Eminem’s Martyr Complex

The rapper is a national nightmare in his own mind.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

Remember the culture wars? Those were the ‘90s conflicts, the ones in which the guys with the beards were gay-rights activists, Hollywood producers, or Robert Bork. Most Americans saw no action in those wars (though they followed them from time to time on talk radio or their cable-news outlet), and so they hardly noticed when the battles drew to a close rather abruptly on Sept. 11. But for a number of cultural warriors, the end of all that back-and-forth about sex and gender, race and teen deviancy, God and PG-13 would seem to have left a hole in their world, a metaphysical Ground Zero. Thus Jerry Falwell’s attempt to blame America’s alleged moral demise for the collapse of the Twin Towers: What was he trying to do but yell that the culture wars, and Jerry Falwell, still mattered? And thus the new CD from Eminem, in which he imagines, or anyway wants you to imagine, that America is so terrorized by his rap—post-9/11 and, for that matter, after that schmaltzy Grammy duet with Elton John—that it’s hunting him down. Welcome, dogs (and Bill Bennett and Tipper, too), to The Eminem Show, an album in which what is longed for most is not hot bitches and the violent deaths of Mom and Dad (though they do get theirs) but an America in which a national threat is still somebody who earns a “parental advisory” sticker.

Eminem did have his moment, and not just because he was some sort of outrageous minstrel act—a white boy bursting with lewd boasts and menacing taunts in the nastiest gangsta style. (White suburban kids had been buying lots of rap records, especially gangsta-rap records, for years before Eminem showed up in the late ‘90s.) He had real talent as a rapper, along with an unschooled writer’s gift for assonance and inner rhyme. He was capable of wit—he wasn’t just the rap equivalent of Little Johnny’s hidden, dogeared porn magazine but of his Mad magazine, too. And he was capable of truth, as when, in the song “If I Had” from his first major-label album, The Slim Shady LP, he poured out in the hypnotic, list-building cadences of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg the weights and diminishments that could tug down a working-poor kid, even at the height of the so-called Long Boom. (Remember the Long Boom? Educated, grown-up white guys have their own style of outrageous boasting.)

With his new album, though, that mix of social realism and hyperbole—in his hands, an original and combustible compound—has given way to the paranoid delusional. The ranting and the essaying are no longer concerned only or even mostly with the middle-school id of his alter ego, Slim Shady, or with the troubled youth of Marshall Mathers and his issues with class, race, his ex, Kim, his father, and his mother (although the album’s only knockout song, “Cleaning Out My Closet,” is a howling lament about his mom). Now it’s largely about Eminem, the pop star, who seems to have confused celebrity with political and social potency. He would have you believe—he himself wants to believe—that he has such terrifying authority among the young and restless that mainstream America has got to bring him down. Eminem’s developed a martyr complex.

In “White America,” the album’s first song, there is an underground army forming across the nation, kids with bleached hair combed forward, and Eminem is leading them somehow, somewhere, whatever, and Congress is really, really worked up about this. On subsequent tracks, those attempting to shut him up—or worse—include the Bush administration, Lynne Cheney, and the FCC, along with any number of judges, prosecutors, and journalists. As Eminem understands it, he is the national nightmare, the one “everybody just wants to talk about,” as he puts it in “Without Me,” the first single from the album. That scene in the video for “Without Me” —the one where he dresses up like Osama Bin Laden? It turns out it’s wish fulfillment.

Actually, the war against al-Qaida does figure briefly in The Eminem Show. In a song titled “Square Dance,” he warns his troops out there that they soon may be drafted by the Government Man and sent off to die in Afghanistan. Maybe he’s been listening to somebody’s old Country Joe and the Fish LPs.

One thing he hasn’t been listening to closely enough is recent hip-hop. The album’s tired beats reinforce the sense that he is stuck in a moment he can’t get out of. Dr. Dre, Eminem’s producer from the beginning and the one who forged the young rapper’s sound, is only a sporadic presence on The Eminem Show, which Eminem chose to produce himself. That could explain why the album fails to take account of the surprisingly adventurous atmosphere of mainstream hip-hop, where Timbaland’s bhangra-inspired beats propelled last year’s best single, Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On,” and where the songwriting and production team the Neptunes, when they were not busy making hits for Mystikal, Ludacris, and others, cut a stirring funk-suffused rap record of their own called In Search Of … that is among this year’s finest so far (and still earned that “parental advisory” sticker). Eminem’s idea of new and different—or could it be a not quite clever enough allusion to Run DMC’s influential rap-rock hit “Walk This Way”?—is to rap about his power and subsequent persecution over Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

In the “Without Me” video, not only Bin Laden shows up but Elvis, too, in a bit of nasty bathroom humor—a fat, enfeebled Elvis prepares to die on a toilet at Graceland. Poor Elvis. He had come to believe too early in his career that it wasn’t about his songs but about himself—that becoming Elvis, and all that meant, was the whole point, all that anybody cared about, his greatest triumph and truest art. When he has a chance, Eminem might watch that Graceland bit again, as a precaution.