Shhh! I think Eminem is trying to tell us something.
When he began his concerts on this year’s tour with a horror-film short in which he plays the chainsaw-wielding psycho, that seemed like a hint. When he then appeared onstage in a Friday the 13th hockey mask and hoisted a roaring chainsaw aloft—that too was a little suggestive. And when, onThe Marshall Mathers LP, the world’s self-proclaimed “most meanest MC” strangles a woman, cuts a guy’s head off, rapes his mother, and takes credit for inventing violence itself—all before the end of the first verse—well, call me crazy, but that sounds like a cue to how literally we should take his lyrics.
But perspective gets tricky when you’ve had the kind of year Marshall Mathers has. Within the past 12 months, the 27-year-old rapper known as Eminem has bashed teen-poppers and beefed with hip-hoppers; been divorced (twice) from his wife and sued by his mom; lost custody of is daughter, Hallie Jade; been arrested on assault charges (for allegedly pistol-whipping a bouncer) and a weapons charge (for allegedly pulling a gun on a rival rap group); been denounced for misogyny and condemned for homophobia—and, somewhere along the way, sold 7 million records. It was an appropriately sci-fi spectacle for the year 2000: a white MC with the fast-selling solo album of all time. A Charles Barkley told a reporter, “You know it’s going to hell when the best rapper out there is white and the best golfer out there is black.”
No one ruffled feathers this year like quite like Eminem, who was name-checked by everyone from Elton John to Boy Gorge to wives of presidential hopefuls. In September, Lynne Cheney even busted Eminem lyrics on the Senate floor. “Wives, nuns, sluts,” she told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “Whoever the bitches might be.” While some wives, nuns, and sluts were doubtless disconcerted, many listeners caught the deafening hyperbole in those lines, a shock-jock overkill that runs throughout Eminem’s second multiplatinum LP and makes such condemnations faintly ridiculous. Our old friend, the anti-rap crusader C. Delores Tucker, even rejoined the fight, railing against the record’s “advocacy of incest, sacrilege, rape, and sodomy,” despite the fact that it’s strongly con on that last issue (about which more later). Even the record’s harshest critics were moved to verbal extravagance. “I like how they called his style ‘violoporn,” says Eminem’s A&R man, Dean Geistlinger, referring to a statement in Cheney’s speech. “That was dope. Viloporn.”
In fact, The Marshall Mathers LP does deserve a new formal designation, not for style but entertainment platform. Though composed and performed by both the world’s hottest rapper and its greatest producer MMLP is not simply a rap record. Functionally, it’s a combination rap record, comedy album, cartoon show, and horror movie. It was made by a star whose diverse talents enable a strange fluidity between genres and who has a sure knowledge of each one’s rules. His multi-tongued pop vernacular, born and forged in hip-hop, is a big part of both Eminem’s massive success and the confusion surrounding him.
In a new documentary on the slasher films of the ’70s, director John Landis describes the difference between watching a Hitchcock thriller and a indie-horror film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “When you’re watching a Hitchcock movie, you’re in suspense because you’re in the hands of a master,” he says. “With some of these other films, the people making them are not trustworthy. You’re not in the hands of a master; you’re in the hands of a maniac.”
This is the effect of the storyteller Slim Shady, who raps, “I’m just as fucked-up as you woulda been if you’d-a been in my shoes” and, by most indications, is probably right. Eminem, who was born a year before Chainsaw was released and who references it in his record’s first verse, knows this narrative technique and has employed it masterfully, evading both predictability and responsibility. In the process, he has also affected the tastes and attitudes of just about every young person in the country. And this makes the outcry over Eminem something more than politics as usual.
Part of the scary brilliance of the Eminem Project is its Trojan horse quality, the way this vile bundle of rage and dysfunction has been packaged in such shiny, non-childproof wrapping. If Mathers goes to puzzling lengths trashing boy-band singers—“I’m anti-Backstreet and Ricky Martin/With instincts to kill ‘N SYNC; don’t get me started,” etc.—part of the reason might be that, until he opens his mouth, he could pass for one himself. (Eminem nightmare #325: the October Teen People, which hypes its Mathers cover story next to the lines “9 New Tricks For Perfect Skin” and “Cool Looks Modeled by 98°.”) Once a member of a 90s hip-hop’s subgenre of crazy white rappers—including the Rugged Man, Cage, and others—the angel-faced rapper is now slipping his Vicodin and snuff tales in between comic books and Clearasil.
Buoyed by the seductive tracks of Dr. Dre, the man who brought gang signs to the strip mall, he’s representing the underground in the most mainstream places possible. This has puzzled people on both sides of the fence.
“When I first the second album, I was like, ‘Why is he dissing Britney Spears? Recalls DJ Milo Berger, of the indie hip-hop group The High and Mighty, Eminem’s openers on a European tour. But then I realized he’s living in an MTV world now. He’s writing about what he’s experiencing, which every good MC should.”
To survive that neutralizing world, Eminem has become a self-aware cartoon, an everykid rebel like Bart Simpson or, in his own words, a 26-year-old Cartman”—i.e., South Park’s famous potty-mouth. This is the flip side to Eminem’s horror-film persona, realized in The Slim Shady Show, the other film feature of his Anger Management set. Quoting South Park and Hanna-Barbra, the short, like some of the best hip-hop, is sick, stylish, and hilarious. (The plot involves Slim’s gang avenging a lost b-ball game on the South Park gang with a handful of Viagra tablets and an Ex-Lax bar.) But whatever format it takes, the rapper’s cartooning is at least partially autobiographical. And this fundamental hip-hop conceit makes Eminem, even at his most cartoonish, resonate much differently than other two-dimensional characters.
That brings us to the tightly packed lyrics on The Marshall Mathers LP, which are vicious in every sense of the word. They attack enemies famous, obscure, and, in some cases, not particularly hurting for attackers. Rap’s tradition of misogyny and homophobias makes lines like the now-infamous “Hate fags?/The answer’s yes” hard to shrug off, especially when their obviously intelligent author explains his generally gay-baiting use of the word “faggot” as a generic playground taunt—a distinction that seems to have eluded many of his supporters.
“Eminem knows what his fans want to hear, reads one posting on the antimusic.com site. “Fags should stay away and live on a leper island.” Some posters feel Eminem’s pain: “I have a fag uncle. I hate my uncle and I hate fags… All [Eminem] is trying to say is he dislikes homosexuals and thinks it’s not right to be gay.” Another writes to express heartfelt admiration: “I am a 17-year-old female. I really love Eminem and his music. I look up to him as a human and for his music. … If you have any comments please feel free to contact me…. You FAGGOTS WILL DIE. Thank you, Carly.”
While Eminem definitely didn’t invent such sentiments, he has certainly given them a coolness and acceptability they didn’t have a few years ago, which is a pretty shitty thing to have on your résumé. Being a hip-hop head has always meant having to say you’re sorry—to Jews for liking Public Enemy; the police for liking N.W.A.; to Koreans for liking Ice Cube; to women for liking just about anybody. At this point, many fans blow off extra-musical moralizing, assuming that hip-hop’s streety, volatile lyricism will always defy polite society and that that’s sort of the point. With Eminem, that attitude has truly gone mainstream.
“I think his success represents in away the decline of the whole p.c. regime of the early ‘90s,” says MTV’s Kurt Loder, who has spent many hours interviewing and pondering Eminem. “People are just tired of being told what they can say, what they can listen to. Whether or not you like what he’s saying, what he’s saying really is him, and he’s not tailoring it for any particular audience. I think the reality of it is what’s so appealing. He’s saying what’s on his mind. And surely a lot of people are not going like what’s on his mind.”
Or, as the argument—as Eminem well knows—they’ll like it all too much. During Eminem’s recent concert performances of “Role Model,” a screen behind the stage flashed advice like “Do What I say,” “Take Pills,” and “Have Sex” over the spiraling black-and-white backdrop that ‘50s film used to connote hypnotic mind control. It was an arena-sized in-joke. For someone who claims not to give a fuck, Eminem is constantly rapping about his influence on others—defiantly and sarcastically, always playing with the idea of words and responsibility. “I think I was put here to annoy the world/And destroy your little four-year-old boy or girl.” (Interestingly, the only word on the entire album that’s actually bleeped out is a word that only became an obscenity two years ago: “Columbine”—a disaster widely blamed on pop-cultural poisoning.)
While enjoying Eminem would seem to require getting the irony, that irony comes entwined with a lot of other very real, very volatile emotions. The Marshall Mathers song “Kim,” for instance, is almost certainly the first song to be cited in divorce proceedings, classified as “Infliction of Emotional Distress” in his wife’s suit for its depiction of “horrific domestic violence against the wife resulting in her grisly murder.” The song is indeed horrific, a nightmare dramatized. On it, Eminem doesn’t sound like he’s battling or wisecracking, rather auditioning for an Able Ferrara movie. He shrieks his rhymes, reprising a rage-and-grief-laden domestic dispute that it’s hard to imagine chuckling at or bumping along to in your ride. Both its tone and autobiographical source make “Kim” pretty clearly something other than a sick joke, and Eminem a far more slippery creature than a simple shock rapper.
For words like these, words that aren’t just gags or battle rhymes, the ever-savvy author has another explanation. We are to simply blame his alter ego, Slim Shady—personage literary critics would call, with considerable understatement, an “unreliable narrator.” It’s a slick trick, some would say, a morally weak dodge. But artistically, it’s totally legitimate. This may be what Eminem’s defensibility rests on: whether you can call someone an artist who works out his problems with the women in his life onstage with a blow-up doll.
Exactly one month before Election Day, America’s No. 1 Viloporn rapper was getting ready to rock our nation’s satire capital. While his crew sample the exotic appetizers (“Yo, can I get some of that edamame flow?”), Eminem sat in his dressing room and prepared for his role in the season première of Saturday Night Live. Since the embattled rapper had instituted a complete press blackout, the world will just have to imagine the substance of his dressing-room tête-à-têtes with Farrah Fawcett and the Fonz (who came to introduce his bleach-blond teenage son, Max Winkler.)
Onstage, however, Eminem presented a powerful if oblique challenge to those painting him as a simple hatemonger. In his white ball cap and baggy sweater, he stood next to the slim, blonde British singer Dido and performed the Marshall Mathers song “Stan,” which samples Dido’s acid-jazzy “Thank You.” “Dear Slim,” he began, “I wrote you but you still ain’t callin’/I left my cell, my pager, and home phone at the bottom.” I this odd epistolary rap song—told entirely in letters form an increasingly deranged fan—the song’s story unfolds so smoothly and with such expert pacing that it’s easy to overlook what an amazing literary and musical performance it is.
Ending with a chilling murder-suicide described in a previous song,” Stan” is a sharp and chilling simulacrum that shows self-awareness without taking any blame. “I actually think that song has an incredible social conscience,’ Dido said later. SNL producer Lorne Michaels came to Mathers’ dressing room to compliment him. “One thing I do know is writing,” he told the rapper. “And you’re a great writer.”
Of course, literary history is full of great writers who are also barely passable human beings. We might fairly describe a person who tattoos his chest with the words kim—rot in pieces as someone who can’t let a grudge go and Eminem has already devoted extraordinary amounts of energy and CD time to seemingly self-destructive feuds. His bashing of the critically despised, commercially insignificant Detroit rap group Insane Clown Posse gave them more juice than they could ever get on their own. The latest victim of his ire is Everlast, whose fairly inconsequential line from a guest spot with indie-rap group Dilated Peoples move him to the top of Eminem’s shit lost.
On the B-side to a single by Eminem’s new rap group, D-12, the blond rapper dedicates the partially sung “I Remember” solely to dismantling the former House of Pain MC. “I remember when you had your first heart attack,” goes a line. “I was right there laughin’ when I heard the news.”
If spite is his chief muse, it drives him relentlessly. “One thin I noticed when we were on tour together was that he was constantly, and I mean constantly, writing rhymes,” says DJ Milo. “We’d be at sound check—he’s writing.
We’d be on these little plane trips from one country to the other—he’s writing. A lot of MCs who I’ve dealt with do it almost as a hobby. But with him, it was unbelievable. He had all these girls around, all the temptations in the world, and he would just go into his hotel room and write rhymes.”
On his latest tour, Eminem’s set is the skeletal front of the house he grew up in, the same beige brick-faced ranch number in a photograph on the front of The Marshall Mathers LP. Just as its cover makes an artistic conceit out of his famously plagued ancestral home, Eminem’s album is, in its way, obsessed with the creation of a self. It’s a dark, hateful, funny and cruel sort of The Miseducation of Slim Shady, penned by someone who may or may not be a moral artist, a profound artist, or even, in the long run, a significant artist. But he’s definitely one of the increasingly rare chart-mongers who actually deserve the title recording “artist.”
The Marshall Mathers LP isn’t just a sick joke, just a cartoon, or just a horror movie. Its lurid raps and murderous fantasies aren’t all shock raps but often outpourings of angst and spite, the kind of things we comfortably called art when Kurt Cobain—another small, blond, witty, working-class former victim of bullies—set them to Beatlesque melodies rather than hyperkinetic rhyme schemes. And just because the tales aren’t literal doesn’t mean that they’re not real.
During Eminem’s live performances, a giant screen behind him often flashed selected snapshots of young Marshall Mathers staring out of some late-‘70s, shag-carpeted hell, the preteen’s blasted features and black eyes recalling nothing so much as the young Michael Myers—clown mask pulled off his face, butcher’s knife in hand, looking blankly in the opening tableau vivant of Halloween.
The snapshots were perfect: a fetishization of the pure child that moralizing hand wringers claim to protect—from a record that is every bit as crass, thrill-seeking, an exploitative as the slasher of the ‘70s and, arguably, just as necessary. Director Wes Craven called those films “boot camp for the psyche,” ways of preparing young people for the very real nightmares—violence, hate, death, and fear—that the world has in store for them.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre kept it real, in the manner of of The Marshall Mathers LP. “The story you are about to see is true,” its opening titles proclaim. It wasn’t, actually. “Inspired by news reports from early-‘70s America” would be more accurate. In a 2008 interview, director Tobe Hooper called this mistruth a response to “being lied to by the government about things that were going on all over the world.” It sounds like a Slim Shady kind of lie, issued from a real world of hurt and truth. And what words should set off your horror film? “This is only a movie”?