bringing in ludicrous amounts. MTV’s Video Music Awards had pretty much eclipsed the Grammys in terms of music biz relevance, in that artists might have banked more from a silver moon man than a golden gramophone. Futhermore, MTV was to pop culture then what Facebook is today; real social behavior was dictated by what was seen on the flashy network. Young adults started acting like the people on The Real World (eventually, cast members themselves started acting like what they thought they should act like based on previous Page 2 of 22


seasons, but I am beginning a massive digression here that has already been wonderfully detailed in Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs), and the answer to the question of whether media could dictate taste was pretty much answered by record sale statistics. By this time we had lived through New Kids on the Block, so pop music marketing was not a new phenomenon. People who decried the Backstreet Boys as killing the soul of music did not know their music history very well—The Rolling Stones did alright in spite of The Monkees, and I am fairly certain that “The Menudo Issue” was never an item on R.E.M.’s agenda. In fact, the same cultural forces that created boy bands had no small hand in creating The Beatles, and I would submit that if the Backstreet Boys (or N’Sync, for that matter) had ever gotten serious about learning how to play instruments and write songs, they would have had a shot at becoming as big as The Beatles. I once saw the Backstreet Boys live, and at a break in the show while the others

changed costume, Kevin Richardson played a song on piano, a quiet, almost poignant moment. If one could have combined the utter hysteria of teenage girls with the legitimacy of good, originally written songs… all I’m saying is they would have had a shot. At the dawn of the millennium boy bands and other manufactured artists were not killing the soul of music. Your garden variety Don Kirshners and Lou Perlemans will always exist as long as there is a market for entertainment. What was disconcerting about the popbiz at the turn of the millennium was the sheer potency of the marketing forces behind these artists. In 1999 The Backstreet Boys sold 1.1 million albums in one week after appearing on MTV’s popular Total Request Live on the day of release. Even the popbiz seemed astonished for a moment, until a year later Britney sold 1.3 million. Her flash in the pan was surpassed by N’Sync’s No Strings Attached in March of 2001, which more than doubled up The Backstreet Boys with a hyperbole defying

The rhetoric was just loud enough to hush the creative factor

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2.4 million units moved in a single week. The Backstreet Boys’ follow up was slated for release in November of that year, and the unnerving place to which the popbiz had gone was evidenced by the disappointment surrounding the 1.9 million units sold in the week of Black and Blue’s release. Pop music had become like today’s Olympic swimming—records were broken quickly enough to debase any sense of preeminence. The cultural climate in 2000 and early 2001 stoked the public’s willingness to gorge on CDs, but the bubble in Internet stocks that was about to crash was not the only bubble in town. In the year preceding 9/11, Napster had been flying the planes of file sharing into the twin towers of record sales. The popbiz, however, had no Rudy Guiliani, no figure to stand amidst the swirling dust and reassure the suits that their resolve would not be broken. With 4.1 million record sales between two artists in just two weeks, no one deemed reassurance necessary. The rubble of the music industry was not as apparent as the heap at the foot of Manhattan; it was instead furtively

scattered amongst the millions of hard drives of music fans worldwide. Napster had wrought a technological tide that washed out the dominance of pop stars. Clarksons and Underwoods and Beibers and Gagas would still have center stage. Justin Timberlake and Beyonce would continue in the vein carved out by their first pop super groups. The public exposure, however, no longer translated to a mint for major record labels. The decline of the popbiz is obvious only in retrospect. Of the 36 albums of all time that have sold between 20-25 million copies worldwide, seven of them, or twenty percent, could be classified as products of the late-1990’s popbiz marketing behemoth (titles like Britney’s Baby One More Time and the Spice Girls’ Spiceworld). Despite the fact that by 2000 we were getting our music for free, we didn’t understand Napster’s game-changing paradigm. Many of us were on the verge of accepting the permanent ubiquity of this particular form of pop. While the more astute of us would have avoided lamenting the death of music’s soul, we were at

Eminem’s violence was always a personal issue

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the least chagrined by the volume of pop’s voice and resigned to the reality that trends in music might no longer come in waves. It was in this context that I wrote two articles, one an attempted panacea for my looming despair, the other a review of the latest album by one of the popbiz’s loudest and most grating voices: Eminem. I was living in New York City at the time, and in retrospect it’s clear that my proximity to the glitter of the popbiz contributed to my growing belief in its inexorability. The 2000 VMAs were held at Lincoln Center, a few blocks from a friend’s apartment, and though we watched the simulacrum on television we could feel the celebrity in the air. The following year’s awards were held at Radio City Music Hall. Justin Timberlake and Britney arrived as an official (and allegedly celibate) couple, and Eminem led off his performance of “The Real Slim Shady” by marching an army of Shady lookalikes fourwallsdown.com

through Radio City’s grand lobby. The cameras inevitably cut to Carson Daly and Christina Aguilera during the performance, and all the artists that night received their moon men trophies on the same stage I would cross six months hence to receive my diploma. Meanwhile, I had been devouring U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an album that alleviated a restive feeling in my soul about their previous release, a feeling that had more to do with personal issues than the quality of the music on Pop but that nonetheless had chipped away at my personal musical ideology. To be sure, U2 had a clear and unapologetic relationship with the popbiz, but they used it to bolster their own choices. “Artistic integrity” was a phrase that still applied to U2, and when that phrase was denigrated it was a result only of U2’s own choices. I don’t think N’Sync pulled their own strings, despite the 2.4 million CDs in frilly bedrooms that proclaimed Page 5 of 22


otherwise. The titular attempt to assert artistic integrity seemed a joke by the executives on the boys themselves. My unease with U2 derived from the worry that they might allow themselves to become the same kind of joke. I had purchased All That You Can’t Leave Behind at the now defunct Tower Records at Broadway and West 4th Street, and like a thief absconding with the Hope diamond, I secreted it away in the now defunct Sony Discman that I carried everywhere then, listening with pride at the apparent correctness of my musical assertions from the last decade. The album was a reemergence of greatness, and while I felt vindicated in my adoration of U2, they teetered on the brink of legitimacy by toying with the popbiz forces that were likewise chipping away at my personal musical ideology. First, Bono delivered a shout out to Destiny’s Child while receiving a Grammy. Then, the band enlisted video director Joseph Kahn to direct two videos from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Kahn wasn’t an unknown, but his biggest exposure had come from such gaudy videos as The Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life“ and Britney’s “Stronger,” and his vidfourwallsdown.com

eos amplified the trend of completely divorcing music videos from the songs they portray—the resulting videos for U2’s “Stuck in a Moment” and “Elevation” are so far from the gorgeous imagery of “”With or Without You” that the relationship between Michael Hamlyn and Kahn is like the relationship between Orson Welles and Michael Bay. I worried that the cost of reclaiming the title of “Greatest Band in the World” was Bono selling his soul at the crossroads in Times Square. Furthermore, U2 and Eminem were both up for multiple Grammys in 2001. U2 won all the major song categories (the album was released a month too late for consideration in the top category) and in addition to winning best rap album, The Marshall Mathers LP was the first rap record nominated for album of the year. The convergence was unsettling for the implication: had U2 caved to the negativity surrounding Pop? Had they abandoned

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their ironic worldview to join the popbiz? And most importantly, were the gears of the popbiz strong enough to crush U2 and amalgamate them with the rest of the cookie cutters? All of this occurred in the year that irony allegedly died in America. So in 2001, influenced by proximity to glamour and perhaps a bit overstated in my growing despair, I viewed the popbiz as The Man and felt a little like Mr. Smith in Washington, becoming hoarse from the vitriol I would spew toward Britney and N’Sync and any other boy band that stepped in my path. I am fairly certain, however, that at no time was “Angry Grad Student with a Powerbook” an item on the Backstreet Boys’ agenda. Despite my feelings, the one voice I could not shake was Eminem’s. I loathed his first single, (the pestering, nasally “My Name Is”) but something didn’t feel right about his place in pop culture fatuousness. Imagining the fat cats in suits in a smoky backroom drawing up this Detroit ghetto clown was not a difficult stretch—Vanilla

Ice had been a clear prototype. Yet something seemed to say this wasn’t the case. So I traveled to Jersey City to see a friend with a high speed internet connection, I borrowed the tracks on The Marshall Mathers LP from Napster, and I sat down to some good, old-fashioned literary analysis. The act was a measure of self-protection; I wanted to bolster my musical ideology. I also wanted to explore the engine behind the biggest pop culture hype since Monica Lewinsky, and the result was an essay simply titled, “Eminem.” Ten years later, as I listen to some old tracks and a few off Eminem’s latest release, I see that The Marshall Mathers LP is one of the few records to survive the crash of the popbiz, and revisiting the familiar tracks has opened up a door of reflection, both about myself and the wider culture. Ten years later, the popbiz is an unrecognizable version of its 2000 self, my musical ideology is intact and has been pleasantly updated, and I still think The Marshall Mathers LP repre-

no harm done save for the lingering fear that the sneer was the genuine emotion

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sents an artistic pinnacle unattained in the decade since its release.

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The Marshall Mathers LP runs on two engines, often simultaneously: the shock factor and the creative factor. The shock factor caused Eminem to be lumped in with Britney and the others, because the shock factor sells and because MTV thrives on the shock factor (even now, shows like Jersey Shore pander to this aspect of consumerism—the Buggles could make a huge comeback if they wrote a song called “Reality Killed the Video Star.”). Even though Eminem ranted against these supposedly shallow pop icons, he seemed to be benefitting from the same marketing forces, and at times it all appeared like one big insider’s joke. However, the shocking aspects of The Marshall Mathers LP were loud, abrasive, a finger in the face of all kinds of people. Eminem even united homosexuals and conservative Christians in their outrage at his lyrics, and the rhetoric reached a point where one had to at least consider the possibility that Eminem’s influence

was beyond the pale for early-aughts America. The rhetoric was just loud enough to hush the creative factor. Eminem was indeed shocking, but to suggest that he was rewiring the psyche of America’s social mores was to miss patterns in his lyrics. Much of the anti-Eminem sentiment in the media was fueled by his political incorrectness—he referred to homosexuals using pejorative names; he irreverently broached topics like Christopher Reeve’s paralysis, the Columbine massacre, the murder of Gianni Versace (and his unrelated homosexuality), and Sonny Bono’s death in a skiing accident; he acknowledged Tommy Lee’s physical abuse of then-wife Pamela Anderson; and he ascribed fictive sex acts to other popbiz celebrities, in one instance indicting Christina Aguilera for liaisons with Fred Durst, Carson Daly, and himself, and in another describing the extent to which he would go to fulfill a fantasy with Jennifer Lopez (an extent that included incest as well as a homosexual encounter with Lopez’s then boyfriend Puff Daddy).

The Marshall Mathers LP unmasked the self-cannibalistic nature of the popbiz.

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Eminem broke taboo by naming the elephants in the room, as he notes on “The Real Slim Shady:” “I’m like a head trip to listen to / ’cause I’m only giving you things you joke about with your friends inside your living room.” He was insensitive, at times vile. However, he was never a threat. His words never blossomed into intentions; rather, Eminem betrayed his the passivity of his intentions through a self-revealing sense of inaction. The controversial aspects of The Marshall Mathers LP were based much more in tone than action. To be sure, plenty of action is implied in the lyrics of The Marshall Mathers LP. The album is rife with violence both suggested and direct. But the violence implied in Eminem’s lyrics typically assumes one of several forms. The first is violence so ludicrous that it borders on parody. No one should take seriously threats against N’Sync (whom Eminem hated) or against Dr. Dre (whom Eminem did not hate). Likewise, violence that references Norman Bates or collusion with O.J. fourwallsdown.com

Simpson (“OK, I’m ready to go play / I got the machete from O.J.”) is clearly designed to poke a needle in the ass of conservative listeners. The second type of violence, and the most common on the record, is so specific that it indicates a level of personal aggression. “Kim” imagines a triple homicide in which Eminem murders his ex-wife, her new husband, and his four-year-old son. Compare this to the opening lines of Straight Outta Compton, the landmark gangsta’ rap album by N.W.A.: “When I’m called off, I got a sawed off /Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off.” From a strictly hermeneutic standpoint, N.W.A.’s lyrics could have had factual, biographical sources, and regardless of the probabilities involved, it would be difficult to verify whether members of N.W.A. did or did not actually kill people. The real life Kim, on the other hand, is clearly still alive. The imagery of “Kim” may be horrid, but it is too specific to suggest that Eminem is generally inciting normal people to kill their wives (abnormal people are Page 9 of 22


a different story, but it’s fair to assume that abnormal people who kill their wives would likely do so with or without Eminem’s presence in American culture). Eminem’s specific threats stem from personal aggression, and his lyrics were a form of blowing off steam. One would be justified in choosing not to listen based on personal taste, but this aspect of his lyrics was not attempting to shift the boundaries of cultural values (as opposed to say, the Rolling Stone magazine cover of April 15, 1999). Eminem bared himself most clearly, however, through his lyrical caveats to carrying out violence. In “Remember Me” Eminem passes responsibilty for a shooting to some one else: “Dre, grab the gat / show ‘em where it’s at.” In “Kill You” he says, “I ain’t gonna shoot you / I’m gonna pull you to this bullet and put it through you,” an imaginative lyric, but one almost Freudian in it’s avoidance of actually pulling a trigger. A similar inversion appears in “Under the Influence”: “Grab a knife by the blade and stab fourwallsdown.com

you with the f---ing handle,” an act that would actually do more damage to Eminem himself than the supposed recipient, perhaps reflecting a subconscious self-loathing. In another song he shoots up a club with a .44, but he delivers the lines with a voice imitating Snoop Dogg (who Likewise, when Eminem raps about shooting a bank teller, it is not in the main verse but during the skit-like bridge in “Criminal” in which he acts out a role. In “Amityville” Eminem says, “Cause once I snap, I can’t be held accountable for my actions / That’s when accidents happen, when a thousand bullets come at your house,” a what-if of violence that has yet to come to fruition. In fact, one could interpret these patterns as a type of false bravado on the part of Marshall Mathers, a boy gangsta among men gangstas, spouting off at the mouth but resisting opportunities (in a variety of ways) to show he is hard enough to live by the code of the streets. On the record, Eminem’s threats are rarely direct. The passivity in the patterns of violence on The Marshall Mathers LP conPage 10 of 22


trasts that of Dr. Dre. With N.W.A., violence was rife, direct, and carried out with no hesitation. N.W.A. was full of swagger, almost anti-social in its apathetic approach to murder. Both Eminem and N.W.A. profited greatly from their lyrics, so one must consider the likelihood of posturing for entertainment value. Still, giving detractors their due and assuming a nascent social malevolence lurking below the surface, one must still see Eminem’s threats as responses to issues that had gotten under his skin. N.W.A.’s violent language, and that of gangsta rap in general, was typically a response to injured honor. Eminem’s violence was always a personal issue; gangsta rap’s was sociological. Yet Dr. Dre produced Eminem’s first album when he should have been merely amused by this white ghetto clown, a Vanilla Ice redux whose inability to escape the personal would have made him a footnote in N.W.A.’s lyrics had he tried

to survive in their ‘hood. Dre clearly thought that Eminem was not a ghetto clown, but amidst the cacophony of the shock factor, the public didn’t see what Dre saw. By any seemingly objective measure, Dre had to have heard something in Eminem’s rhymes, something incubated by the harshness of the streets but pure in its pursuit of linguistic ingenuity, something that made Dre say, “That’s my nigga!” Eminem’s place within the schema of the popbiz was initially complicated by Dre, whose presence suggested that the controversy surrounding Eminem was a smokescreen. Listeners might have had to choke their way through the smoke to understand the creativity on The Marshall Mathers LP, yet the album will be relevant long after the social values of 2001 have become quaint Artistically, The Marshall Mathers LP was one of the finest pop releases of the new decade, on a par with Kid A, partially because in the midst of complex lyrics, Eminem

Eminem achieved the same complexity of meaning within the confines of more highly restrictive poetic forms.

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masterfully propagated the Slim Shady persona, like Andy Kaufmann had in the 70s. Kaufmann worked to keep the public from discerning fiction from reality, to the extent that people believed his (real) death was a hoax. Eminem dropped hints here and there that suggested he was always only playing around, yet, like Kaufmann, he never let anyone off the hook. He says in “Criminal,” “A lot of people think that what I say on records or what I talk about on a record, that I actually do in real life, or that I believe in it. Or if I say that, I wanna kill somebody, that I’m actually gonna do it or that I believe in it. Well, shit. If you believe that…” Eminem could have bought himself some breathing room if he had finished those lines with, “You’re an idiot,” or “You too stupid to deserve to criticize me.” Instead he says, “If you believe that, then I’ll kill you.” Slim Shady was a construct, but the genius at the time was in Eminem’s refusal to delineate just how much of the construct was real. He’d offer a

concession here (“Man I’m just as f--ed up as you would have been if you would have been, in my shoes”) only to pair it with something ludicrous there (My life’s like kind of what my wife’s like, f---ed up after I beat her f---in’ ass every night”). For good measure, he throws in a reference to Ike Turner at the end of the line that makes the whole thing sound like parody. Or try the following quatrain from “Criminal,” the first two lines seemingly confessional before the last two devolve into obscenity: “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’ma be a f---in’ rapist in a Jason mask.” It’s as if Eminem were glaring at us with a scary sneer, only to morph it into a sly grin (as if you were in on the joke) that resolved into a look of indifference before he slouched off with no harm done—save for the lingering fear that the sneer was the genuine emotion. Yet Eminem played the role to an unsettling perfection, and the Shady

within the world of American popular music, he is quite simply Shakespeare

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persona provided cover for profound cultural critiques. On one hand he indicts America’s avoidance of responsibility and subsequent culture of blame in which people incriminate everyone and everything but themselves for their own moral failures. In “Who Knew” he says, “Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor / Quit trying to censor music, this is for your kid’s amusement / But don’t blame me when little Eric jumps off of the terrace / You should have been watching him, apparently you ain’t parents.” On the following track, “The Way I Am,” he references Columbine: ”When a dude’s getting bullied and shoots up his school / and they blame it on Marilyn and the heroin / where were the parents at? And look where it’s at / Middle America—now it’s a tragedy.” The last part of that line turns the spotlight on a larger national problem, the media fueled insinuation that tragedy only happens to affluent white people. Eminem may not have been as hard as Dre, but in Detroit he would have seen aggression and injustice that far surpassed anything experienced by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. On the other hand, Eminem acknowledged the powerful influence of media in the lives of kids, knowfourwallsdown.com

ing that he himself was a convenient scapegoat for the repercussions of degenerate youth behavior. On “Criminal” he says, “Preacher preacher, fifth grade teacher / you can’t reach me, my mom can’t neither/ you can’t teach me a goddamn thing cause / I watch TV and Comcast cable.” He knew the media profit depended on controversy: “Motherf----ers want me to come on their radio shows / just to argue with ‘em ‘cause their ratings stink?” Perhaps Slim Shady’s shock value was a ploy to unveil the media’s new clothes: “Became a commodity because I’m WH-I-T- E, ‘cause MTV was so friendly to me.” Once a commodity, Eminem knew he could blurt the most obscene things, then sit back and watch the media simultaneously denounce him and drool over him. The Marshall Mathers LP unmasked the self-cannibalistic nature of the popbiz and of media in general. All of this was accomplished from behind the creativity of a persona that allowed Eminem the freedom to say what he wanted, and he penetrated problems facing American culture while infuriating its citizens. Like the executives that signed his checks, he was burning his own house down, but what a piece of art! The performance Page 13 of 22


piece brought him millions, but the intangible costs were likely higher. Eminem wasn’t the first to deconstruct society from behind the veil of a persona. Slim Shady was a reincarnation of Bono’s The Fly character, who was a reincarnation of Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, et cetera, et cetera. The impressive aspect of Slim Shady was not his existence but his dogged commitment to flagrancy. Maybe Eminem was just that angry. And maybe Andy Kaufmann was just that weird. The possibility that no marketing plan was involved raised the level of controversy for both performers and took Slim Shady to a higher level than most personas— when Bono donned his black leather jacket and Fly glasses, everyone knew

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there was a flag waving sentimentalist underneath. The question the public was unable to answer regarding Eminem was, What is Marshall Mathers like when he goes home at the end of the day? Beyond the artistic genius behind the Slim Shady persona, the true brilliance of The Marshall Mathers LP lies in the words themselves—not the connotations, but the actual sounds. Such a basic concept could hardly withstand the hype created by the shock factor, yet there they were: gorgeous little audial interplays that were graceful, complex, and subtle. §

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Three decades ago The Sugarhill Gang brought rap out of the side streets with “Rapper’s Delight,” seven minutes of couplets that sound rather crude and basic now. Because rap operates without a melodic safety net, lyrical evolution was inevitable, and that evolution appeared in the mid80s in the form of Eric B. and Rakim. Rakim changed the linguistic rules of the game (known in rap lingo as “flow”) and is the clear forefather of Eminem. He broke from the basic couplet pattern, introducing internal rhyme and double rhymes and splitting words between lines. Like Eminem would a Page 14 of 22


decade later, Rakim understood that each syllable of a word had its own power, could provide a rhyme as easily as a whole word. Thus prefixes and suffixes and minor words, like articles and conjunctions, became tools for creating space. Silence had power too. A pause extended could snap a line to attention. Eminem learned. Consider for a moment the patterns of “The Way I Am:” “I sit back / with this pack/of zig zags/and this bag / of this weed / it gives me / the shit need / ed to be / the most mean/est MC / on this—/on this earth/and since birth/ I’ve been cursed/with this curse/to just curse/and just blurt/this berserk/ and bizarre /shit that works.” The anapestic fire in Eminem’s lyrics is matched only by the elasticity of the rhymes; they keep stretching past the point where they should be comprehensible. The first rhyme stream features four end rhymes that we can easily lock into. But the second syllables of each anapest also rhyme (known as internal rhyme) creating a sort of counter rhythm, like a high hat cymbal. The sibilant words (“sit,” “this,” and” zig”) even sound like a high hat. The internal rhyme carries over into the second stream, which stretches to six end rhymes. However, the internal fourwallsdown.com

rhyme ends after the first anapest, just enough to continue the impression that there has been no pause in the rhyming. This technique appears in many of Eminem’s songs and is a primary reason that his flow seems like a torrent—in a literal way, his rhymes never stop; they just keep leapfrogging over one another. Additionally, in this second stream Eminem begins splitting words, beginning anapests with the suffixes of words from the previous one (“needed” and “meanest,” for example). The second stream of six end rhymes is followed by a stream of eight, carrying us deeper and deeper into the song. With the standard couplet pattern, our minds digest a discreet packet of meaning every two lines. “The Way I Am” subverts this expectation. Where we expect a shift, none occurs. After we pick up the first stream of four end rhymes, the expectation is again thwarted when the second stream expands to six, and then again when the third stream expands to eight. Eminem draws us along with him, and when we are ready for a shift he does not let us go. The effect is mesmerizing, and Eminem, like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, guides us ever deeper into the bowels of his song. Page 15 of 22


“Drug Ballad” offers an even more impressive flow: Back when Mark Walhberg was Marky Mark This is how we used to make the party start We used to, mix Hen’ with Bacardi Dark And when it, kicks in you can hardly talk And by the, sixth gin you’re gon’ probably crawl And you’ll be, sick then and you’ll probably barf And my pre-diction is you’re gon’ probably fall Either somewhere in the lobby or the hallway wall And every-thing’s spinnin’ you’re beginnin to think women Are swimmin’ in pink linen again in the sink Then in a couple of minutes that bottle of Guinness is finished. The scheme begins with two sets of four. The shift in the end rhyme (between “talk” and “crawl”) is disguised by the catchy internal rhyme (“mix Hen,” “kicks in,” etc.) When the internal rhyme ends, the second set of four end rhymes continues, ending with “wall.” Then the fireworks begin. In a mere three lines, Eminem packs in ten rhymes played off the word “spin”: spin-nin’, be-gin-nin’, wo-men, swimfourwallsdown.com

min’, lin-en, a-gain, then, min-utes, Guin-ness, fin-ished. Also notice how he uses a phrase (again in) to rhyme with a word (spinnin’). The result is like a supersonic game of Pong. The rhythm keeps your head popping but never quite sure of itself. Eminem’s biggest from hit The Marshal Mathers LP, “Stan,” didn’t exhibit rhythmic flexibility but instead showed a remarkable ability to slant rhyme: Dear Slim, I wrote but you still ain’t callin’ I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ‘em There probably was a problem at the post office or somethin’ Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot ‘em but anyways; f--- it, what’s been up? Man how’s your daughter? My girlfriend’s pregnant too; I’m about to be a father If I have a daughter guess what I’m-a call her? “Callin’,” begins the rhyme scheme that continues with “bottom,” and “got ‘em” followed by “daughter,” “father,” and “call her.” The rhyme is Page 16 of 22


a little off, much like Stan, who becomes increasingly unstable as the song progresses. The rhyme scheme in the second stanza is even more of a stretch. The words hold together, but just barely. As Stan becomes completely unhinged in the third stanza, however, the rhymes begin to consolidate behind a swelling, angry vocal deliverance. Stan is driving his car 90 miles an hour with his girlfriend tied up in the trunk. Vodka and downers cloud his mind, and he is screaming into a tape recorder at Eminem for failure to respond to his fan letters: “You ruined it now, I hope you can’t sleep and you dream about it / and when you dream I hope you can’t sleep and you scream about it /I hope your conscience eats at you and you can’t breathe without me.” While not perfect rhyme, the lyrics cohere into a tighter rhythm that has been lacking in the rest of the song. Eminem’s flow mirrored the psychological dissolution of a mentally unstable fan. I imagine that suicide follows a progressive deterioration of one’s ideology. However, it’s hard to imagine that one could commit suicide without first reaching a point of clarity—how could one arrive at such fourwallsdown.com

resolve otherwise? As paradigms shatter and one’s world becomes ever more senseless, the only thing that makes sense is to stop it. Irrationality becomes the only rational choice in the mind of one who has abandoned all hope. The rhyme in “Stan” symbolizes the rationality of its character and should just decline until there is none. After all, that’s how rational people view the decompensation of the mentally ill. The end of “Stan” reaches a lyrical clarity, though, because Eminem knew something about the psychological patterns of a self-destructive mind. He had attempted suicide in 1996, five years after an uncle who had been a father figure had successfully done so. Perhaps Eminem had experienced the calm that must often precede self-immolation. The rest of The Marshall Mathers LP exhibits much of the same creativity, and it is a rare place on the record where meaning is compromised by rhythm—Eminem delivered penetrating cultural critiques, perpetuated a persona, deconstructed media, tested social boundaries, and worked tragedy and comedy into his work, all within the confines of the most innovative flow in rap history. Page 17 of 22


Eminem learned from Rakim and many other rappers. While his brilliance does not stand alone, it stretches further. His lyrical capabilities were simply astounding. He pushed linguistic possibilities to their breaking point, and just when we thought they might snap, he pushed farther, kept running, kept flowing, kept stalking a rhyme to exhaustion. While listeners were catching their breaths, he turned a corner and started up again. Like a modern Thoreau, Eminem sucked the marrow out of words, he cut a broad swath, he shaved close, and he drove rhymes into a corner: “I murder a rhyme one word at a time.” There have been some incredible lyricists throughout the course of modern popular music. My personal favorites have included Emily Saliers and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, and Adam Durtiz, who have accomplished insightful content using creative poetic devices. Their poetic forms however, have been mostly limited to the standard couplet or quatrain, a fact that in no way detracts from the grace of the lyrics. Eminem achieved the same complexity of meaning within the confourwallsdown.com

fines of more highly restrictive poetic forms. Imagine some of Michael Jordan’s best shots (Game Seven of the 1998 NBA Finals comes to mind). Now imagine he made those shots with one hand in his pocket. Imagine the complexities of Gary Kasparov’s chess stratagems when he faced the computer, Deep Blue. Now imagine Kasparov had been told he could not use his bishops. The Marshall Mathers LP shocked the hell out of America; for many the obscenity obscured Eminem’s intense and nearly flawless pursuit of lyrical ingenuity. The album established him as a master of his field, and America often can be forgiving when its heroes fall. We barely recall Michael Jordan’s gambling problem. As for literary geniuses? The roster is a veritable “Who’s Who” of depressives, addicts, philanderers, psychotics, and deviants. When the work of an artist comes to us without the taint of the artist’s personal failings, we easily forgive (compare Jordan’s gambling issues to those of Pete Rose). Eminem’s work smacked of taint from the beginning; whether by artistic commitment to his Slim Shady construct or an inability to Page 18 of 22


separate his personal anger from his lyrics, he pushed people a little too hard. Eminem never gave us the chance to forgive him, because he never let us witness an unblemished vision of his game. To be sure he was lauded. Three consecutive records of his won Grammy awards for rap album of the year (a first). The Marshall Mathers LP was the first rap record nominated for Album of the Year. He was the first white person on the cover of The Source magazine, and in 2008 Vibe magazine voted him the greatest rapper alive. But when people hear Eminem’s name, they have to sort through a laundry list of distracting facts and concepts (divorces, lawsuits, rehab, obscenity, social deviance) before ever reaching the one that should define him: within the world of American popular music, he is quite simply Shakespeare. Which brings us back to “Lose Yourself.” A top 40 radio hit and eventual Oscar winner, the song from the film 8 Mile gave the public a chance to hear in radio edits the apotheosis of rap virtuosity. I like that the two simple notes that provide the threadbare sonic blanket for the song mirror the dual personfourwallsdown.com

ality of the rapper. But the third verse leaves me mentally gasping for air—it is Gertrude Stein dancing with Mike Tyson, and it renders me speechless by its exhibit of the sheer power of language: No more games, I’m-a change what you call rage Tear this motherf---in’ roof off like two dogs caged I was playin’ in the beginning, the mood all changed I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage But I kept rhymin’ and stepped right in the next cypher Best believe somebody’s payin’ the pied piper All the pain inside amplified by the Fact that I can’t get by with my nine to Five and I can’t provide the right type of Life for my family, cause man, these goddamn Food stamps don’t buy diapers, and there’s no movie There’s no Mekhi Phifer, this is my life And these times are so hard, and it’s gettin even harder Tryin’ to feed and water my seed plus, teeter-totter Caught up between being a father and a prima donna Page 19 of 22


Baby momma drama screamin’ on her too much for me to wanna stay in one spot. By now you get the point: the first line’s three rhymes, indicates just how serious Eminem is. Then, after four end rhymes, he dives headfirst into a stream of nine lines that includes 21 rhymes, all based on the long “I” sound, that appear in every possible location within a line. Even when we think the stream is finished, (“life for my family”) smack in the middle of the next line he drops five more long “I” rhymes, beating the scheme to a bloody pulp. By this point one suspects that Eminem insisted on casting Mekhi Phifer in 8 Mile just for the purposes of this stanza. The profusion of rhymes isn’t even the most staggering part. The interplay between the “feed” and “seed” rhymes and the “harder” and “totter” rhymes essentially pours accelerant on a verse that is already up in flames, not to mention the multiple similes, metaphors, alliteration, and allusions in the verse. The third verse of “Lose Yourself” is Eminem’s “To be or not to be;” The Marshall Mathers LP is his King Lear. The album exemplifies literary tragedy. One can’t help fourwallsdown.com

but feel the sense of loss on the record: A brilliant artist almost destroyed by forces that he in many ways brings upon himself, a master at a game thwarted by plebian outrage. The record contains moments of despair, of resignation, of uncontrolled anger. This tragic sense was amplified on his subsequent album, Encore, on which he had an opportunity to respond to the criticisms of The Marshall Mathers LP. I envision Eminem in a VIP lounge signing autographs. He turns to one of his entourage, or a reporter following him for a profile, and says, “With ‘The Way I Am,’ I wanted to show that celebrities are humans, that sometimes I just want to be Marshall Mathers. But I’m glad my fans seek me out, and I’m glad to sign autographs for them.” Instead, on “Sing for the Moment” Eminem mars what was at the time his most acute social critique. After addressing more important issues (how parents can fear their children, for instance) Eminem can’t seem to escape his song without taking a shot at a man accusing him of assault. John Guerrera had alleged that Eminem had pistol whipped him outside a Page 20 of 22


bar; Eminem responded in the song, “You’re full of shit too Guerrera, that was a fist that hit you.” John Gurerra is an apt metaphor for the public at large. Guererra wanted Eminem’s money. We just wanted his head on a platter, and we wanted that head to continue to rhyme for us. The public fanned the flames of Eminem’s volatile celebrity, and he fought back with increasingly scandalous lyrics. Yet the Guererra episode foreshadowed the truth being revealed about Eminem— even in moments of clarity, at the height of what he did best, Eminem couldn’t escape the personal. With each successive record, Eminem was losing Slim Shady, who ended up being more of a person than a persona. The blurred, conflicted line between the construct and the biography was almost Faulknerian in its tragic scope. As we enter a new decade, the drama of Eminem has diminished. His latest record, Relapse, would have been an appropriate place to drop the persona; instead he continues to fight against a popular culture that no longer exists. Unfortunately, the album confirms the close relationship between Eminem and Shady, for fourwallsdown.com

which “Lose Yourself” was a hint— the subtle change between notes, after all, is a mere half step.

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Losing Slim Shady (Extended)  

Review of The Marshall Mathers LP

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