ME | ƎM
One Listener’s Confession, Part 1
On the Road to Recovery
My book Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race: Essays grew sideways out of an essay I wrote a few years ago trying to think through what it meant for me to be a fan of Eminem. On the occasion of the book’s publication I’m posting the original essay here. Below is part 1 of 3.
In the spring of 2010 when I learned that Eminem had changed the title of his forthcoming album from Relapse 2 to Recovery I was actually giddy. The excitement was surprising and more than a little embarrassing. Here I was a grown man counting off the days till the album’s release like a kid before summer vacation — and for a mainstream corporate pop star of the most mass appeal. Still, I found it impossible to suppress visions of cruising the freeways, windows down, stereo loud with lyrics, sunglasses on, wind blowing over my bald head. The urge was somewhat nostalgic. In 2002, thanks to a confluence of some of the unexpected circumstances that conspire in one’s college years to lead to intermittent periods in various cities where friends (or friends of friends) reside, I found myself in the Bay Area for a week with nothing to do but speed across the Bay Bridge in a friend’s parents’ brand new Acura blasting the then-new Eminem Show. The temptation to approximate that moment at a time in my life when I should have felt too old for that sort of thing hit me pretty hard on a guilty-pleasure level.
But not all of my excitement was strictly personal; some of it was (if this isn’t too serious a word) academic. And that aspect came pretty much directly from the album’s name change. See, I wanted an album I could get behind, and Recovery, unlike Relapse 2, suggested a viable ethos. The first Relapse was bad enough. I had looked forward to that album with similar hopes that — following Eminem’s five-year hiatus from studio albums, the death of his friend Proof, and the intimations of maturity on songs like “Like Toy Soldiers” (ironically, tragically disappointed by Proof’s real-life death, un-preemptively imagined on this track) — it would be a creative breakthrough. The title itself asked for lowered expectations: if not a breakthrough, at least a return to form: a relapse of the brilliant madness that made his first three major label albums the cultural disruptions they were. But even lowered expectations were let down by the self-parody of The Slim Shady LP’s monstrousness. All the shock and gore with none of the real world stories of thwarted ambition that supported the cartoonish distortions and made them so comically poignant. Even the rhyming and flow, which despite the accents (what in the world is up with the accents?) are just ridiculously good, don’t make up for the tired monotony of the horror-core fantasies. Eminem’s appeal and his strength as an artist have always depended on the balance and play between his tripartite identities. Without Eminem and Marshall Mathers, Slim Shady is simply grotesque. And on Relapse Eminem is for the first time in his career boring.
Prior to the name change I’d actually sworn myself off buying the new album, which is pretty significant given how into him I’d been during the era of his trilogy of masterpieces (The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show). Those albums captured (and created) a time and tenor the way the best art does, and I was frankly desperate in 2010 for Eminem to be a cultural force on that level again. In the eight years since his last great album the mood of my life had changed and I wanted his music to change along with it. I wanted to see him put his enormous talents to “good” use. I wanted to hear him do something . . . adult. For reasons I could not fully divine but that probably went all the way down to the level of identity, I wanted him to do an album I could swear by. Insofar as I felt like the same person I had been in 2000 – 2002, I didn’t want to turn my back completely on part of who I had been.
And here’s where I have to start interrogating the causes of my fandom. Was my one-time fanaticism (it’s worth remembering where “fan” comes from, even as the neutered form suggests neutered emotions) so intense that even as the moment itself has passed traces of it linger? Did the many of hours of listening embed the music as a defining component of who I am now, in a way analogous to how my ancestors will always remain a part of me, even as new mes continually emanate from this one? Is Eminem a portal to an earlier time in life that’s comfortable to return to because I know and like how it turns out? Do I like the music, or do I like how much I liked it? Maybe I was objectively a good judge of rap music and those three albums just are that good and worth returning to.
SCENE: Senior year of high school. Photography class. Scott is somewhat cool, but not as cool as he’s interested in being. He’s friendly with a student, Ed, who is inarguably cool: good looking, dreadlocks, regular access to drugs, and (somehow, it made sense at the time) his own house. Ed is talking with Scott and asks, did you see this new video on MTV last night? (Ed is so cool, see, so beyond the high school games of being cool, he can casually admit to watching MTV and somehow make you feel uncool for not watching MTV.) “There was this hilarious video by Slim Shady. And the rest of the album is even better; it’s dark and twisted. And it’s produced by Dre.”
People like Ed always seem to know the whole album before I even find out about the hit single. Not that I had to try very hard afterward to hear “My Name Is.” No sooner had Ed pointed it out than the song was everywhere in my soundscape. I laughed at the zaniness and the frustrated-youth vibe; was confused by the “dare me to drive?” line, as drinking and driving was becoming increasingly common among my peers and I couldn’t tell if it was meant as warning or provocation; but I did not get the album right away. A devotee of Tupac, just old enough to remember the Vanilla Ice fiasco, I wasn’t in a rush to be seen listening to a white rapper (even if Ed approved).
But eventually, a few months later, I just bought it. I was with a friend at the time and when we got to the car and I put the disc in — if I remember right we didn’t get past “Guilty Conscience,” the third track on the album, before she asked me to put on something less offensive. By the time I started really listening to the CD it was spring of 2000 and a burned copy of The Marshall Mathers LP had already ended up in my car. From the first time I heard the chorus of “Kill You” (which immediately implanted itself into my meme machine and replays itself whenever I so much as read the word “kill”) my Eminem phase was on.
SCENE: Scott in brown ‘80s station wagon, windows down, Eminem up loud, driving to the ice cream shop where he has a summer job. As soon as the boss goes home for the day, Scott changes the radio from the oldies station to the rap station, which seems to play only one album all summer: Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001, full of nasally appearances by the most oh-my-god-what-did-he-just-say exciting rapper in the world. Note that this is an awesome summer.
Between the ice cream shop and the new Acura in California was a giddy two years of anticipation for The Eminem Show. Parallel to my rising fanaticism was a world full of objectors, protesters, complainers, opposers, and wannabe censors. I understood the spirit of the objections and occasionally (when I thought about it) shared it: there’s some awful stuff on those albums. But my objection to the homophobia and misogyny on the records never got in the way of my listening to them. Not even close. I was as into those albums as it’s possible to be into albums. They turned me into one of those guys who walks around with a hoodie and headphones trying to look tough like some kind of misunderstood genius. When friends in college would sometimes ask how I could listen to stuff that was so “negative” I made no appeal to irony or artistic persona, I did not attempt to situate him as one in a long line of urban documentarians, I did not defend his facility with language, the pliability of his sounds, the sophistication of his similes or rhyme schemes. It’s not that I didn’t want to do these things. I just didn’t know how to, didn’t have the vocabulary for it. Despite being by most accounts an intelligent college student I had essentially no idea what made art art. I just knew it sounded good and I liked it. So I adapted the clichés I picked up from the media: “He’s just using his free speech”; and “I listen to it and I’m not going to kill someone, so music doesn’t cause violence.”
But something changed when Eminem got his movie. In less time than it took for him to go from underground legend who only people like Ed knew about to the most publicly hated artist in the world, he switched again to media darling. The minute “Lose Yourself” first aired on Eugene radio, everyone I knew was a convert. In one of the stranger twists in my cultural life: by supporting the most famous artist in popular music I was suddenly (albeit briefly) on the cultural vanguard. People asked my opinion on songs, came to me looking for secret recordings, and wanted me to join ciphers at parties.
When 8 Mile came out I went with friends who didn’t (and don’t) listen to rap music but who (along with hundreds of teenagers, we discovered) were set on seeing it on the sold-out opening night. When I saw it again in the theater a few months later with another friend (who was later a semi-famous rapper in The Netherlands) we snuck in 40s and shouted out lines from the battle scenes, which we had already learned. That’s what it was like then: Eminem’s pop culture presence was so strong everyone (not just me) knew all the words without ever trying to learn them. He was inescapable; and it couldn’t last.
Eminem and America needed some time apart. The break lasted two years. We tried to work things out again with Encore, but it wasn’t the same. The magic was gone. The world had moved on. I had graduated from school and was working in AmeriCorps. When one of my coworkers caught me with the new Eminem it felt totally expected that she said, “I’m just surprised. I thought you’d be listening to something more . . . Someone like Michael Franti.” I thought she was right I should be listening to Spearhead. Encore was funny and clever at moments, but it was repetitive and mostly uninspired. The hysteria that had made Eminem popular with suburban housewives was gone, and I now understood enough about art to know I wanted more from it than songs like “Puke” and “Just Lose It” were giving me. But Encore had three unequivocal standouts: “Like Toy Soldiers,” “Mosh,” and “Mockingbird,” standouts not because Eminem had mastered his craft (which he had — the intricacy of the rhymes on “Mockingbird” is typically brilliant, and “Like Toy Soldiers” is a tightly rapped technical masterpiece) but because the artistic vision of these songs so far surpasses anything we had reason to expect. “Like Toy Soldiers” realigns Eminem’s priorities to put loyalty to friends and family above professional success and public respect. As rappers who lived through the Tupac and Biggie murders, as adults with responsibilities, as friends who don’t want to lose one another, he raps, there are just too many reasons not to get caught up in petty dramas. The fact that Eminem’s best friend, Proof, who played the gunned-down rapper in the “Like Toy Soldiers” video, was shot dead about a year after that video over just the kind of thing the pettiness the song worries, is unbelievably . . . The thing about Eminem’s music is that it’s so confessional it’s like when Proof died we had immediate access to his prescripted hurt, which made it to some extent our hurt, which is one reason Eminem is a first-rate artist.
“Mosh” gave us an Eminem at his most political. Coming as the album did just ahead of the 2004 elections, it felt like the criticisms of W. and the provocations to follow the embittered rapper to somewhere better might actually be enough to induce young people to swing the vote. It was a last-second Hail Mary, but it was possible. Or maybe it wasn’t, but it seemed like it was — it was politically consoling even in defeat. And “Mockingbird” further reveals an artist who has learned lessons and is grown enough to offer unconditional love and forgiveness, not only to his daughter (now daughters) but also to his on-again-off-again partner and constant antagonist, Kim. It’s a generous spirit that despite its self-pity is bighearted and touching. In my mind, these three songs stood up with anything in rap. Period. And they were more than enough reason for me to stick with him.
Let me change my approach here. I basically just argued that Eminem is a good and important rapper, and I’m kind of wondering So what? There are many good and important rappers. I still don’t think I’ve gotten at what compels me to write about Eminem rather than, say, Tupac or Nas or Outkast or anyone else who at various times in my life I’ve been pretty heavily into. Here’s one guess: without Eminem I wouldn’t be writing anything at all. And that is due to the most confusing (for me) bit of this whole business:
One thing Eminem’s commercial success is due to is his ability to promote identification with him on the part of listeners whose urge to identify he then mocks and thereby further encourages. It’s quite the sophisticated manipulation of psyches and the conflict the listener feels between wanting to fit in and wanting to be an individual. One wants to be unique in the way Eminem is unique, so one wants to partake of his style — but not too much. What one really wants is to have been Eminem in the first place. Failing that initiates the awkward dance of suggesting it might have been you who became him, while maintaining (if only by implication) that since it might have been you, you’re not all that impressed with him. Too many Eminem songs explore this territory to list them all here. If you need a refresher, go check out almost anything he wrote after getting famous, particularly his first post-fame album, The Marshall Mathers LP.
But nowhere is this done more explicitly than in the third verse of “White America.” In it Eminem describes how the threat he represents is so strongly tied to his skin color (there’s more to it than this, but it’s a significant part), which gets him on TV and into the suburbs. No matter how many times I hear this song my first impulse remains to protest that I’m from the city, as if this proves . . . what? That I’m listening to the song for the right reasons? What are those? Maybe I’m listening because I had a copy of The Chronic when I was in middle school. Would that be a good reason? Eminem tells the listener that kids respect him because he’s produced by Dre, which itself invites respect by informing us that being produced by Dre is the kind of thing we should give respect for. It’s quite a positive feedback loop he’s got going here. Whether or not you knew or cared who produced him you are now able to credit yourself for being aware that a well-respected rap pioneer respected Eminem enough that your judgment was confirmed objective and sober. Dr. Dre validates your taste and negates any doubts of racial bias. (It does that, right?) It gets worse. Not only is the longing for authenticity (the longing, essentially, for blackness) problematized by the invocation of Dr. Dre’s endorsement, Eminem goes so far as to say that we listeners (whether we know it or not) are drawn to him because we look like him. This hit too close for comfort for many listeners, myself absolutely included. In fact, I’m now asking myself, Is that why I’m writing this? Is that why, just as Eminem says, I’ve got his lyrics under a microscope? Is my life, this part of it, just a subplot in Eminem’s master narrative? It’s a complicated relationship any white listener has with Eminem.
CONFESSION: I look more like Eminem than does your average white listener. I look a lot like him. Same build, same complexion, same pointy nose (and in the early ‘00s the same hair color and earrings). Also similar fashion in those days: baggy jeans and hoodie. One friend’s little sister used to take pictures of me and call me Eminem, which I tried to be reluctantly proud of but in retrospect was way too eager to encourage. SECOND-ORDER CONFESSION: I want to be “confessing” this in the past because, though it’s still embarrassing to admit, part of me still wants the reader to know that I look(ed) like him. I can’t lose the pride that our similar looks make me cooler and give me some authority to speak on the subject. Even though this sounds ridiculous to me and begs just about every question about identity it’s possible to beg. To wit:
One thing good pop musicians are able to do is make the listener feel special for listening, like you have a personal relationship, like the artist needs you as a listener just as badly as you need him/her as an artist. And at this move, Eminem is a master. In those early years I wanted to prove my specialness to him, show him I was the listener he was writing for. It’s not even in my character to fawn like this or seek approval. Eminem wasn’t even my favorite musician at the time (Bob Dylan was and is), but there it was: he made me feel special. Gotten.
There are reasons I latched onto Eminem and not someone else. His style invites a listener’s projections (mostly because of how good a, and what kind of, writer he is) — he the rap artist most accessible to the mainstream for two reasons: sound and subject, both of which are necessary to understand his success/appeal. I’ll just point it out now. First, Eminem is very easy to understand. His music (as much but not all rap does) prioritizes vocals over instrumentals — and these vocals (unlike much rap) are almost always decipherable, and (unlike a lot of rap for this listener) are generally discernable; I can tell what he’s saying and what it means. Eminem adopts a rapper’s black cadences and accents, but his vocabulary and enunciation are distinctly white. And, though, one of rap’s appeals for a white audience — the feeling that you’re getting a peak into something you don’t, and aren’t supposed to, understand — is lost, one gains the confidence of fully understanding a “real” rapper.
Second in Eminem’s accessibility is the content of his raps. While much popular rap has emphasized, especially when the form was newer, typically black experiences, Eminem’s raps opened the scope by representing frustrated, angst-ridden, mostly poor youth of a wider span. If you’ve never been to the projects, you can learn about them listening to Illmatic, but it’s not the same as living there. When Eminem raps about his shitty job you already know what he’s talking about because it’s your life and your shitty job too no matter what color you are. Eminem has that rare ability to tell deeply autobiographical stories that are universally identifiable with for listeners. And this is a product of poetic craft as much as it’s a product of his life itself. Everyone has had a shitty job; not everyone can make that job sing. When you hear someone complain about Eminem they don’t say his rhymes aren’t good, or his flow isn’t; they say he’s whiny, that his confessional style is overly self-pitying. This is a valid criticism and it’s why a lot of Encore is disappointing. When he takes his act to the meta-level of complaining about fans complaining about how much he complains about his hard life, it gets, well, redundant.
But one thing all Eminem’s autobiographyzing does is to give us a compelling (and because of his race and environment, unique) creation myth: hard circumstances → struggles through adversity → success beyond all expectation (→ new hard circumstances → struggles through new adversity (→ return to former glory(?))). This is a story inspiring enough to make a Hollywood blockbuster and sell 100 million records. It’s a story that captivated the least- (therefore most-) likely audience: editorialists at the New York Times. It’s a story that if you listen to very much you can’t help but internalize.
I was just young enough (or maybe I wasn’t young enough but just directionless enough) to listen to Eminem and feel like a misunderstood outsider. I was an underdog, biding my time, awaiting my comeuppance. I was going to get mine. Yes, mine would be gotten. I had aspirations, ambitions. I had a secret plan. I was going to make it. Problem was: at what? I had in this strange coming-into-adulthood moment only one role model, so I did what I thought he did: I started carrying around a little notebook and jotting stuff down in it.
OK, skip ahead a bunch of years. It’s 2009. Writing has established a primacy in my life. The little scribblings I put on stray pieces of paper of paper have become systematized into stacks of notebooks comprising ideas for projects, philosophical musings, an album’s worth of rap-poem lyrics, and a fairly exhaustive personal journal. There are drawers (folders on my computer, anyway) filled with drafts of screenplays, unfinished novels, abandoned essays, and novice poems. Some of my writing has even made it out of my private computer and into the public reading world. What I mean is: I found a thing.
Meanwhile, Eminem was fading from the collective foreground. I kept a distant — and increasingly critical — eye on his career (this was amidst 50 Cent’s ascendency, Obie Trice’s ups and downs, Proof’s murder, and as we’d later learn Eminem’s addiction to sleeping pills), but by then was committed enough to my own project of self-creation that I no longer needed to lean so much on his. Eminem ceased to be a mythic archetype for me and became one rapper among many, an artist to be judged, appreciated, criticized for his works independent of his story. If I was to continue listening to his music (as I periodically did) I would have to point to skills X, Y, and Z as the reasons or say there were no reasons, that there’s no accounting for taste and no need to defend it, except as I continued to do my own work my sensitivity to the quality and consequences of the art I granted my attention were heightened, and I lost patience for anything I couldn’t justify supporting.
That’s what it makes sense for me to write here, anyway, but that’s not exactly how it was. See, while I didn’t identify with Eminem anymore or take his successes and failure personally, it was still weirdly important to me that he be relevant again.
Except even that’s not putting it quite strongly enough, is it? I didn’t just want him to be relevant; I wanted him to make something great. And it’s not that I’d ceased identifying with him; it was that I desperately wanted to cease identifying with him. That’s why I kept reminding myself how bad the bad parts of Encore were, that’s why part of me secretly hoped his hiatus would be indefinite. He’d used it all up — what else was there for him to say? But, but, but, so many buts. I kept rooting for him to return, to put his immense talents behind something fully worth his while — maybe a tribute to Proof? I needed him to do something great, so I might still think of doing something great myself. And so when a new song plays from the radio, and on it Eminem lightly chides his own meager output, and rumors of his overcoming drug addiction — of his having a drug addiction — are confirmed, and he seems newly mature and poised for that great thing, man, am I ready to get the new album and give it a thorough listening.
As I had for albums previous, but still overcoming a not-insignificant level of embarrassment, I marked my calendar for Relapse’s release and when the morning came drove myself to Fred Meyer, carrying a Discman (circa 1994) I’d fished out of the garage for the purpose of playing the CD all the way through immediately upon purchase. See, Fred Meyer, for those not of the Northwest, is one of those stores that has a built-in Starbucks and sells everything you might ever need. That makes it sound too much like Wal-Mart, doesn’t it. It’s like a less offensive Wal-Mart, or maybe a Target that doesn’t try so hard. Growing up, the Hollywood Fred Meyer was the #1 place I was likely to bump into my aunts, uncles, and friends’ parents. They relocate their departments within the store rather more than I’d like, but it’s a good store. Over all, yes, a good store, where I could get my CD, get my coffee, sit in a comfortable chair and for an hour just listen.
So I got the CD (which I pretended like I was buying casually, as I just happened to be in the store getting coffee on the morning of its release and thought, gregariously, Why Not?) with my coffee and fumbled giddily to open it and examine the insert. I wanted everything to be just right for maximum appreciation, and the insert contained lyrics(!), so lyrics would be read! I put on my headphones, isolating myself from the outside world enough, I hoped, that I’d be able to read and listen without worrying that someone would think I was the kind of person who self-unconsciously buys an Eminem CD on its release date and, worse, is desperate enough to hear that he listens in public. I’ll spare you the description of the fluctuating extent to which this meta-self-consciousness and -unconsciousness worked because, really, I was in such an agitated state that . . . oh forget it.
I’ll also spare you much analysis of the listening itself. Out of a sense of obligation to the plans I’d made for the morning I finished the album, but it didn’t take that full listen for my assurances that it’s often hard to tell if you like something the first time around to give way to the acceptance that the album just was not good. I’d go home, listen to it some more, and try try try to like it (where does the impulse to make yourself like something you clearly don’t come from?), but this was not what I’d hoped for.
Upon this brief period of further review, Relapse was as bad as my first impressions suggested. The verbal dexterity and masterful, playful rhyming were not enough to buoy stale shock lines that only parodied the Slim Shady character they attempted to resuscitate. An artist’s nadir always comes when the work becomes indistinguishable from parody. But you wouldn’t know how bad the album was if you didn’t listen for yourself. Critics gave it respectfully mixed reviews.
It was as if anyone who could remember the cultural dominance Eminem achieved in 2002 – 2003 feared to criticize his failings for fear of coming across as out of touch with the younger generation. What they didn’t appreciate was that the younger generation would have found them out of touch (if they knew these critics existed) because they were still talking about Eminem, who anybody who was anybody had long moved on from. But so when I read things like “he comes up with a more painful, honest and vital record than anyone could have expected at this late date, up there with The Eminem Show or maybe even better” it was hard to see the authors as anything but desperate to prove they weren’t Republicans. What burned was that these critics seemed incapable of distinguishing between Relapse and the previous catalogue, which belittled every discerning gesture I made as a listener. On the albums of Eminem’s I love there are lines I detest, and that contradiction is worth evaluating in moral terms. Not in the hysterical, “he’s a menace to the children” complaints of the right or the “look how open minded I am” approach of the left but in a moral voice that reflects and responds honestly. With Relapse I wanted to hear someone say to Eminem, “this is beneath you. We expect more.” Our artists should make art.
But I didn’t really talk about any of this in 2009. The relatively warm media response to Relapse drove me to distance myself from Eminem in general. The album seemed to reflect back on the previous work and show that those early albums might have been as bad as critics claimed, after all. For all the talk of ironic posturing, social commentary, and sophisticated personae in Eminem’s best work, maybe he was nothing but an immature shock artist. It kind of seemed that way, and the trouble it would take to distinguish between the early music (which is artistically compelling) and Relapse (which is not) was not worth the effort in the cultural moment.
The prudent approach was willful ignorance. This wasn’t hard, socially. With the exception of my cousin Steve, no one I knew followed Eminem as closely as I did — or, really, followed him at all. It wasn’t so much uncool to like him as it was uncool to spend more than five seconds listening to or talking about him. Big label. Over-produced. Commercial-driven. Attention-seeking. Some of the underground stuff was cool. Way too everywhere. Why not Talib Kweli or Jurassic 5? Et cetera. All true, I used to say early in the decade, but you have to get past that and actually listen to the lyrics and delivery. Unmatched. But it was late in the decade now, and that debate was five years past worth having. Could have been the music, could have been the times, could have been me. As a fan, while wondering where I got the idea that Eminem owed me something, I felt betrayed by him. More than once I promised myself I was leaving him for good. I had outgrown him. And while I swore not to listen I continued to think about why I wasn’t listening.
Still feeling the hurt he’d caused, and in light of my decision to enter my post-Eminem years, I had the ex-believer’s sense of regret and self-chastisement. If enjoying Eminem’s music had been a mistake of taste, then I had for some reason made the mistake, and that reason had to be located in my listening past. The aspect of Eminem’s work that Relapse highlighted was the depravity of the Slim Shady character, Eminem’s alter ego, who acted out, or at least voiced, his basest desires.
But while Relapse is evocative of The Slim Shady LP’s darkness, it fails to evoke its humor. Whether this is a moral or aesthetic failure is probably very important to how we understand Eminem, but since trying to suss this out with much confidence would involve ending my protest of Relapse I’ll have to leave it there and turn from the causes to the consequences of the lack of humor: namely, the retrospective questioning it invites of the early work — who were the jokes on?
The deft melding of reality and artistic construct that is a recurring theme on early Eminem tracks invites the listener to regard himself as savvy and attentive when he hears the reactionary response of uncool politicians, parents, and feminists. The fact that they don’t get the joke, even when it’s spelled out, is all the funnier to the listener who’s in on it. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see why throwing a “just kidding” on the end of a savage insult may not be sufficient to the insulted party. Is irony to be the moral get-out-of-jail-free card that the first amendment is politically? Because Eminem plays so many roles (conveyor of traditional power over women and gays, and possibly over some minorities but never over blacks; ironic jester; twisted psychological investigator; and self-exhibitionist — the role that buys him the credibility to play the other roles) and plays them on meta-levels through three different personae, it is impossible to pin down an essential Eminem. There is no core Eminem message unless that core message is the variety itself. Because of the primacy of irony in Eminem’s music, is there anything he’s fully committed to? Does that matter? In the context of looking back on Eminem’s early albums with the benefit of Relapse’s hindsight, these questions are probably more fruitful than the answers, for they reveal the potential fear in the ex-Eminem fan: that while he thought he was in the joke, he was really the butt of it. That is, if we read Eminem’s music as being inherently ironical, underneath its cleverness we see the worst of postmodernism: moral vacancy and crass exploitation. Was I, the savvy listener, ever with him, or was he manipulating me? The question of keeping it real versus pandering and exploiting, of saying anything for a dollar, is more urgent with Eminem (because of lyrical content, cultural prominence, and skin color) than for any other rapper. It’s possible to read these complications as real artistic virtues; it’s also possible to read them as games without winners. How cynical do we want to be about Eminem? How cynical is he about us?
Besides humor, compared to The Slim Shady LP, neither does Relapse convey any pathos. The darkness of “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde,” wherein a desperate, young Eminem enlists his toddler daughter to help him dispose of her mother’s body, contains a real human bleakness as Eminem gives us a character broken down by life. On Relapse we get a celebration of moral depravity for the sake of . . . It’s hard to tell if it’s for the sake of anything, except the artist’s need to sell records. Without falling victim to the claim that depiction is endorsement, some manners of killing a woman on a song are artistic and some are not. And if it’s not art, well, maybe we do need to worry about the kids. Without humor, without pathos, these songs appeal to the worst in the audience.
So that’s the fear, that’s my fear, but I don’t think this is a case of me just getting old and thinking that Eminem stopped being good because I turned twenty-four. In the early work that I enjoy there are clues about what he means and what he doesn’t (and an intentional blurring of this distinction that keeps the listener on critical guard). Though this softens regrettable blows, it doesn’t erase them, not least when they appear in the earnest songs that appear on The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show — the songs as much as any that made an Eminem fan out of me.
One of Eminem’s great successes has been his mastery of the confessional mode of rapping. His knack for concisely drawing compelling, if often one-dimensional, characters has enabled him to make his audience know and care about the people in his real life, who have subsequently become the characters of our art. I have only to write the names Hailie, Kim, Debbie, and even the casual listener knows exactly who these people are where they stand in relation to Marshall. And while we care about these characters, we care about them only insofar as they impact our central narrating voice: Marshall, the real life person behind the triumvirate of personae who has the straw-into-gold gift of turning the stuff of life into layered and profound (yes, profound) art.
Due to the overlapping but essentially distinct characters Eminem uses, and the various voices and topical interests of them, the listener has little difficulty in distinguishing among the fantastic comic book mayhem of Slim Shady, the public image, stage presence of Eminem, and the psychologically troubled, insecure, and damaged Marshall Mathers. It’s this last persona — caricatured and dramatized though it is — that is most fundamentally autobiographical, and is the one that draws the listener’s sympathies rather than his awe. Hearing the earnest confessionals of Marshall Mathers, the listener almost unavoidably imposes his self-identity onto the character. While we do not trust the details of Marshall’s stories, we most certainly do trust the mood. And so even if we cannot identify with having an abusive mother, being a poor high school dropout, or trying to succeed in a medium that is hostile to our skin color, we hear in those stories our struggles to [reader: fill in your own obstacles]. This is the hopeful aspect of Eminem’s music, the ethos: despite the challenges that he faced, he overcame them — the existence of the albums themselves is proof of this. You can’t control your conditions, but you can transform them into something beautiful. This is, of course, the story of 8 Mile, the most earnest and confessional moment of Eminem’s career, and the one that brought him the most widespread acclaim. The story of triumph over adversity is translatable to any audience, even one who doesn’t appreciate the avenue of triumph as such.
See, I liked rap, listened to it pretty consistently my teenage years, but always from a remove. Partially, this was racial, but more than that it was a craft element. Years earlier, I had identified with the swaggering tone — and occasionally the values — of Tupac, but Tupac’s approach was that of a poet compared to Eminem’s postmodern playwright. Tupac transformed the stuff of life into a poetic imagining of his experience, and the original success of his work was in the severely complicated voice of his poetic speaker. The various aspects of Tupac were always in conflict as to which would dominate his vision. This makes for a deeply human artistic presentation, yet its mode is so intentionally archetypal — the embodiment of young black contradiction of the era — that it doesn’t get personal, even when it’s autobiographical. When you listen to a Tupac album you feel like you’re imagining the artist behind the art; when you listen to an Eminem album you feel like you’re meeting the man.
The intimacy this kind of relationship allows is rare (especially for young men, I want to add). You get to be right there with someone’s thoughts, you feel like you know them, and you start imagining that they know you. And pretty quickly a relationship where you feel like someone actually gets you (even if you’ve never met and never will) becomes deeply important in your life. At this point, if you’re a certain kind of person, you experience relief via consolation. If you’re another kind, you want to do it yourself.
I’m the latter kind. And so, (unbelievably, this is true) without conscious awareness of what I was doing, I started aping Eminem’s method. This involved journaling, self-dramatizing poetry, and little raps in my textbooks (which went otherwise unopened). I started buying notebooks and filling them up with various arrangements of words: strict rhymes, streams of consciousness, intentional nonsense, and stories. Getting these pieces of myself out into the world, even though I didn’t share them with anyone, felt like what it felt like to listen to an Eminem song. The difference was his confessional music bridged a gap between speaker and listener, whereas my scribblings exaggerated my self-consciousness by objectifying my thoughts: there they were on the page to be read and reconsidered.
During this talk of confession, I should clarify, I have in mind almost exclusively The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. This is for a few reasons: 1) it’s on these albums that confession features most prominently; 2) it’s on these albums that it’s best done (these were, indeed, his best artistic years in absolute terms; 2000 – 2002 were to Eminem what 1966 – 1967 were to Dylan); and 3) it was when these albums came out that I was in need of what I heard in them, and when I started with my notebooks. Had I been a few years older or younger when these albums released, maybe I never would have developed an interest at all.
Eventually I found memoir offered the same intimacy with an artificial (as in product of artifice, not necessarily fake) self. Actually, the traditional complaints against memoir can all be put to Eminem’s music: What makes his life so special that we should care about it? Is his work exploitive? How does his family feel about it? What’s his obligation to “the truth”? The answer to all these questions is the same with respect to Eminem and with respect to memoir in general: the well-rendered memoir absolves all objections — true art is its own defense.