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Upper Tier Blues

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I was going to write this article three weeks ago, right after seeing the Watch the Throne concert, but I couldn’t find the words to describe what I’d just witnessed. There were a multitude of adjectives buzzing around my head at the time, including the ones below:

Electrifying. Stupefying. Awesome. Mind-blowing. Momentous. Grand. Sensational. Spectacular. Phenomenal. Insane. Unreal. Surreal. Extraordinary. Meaty. Artery-clogging. Bloating. Constipating.*

(*There’s a chance that some of these words describe a particularly troublesome burrito I was eating at the time. I believe the two lists of words somehow got mixed up.)

After sifting through the innumerable words that could possibly have described the event, I turned to plagiarism for my selfish benefit. The word I came up with (stole) to characterize the event was: Cray. There’s truly no other word that suits. That shit (was) cray.

But more on cray later. (Also coming up, in case you’re already bored: Paris, pickles and sex tapes. I like to include something for everyone – Francophiles, foodies, and sex maniacs.)

Before even stepping foot inside the hallowed walls of London’s O2 arena, we knew this was going to be something special. To see Jay-Z or Kanye West solo is a huge deal; to see them together is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Which is why I was pretty dismayed after walking – climbing – up to our upper tier seats. I’m pretty sure I could see asteroids flying around up there – but maybe that was just the altitude sickness kicking in. A buddy of mine, who bought tickets on the day from a scalper, paid half the money I did, and secured better seats, said I looked so upset “up there” that he thought I was about to cry. Upper tear seats indeed.

So I sat up there on the summit of Everest and sulked, munching on my grubby-ass cheese pizza and sipping on my £8 Heineken that I’d bought from the concession stand, and generally wishing bad things on the lucky bastards with standing tickets way down there on the floor. When, without any warning, two figures appeared on huge cubes in the middle of the floor, and the bass-heavy tones of “H.A.M.” started pounding from the speakers. I was mesmerized. Here they were, two kings of modern-day hip-hop, Jay and ‘Ye, the rap veteran and the virtuoso producer, the businessman and the egomaniac, gracing their cube-stages just for us. And I couldn’t see jack shit.

“Cheer the fuck up, you miserable piece of shit,” were the paraphrased words that my buddy aimed at me. (Actually, they were pretty much the exact words.) So I did. As much as I hated the floor ticket people for that party of a lifetime they were having, and for almost being able to touch Kanye’s leather skirt, I put on a happy face and, like the two hip-hop heavyweights on cubes, resolved to “go H.A.M. – hard as a muthafucker”.

And, boy, did they go H.A.M. After the defiant “Who Gon Stop Me”, during which images of great white sharks appeared on the side of their cubes, they proceeded to the main, front stage as the soulful tones of Otis Redding signaled the start of “Otis”. The party had officially begun, and the giant TV screens suddenly came to life, meaning I could finally see, not just hear, what the hell was going on.

I should note that, from the very start, even though we were in “seated” tickets, I’d been standing in front of my chair. I saw it as taking a stand against the O2, The Throne, but mainly Ticketmaster. Three months ago, I woke up early to get on a 7am train to get into work at an unpaid, two-week internship at 8:30am on the dot so I could log into Ticketmaster and have my finger poised on the “Buy Standing Tickets” button at 9am sharp. Is that not good enough for you, Ticketmaster? Did you want me to camp out in front of the palace at Ticketmaster headquarters (I assume they work out of a palace, not an office, so I can hate them more for being snobbish and rich) the night before and beg for tickets, in return for a hundred years of indebtedness to Ticketmaster? Sadly, I would have considered this. I assume being Ticketmaster’s slave for a hundred years – doing mundane tasks such as sending out flyers, updating the website and performing creepy sexual favours for the King of Ticketmaster – kills you slowly, which knocks at least thirty years off that hundred. And by 11am that day, the site had crashed over and over again, leaving me with no choice but to settle for the cursed seated tickets. So now is my revenge, Ticketmaster. I am going to stand for this entire show, blocking the views of the poor guy behind me, who probably thought he was going to have a relaxing Monday evening, and now he has some jerk in front of him and has to videotape around his fat ass. This is your fault, Ticketmaster, not mine.

(Dear Ticketmaster, I repent for my sin of this outburst against you. It’s only a joke. All praise be to Ticketmaster. As soon as I finish writing this article, I will be sure to get back to scrubbing the palace floors, gypping other helpless people out of their standing tickets, and then I’ll be in the Ticketmaster Master Bedroom for whatever freaky ticket shit you have lined up for me as punishment.)

Luckily, most of the others around me were standing now as the rappers ran through their Watch the Throne collection; it was difficult to not want to be on your feet. The theme of the show, like the title of the Kanye track, was power: about being the best of the best, about being wealthy and having risen up from nothing to being on top of the world – on The Throne, in fact. (Not the toilet.) As Kanye raps in “Otis” about his “other other Benz”, and Jay describes himself as “looking like wealth, I’m ‘bout to call the paparazzi on myself”, it’s evident that the two have reached a point where they have nothing to prove – but they’re proving it anyway. The only people that can top them…are themselves.

On a simpler level, the show was about giving the fans what they wanted: the hits. And, unquestionably, they followed through on this. Jay and ‘Ye went on to run through streams and streams of their solo hits while the other took a quite respite – or even stuck around to play the other’s hype-man; Kanye even played the racist cop in Jay’s “99 Problems”.

For me, it felt like Kanye was running the show. I’m not suggesting, by any means, that he was better – just that Jay, the already accomplished, wiser, more disciplined of the two, was letting Kanye take charge. Jay’s already been there and done that – and, besides, he gets to go home to Beyoncé and baby Blue Ivy, while poor Kanye has to trudge backstage and continue teaching Kim Kardashian the alphabet. (She’s currently on S- and T-, for S-ex T-ape.)

Jay still played the role of the mentor, picking up the slack when his former apprentice was out of energy. During the slower “New Day”, when the two sat and caught a breath after a kinetic string of songs, Yeezy, out of breath, looked over to the veteran, and Jay knew what to do: he rapped part of Kanye’s verse for him, while he recuperated. At this point, the two looked less like two giants, and more like a vulnerable son leaning on his sapient father.

This is not to say that Kanye slumped; in fact, the crowd responded wildly to Mr. West’s solo compilation – perhaps because, in this country at least, Kanye has generally had a more successful track record in terms of chart hits and popular consensus; or perhaps because, let’s face it, he has some rockin’ stadium bangers that are designed to tear the roof off. As soon as his first solo song – “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” – rang from the speakers, the entire arena broke into screams. Everyone rapped along as he went from hit to hit to hit, from “Jesus Walks” to “All Falls Down” to “Monster”, and from to “Good Life” to “Stronger” to “Touch the Sky” to “Gold Digger”. It was no wonder he was drained of energy – so was I, and I was just standing up on some precipice on the top of Mount Fujiyama, looking down.

Before each hit played, the name of the track would flash across the screens, so the audience knew what was coming next, and so they could respond in the appropriate fashion. For me, that response, in nearly all cases, was: “OH SHIT! [Insert name of song here]! THIS IS FUCKING INSANE! (I WISH WE HAD STANDING TICKETS!)  BUT STILL, THIS SHIT’S INSANE!” I rocked up to the arena dressed in a pretty nice, off-white Polo shirt and dark jeans, and by the end, after all the rapping and arm-flinging to the beat of the music, I was a sweaty mess. The Polo was clinging to my chest as if I’d partaken in a Ralph Lauren wet T-shirt contest. My hair was dripping with perspiration, and my voice had gone. I’m sure it was an incredibly unattractive sight. This, then, was not a great time to pick up girls. Although, if any ladies out there are into sweaty brows, dehydrated cottonmouths and runny noses (which actually had nothing to do with the concert; I just also happened to have a cold at the time), please don’t hesitate to give me a call.

Kanye didn’t fail to inject a little of his egomania and sidetracking into his performance, though. After “Runaway” and “Heartless”, he “went off on one”, as it were, preaching and philosophizing for ten minutes about love and “holding on to the one you’re with”. Which seemed rather romantic and idealistic coming after a song that includes the lyrics: “24/7, 365, pussy stays on my mind”. Perhaps it was the thought of his newfound sweetheart, Kim Kardashian, sitting backstage and reciting her five times tables. (You would think, incidentally, that a man who thinks as much of himself as Kanye does, especially intelligence-wise, wouldn’t settle for a reality TV star for whose brains God didn’t have any neuron fibers left so used dental floss instead. A friend of mine has an intriguing theory that Kanye is gay, and that all this “player” talk is simply a ruse.)

Kanye also stopped “All of the Lights” halfway after the line: “MJ gone. A n***a dead!” He demanded that everyone join in and yell “a n***a dead!” the next time through – “this is the only time you’ll get away with saying it,” he joked. Or was it a joke? Was he making a serious, philosophical point here? Did he mean, on a deeper level, that everyone, despite their race or background, should all come together as one and disregard pre-existing racial and class constraints? No, probably not. But I still held back, uncomfortable with the thought of uttering, let alone shouting, the N-word, even if Kanye had given us his baffling blessing.

Of course, the two rappers alternated, with Jay-Z taking the reins in between Kanye’s ever-enigmatic performances. With Jay, there was a sense of refreshment. Jay gets to the point. He’s there to perform, not to sermonize, and for him, it comes effortlessly. Like his approach, his outfit was straightforward, and without a need for a leather skirt: “all black everything”, topped off with a Brooklyn Nets hat, representing, of course, the team he part owns. He needs to do nothing more than this to show that he’s the shit, and his repertoire supported this, with hits like “Dirt off Your Shoulder”, “Hard Knock Life”, “Public Service Announcement”, “On to the Next One”, “I Just Wanna Love You”, “H to the Izzo” and “Big Pimpin’” – not to mention his full rendition of New York’s unrivalled theme song, “Empire State of Mind”, which was a breath of fresh air directly following Kanye’s “Runaway” rant.

They were at their best when they shared the stage (or their own individual cubes), whether they were playing their Watch the Throne tracks or featured songs from their solo albums, such as Jay’s “Run this Town”, and the remixes of Kanye’s “Power” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”. Oh – and then there was that other one song, and one song only. What’s it called again? They didn’t play it enough times for me to remember…

Of course, I’m talking about the most epic rap song I’ve ever heard: “N****s in Paris”. That shit is more epic than Ben-Hur. It’s more epic than a triathlon across the South Pole with nothing more than a Speedo and a bicycle pump. (And not even a bicycle. That has to be acquired via some shrewd bargaining with penguins. They may look cute, but they’re swindling sons of bitches.)

Why is it “epic”? First of all, the name of the song is “N****s in Paris”. Clearly, the duo’s point is that it’s a rags to riches fairytale for two guys from the hood to be able to producing music in Paris (most of Watch the Throne was recorded in France), in the fashion capital of the world, wearing designer clothes and jewelry and generally “balling so hard”; as Jay says: “[If] you’d escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too!”

Another reason is that the track has enjoyed what I call the “SexyBack Effect”. Every once in a while, an artist releases a song containing a term or expression that everybody will start to use in daily conversation. After the release of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” in 2006, it was hard to avoid hearing at least one obnoxious college kid a day saying: “Yo dude, I’m totally digging these new kicks I picked up from Pac Sun the other day, they’re so sick bro! How much am I bringing Sexy Back right now?!” Even The Queen was heard using the term, on more than a single occasion: “One is looking utterly handsome this wintry eve, Philip, in that terribly tight tank top. One can see one’s six-pack! Has one been working out lately? One is certainly bringing Sexy Back tonight!” Sure, it was irksome that the expression was so overused, but it was a testament to the popularity of the song and its mass effect on the public. Another example was Rihanna’s 2007 hit, after which it was impossible to walk outside on a rainy day without hearing: “Hey, kids, did you remember to bring the umbrella? –Ella, -ella, -eh, -eh?”

“N****s in Paris” is enjoying the SexyBack Effect currently, with “ball so hard” and “that shit cray” – the song’s hooks, repeated by Jay and Kanye respectively – having become the latest slang words to enter the Urban Dictionary. Incidentally, “cray”, evidently a contraction of “crazy”, has been analyzed by some to actually be “Kray”, in reference to the British crime lords, the Kray brothers, who evaded police for several years – they “balled so hard, muthafuckers wanna find [them]”.

Either way, the song is famous not just for these catchphrases, but also for the fact that Jay and ‘Ye close their Watch the Throne shows by playing the track over and over again. The day I went to the concert, the two played the song four times in a row, which seems like a lot, but made me feel like I(‘d been cheated after hearing that the night before, and the night following, they played it seven times. (They recently set a record – at their show in Paris, fittingly – by playing it a whopping eleven times.) Now, my list of ways I have been screwed over looks like this:

  1. No standing tickets
  2. Only four renditions of N.I.P.
  3. Amazon Prime charging me a monthly fee without emailing me with notification of the end of my free trial. (Again, this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but still noteworthy, I feel.)

I have since become so used to hearing the song multiple times in a row that it simply doesn’t seem right when played a single time. At a club, recently, soon after the DJ played the track, I went up to her and asked if she could play it again. “I just played it,” she said, perplexed. “I know,” I admitted, “but it’s just so epic.” I think would happily fork out a decent amount of money for a N****s in Paris tour, comprising solely the one track played over and over again.

In fact, I want N****s in Paris to be the theme tune to my life. I want the song played at my wedding. When the bride, shining angelically in her pristine white dress, cheeks glowing with excitement (it hasn’t yet fully dawned on her that she’ll have to spend the entirety of the rest of her life with me), instead of the wedding march, the minister will announce: “We’re gonna skate to one song, and one song only”, at which point the organ, connected to a bass-heavy sub-woofer, will start playing the melody, and the congregation will begin balling so hard.  I also want the song played at my funeral. As guests dine on fish filet, instead of uttering the usual condolences and remarks like “what a shame”, they will – equally somberly – shake their heads and say: “that shit cray”. My gravestone will say: R.I.P., N.I.P. (Obviously, the cause of death will be: balling way too hard.)

After the fourth N.I.P., the show was over, and it was time to descend the steep ridge of the upper tier seating area. (The people in the standing area were able to leave pretty quickly – just saying.) I walked down the steps eating the remains of the grubby-ass pizza, which was now cold, and had probably been stepped on several times by latecomers squeezing through to their seats; and as I chomped down on the cold, hard cheese, I heard a person behind me – who can only be described as an asshole – complain to his friend: “Why did they have to keep playing that song over and over again?”

Instead of cutting his harness and pushing him down the mountain, I reflected on the momentousness of the show and knew it was easily the best concert I’ve seen. Though, admittedly, I seem to say that about every new concert I go to. I said the same thing when I saw Jay-Z solo for the first time in State College, Pennsylvania, where he kicked off his tour for The Blueprint 3. I said the same when I saw a low-budget T.I. concert (in-between his jail stints, I suppose); and also the same when I was fifteen and saw a drugged-up Eminem in 2003 (although to see the newly reformed, top-of-his-game Eminem today would be a mind-blowing experience). And I even said the same when I saw Akon and Rihanna live in 2007, though that was probably because I was a sophomore in college and drunk 95% of the time; and I’m pretty sure that concert was not part of the 5%, as I only reserved that for events that called for sobriety, such as going to the gym, reading books, and some exams.

Incidentally, one concert I did not say was the best I’ve been to was – and don’t judge – a Nickelback concert. Let me firstly defend myself by asserting that this was the tickets were sold at student rates, so I paid rather little to go. And, although the band’s music is generic (generock) and there’s a Facebook group that’s managed to recruit more fans of a picture of a pickle than of Nickelback, I have to admit that they did put on a pretty good show. But the problem arose out of the fact that I’d only bought my own ticket, having been assured by my roommates that they would also be buying tickets in the coming days. Of course, the day of the concert arrived and they had not followed through, and so I was forced to get my money’s worth by going to the concert…alone. In one of the most embarrassing moments of my life (and there have been countless), I tried to avoid looking as if I were there by myself by casually standing close to a large group of people who were there together, pretending I was with them. I even stooped so low as to nod along to their group conversations and laugh along with their jokes.

But at least I had standing tickets for that concert.

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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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