Friday, February 03, 2006

The Slim Shady Essay: The Psychological Craftsmanship of Marshall Bruce Mathers III

As an aficionado of old school and underground hip-hop, I'm no fan of Eminem's zeitgeist-reflecting, casually misanthropic, trailer trash aesthetic, but Robert Christgau's excellent Slim Shady Essay presents an articulate summation of the case for the defence. In a medium predicated upon authenticity (or at least the illusion of it), Eminem's ostentatious inauthenticity varnishes his misogynistic, homophobic oeuvre with a patina of postmodern sophistication. If Eminem started out as a brash Benny Blanco to Tarantino's Carlito Brigante, he quickly eclipsed the latter's status as popular culture's pre-eminent peddler of ironic pornography. Now Eminem has "retired" at the top, we await his reivention and, perhaps, the return of a "rejuvenated, rehabilitated and reassimilated" artist.

An excerpt from Christgau's essay follows:

From The Believer

When hip-hop scribes try to explain Slim Shady to the condescending, they generally cite seminal gangstas N.W.A and the Geto Boys. But though these groups were certainly provocateurs—N.W.A greatly overstated their eagerness to break the law, and the Geto Boys trumped them by mixing in slasher-flick shock-horror—their personas, as groups and individual rappers, had one layer. The trickiest thing about them they shared with every other rapper who ever ran afoul of the thought police: a bare-faced willingness to tell a core constituency that their particular rap flava “represented” “reality,” which most in their hoods would scornfully deny, while indignantly informing anyone who accused them of inciting violence and such that their songs weren’t sermons, G-d damn it, but stories, no endorsement implied—as Foucault might put it, representations. These cheap and apparently contradictory claims have their truth quotient, and both work for Eminem. But a more precise precedent for Slim Shady is the Gravediggaz, who stuck their heads out in 1994, when Prince Paul of Stetsasonic/De La Soul and Wu-Tang Clanner RZA—both of whom also generated other fronts, as in the meta-ironically multicultural Handsome Boy Modeling School and the sexist excuse for a man that is Bobby Digital—joined Fruitkwan and Poetic to demonstrate that the ghetto was grislier than any horror movie: “So you wanna die, commit suicide / Dial 1-800-CYANIDE line / Far as life, yo it ain’t worth it / Put a rope around your neck and jerk it.” By the time Shady erupted, former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith had gone underground under such aliases as Dr. Dooom and Dr. Octagon, as had former KMD brother Zev Love X, aka MF Doom, Viktor Vaughn, and King Geedorah.

As usual in hip-hop, this formal innovation originated with African-Americans. But unlike the Missy-slims-down, alternative-Andre-3000 persona tweaks with which pop icons pursue longevity, the illing alter ego is an underground move for black rappers, whereas the white rappers who are such embarrassingly big deals in undie-rap are into bad poetry, social protest, and woe-is-me. Slim Shady trumped both alternatives. Extreme though his tales and rhetoric were, there was nothing sci-fi or “horrorcore” about him; he was understood—by his intended audience, not the moralizers he outraged so efficiently—as a projection of Marshall Mathers’s antisocial impulses. But far from self-expression, this triumph of the id was a fabrication—a cross between Cartman of South Park and what biographer Anthony Bozza calls an “avenging angel.” And though I wish I didn’t feel obliged to explain so late in the game, Eminem’s audience got this. There are always nuts who’ll believe what they want to believe, and Moby wasn’t nuts to observe: “I’m thirty-five. I can understand the ambiguity and the irony. Nine- and ten-year-olds cannot.” But Stan’s little brother notwithstanding, neither was Eminem ironic to claim that his music wasn’t intended for nine-year-olds. Twelve-year-olds are different—in these media-saturated times, hip to jokes their elders just don’t get.

Eminem was unusually ambitious for an unknown rapper—contacts were handed not a tape of Infinite but a vinyl pressing. He had a right, though, because he was also unusually gifted—as an artist. Richard Kim’s 2001 description of Eminem as a “brillian[t]… businessman” who “recognizes that pain and negativity, of the white male variety particularly, still sell” credits him with a commercial shrewdness that ranks low among his talents if it exists at all. Slim Shady was devised as a coherent frame for Eminem’s intoxicated wordplay, trebly articulation, pop beats, and irrepressible sense of humor. He targeted not the latecoming adults who thrilled to 8 Mile but, how about that, rap fans—in addition to hip-hop’s core demographic, meaning adolescents young and old, the adepts, aesthetes, hustlers, small-time bizzers, and other cognoscenti who frequent the venues where hip-hop wannabes battle and entertain. When Dr. Dre called Eminem up, it was a bigger break than he’d had the arrogance to angle for.

Too much is made of Eminem’s debt to Dre, whose weed-thugs-n-jeepbeats The Chronic changed hip-hop permanently and for the worse in 1993. Musically, Dre is a decisive but intermittent presence, overseeing just eleven tracks on Eminem’s first three albums and eight more on his fourth and supposedly worst. These include such crucial songs as “Guilty Conscience,” “Role Model,” “Kill You,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “Mosh,” “Rain Man,” the transcendent “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” and the unprecedented “My Name Is.” But they do not include the equally impressive “97’ Bonnie and Clyde,” “My Fault,” “Cum on Everybody,” “The Way I Am,” “Stan,” “Kim,” “Criminal,” “White America,” “Square Dance,” or “Like Toy Soldiers.” Dre’s greatest gift to Eminem (for which he was soon reimbursed, then repaid with interest when Eminem reeled in 50 Cent) was credibility. For all the scare talk about the white takeover of an African-American genre—beefed up early by the rise of fellow Detroiter Kid Rock, who soon went swamp-rock, and late by his profit-taking enemies at The Source—Eminem’s skin color was initially a negative. The white fans who dominate the hip-hop underground are all too eager to cheer their own, but the white guys who follow mainstream hip-hop are buying blackness. They see rappers as romantic outlaws who know how to handle themselves—and their women—in a hostile world. Only after he’d convinced them did his whiteness became an advantage, as The Eminem Show’s “White America” famously explains: “Let’s do the math / If I was black I would’ve sold half.”

But that was later, when Eminem was servicing the rock audience his rap audience evolved into after “My Name Is” made his name pop. With its addictive Dre loop, catchy-funny chorus, turf-claiming scratches, sotto voce backtalk, and he-fuck-da-police-in-different-voices, Slim Shady’s greatest hit was radio-ready froth as Cartoon Network comedy routine—a joke Lynne Cheney herself could recognize if not enjoy as such. Yet like many jokes, it is antisocial. Its offensive content—“stick nine-inch nails through my eyelids,” “rip Pamela Lee’s tits off,” “stuck my dick in the tip cup,” “Put a bulletproof vest on and shoot myself in the head”—announces its evil intent in the voice of a high-pitched pitch man addressing his target demographic with a simple, damning “Hi kids! Do you like violence?” (In the video, “violence” becomes bizarro-funk nerds “Primus” and Lee’s “tits” become the so much less sadistic “lips”; in an AC/DC-hooked mixtape version, “In a spaceship while they screaming at me ‘Let’s just be friends’” becomes the far nastier, and wittier, “Raping lesbians while they screaming at me ‘Let’s just be friends.’”) Key line: “God sent me [in the video, ‘Dre sent me’] to piss the world off.” Key point: romanticize this, wiggers. Maybe you believe those tales of big gats and bigger dicks; maybe sometimes they’re true. But this isn’t. This is a verbal construct. And the construction worker is just like you.

Cut to “Role Model,” aka “Just Like Me,” because the title, which cites the “Do I look like a motherfucking role model?” of Ice Cube’s N.W.A days, never surfaces in a song whose unobtrusive Dre-beat stays well underneath the lyric and whose chorus goes: “I slap women and eat ’shrooms then OD / Now don’t you wanna grow up and be just like me?” Sexual and drug abuse are barely the beginning, of course—in this song Slim Shady, for it is he, admits or claims uncountable unspeakable acts that, not to worry, no sane fan would imitate. Too bad you can’t expect any mass of fans to prove uniformly sane, but you can’t blame the white boy for that, can you? But wait: “How the fuck can I be white, I don’t even exist.” So before you take him literally, ponder this credo: “I’m not a player just a ill rhyme sayer.”

Robert Christgau
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