Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Can't rap or sing/but he wants to do both"

Okay, I know I promised some more Lucio Fulci goodness with the next entry, but the media cycle interfered.

I'm not a huge hip-hop fan. I mean, I like Doom (or MF Doom or whatever he calls himself today), Public Enemy, the Roots, the Wu-Tang Clan and a hodge-podge of the classics (if there is a classic canon that includes both Nate Dogg and KRS-One). But I used to like Eminem.

I remember that, when Eminem came out, there was something bracing about him. He was an unpleasant guy and a vitriolic artist.  His Marshall Mathers LP was one of the few CDs that my mother actually made me return! (The other that comes to mind is The Offspring's Ignition.  See even mall punk can be threatening.) But there was a sense that he was moving rap beyond random sex and drug-running. Here was a rapper who had a sense of satire! Heck, he even had an emotional range. Can you imagine DMX or Ja Rule or any number of popular rappers from the '90s who could have covered the ground between "The Real Slim Shady" and "Stan"?

To my younger mind, there was more of Juvenal than Juvenile to Eminem. His was an awful worldview, but he seemed to include himself in it, mocking himself as much as Morrissey did. And for all of his 8 Mile and Dr. Dre supplied street cred, he felt like someone who understood the boringness of suburban/exurban life, where the only fantasies came packaged by the entertainment industry. Wu Tang Clan re-contextualized all their comic book/high fantasy/blaxploitation worlds to fit into the outer borough world, but they had New York at their doorstep, where their legendary heroes did battle.

Eminem (and D12, to a lesser extent) just had Detroit, a fading metropolis that no one was interested in fighting over. And while my hometown was nowhere near as bad as Detroit, there was the same feeling that life had passed us by and all the cool stuff happened elsewhere, with TRL and the Real World and prime time TV giving us glimpses of this reality. Eminem rapped about people stuck in dead-end jobs with only pop fantasies to carry them through, fantasized about empowering his fans down at Burger King.

But like all underdogs who start out fighting the power and win (even if the power is just Carson Daly and Britney Spears), he got fat and old and rich. Now he's got a new album out and the pop culture parodies have overwhelmed any actual satire. He's got all the women and drugs and a position as court jester and the fire's disappeared. He's even got his own label, made up of neglected rappers whose albums he has yet to release. 

So compare "Crack A Bottle" and "We Made You" (NSFW) off Relapse (Amelie Gilette's right about the wider implications too of the new video) with "Lose Yourself" or the bootleg diss track (directed at Everlast, another also-ran in the Great 90s Rap Rock war) "Quitter" (very NSFW), where he sounds like he's got anger saved up for everyone he's encountered for more than five minutes over the last ten years. On the chronologically earlier tracks, he's hugging the beats. On the later ones, he's sounding winded over a mid-tempo beat and hiding behind a sing-songy intonation. In other words, he's started doing the same thing he accused Everlast of (because Everlast was too worn out to really rap, in his opinion).

It's weird that these days, when Fred Durst is trying out to be the new Hal Ashby and the guys from Korn are finding God, it's Eminem who sounds exhausted and out of ideas. Maybe one day, we'll have to explain to kids that, yes, at one time, Eminem seemed to matter.


Nathan T. Elkins said...

I agree with your sentiment that there is "more Juvenal than Juvenile to Eminem." You may already be aware of this, but do you know that classicists have actually drawn parallels between him and Roman satirists such as Juvenal? Here is an example:

Rosen, Ralph M., and Victoria Baines. "'I Am Whatever You Say I Am...': Satiric Program in Juvenal and Eminem." Classical and Modern Literature 22 (Fall 2002): 103-27.

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