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The Boston Phoenix Bum-rushing Sophocles

Eminem is Greek to us

By Alex Pappademas

AUGUST 21, 2000:  Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope) is the feel-conflicted hit of the summer, and it follows summer-sequel formulas -- the body count is higher, the provocations are more blatant, the four-letter words (recorded so the glottal stops practically crackle) pile up faster, and it's all aimed straight at the delicate sensibilities of the critics who panned the first installment.

Me, I came to like the first one (Eminem's 1999 breakthrough, The Slim Shady LP), and I like this one more. Eminem snaps off his words with masterful comic timing on "Who Knew," so that even the Christopher Reeve reference Xzibit already got to last year sounds as if it were utterly his own. The drug ballads sweat out as much nicotine, valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy, and alcohol as a shvitzing Queens of the Stone Age. And if Slim Shady's alphabet-assassinating wordplay is a gateway drug to rap-that-loves-the-language for even a few of the two zillion TRL screamers who copped his album in its first week of release, it's all good. Eminem uses murder in his songs the way most rappers use punctuation -- sometimes he uses murder as punctuation -- but his humanity is closer to the surface than that of any other rap psycho.

You can hear that the clearest on "Stan," an epistolary yarn about the death of a confused Eminem fan. Stan scribbles fan mail to Slim Shady, and when Eminem doesn't respond to his phone calls and postcards and pages, he gradually loses his shit, emulating his hero's behavior right down to the drug cocktails ("a thousand downers" with a vodka chaser). Finally he re-enacts the infamous Slim Shady cut "Bonnie & Clyde," driving off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk; the sound of screeching tires and shattering glass ends the verse, lurid as a jagged-lettered shriek in a Tales from the Crypt comic. Then Eminem writes him back, telling him, "I think you need some counseling," warning him that there's a difference between rappers' words and their actual lives. Too late.

The girl singing in the wreckage is British beat-folkie Dido. Producer DJ Mark the 45 King (who brought the crowd-noise-enhanced beats on Queen Latifah's "Wrath of My Madness" once upon a time) throws her voice, flattened by FM-radio compression, into the mix the way David Lynch used to cue up ghost-pixie Julee Cruise on Twin Peaks: bathed in white light, commemorating the blood spilled but removed from it, too. (The most obvious antecedent, though, is Nice & Smooth's "Sometimes I Rhyme Slow," from 1991, in which the folksong sampled is Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" -- it fills in the spaces between nutty Gregg Nice and the woundedly gruff Smoothe B, who's losing his girl to cocaine, and the guitar loop says everything they can't say to each other.)

The car-crash sound itself is straight out of Jan & Dean's "Dead Man's Curve," a drag-race horror story from 1967 that starts to sound like a clutch-popping, rubber-burning homosexual vehicular-suicide pact if you've watched enough Cronenberg movies or listened to enough Eminem. Richard Meltzer runs down a bunch of car-crash-rock songs along these lines in his imposing and impenetrable Aesthetics of Rock, from Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel" to J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' "Last Kiss." "Originally," Meltzer writes, "rock 'n' roll dealt with tragedy as it is manifest most blatantly to the almost-present-day buyer of rock records, in death or through rejection by a loved one. . . . Not all of these examples are strictly in the Greek tradition, but they all conform to the highest standards of their art while expressing an ineffably tragic worldview."

Eminem's sensibilities are probably closer to those of Jimmy Cross, whose 1964 "Teen Angel" send-up "I Want My Baby Back" is about a guy who regains consciousness after a car accident to find his girlfriend "over there . . . and over there . . . and w-a-a-a-a-a-y over there." Cross's song ends with the guy exhuming the girl's body, or shuttering himself in the coffin with her (his voice is muffled on the fade-out), literally burying the genre until Pearl Jam dug up "Last Kiss" and made it into a radio hit last year. But "Stan" passes the Meltzer test because it's about rejection that leads to a car-crash death, and because its three-act structure (complete with Sophoclean missed-connection irony) is Greek tragedy if anything is. Also, like all these car-crash ballads, it remains a love song -- Eminem may be a lyrical gay basher, and he's inarguably a gay baiter, but I'm not sure that a genuine homophobe could assume the voice of a man in love with another man this convincingly. Or that he'd want to.


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