Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Don't Dismiss Him

The trouble with and the talent of Eminem.

By Chris Herrington

JULY 10, 2000:  "Songs mean a lot when songs are bought," indie-rock philosophers Pavement once opined. The storm of critical debate elicited by the antisocial content and immense popularity of The Marshall Mathers LP, the platinum-twice-over second album from Caucasian rap sensation Eminem, backs up that notion.

You don't have to like him, but to dismiss Eminem outright is to risk forfeiting your right to be considered a serious fan of rock or rap. Not only is he the most-skilled white MC in hip hop's 20-year history, but he rivals Jay-Z as the best rapper on the planet right now. And, with The Marshall Mathers LP, he's released the only album of the year so far (give or take D'Angelo's Voodoo) that demands to be heard. But while The Marshall Mathers LP is a tighter musical creation than the rapper's 1999 debut, The Slim Shady LP, it's also a lot more difficult to like.

The Slim Shady LP was a hip-hop Simpsons' episode with frequent Itchy and Scratchy interludes -- and Eminem played Bart Simpson as a grown-up hood rat. The record was a head trip to listen to, with its cartoonish glee masking a startling ethnography of twentysomething service-industry anomie, and with moments of pop-culture profundity popping up out of nowhere -- whether asking the essential question "How the fuck can I be white when I don't even exist?" or making a mockery of so-called gangsta rap's kill count with a tossed-off lyric about an MC who couldn't rap anymore because he'd murdered the alphabet.

But the follow-up -- misogynistic, homophobic, ceaselessly violent -- is a rougher ride. Remarkably self-conscious, even by hip-hop standards (five straight song titles: "The Way I Am," "The Real Slim Shady," "Remember Me?," "I'm Back," "Marshall Mathers") -- this is the wired testament of a ferociously talented motormouth who believes he was sent here to piss the world off, but who hasn't yet discovered that there are bigger hills to climb. Instead of finding a balance between thumbing his nose at redeeming social importance (good) and engaging in rampant social irresponsibility (bad), Eminem just opens his mouth and lets it all out. He's a car crash MC, his spew alternately hilarious and disturbing, ignorant and revelatory.

Yet, despite being littered with content so reckless and offensive that it can't be rationalized away, The Marshall Mathers LP still has moments of greatness. The first single, "The Real Slim Shady," may be funnier and more dazzling than anything on his debut. It's a hip-hop head rush of helter-skelter rhymes that spirals off into deliriously Dada riffs like "We ain't nothin' but mammals/Well, some of us cannibals/ Who cut other people open like cantaloupes/But if we can hump dead animals and antelopes/Then there's no reason that a man and another man can't elope."

Even better is "Stan," which might be the most powerful piece of music anyone has released this year. An epistolary between Eminem and an obsessed fan, the song is a soulful, horrific meditation on the fan-star nexus that throws Eminem's willful belligerence on the preceding "Kill You" into stark relief. After "Stan," every bit of calculated misogyny and violence that Eminem indulges seems just that much more profane and pointless.

And the one aspect of The Marshall Mathers LP's troubling homophobia that Eminem's harshest media critics haven't picked up on (probably because they haven't really listened) is that it's a new development. The Slim Shady LP wasn't marred by the same preoccupation, which makes the rancor found here sound more like cheap, forced shock tactics than the expression of any kind of social agenda Eminem might actually care about, and, frankly, that makes it even worse. If it wasn't so dangerous and despicable, the record's rampant homophobia would just be lame -- as lame as the record's self-conscious insistence on calling out the "little girl and boy groups" with whom Eminem shares MTV time.

At his too-infrequent finest, Eminem is the bravest, freshest, most important voice in popular music today ("Became a commodity because I'm W-H-I-T-E and MTV was so friendly to me," he defiantly admits). But in his insistence on coming back hard, he risks ceding much of the territory that made The Slim Shady LP such a brilliant debut to more marginal competitors. It's Very Stimulating, the debut EP from Prince Paul protégé MC Paul Barman is flat-out funnier. And former Pharcyde member Fatlip is more shockingly self-deprecating on his single-of-the-year candidate, "What's Up, Fatlip?" Eminem is too busy trying to prove something to have as much fun as those indie pranksters, or to have as much fun as he did on his nothing-to-lose debut. Call The Marshall Mathers LP a white-hot speed bump, a juvenile "fuck you" from someone capable of so much more. But get used to him; this guy's going to be around a while.

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