Tag Archives: Eminem

End-of-Summer Music Roundup

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It’s been a while since I last wrote. I’ve been patiently waiting for the summer to end so I’d have the chance to write my “End-of-Summer Music Roundup”. I assumed I’d be writing this sometime in early June, but the sun’s been kind this year, and every time I sat down at my laptop, fingers poised to hit the keys and delve into it, that ball of brightness cheekily reappeared, as content at its mischievousness as the smiling (yet thoroughly punchable) mutant sun baby from Teletubbies. It’s now early September, and as I force myself to forgo waiting on the end of summer, those flirtatious rays are still peeping through the window, and all the cherished elements of British summertime are still also present: air-conditioning on full blast indoors, because if it’s slightly warm outside, of course we all want to simulate the Siberian igloo experience inside; and middle-aged men strutting around topless, exposing their beer bellies adorned with enough tattoos to put both Parker pens and octopi out of business.

But while crowds have been gathering alfresco to soak up the sun, à la Sheryl Crow, perhaps they’ve been out of touch with what truly matters: the radio waves (Spotify), and the box (Netflix). In other words, while they’re spending their sunny season socializing and living their lives, they’re missing out on hearing and watching others socialize and live their lives through the media. God forbid these sun-soakers missed the news that the hyphen has been permanently removed from Jay Z’s (formerly Jay-Z’s) name. While they’ve been basking in the heat with few cares in the world, the rest of us have been incessantly troubled by the subtle name change (this is no explicit alteration like Puff Daddy à P Diddy…or Diddy…or Diddy Dirty Money). Grammatically speaking, what if we need to use Jay Z as an adjective? Then is it plausible to reinsert the hyphen? For instance: “That was a very Jay(-)Z performance”, or “Are you using that hyphen in the adjectival Jay(-)Z sense?” Note, of course, that the hyphen should not be confused with the em dash, as in “Jay Z – Jay-Z, as he was formerly known – confused rap fans and grammarians alike with his impetuous hyphen deletion”.

Do these revelers even realize that Kimye had a baby? Do they even know that Kimye is a thing? Though it may sound like a refreshing yet potentially disease-ridden tropical fruit, Kimye is actually a portmanteau of KIM kardashian and kanYE west. How would these sun-coholics know how to react once they finally learn the baby’s given name: North? As in: North West. As in, she’s not just a baby girl, but also a portable compass for journeyers traveling from Florida to Washington state, for instance, without a GPS navigator. Of course, on the way back she would be useless; her counterpart, South East, would be required in her place. (Incidentally, the hyphen issue extends to Kanye’s daughter’s name: does North West become North-West when used adjectivally? Or does it merge into a single word, Northwest?)

Oh – and babies and hyphens aside, Jay and Kanye also released some music this summer. Their albums, along with J. Cole’s Born Sinner, were the big three hip-hop releases of the season, as discussed by the critics on the New York Times Music Popcast. Reviewers agreed to disagree about their likes and dislikes, especially in the case of Kanye’s modestly titled album, Yeezus, which some thought pretentious and others deemed artistically solid. Personally, I found the record aggressive and abrasive – and unnecessarily so – all for the objective of bolstering the ever-growing “Kanye West is a jackass” notion (in President Obama’s words, of course). It appears to me that West knows that his big ego – or, more specifically, the concept of his having a big ego – will sell, so he throws together a messy jumble of mostly hostile tracks, knowing he’ll reap the monetary rewards. It’s an intelligent move from an unquestionably savvy producer. But the more critics praise this work as “creative”, the more he’ll escalate the antagonism and the egotism, however disingenuous, for publicity’s and finance’s sakes. At this rate, with a track on the album entitled “I Am a God”, apparently by Kanye West featuring God, the possibility of a return to the simpler yet vastly superior College Dropout style seems bleak.

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There’s a reason why Jay Z is vastly more respected than Mr. West. Though Jay’s album has an equally arrogant title, Magna Carta Holy Grail, the veteran rapper balances his braggadocio – unarguably necessary in hip hop – with a certain dose of humility. Indeed, he recognizes his unique power in tracks such as “F.U.T.W.” (Fuck Up The World), but this aspect is evened out with more modest elements, such as insights into his doubts as a father in “Jay Z Blue”. But this is irrelevant; as the most famous rapper in the game today, and possibly of all time, Jay Z has reached a point in his career where he can say literally anything he wants and still sell records. Take the track “Tom Ford”, whose hook comprises three distinct statements that, when put together, form no sense of story. “I don’t pop Molly / I rock Tom Ford / International, bring back the concord.” It’s as if someone’s asked him to tell us three completely random facts about himself, and he’s consolidated them into a chorus. A rough translation may read: “I don’t take drugs / By the way, I wear pretty nice, expensive, designer clothes / Oh and before I forget – please sign my worldwide petition for the reintroduction of fast airplanes.”

Yet Jay is untouched by critics. He doesn’t hold his own lyrically these days, but he’s still so amiable in that he can brush pride off (his shoulder) and team up with pop’s sugary superstar, Justin Timberlake, for the album’s opening track, and go on the road with him on the Legends of the Summer tour. This is something his pal Kanye cannot yet do: perhaps envious of Jay’s newfound touring partner, he lashed out at a recent show, spouting “I ain’t fucking with that Suit and Tie” – referring to the other JT and Jay-Z collaboration. (Did you notice that natural use of an adjectival “Jay Z”? You’re welcome.)

The Legends of the Summer tour kicked off at the Yahoo! Wireless Festival in London, two days of which I attended back in July, thus joining the rest of the sun revelers. In addition to the headliners, I had the distinct pleasure of watching the (indirect) contest between Miguel and Trey Songz as to who can be the douchier R&B crooner. Both artists scored several douche points for lifting up their shirts on multiple occasions to reveal their show-off 12-pack abs to the gushing audience; but the coveted douchebag award had to ultimately go to Trey for not only performing his douchey-lyric-laden song, “Dive In” (incidentally not about his experiences at public pools), but also taking breaks to shout out to the audience asides such as “How many ladies out there ready for me to dive in?” and “I’m swimming, I’m ain’t gonna drown”. Suffice to say we were all relieved to hear of Trey’s safety. Furthermore, Miguel’s rendition of “Adorn”, other than being the only track of his people recognized, was admittedly sing-alongable – and he was gracious enough not to kick any fans in the face this time around.

Hip-hop royalty shone at Wireless. Snoop Dogg, also known as Snoop Lion, formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg (a series of name transitions totally free of hyphens), played a set brimming with career-spanning hits, from “Drop It Like It’s Hot” to “Still D.R.E.”; the crowd was so adoring of the Compton legend that all he had to do was stand still for an hour and not waste any energy on performing – which was just as well, because marijuana is a known detractor of stamina. A$AP Rocky played a set, and might as well not have bothered. A long time now since Jay Z and Nas’s beef was buried, consistently underrated Nas showed off his unrivalled lyrical skills and social clout during his set, while super-group A Tribe Called Quest reunited for the first time in 20-odd years to achieve a similar feat, also bringing politics into the equation with frontman Q-Tip’s shout-outs for Trayvon Martin, whose aggressor, George Zimmerman, had been acquitted earlier that day.

Opinions about the best rapper in the game aside, all these towering acts were still merely a warm-up for rap giant Jay Z and Justin, the latter now automatically venerated in urban music merely for his association with Hova. Timberlake behaved as was to be expected when given equal standing with a more powerful, distinguished and probably formidable co-performer (Jay Z grew up selling crack cocaine in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn; Timberlake is the son of a preacher and was a Disney Mouseketeer opposite Britney Spears and Ryan Gosling): namely, he threw out unnecessary F-bombs at times and even inserted a rendition of “Niggas in Paris” into pop ballad “Cry Me a River”. But all this is forgiven (and appreciated, really), as Timberlake is indubitably musically gifted: not only were his vocals faultless, he also showcased his other talents as he played the piano and even the electric guitar.

Like at the Watch the Throne gigs, Jay seemed happy to take the back seat and allow the younger artist take the helm, with Justin truly shining as he performed back-to-back hits; but the true magic emerged when the duo teamed up, from the opening “Holy Grail”, to a clever blending of “What Goes Around…Comes Around” with “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, to JT pre-cursing “Empire State of Mind” with the inspiration itself, Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. Clearly, though, the highlight was when the schmaltzy and guilty-pleasurific “Mirrors” dropped. It’s SO good. So I walked away from the festival a happy bunny, until I squeezed onto a packed Underground train – and as numerous other Londoners sweated and coughed over me in the routine tube fashion, I opened my drawstring bag to find that my pasta salad saved from earlier had burst and covered my headphones, books and wallet with honey-mustard dressing and a putrid stench. What else was I to do but eat the pasta out of the bag for lunch the next day?

As entertaining an artist as Timberlake is, I was not prepared for The Justin Timberlake Show, aka the MTV Video Music Awards 2013. JT performed an entire setlist in 15 minutes, within which was sandwiched the much-hyped *N Sync reunion. For a whole week, Twitter, Buzzfeed and all the other sites I use as a distraction at work from time to time (or rather, all the sites I browse at work while using work as a distraction from time to time) were “blowing up” with updates of the boyband’s reconciliation; as twentysomethings asked “will they?” and “won’t they?”, Beliebers and One-Directions tweeted: “Who or what is an *N Sync?” As I felt the irritation of these ignorant youngsters churning inside, I realized how my generation’s parents must have felt when we mocked their old-timey music, thinking for half our lives that Fleetwood Mac was some kind of first-generation Apple computer made from timber.

After all the buildup, the reunion did happen, but lasted approximately two minutes, after which Fatone and friends were shoved offstage before an encore of “Mirrors”. But it wasn’t just the over-abundance of Justin that signaled the desperation of the once-glorious VMAs. The scandalous award show with which I grew up in the late 90s and early 00s – spawning timeless performances like Britney on stage with a Burmese python around her neck, and Britney stripping off for a raunchy rendition of “Oops, I Did It Again”, and Madonna kissing…Britney – is now an utter mess, devoid of interest, and Britney, and laughably trying to exist while MTV today plays a grand total of 0 music videos. The VMAs now merely create scandal for the sake of it, in an attempt to live up to what it once was – which would explain the gag-inducing display that was Miley Cyrus and the Twerk-a-thon.

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I need not write an account of what happened during those dreaded minutes: if you haven’t heard by now, you must be living inside a giant, furry teddy bear like the one from which Cyrus strutted out, tongue out to one side – an image that would recur time and time again during the performance, in memes and gifs in days to come, and in many normal people’s nightmares. We all knew what was to befall us, having seen the video for “We Can’t Stop”: Hannah Montana twerking. We were forced to watch what looked like a pancake gyrating as the little white girl aimed to shake what her momma never gave her; and as if it that wasn’t enough, she insisted on grinding that pancake into sleazeball Robin Thicke’s crotch while he stood there dressed like the McDonald’s Hamburglar with the stripes the wrong way round. I still haven’t the faintest clue “what rhymes with hug me”, but what I do know is that I was repulsed as 2 Chainz and the stupidly talented Kendrick Lamar joined Thicke for another track, while Miley seemed quite contented to stand in the corner, tongue still out, fingering herself with a giant foam finger. Next time you’re at a baseball game, my advice would be to think twice before picking one of those fingers up to innocently support your team with – it might well have been in or around Miley Cyrus’s vagina.

Kendrick Lamar must have been embarrassed to be associated such a sham, given his unfathomable adeptness, lyrically speaking. Again, for those sunbathers’ benefit, Kendrick delivered the rap verse of the year, killing and calling out Big Sean on his own track, “Control”. In the most talked-about verse for a long time, the biggest new star in hip hop spits a rhyme that indirectly wiped the floor with aging rappers, and directly challenged his peers to step up their games: Kendrick summoned Drake, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky and a host of other young emcees to come out of whatever giant, furry teddy bears they were hiding in and to join him in the ring – tongues intact and without foam fingers in this case, please.

Yet amidst the shambles of the night, from somewhere in the middle of the twerkage wreckage came a faint flicker of hope. Two commercials aired during the US broadcast of the VMAs, both advertising Beats by Dre headphones, but in reality advertising the return of one of Kendrick’s – and just about every other modern-day rapper’s – heroes. In the first TV spot, we are given the lowdown in a few words projected rapidly onto the screen: Eminem. MMLP2. Executive producers Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin. 11/5/13. But it was the second, longer spot I saw first; I was in Paris at the time, waking up for sightseeing duty in the early morning, and was prompted by a tweet or two to watch the ad, which featured a blond-haired Eminem, swagging in front of a speakers in a plain white tee, reminiscent of “The Real Slim Shady” video, now 13 years old. Was this a dream induced from the fatigue of climbing up the Eiffel Tower the day before (rapping Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” to myself all the way up, by the way)? Clearly not, as the whole ad was spliced over a brand-new track, “Berserk”, different from anything I’ve ever heard from Eminem, an homage to the Beastie Boys and to old-school hip hop in general. The Marshall Mathers LP 2: ingenious publicity-wise, and brave and perhaps stupid in what it must live up to – that is to say the seminal 2000 album that sent stunned parents of America into a frenzy. The suspense is already thickening, and it will certainly take more than a head of freshly dyed hair to settle critics come November.

At which point, presuming the summer hasn’t become irregularly Indian and stuck around all the way through the fall and into Guy Fawkes Day itself, the sun-soakers should be back indoors, tattoos once again unexposed for the good of humanity, and will be able to make their own minds up about the record. As for the summer shenanigans just passed, they’ll have to take my word as truth. Though they may return, skin red and peeling like tomatoes being savagely julienned, to politely disagree about the merit of Yeezus or the Jay Z/JT dynamic, they will surely find the Twerk-a-thon just as harrowing and violating as the rest of us, and may be forced to find comfort in hibernating in a giant, furry teddy bear – only to find inside a menacing Miley, tongue and all, ready to murder them and sell their organs in return for a lifetime’s stash of foam fingers. Serves them right for being able to enjoy the sun while the rest of us are working overtime, not unlike Miley’s buttocks. And as I conclude here, I’d just like to point out that no hyphens were harmed in the writing of this article.

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My Love Affair with an Angry White Man

This is how I listen to Eminem: with my iPod on full volume (my eardrums screaming out for help, though no one can hear them because the music is so loud); pacing up and down the room in front of a mirror, so I can see my teeth gritting and the veins throbbing aggressively in my head. My old roommate told me that I even fashioned my own “Eminem dance”, a frenzied mix of kicking and slapping air and a general release of pent-up anger. It gets me riled up and ready to embark on merciless rants and tirades (it was actually the perfect catalyst for writing my Michele Bachmann piece, working like a finger reaching down my throat, pulling the trigger so that I could easily spew out all the hate). Listening to Eminem is just the right mental preparation football players and boxers need to go out and wreak some havoc. In fact, I’m pretty sure murderers listen to Eminem to pep themselves up before they go on serial killing rampages.

Anger aside, the reason I have to be totally “in the zone” when I have an Eminem Session is that I need to listen to every single word. God help the person who interrupts me in the middle of a track. Listening to rap is unlike listening to really any other genre of music: rap is word-based and so it focuses on lyrics before anything else. While other genres can, of course, boast lyric-driven songs, the instrumentals – original guitar riffs, piano solos and so on – are always there to carry them and transform them into music which is ideal to have playing in the background while you finish up some work or read the paper. Rap – a word whose etymology refers to words rather than music (it is a slang word which originally meant, several decades ago, “to talk informally”) – is an entirely different creature. I find that it is nearly impossible to listen to rap music “in the background”, because I don’t want to miss a single word, which – like in poetry – may well detract from the full meaning of the verse. (Of course, this applies to good rap. I am perfectly capable of listening to Soulja Boy in the background while I am doing something else – most probably shooting myself in the face for actually listening to Soulja Boy.) Listening to good rap is like reading a Shakespeare play, in the sense that it’s difficult to do with distractions and it takes a lot more concentration than it does to read a popular page-turner. You may only be able to digest a few pages at a time, and might even have to re-read certain passages over. But after you’ve gotten through it, you realize that your full absorption in the text was worth it, and that you have just tasted a little slice of genius.

On the hierarchy of good rap, Eminem fits on the top of the food chain. This is not to say that he is the greatest hip-hop artist. Hip-hop, of course, represents more a culture and a lifestyle – and a musical genre from which rap stems, but which also embodies a wider range of musical styles, including soul-inspired rhythm & blues, beat-boxing and turn-tabling. Hip-hop heavyweights of today have their own unique talents. Kanye is a visionary producer, a champion of masterful sampling, whose aim is always to expand his versatility – and his albums are a testament to this, each put together with a distinct approach and style. Jay-Z is the king of triumph and “swagger”, continually injecting tones of accomplishment into his tracks, a forward- and outward-looking rags-to-riches businessman. But Eminem is, above all else, a rapper at heart. He has a singular focus on rap in its purest sense – the words – and his ability to effortlessly deliver strings of rapid metaphors, startling rhymes and crippling punchlines, all at a jaw-droppingly frenetic pace make him, in my humble opinion, a lyrical genius and possibly the greatest rapper of all-time.

When I taught middle school English in Tampa, our analysis of poetry always began by separating “content” and “style”. In other words, when discussing poetry, we must, like with short stories, novels and plays, explore the content – what is contained within the piece – what it is about and what the message is. But what makes poetry distinct is the style: how the poet gets that message across to us. At that point, I would compile a mind-numbingly long list of stylistic devices on the classroom whiteboard and tell the class to memorize them all for a test the following day. But I’ll save more details of my sadistic teaching methods for another time. A heavily abridged version would include: metaphors and similes, imagery, personification, symbols, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and assonance.

In rap, the setup is extremely similar. I’ll come to content later, but style – known in rap as the “technical” – is where Eminem truly thrives. He is obsessed with the nitty-gritty elements of rap – getting the small things done right; and in terms of stylistics, his strength lies with the sonic elements. Em is a wordsmith – he confesses to the fact that he used to read the dictionary – and this is evident from the extensive vocabulary he demonstrates in his music. Yet few of those who boast strong vocabularies can admit to possessing the ability to constantly “think in rhyme”. Em asserts that he twists and manipulates words to make them sound as if they rhyme with other words. It is for this reason that he said to Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, “It pisses me off that people say the word orange doesn’t rhyme with anything.” He then went on to create a string of orange-based half-rhymes – “I left my orange, four-inch door hinge in storage and ate porridge with George” – and he uttered them in such a credible rhyming manner that no one can question his theory.

A unique quality of rap (good rap, remember) is that can render a listener lame from the paralyzing rhyming which it inflicts. Eminem doesn’t settle for the classic pop music formula of end-of-line rhymes, nor is he happy with lacing his work with internal rhymes (rhymes within a single line), no matter how impressive they may be. Eminem is one of the champions of the “multi”, a rap term and abbreviation of “multi-syllabic rhyme”. A multi is, as you may have gathered, a series of consecutive syllables which rhyme with another series of syllables. One syllable just won’t cut it. The best song to examine in terms of multis is the one which he still uses for his performance encores, nine years after it was recorded: “Lose Yourself” (which, incidentally, I ended up teaching my seventh grade class as an example of stylistic excellence – after having replaced, of course, the profane language with sweeter, kid-friendly utterances). Already within the first four lines, Em has rhymed “palms are sweaty” with “arms are heavy” and “mom’s spaghetti” and “calm and ready” and “on forgetting”. This pattern of multisyllabic rhyming carries on throughout the song, with another example from the third verse being his rhyming of “snail, I’ve got” with “(formu-)late a plot” and “jail or shot” and “failure’s not” and “trailer’s got” and “Salem’s Lot” and “fail me not”.

The true genius of this song’s rhyme scheme was exposed to me via a YouTube demonstration by a songwriter who broke down Eminem’s writing and rhyming process into its awe-inspiring building blocks. The songwriter conjectured that Em probably uses “rhyming columns” to place words and phrases that rhyme (or are made to rhyme) into easily readable lists – and then he goes on to draw up the probable rhyme columns for “Lose Yourself”. Stunningly, once he has completed the exercise at the end of the song, there are only about five or six columns in total: meaning that there are only five or six rhyming sounds in the entire song, and every word and phrase in the song rhymes with one of these sounds. The complexity is mind-blowing, and for an English major like me, there is something quite stupefyingly magical about the whole idea.

Comedians say that dissecting a joke for analysis ruins the joke and renders it unfunny, and perhaps the same is true of scrutinizing a lyric. But I don’t see any plainer way of illustrating Em’s mastery of the language than by doing just that, so I offer my apologies in advance. Rhyming is not the only technical device that Em aces: he is also a master of the pun, juggling double entendres effortlessly. Even within what appear to be the emptiest of lines, devoid of wordplay, you’ll listen for the fifty-second time and realize there are, hidden deep within, puns and witticisms galore.

Let’s take the lead track from the Recovery album, “Not Afraid”, as an example. This is a song which concentrates on a strong, triumphant message, and therefore is not an outwardly rich song in lyrical terms. However, when you start to study the wordplay, it becomes obvious that there is a subtle layer of complexity, technically. Let’s take a seemingly straight-forward line: “Quit playing with the scissors and shit, and cut the crap / I shouldn’t have to rhyme these words in a rhythm for you to know it’s a rap”. Now, let’s get dissecting. Clearly, in the first line, Em wants you to “cut the crap” (the “shit”) with the “scissors”. In the second, he raps slightly off the beat, and asserts that that shouldn’t be a problem, since listeners know it’s still a “rap”. He plays with the homophone, and also means “it’s a wrap” (in the sense of closure). But that’s not all. “Wrap” also has a double meaning and, after he has mentioned “scissors”, it is clear he is talking about gift-wrap. Which can be supported by the fact that, at the end of the previous verse, he discusses a Christmas gift. Soon after, he raps, “You said you was king, you lied through your teeth / For that, fuck your feelings / Instead of getting crowned, you’re getting capped”. Literally, then, he warns his haters that rather than “getting crowned” (like a “king”), they’re “getting capped” (i.e. getting shot). But Em pronounces the word “feelings” like “fillings”, thus continuing the “teeth” vocabulary – and, of course, “crowning” and “capping” are both dental procedures. BOOM.

Why stop there? Let’s explore one more example of technical brilliance. Saying that Eminem can be crude is a massive understatement (similar to saying that Lil Jon is pointless in any given song). But even lines that appear unnecessarily vulgar contain more than meets the eye (or ear, I suppose). In the astoundingly rapid-paced “Fast Lane”, from his latest collaborative EP, Hell: The Sequel, Em quips:

So I’m thinking ‘bout this nice, nice lady,

Wait, now stop me now ‘fore I get on a roll (Danish),

Let me tell you what this pretty little dame’s name is,

‘Cause she’s kind of famous,

And I hope that I don’t sound to heinous when I say this, Nicki Minaj,

But I wanna stick my penis in your anus!

Without even mentioning the explosion of internal rhymes, there’s so much to talk about. When he asks us to “stop him” before he gets “on a roll”, he is, of course, referring to getting on a rhyming streak (which, fortunately, he does). “Roll” also refers back to a mention of “dice” which he makes earlier in the verse. We hear the word “Danish” uttered in the background, which gives “roll” a third meaning (Danish pastry). Em also talks, earlier in the song, about playing the song “Ice, Ice Baby”, a hit for Vanilla Ice – and vanilla is an ingredient of the Danish pastry. The utterance of the word “Danish” may seem random – but, like everything, it is there for a reason. Em is mocking rapper Nicki Minaj’s overuse of the “punchline flow”, a new phenomenon in rap, whereby a word is placed at the end of a line as a quick simile, but without the use of “like” or “as”. Thus, “Danish” acts as the word at the end of the line in a punchline flow. When he says “penis in your anus”, he exclaims it in a style that is clearly impersonating Nicki’s use of accents in her rap; furthermore, Eminem touches on (and hopes to do more to) the most talked about issue relating to Nicki: her butt. Oh, and one more thing: “dame” is the word for lady in – yes, you guessed it – Danish.

(While we’re on “Fast Lane”, by the way, we should probably explore the succession of multis at the end of the track: “master debater” rhymes with (or is made to rhyme with) “masturbator” and “activator” and “back up data” and “tractor-trailer” and “bag of paper” and “tax evader” and “sack of potatoes” and “crack-a-lator” and “percolator” and “ejaculator later”. No big deal.)

I was twelve when I first bought an Eminem single. (This was back in the days when people bought singles from the store. Or I did, anyway. And then I bought the albums which contained the singles. That was called “buying keepsakes”. It was also called “flushing money down the toilet”.) I was in Canada and had heard this rebellious and really funny song repeatedly on the radio. It was called “The Real Slim Shady”, and it was contrary to anything else on mainstream playlists at that time. We were still in the boy band and pop princess era, and although I cannot deny that I was caught up in the pop craze, it was still refreshing to hear someone not only make songs which were different to those of *NSync and Britney, but whose songs mocked those artists. It followed in the same vein as 1999’s “My Name Is”, which I had heard and chuckled at, but thought it would be a one-hit wonder, simply due to its novelty and remoteness from anything hip-hop offered at that time. But it was this very element of uniqueness that allowed “The Real Slim Shady” to be successful a year later, and for millions of people to go out and buy his album. And I was one of the bees in that swarm.

2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP is considered today as one of the most defining albums of all time – and statistically the fastest selling album in US history. A reviewer once wrote that it had all the radical and divisive energy that any timeless rock album should (think: Springsteen, Dylan, Jagger) – except that it was a rap album, which gave it a new generational twist. I was expecting to hear eighteen tracks with a similarly light-hearted, celebrity-bashing tone to “The Real Slim Shady”; what I heard instead was far darker, far more multi-layered and extraordinarily more abrasive in tone. The radio edits had protected me from the profane language – but the shock of hearing a few hundred F-words lodged in the record was mild when compared to listening to the raw, graphic content which Eminem put forth. This is an album whose first track is entitled “Kill You”, whose first verse includes the lines:

Shut up, slut, you’re causing too much chaos,

Just bend over and take it like a slut, OKAY MA?

“Oh, now he’s raping his own mother, abusing whores, snorting coke

And we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?”

No feelings were spared at the end of the album, either, with the last track, “Criminal”, beginning:

My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge

That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or les

Or a homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest,

Pants or dress – hate fags? The answer’s yes.

Even though Eminem’s work at this time was lyrical and technical, it was not the style which attracted listeners like me – but the other element, its content. “Controversial” didn’t even scratch the surface. Understandably, feminist groups, the LGBTA and ordinary citizens rallied and protested against the album and its blatant misogyny, homophobia and excessive violence. But for the majority – the fans and critics – the record was groundbreaking in its ability to cause such a stir. It exuded shock value and horror, which was combined with both dark and laugh-out-loud humor. The themes were far from those ordinarily found in the mainstream: love was not a topic, nor money or rap prowess (a common theme in hip-hop). This artist concentrated on, primarily, his mother and his wife, and the fantasy of violence inflicted upon them both. (There is a track entitled “Kim” which I have still never listened to in its entirety because of the sheer alarm it causes.) It was grim and it was loathsome, but it was also fresh and novel. And wedged into the CD were remarkably lasting tracks like “Stan” and “The Way I Am”.

To some, the explicit content is inexcusable and unable to be justified by a mere “it was something new”. But for me, the repugnant ideas we hear are not the rapper’s real feelings. And he has said this himself countless times. Eminem is an actor, playing parts, which is part of the complexity of the music. He experiments with personas and alter egos. When an actor appears on screen, we don’t think to ourselves: “Hey, Anthony Hopkins is a cannibal!” Hannibal Lector – his character – is the man-eater. (Of course, if Mel Gibson played a neo-Nazi, we might find it harder to distinguish between actor and character.) This concept should be applied, when necessary, to music. Naturally, musicians are often willing to speak their own minds, and Eminem does this through Marshall Mathers, his truest persona – himself. Then, there’s his rapper persona, Eminem, and finally, his most coveted and original persona, Slim Shady. Slim Shady is the alter ego that is creating all the chaos in The Marshall Mathers LP and its predecessor, The Slim Shady LP, which are both extremely Shady-heavy, explaining their maniacal tone (though Shady seems to evolve from mischievous on SSLP to psychotic on MMLP).

The Eminem Show was released in 2002 and was a highly successful and cohesive blend of these personas. Employing his Marshall persona, he raps lovingly and personally about his daughter; with his growing Eminem persona, he acknowledges his force in the hip-hop kingdom in “‘Til I Collapse”, junctures at the reasons for his success in “White America” and reveals his true passion for the rap game in “Sing for the Moment”. At the same time, there is still room for his Slim Shady persona to create havoc, as he continues to poke fun at pop culture in “Without Me”, revisits misogyny in “Superman” – oh, and kills and buries his mother in “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”. This is perhaps his most well rounded album, composed at the peak of his popularity, and important content merges with exquisite style on most tracks, such as “Square Dance” – a wonderfully lyrical song which is also politically charged, in that it is a vehement indictment of the Bush administration.

After peaks come troughs, and the trough was the release of 2004’s Encore and its aftermath. This album disappointed fans with its sheer silliness. In an attempt to inject some Shady-style mischief, Em produced a record scattered with appalling rhymes and juvenile tracks (“Ass Like That” and “Big Weenie” are obvious examples). Previously considered a hip-hop giant, laying down cultural milestones wherever he treaded, Eminem quickly became a joke, releasing meaningless tracks such as 2006’s “Fack”, one of the worst songs I’ve personally ever heard – by any artist. It became clear later that Encore was written by a heavily drug-induced version of Eminem: the rapper’s health was declining due to his addiction to a variety of prescription drugs, forcing him to cancel a tour in 2005.

Eminem has always compared himself to Elvis Presley, and their similarities are striking in several ways. They were both trailblazers for white artists in music industries dominated by black artists – and (for racial reasons as well as talent, one would guess) they both became the most popular artists in their genre. They were both denounced for being too radical for middle America (even Elvis, who would appear squeaky clean in today’s scene, was attacked by parent groups, who protested until the rocker was shown on television only from the waist up, to protect young female viewers from being corrupted by images of his devilish hip shaking). At this point in Em’s career, this once jocular comparison never became more relevant. He was depressed, admittedly suicidal, and at Christmas-time 2006, he suffered an overdose which, if undetected for just a couple more hours, would have been fatal. Sadly, Elvis never gained the opportunity to recover from his drug episode.

Eminem, however, resolved to fight back defiantly. He changed his image drastically: he lost buckets of weight, replacing his fast food addiction with daily treadmill sessions. Most striking visually, though, was that he ditched his trademark bleach-blond hair and grew out his natural, darker color: a symbol of purging the old and starting afresh. The world had missed Eminem, and this showed when “Crack a Bottle” leaked online and hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, his first single to do so in seven years since 2002’s epic “Lose Yourself”. But his reemergence was not going to be that simple. His supposed comeback album, 2009’s Relapse, did not please fans or critics. In retrospect, stylistically, the album played with some new lyrical ideas, such as the use of accents as a rhyming tactic and some unusual cadences. But it was the content which dismayed the public: the tone of the album was eerie and a little odd. In trying to recapture the grittiness and menace of The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, the rapper brought Shady back with a vengeance, again turning to serial murder and his mother for thematic content. But this was old news; in the five-year absence, the rap game had changed, with Kanye, T.I., Lil Wayne and others having successfully tried new things. Em was no longer pushing boundaries, no matter how controversial he aimed to be; and his return to celebrity bashing in his lead single, “We Made You”, fell on deaf ears.

Relapse was a failure. His next album, then, would be make or break; he would only have the chance to take one more crack before being ousted completely by the rap industry and shunned totally by critics. In the months following Relapse, though, Em wowed listeners, whose ears began to perk up once more, when he featured on a succession of tracks with upcoming rappers – Drake’s “Forever”, Lil Wayne’s “Drop the World” and B.o.B.’s “Airplanes, Part II” – and proved his lyrical prowess again, trampling on his collaborators technically. It was clear, then, that the key was to focus on his gift – technical dexterity – in order to achieve victory again.

And 2010’s Recovery accomplished that very feat. Besides being a lyrical masterpiece, Recovery focused on Eminem and Marshall – the rapper and the man – rendering it an emotionally personal album, consisting of accounts of his recent struggles, and of an overwhelming sense of triumph in vanquishing these tribulations. On the record, Em himself expresses his distaste for his previous two albums (“Encore I was on drugs / Relapse I was flushing ‘em out”). He celebrates the exorcism of his demons and finally recognizes and touts his own lyrical brilliance, proclaiming to the world that he is here to stay.

This is not to say that there is no longer a shadow of darkness encompassing his work. He is triumphant, yes, but not to the same degree as Jay-Z, say. Jay and Kanye released their joint album this summer, Watch the Throne, which exuded victory (in “Otis”, Jay chants “Photo shoot fresh, looking like wealth / I’m ‘bout to call the paparazzi on myself”). Two months earlier, Eminem released a collaborative EP with an old friend, Royce Da 5’9’’, Hell: The Sequel. For Jay and ‘Ye, triumph means affluence, designer jewelry and gold-plated everything (although in the ever-striving Kanye, we do feel an emptiness lurking within). For Em and Royce (who gives Em a run for his money lyrically), triumph means being back at the top of their game and just having fun with punchlines and wordplay again. While Watch the Throne’s production (done in its entirety by Kanye) is immaculate – soul samples sculpted together to perfection – Hell: The Sequel focuses, unsurprisingly, on lyrics: the duo settle for simple, unassuming beats and spar verbally over them, almost like a rap battle or freestyle (of which 8 Mile era Eminem would be proud). And there is still a gritty element to Em’s work, always showing tinges of bitterness and pain – forever the troubled artist who still never smiles. While Jay-Z and Kanye lavishly call themselves The Throne, the Detroit collaborators refer to themselves more ominously as Bad Meets Evil. Triumph in Eminem’s world is best represented in a pun- and rhyme-heavy, penis-centered set of lines in the track, “Lighters”:

And pardon me if I’m a cocky prick, but you cocks are slick

 Talking shit on how you flipped your life around, crock o’ shit

Who you dicks tryna kid, flip dick you did the opposite

 You stayed the same, ‘cause cock backwards is still cock, you pricks!

This is a more mature Em, who no longer needs to play the rebel in front on the camera – in fact, he keeps out of the public eye as much as possible, still residing in Detroit and dedicating his life to his daughters and his music. Rolling Stone dubbed him as the “reclusive genius”; though he explores more eclectic samples nowadays, relying less on the production of his mentor, Dr. Dre, and collaborates with more artists than before, he generally sends and receives verses and samples while he remains at home, rather than venturing out into the busy world and recording tracks with artists face-to-face. An outsider, he keeps to himself at awards shows, performing with confidence and accepting prizes graciously without hyping himself up. In fact, despite winning prestigious accolades, such as being the highest-selling artist and Billboard’s most important artist of the decade, and, perhaps the most meaningful, being touted by Mr. Ego himself, Kanye West, as the greatest living rapper, he only ranked 14th on Forbes Magazine’s list of highest-paid rappers, trailing behind lyrically inferior artists such as Ludacris, Diddy, and even Akon.

Yet, he is just as popular – or more popular – than ever, his songs still hitting the radio waves despite his genre of rap being characteristically radio-unfriendly. His music is unfit for clubs, as he shies away from dance-oriented hip-hop; and his money-making formula of old of mocking celebrities in comical tracks no longer cuts it. Those celebrities, who would have been targets a decade ago, are now Em’s accomplices for chart-topping success: the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie” from Recovery became his fourth and most lucrative number one hit; and the Bruno Mars-assisted “Lighters” from Hell: The Sequel is currently still in the top ten on the Hot 100, and has become the “song of the summer” in the US.

So that, in a nutshell (an extremely large nutshell), charts my love affair with an angry white man. In spite of being a huge fan, though, I really would have no desire to meet the man in person. I’m sure he’s a nice guy (aside from the obvious obsession with serial killers), but I am infinitely more interested in his work, his art, his poetry. Listening to his music alone is an education in linguistics (literary legends such as Seamus Heaney agree that he’s a true poet). But I would spend money I don’t have to see Em perform live. I saw him in 2003 on his Anger Management Tour, but his shows of late present a reenergized Eminem; even on TV, you can see the passion and enjoyment and the veins popping out in his head as he spits flows like never before. His performances are slicker, doing away with chainsaws, Jason masks and fake trailers – essential props for his early 2000s performances – and instead, he relies simply on the mic, his polished, enunciated delivery, and the thousands of fans who congregate in epic-sized stadiums to witness him ardently perform a set filled with hits of the past and new accomplishments. Unfortunately, opportunities to see the “notorious non-tourer” are rare, with the rapper preferring now just to headline festivals from time to time. I’m still regretting missing out on the chance to see rap’s two biggest veterans, Eminem and Jay-Z, perform together at Yankee Stadium and Comerica Park last year on the Home and Home Tour, which was built up as the concert of the decade (on one particular night, special guests included Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, D-12, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, B.o.B, Drake, Beyonce and Coldplay). I would have murdered someone to get tickets for that gig. And how would I have pepped myself up before committing that murder? By listening to Eminem.

 

 

Just for fun, here’s a list of ten of my favorite Eminem punchlines and wordplays from the post-2010 era:

(From “Despicable” freestyle): “Bitch I’m as bat shit as Ozzy, it’s obvious / You can tell I go right off the bat / No pun intended but come any closer, I’ll bite off your head”

(From “Won’t Back Down”, Recovery): “Don’t make me introduce you to my power tools / You know the fucking drill?”

(From “On Fire”, Recovery): “You couldn’t make a bulimic puke on a piece of fucking corn and peanut poop”

(From “I’m on Everything”, Hell: The Sequel): “I’m the real macaroni, you cheesy bitch / I’m demonic with the craft (Kraft)”

(From “No Love”, Recovery): “‘Til I’m toppling from the top, I’m not gonna stop / I’m staying on my Monopoly board / That means I’m on top of my game / And it don’t stop ‘til my hip don’t hop anymore”

(From “A Kiss”, Hell: The Sequel): “Tell Lady Gaga she can quit her job at the post office / She’s still a male (mail) lady! / Wouldn’t fuck her with her dick”

(From “Won’t Back Down”, Recovery): “Gave Bruce Wayne a Valium and said / Settle your fuckin’ ass down, I’m getting ready for combat man / Get it, calm Batman?”

(From “Almost Famous”, Recovery): “Now get off my dick / Dick’s too short a word for my dick / Get off my antidisestablishmentarianism, you prick!”

(From “Despicable” freestyle): “Crown so tight it cuts off circulation to the brain, no oxygen / Other words, there’s no heir (air) to the throne”

(From “Welcome 2 Hell”, Hell: The Sequel): “Bruce Willis on his deathbed, last breath with an infection / Fighting it while he’s watching Internet porn / About to meet his death with an erection / My God, what I mean is / David Carradine jacking his penis in front of his tripod / Choking his own neck, what part don’t you get? / I’m saying I Die Hard!”

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