We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
White boy raps the blues. The dead-broke, woman-gone, whiskey-drowned, paleface blues. Eminem, is, in the parlance of the boulevard, that kidthe man of the moment. The greatest of white hiphop’s hopes. Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley, was rumored to have been looking for a white boy who could sing like a Negro. In the image-obsessed sphere of hiphop, A&R men wet-dream at the thought of a white cat who can Elvis the rap thing. Eminem is not that cat. He is the first white rapper to appear on the scene who makes less mention of his pigmentation than the surrounding media. The boy is ridiculously skilled. Period.
Since Allen Ginsberg wailed that he’d seen the best minds of his generation “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” black people have served as the metaphor of choice for the young, white, and disaffected. The Negro, America’s dark home-grown exotica, came to symbolize existential angst and was recognized as the most internal of outsiders by the so-called Beat Generation (which is what caused Norman Mailer to betray his ignorance in “The White Negro”). The allure lay in the fact that bloods, having been fucked with for three centuries, had come up with the ultimate existential weapon: coola genetic nonchalance that kept the colored boys at a constant five degrees below room temperature.
But the tracks Eminem lays down represent not so much a white guy being seduced by a simplifiedand ultimately fictionalversion of black life as a lone urban Anglo expressing himself in the dominant cultural idiom of the decade.
Way back, before the Beastie Boys had ever heard of Tibet, they were the hiphop equivalent of a minstrel show, pimping black style in absurdly hyperbolic character acting. Vanilla Ice was long ago consigned to the trashbin of blackface mockery, and Gaelic wordsmen House of Pain played the Irish angle as an ethnic counterpoint to the Afrocentrism that defined rap music when that group emerged. Lest there be any question where Eminem stands among the blackfacers, he writes: “I’m fed up, lately I’m on edge/I grabbed Vanilla Ice and ripped out his blond dreads.”
That said, The Slim Shady LP is a blistering, brilliantly ignorant, sublime, backward, funk-laden, and retrograde work of a young man coming to terms with his worthless childhood in the burned-out, postindustrial hulk of Detroit. Buy the CD and it immediately becomes clear that the anodyne “My Name Is” was designed solely for radio and the hot-rotation bin on MTV. The remainder of the effort is harder, edgier, and darkerin the thematic sense, not the epidermal one.
Eminem comes off as a sort of spiritual cousin of the late Notorious B.I.G.albeit a cousin from a side of the family the obese man never knew about. What Biggie did better than any of his peers was describe the empty-hearted anguish and nihilism that hangs over his generation like an angry storm cloud. More than once in listening to Slim Shady, I was reminded of the part in Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” when the bluesman wails, “I been down ever since I began to crawl/and if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Eminem has either put together a deeply honest rendition of the white-trash blues or pulled off the slickest, most minstrelized con job conceivable. So the question is: Is it real, or is it burnt cork? I vote, at the risk of losing all my stripes as a race man, for the former, given that this is a cat who runs lines like: “You can’t even see through the mist/How can I be white when I don’t even exist?”
And like his portly counterpart’s, the content of Eminem’s material is way beyond troubling. This release alternates between profound commentary and complete stupidity, between misogyny and the personal despair that will inevitably be cited as its source. The rapper is disillusioned, gleefully underdeveloped, and terminally maladjustedbut with a gift for expressing these facts creatively. On “If I Had,” the kid gives voice to the late-century bleakness of urban existence in two lines: “I’m tired being white trash/Broke and always poor/I’m tired of having to take bottles back to the store.”
One track later, on “’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” he is idiotically fantasizing about kidnapping his daughter, murdering the baby’s mother, and creating a series of lies to explain to the child why her mother has had her throat slit and been dumped in the ocean. In a genre that prides itself on absurdist fantasy, this is without a doubt the most perverse and twisted exploration I’ve ever heardwhich Eminem will, no doubt, take as a compliment. The CD cover, in case we miss the point of the song, features a picture of the rapper and his little girl standing on a pier, presumably preparing to dump Momma, whose dead foot juts from the car trunk. While artists routinely jump the starter’s pistol in a race to the bottom, Eminem’s gender politics dwell in a subbasement; he refers to his own mother as a “cunt.”
By no coincidence, Eminem’s creative home is Aftermath Records, the label owned by former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre. Whereas N.W.A. prided itself on coming straight outta Compton, this white cat is, at least thematically, coming from parts farther eastlike Appalachia. Though Dre and Eminem trade couplets on the inventive “Guilty Conscience,” the remainder of the release is amazingly free of Dre’s vocal presence. Even the aural work is, in the main, handled by newcomers FBT Productions. The sounds that dominate Slim Shady seem to gurgle up from subterranean depths. Except on the simple, user-friendly “My Name Is,” narcotic, haunted sounds dominate the album. The other exception is “I’m Shady,” 90-proof funk with a chorus that could have been lifted from a Parliament cut. Never one to pass up the chance to advertise his alleged ass-whippin’ skills, Eminem warns on “Role Model” that if “You beef with me/I’m gonna even the score equally/Take you on Jerry Springer and beat your ass legally.”
Sleep if you want to, but you’ll be waking up to the sounds of a demented white boy rapping proficiently and profanely about life’s simpleton pleasures. This joker is out to prove thatlike his candied namesakeno matter what the color of the shell, there’s pure chocolate on the inside. Maybe not. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the man should be judgedand criticizedaccording to the content of his creativity, not the color of his skin. Maybe I’m as wrong as Oprah in a thong bathing suit. Maybe I just bought the Brooklyn Bridge from the marketing department at Aftermath Records. Or maybe I’ve just become a liberal in my old age.CP