Pop music, an industry where imitation is the only form of flattery, is presenting teen idols in pairs this year. A twin set of boy bands, ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, is churning out indistinguishable hits. Two teen blondes, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, are trying to out-gyrate each other on MTV.
And now the vixens are yielding to a couple of white rappers. Kid Rock and Eminem, the demonic answer to the sugary boys and girls, have evicted Britney and ‘N Sync from the top of the Billboard charts. Kid Rock’s new album debuted this week at No. 2, and he’s on the cover of Rolling Stone. Eminem’s album The Marshall Mathers LP is No. 1, selling 2.5 million copies since its release two weeks ago, while its single “The Real Slim Shady” shoots up the Top 10.
Both Kid Rock and Eminem are blond, sociopathic, white boys from Detroit, so it’s tempting to lump them together and to lump both of them with Vanilla Ice. (Ice, you may recall, is the posturing rip-off artist whose “Ice Ice Baby” made white rap a joke.) Kid Rock is indeed a lightweight, a middle-class kid posing as a white-trash pimp and grafting moronic rap onto frat-boy rock. But Eminem is not one of the Ice-people. He is altogether more disturbing and wonderful than a wigger fraud.
Eminem, who’s 27, is a white rapper with no authenticity problems. His mom was 15 years old when he was born, and he never knew his dad. (He was named Marshall Mathers—hence Eminem.) His mom was on welfare and, Eminem claims, drugs. (This charge has prompted his mother to sue him for defamation. No joke.) She shuttled the family between Kansas City, Mo., and Detroit, eventually settling in an (almost) all-black housing project in the Motor City. Eminem, who endured a new school and new bullies every year, dropped out after ninth grade and worked dead-end restaurant and factory jobs.
Eminem was weaned on rap, as much a child of the genre as anyone could be. He taught himself to rhyme as a defense against bullies. He became a “battle MC,” competing in freestyle rap contests in which he was usually the only white performer. He finished second in the 1997 Los Angeles Rap Olympics, and a tape found its way to Dr. Dre, a founder of the notorious gangsta rap group N.W.A. and hip-hop’s most famous producer. Eminem’s wordplay dazzled Dr. Dre, who immediately signed him. Dre’s sponsorship silenced criticism that Eminem was a white opportunist. His first album, The Slim Shady LP—Slim Shady is his alter ego—sold 5 million copies and won Eminem two Grammys this spring. The Marshall Mathers LP is being hailed as the “first great pop record of the 21st century.” Eminem is the only white rapper with credibility among black fans, white fans, and critics.
Eminem’s raves are bizarre, given the vileness of his lyrics. He is an acolyte of the gangsta rap tradition, which means his songs honor the socially unacceptable (but beloved by 14-year-old boys) principles of violence, rape, misogyny, homophobia, more violence. Every woman is a “bitch,” and there’s no problem that can’t be solved with the right gun. Even by the dismal standards of the genre, Eminem is foul, out-bitching and out-killing all of his rap colleagues. On his new album he describes raping his mother, arranging the gang rape of his sister, murdering his wife, and lurking in your backseat to kill you. The album opens with the song whose chorus is “Bitch, I’m gonna kill you.” Sample line: “I got the machete from O.J./ I’m ready to make everyone’s throats ache.”
(Eminem is living his own gangbanging life. He was arrested this week on weapons and assault charges stemming from a nightclub fight. According to prosecutors, Eminem pointed a gun at and threatened to kill a man he saw kissing his wife. On Wednesday, Eminem pleaded not guilty to the charges.)
A decade ago, right-thinking Americans ostracized N.W.A. and Ice-T for much milder lyrics, and Marilyn Manson’s anti-social songs have turned him into a national pariah. So why the swoon for Eminem? Technique explains part of it: Everyone who listens to Eminem is stunned by his mike skills. Freestyle competitions gave Eminem a lizard-quick tongue. His songs spark with wordplay and puns and tongue twisters. This does not mean he is a great poet. His lyrics, in fact, look silly on the page: “Serial killer hiding murder material in a cereal box on top of your stereo.” But when he delivers them at warp speed, in his weird nasal voice, they crackle. Eminem has the greatest and rarest skill in hip-hop: “flow.” His words and his beats work together. To get a sense of this, listen to his dada riff on nursing-home sex in “The Real Slim Shady.” (Eminem is rap’s version of Alan Keyes: You may not agree with anything he says, but you never want him to stop talking.)
Eminem also gets a pass because he exposes his anguish. Rap has been hospitable to moon-june love songs, histrionic comedy, and political activism, but rarely to raw, self-loathing emotion. Eminem specializes in it: “Kim” re-enacts a gut-wrenching fight between Eminem and his wife. (Listen to ”Kim” here.) “Stan,” a series of letters from an increasingly unhinged Eminem groupie, may be the best song ever about fan obsession. (Click “Stan” for a bit of it.) No matter that “Kim” ends with Eminem murdering his wife, and “Stan” ends with Stan suffocating his girlfriend—critics adore the catharsis.
But the most important reason Eminem has been spared condemnation is that he’s a joker. Early ‘90s gangsta rap was solemn in its brutality, and Marilyn Manson doesn’t have a funny bone in his body. But Eminem lampoons critics, Britney, and ‘N Sync. His savagery is a self-conscious cartoon, South Park with drum and bass. It is Grand Guignol, a joke so grotesque that laughter is the only reasonable response. In “Bonnie and Clyde ‘97,” for example, Eminem describes murdering his girlfriend, then taking his toddler daughter with him to dispose of the body. It even includes samples of his daughter cooing and saying, “Mommy.”
Da-Da made a nice bed for Mommy at the bottom of the lake. Here, you wanna help Da-Da tie a rope around this rock?We’ll tie it to her footsie and we’ll roll her off the dock.Ready now, here we go, on the count of free.One … two … free … weeee!There goes mama, spwashin in the waterNo more fighting with Dad, no more restraining order.
(Listen to ”.”)
Eminem is a murderous rapper for an ironic age. It’s OK to be a sociopath, as long as you can laugh about it.