ME | ƎM
One Listener’s Confession, Part 3
Who We Are Now
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 3 of 3.
I’d already heard the lead single, “Not Afraid,” by the time I got to the store in June 2010 to get my copy of Recovery. That song must have caught others as it did me: completely off guard. As expected, it featured the excellent rapping and catchy hook of a hit, but additionally it seemed weirdly uplifting and willing to flirt with corniness. I loved it. The album continued in this vein. When I listened a certain way I could hear it as the adult album I’d been hoping for. It’s also the most feminine album in Eminem’s catalogue. Besides all the female voices on many of the hooks (something we’ve never seen to such an extent from him), there’s the fact Eminem looks downright androgynous himself in the CD’s booklet. And with the more form-fitting attire, he looks more grown up and less hard (although this might be due to the fact that he insists on sagging his pants, even though he’s wearing skinny jeans, and like anyone who sags skinny jeans, he looks like he’s shit himself — and of course it’s nearly impossible to appear menacing when you’ve just pooped your pants).
The confession has always been one of Eminem’s most successful tropes, but there’s an emotional vulnerability on Recovery that’s completely new from him. There’s even a psychobabbly kind of element, as he raps about his “self-esteem,” classifies himself a “recluse,” and admits the unmanly anxiety “I look fat.” And truth is, amidst his addiction years he did look a little fat. And now he looks skinny, weirdly gaunt with his un-bleached hair. Things done changed. This is a new Eminem.
The Eminem of Bad Meets Evil’s Hell: The Sequel, though, is the old one — the Slim Shady character at his best. Intricate, intricate rhymes, stunning verbal dexterity, funny and insightful lines, and the ability to stir up controversy. I was driving with my wife when “The Reunion” came on and we had the familiar debate about lyrical content. She taking the line that words have consequences and if he’s not mature enough to make responsible art we should at least be mature enough to not listen to it. Me taking the line that both Eminem and we are mature enough to know not to take lyrics literally. You can imagine the back and forth here.
Later, though, I was thinking about that track, the worst on the album, when Kierkegaard popped into my head. In his journals, he wrote that “if Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought in which he had even begged the question in many places, then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” The situation with Eminem is basically reversed. Eminem might be the greatest rapper who has ever lived, but if so it’s not because he sticks in the reminders about how to read his work — he does put these in, as in “The Reunion,” wherein all the derogatory imagery is part of a framing device meant to play with the idea that there’s a gap between the image of Eminem and the real person — but despite them. No matter how much sophistication it’s done with, throwing out a “just kidding” at the end of a song doesn’t make up for a bad song. In the case of “The Reunion” the framing device might get Eminem (and Royce da 5’9”) off the moral hook, but it doesn’t excuse him aesthetically. The song still sucks to listen to, and for all the great work Eminem has produced, there’s no reason to waste time on the numerous failures.
CONFESSIONAL OUTRO: When I started writing this essay I was working nights in a factory. One of the good things about working in this particular factory was that everyone brought in their own headphones and you could listen to whatever you wanted. And so I’m working one night, listening to my rap collection on shuffle, when “If I Had” from The Slim Shady LP comes on. There I am with my college degrees, my first book of philosophy just published, spending my nights in a factory, still not making enough to be able to afford health insurance, wanting to be at home with my wife, dreaming that one day I’ll make enough money writing to get that insurance and quit this job. How much of the faith I have in myself is warranted? Will I “make it” out of here? Would I ever make it back to the achieving class I came from? My friends have jobs with salaries and benefits, and here I am scraping by with two part-time jobs just hoping to cover the bills this month. I wouldn’t even think of trading my life for theirs — and none of this would have ever occurred to me if I hadn’t for whatever reasons taken Eminem and his 8 Mile story so damn seriously.