I feel like I really matured, and [with] this album, more than anything, I wanted to show growth as an artist.
— Eminem, “The Gift and the Curse,” Interview on MTV.com
Ask me about my penis.
— Eminem’s t-shirt, The Face, May 2002
Just look at me like I’m your closest pal, the poster-child, the motherfuckin’ spokesman now, for White America!
— Eminem, “White America”
Shady’s back, back again. The Boogiemonster of rap. And while the new album does, as he says he wants, “show growth as an artist,” it raises the usual issues: hating on mom and Kim, posturing with weapons, taking out easy targets: Elvis, Chris Kirkpatrick, Canibus, Moby (“Nobody listens to techno!”). This material is familiar, really, even if The Eminem Show does range wider in style than The Slim Shady LP (1999) and appear to dig deeper into the artist’s troubled psyche than The Marshall Mathers LP (2000). This isn’t to say that there’s nothing worth hearing on the new album, only that what’s happening around it is much more interesting.
For one thing, there’s the critics — all dutifully lining up to explain just why they adore, despise, or can’t fathom the phenom called Eminem. This can be a good and bad thing. No outsider anywhere anymore, Em is master of some universe, clearly: when Mr. Mainstream releases a new record, even the New York Times and USA Today make it their business to publish drop-day reviews. Since the 28-year-old kid has worked overtime to stir up trouble — what with his zings at Christina, his fling with Mariah, his mom’s lawsuit for slander, his earnest-angry-white-boy pose and, of course, his “bad language” — all this attention isn’t surprising. But it can also be depressing: for the most part, responses to Eminem are all about containing a perceived threat, making Eminem ordinary.
So, for USA Today‘s Edna Gunderson, he’s only the “latest in a long line of iconoclasts” (like Madonna, he’s blond and ambitious); Entertainment Weekly‘s Evan Serpick announces that he’s “lost his edge” (as the new album isn’t so homophobic or nasty as the others); and Jon Pareles observes, sniff, that he’s “become a franchise,” just like all those pop-twits he likes to disparage unsubtly. Just look at the cds walking off the shelves, all those just-like-mes, the popularity of the Slim Shady cartoons, and the burgeoning film career (Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, based on the star’s life story, opens this summer — and whoa, the trailer included on the Eminem Show DVD suggests that the star can act).
His fans are legion, crossed-over, majority: as he declares in “White America,” “It’s like a fuckin’ army marchin’ in back of me, / So many lives I touched, so much anger aimed / in no particular direction, just sprays and sprays, / And straight through your radio waves, it plays and plays.” Eminem is now about as far from being a troublemaker as he can be: he is super-good for business.
Witness his current love fest with primetime tv. The new album has occasioned a Making the Video on MTV (always good fun with Em, because he is a lunatic on the set, and Dre’s too cool for school); a Testimony on BET (where he noted a couple of times how hard it is to be who he is); and more than a few sit-downs with eager-to-seem-hip interviewers. On 106th & Park, in between teasing Free mercilessly about being his girlfriend, he observed what we all know: unlike Elvis, he’s “not ignorant,” and chooses to “address” his whiteness in relation to appropriated culture, rather than just presuming it.
This self-awareness, however put on, makes the mainstream-ness less overbearing than it should be. Nowadays, Em says, the routine is running all over the art (note here that maestro Dre only produced two of the new record’s 16 tracks). Everyone wants him to play jokester Slim Shady and poor Marshall’s “chopped liver.” Yet, delineating this very dilemma — call it the tension between desire and dread — is what he does best, or at least very well. Eminem continues to refract and reflect the culture that produces him: there is no escape. The Eminem Show shakes up whatever you imagined was going on in his previous work, taking his brilliance, insanity, and itchy-scratchy notoriety to another level.
Consider that terrific Face magazine cover, where the t-shirt (“Ask me about my penis”) is accompanied by a machete held casually across his shoulders. He leans his head back slightly, his mouth part-open, his eyes brash and inviting. Inside, you see the other covers, some of which have run: a shot featuring his bizarre testament-to-Hailie tat; his pensive, hoodied thug look; his red Jordan tank-top. So pretty, that bad boy. So sassy. What you won’t see in Face is the photo where he’s wearing the t-shirt announcing, “I fucked a Backstreet Boy”: someone reportedly got cold feet. But Em is no scaredy-cat, and to prove it, he spits, in “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” “I’m out the closet, I’ve been lyin’ my ass off, / All this time me and Dre been fuckin’ with hats off.”
Newsflash: he’s a liar. Just like every other Hollywood and music industry icon. Different strokes being what they are, and Em being who he is, no one’s going to mistake his undaring pronouncement for anything other than what it is, another clever spin on the rapper’s ongoing performance of the anxious buddy dynamic. Mentor and mentee, Dre and Em, got each other’s backs; as the Doctor points out during the vehemently anti-Jermaine Dupri riff on “Say What You Say,” he’s got “Over 80 million records sold / And I ain’t have to do it with ten- or eleven-year-olds.” (And just what is the point of that simple bitch-slap? Dre don’t need to stoop like that.)
True, childishness needn’t be all bad. The dynamic duo has its much-fun way on “Business,” with Eminem starring as Rap Boy (“Quick, gotta move fast, gotta perform miracles. / Gee willikers, Dre, holy bat syllables! / Look at all the bullshit that goes on in Gotham / When I’m gone, time to get rid of these rap criminals”), as he does in Joseph Kahn’s video for “Without Me.” Announcing his return a la the Batman tv theme — “Well I’m back, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na” — Em and Dre zoom off in the heavy-beats-whomping Rapmobile to save an at-risk kid from listening to the wrong cd, and thank goodness he and Andre arrive in time, just before said kid starts playing the cd that is not Em’s.
This finale only underlines the pressure and triumph that the video chronicles throughout — the media universe is a bit empty without (and truth be told, with) our boy; all the trash that scurries in to fill the vacuum is alarming (“Ease over these beats and be so breezy. / Jesus how can shit be so easy? / How can one Chandra be so Levy?” he wails, on “Business”). “Without Me” lobs a series of aces against trash-tv, from Sally Jesse Raphael (Em in drag as his mom) to Survivor (Em and contestants adrift in Elvis Presley’s toilet bowl) to Osama Bin Laden’s own fuck-you-America videotapes. Even before all this starts, the video identifies itself as cynical product, opening on the well-known Making the Video countdown-fingers and a video monitor showing Em in his slick satin-sheeted bed with perfectly plastic porn stars Jenna and Kiana. “Two trailer park girls go round the outside,” he raps, “Round the outside, round the outside.”
Girls, perfect, trailer park, and every-otherwise, get a rough time of it here, hardly shocking, given his recent public hysteria. Eminem isn’t threatening to murder Kim anymore (in fact, he points out, in one of several uninspired skits on the album, that he did not load the gun he used when stalking her outside a nightclub). “Drips,” a track Em shares with D-12er Obie Trice, plods through a tired complaint about skanky girls with diseases (poor boys, so underprotected). Actually, the most unpretty image doesn’t even appear on the album per se: what happens when Hailie turns 14 and starts thinking maybe some of this hostility applies to her and her friends? “You’re funny, daddy,” the 6-year-old laughs at the end of “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” included to let you know that he’s joking, and a kid can get it, and to let you know that daddy’s well-aware he needs to be conjuring some palliative effects.
As before, Em’s comedy carries him through most of his assault tactics, and his heroism extends beyond saving white suburbanites from drivel-pop. It seems he has a few more personalities to split, conveniently, given all the pressure on this 28-year-old hellion to perform. Game-faced, here he battles dead air and slumping sales (on “Without Me,” he asserts, “Cause we need a little controversy / Cause it feels so empty, without me”), pap-rap (“Someone comes along on a mission and yells, ‘bitch‘! / A visionary, vision of scary / Could start a revolution, pollutin’ the airwaves”), and sorry-ass, depressing icons from Dick Cheney to Mariah Carey, Vanilla Ice to the Real Worlders.
All this spewing, he insists (again), comes your way from the damaged son of a terrible mom. She made him a “victim of Munchausen’s Syndrome,” popping pills in the kitchen while he was coming up. He’s the good parent, trying to stick with Kim, teaching Hailie that he’s not like Debbie: “It’s like my mother always told me, / ‘Rana rana rana rana rana rana rana rana rana rana and codeine / and goddammit you little motherfucker, / If you ain’t got nothin’ nice to say, then don’t say nothin’!” Okay then: he delivers with a vengeance. All nothin’.
But wait. It’s no coincidence that with his non-revolution, all the shit he’s specifically not talking, Eminem is revitalizing retail. You can just imagine the suits upstairs at Interscope pumping their fists: homeboy has resisted expectations of a sophomore or now a junior slump, with the new album selling 1.32 million units in its first week, even despite prerelease anxiety over internet downloads. And while a few heads, like those over at altrap.com or Davey D’s Hiphop Corner, may point out the album’s limits (the “self-produced beats are an “Achillles heel”), dominant-cultural critics say yo!. The praises are ringing, from MTV’s Sway (“still got it”) to Newsweek‘s Lorraine Ali (“standout rapping skills and kinetic wordplay”) to The New York Observer‘s self-affirming “middle-aged me” Paul Slansky (“beyond his talent are his balls”).
Yes indeed, the U.S. culture industry is happy happy happy with this latest reflection of itself — the injured individual making good, exorcising and overcoming his personal demons, maturing. This story allows for no systemic indictments, no investigation of what might have created that “individual,” much less his fucked-up parents or hungry fans. There are exceptions to the thank-you-for-exposing-yourself-Marshall parade, including Slate‘s Gerald Marzorati, who thinks the artist is hitting the martyr complex too hard; or the Voice‘s Richard Goldstein, still sounding the alarm about celebrity bigotry, pervasive masculinism and misogyny, and commercial carelessness; Goldstein insists that the artist’s bigotry is not transgressive, but of very much its time; it’s “central and knowing — and unless it’s examined, it will be free to operate.”
Such examination might actually begin close to home; as Goldstein observes, Eminem is no slouch when it comes to gauging the world around him. And there are moments on the album where his self-awareness comes through, loudly, as he thinks through his own functions, while also declaring his determination to milk his celebrity moment for all it’s worth. Some readers see this as slippage; Goldstein notes, “Hip critics quibble that he’s fallen off his edge — as would anyone but a genuine genius, given the speed with which outrage becomes shtick in pop culture.”
Such ostensible “falling off” may not be a sign of lack, as much as it reinforces the system that celebrates him as a wink-wink symptom, one that needn’t be acknowledged or scrutinized, much less treated. With all this adulation raining down around Eminem, it’s no wonder that he is feeling like a party-boy Superman (“They call me Superman / Leap tall hoes in a single bound, I’m single now”), authentic Marshall (on “Business,” “You bout to witness, hiphop in its most purest, / More rawest form, flow almost flawless, / Most hardest, most honest known artist”), self-vindicating ex-husband (on “Hailie’s Song,” “Man, I should have seen it comin’, what’d I stick my penis up in?”, and again on “Soldier,” “I’m a lit fuse, anything I do, bitch, it’s news / Pistol-whippin’ motherfuckin’ bouncers, 6-2”), and soul-searching, dedicated daddy: again, on “Hailie’s Song,” “Why am I here? Am I just wastin’ my time? / But then I see my baby, suddenly I’m not crazy! / It all makes sense when I look into her eyes.”
He lays out lots of personal and interpersonal drama in tracks like “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” (where he tells mom, “I never meant to make you cry,” then lets loose: “You selfish bitch; I hope you fuckin’ burn in hell for this shit”) and “Say Goodbye Hollywood” (where he calls out Kim for making him feel suicidal: “If I could swallow a bottle of Tylenol I would / And end it for good, just say goodbye to Hollywood”). It’s soap opera colliding with comic books, just the sort of volatile, emotional mix that drives a lot of kids you probably know. In this incarnation, Em’s not much different from them, just richer.
But look more closely and see that Eminem’s performance is less social and psychological, than it is political and abstract: the most dynamic dynamic on the album is the usual one, between Em and himself, creator and creation. It’s a dynamic that is frequently explored in comic books, and these form the album’s central image. Comics bring a long history of manifesting cultural anxieties, both self-love and self-loathing. He’s bopping, he’s Robin, he’s loyal as a Rap Boy can be to his Dre.
Such split characteristics and self-deceptions are everywhere, nowhere more visibly than in the racist record business. Hard not to notice how it works, yet the pretense lingers, that crossover stardom is a function of “art,” not marketing. As Eminem puts it on “White America,” the album’s booming first track, “Shady knew Shady’s dimples would help, / Make ladies swoon baby (ooh baby!) Look at my sales. / Let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half. / I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that. / But I could rap, so fuck school, I’m too cool to go back.”
In “White America!” he’s so cool, he’s a star, one who means to make a difference. Or not. “I could be one of your kids,” he taunts, “I go to TRL: Look how many hugs I get!” He can move units. He can break hearts. But can he influence children? And why would anyone want to? He’s already gone over that whole artist’s responsibility bit (“Role Model,” “The Real Slim Shady”), and there’s no doubt where he stands on it (despite the fact that his dolls — with chainsaws and hockey masks — sell right alongside Beyonce Knowles’ and Mandy Moore’s; see Entertainment Weekly‘s report). This is his bind, to encourage freethinking, precisely by recruiting devotees, getting all those hugs. He’s already imagining it, taking tentative steps beyond his own freedom-of-speech-whiny-boy rap, the kind he’s still running on “White America,” “How could I predict my words would have an impact like this? / I must’ve struck a chord with somebody up in the office, / Cause Congress keep tellin’ me, I ain’t causin’ nothin’ but problems.”
In the album’s least familiar-sounding track, “Squaredance,” Eminem makes some other kind of noise, as if reckoning with a world beyond his own (and not only because the song takes up pseudo-CW rhythms). It begins much like the rest of The Eminem Show, with a whoop-de-doo dis tossed at an easy target: “Never been the type to bend or budge, / The wrong button to push, no friend of Bush. / I’m the center piece, you’re a Maltese, / I’m a pit bull off his leash, all this peace talk can cease.” Blustery, yes. But what comes next is nearly chilling. “All this terror, America demands action. / Next thing you know, you’ve got Uncle Sam’s ass askin’ / to join the Army or what you’ll do for their Navy. / You just a baby, gettin’ recruited at eighteen. / You’re on a plane now, eatin’ their food and their baked beans. / I’m 28, they gon’ take you ‘fore they take me.”
Kids, joining the military, getting shot at, shooting and running, looking for payback they can’t begin to comprehend. Kids, some maybe younger, but not all Eminem’s presumed audience; kids are the listeners he respects and scolds, makes fun of and instructs; the fans who can’t get enough of him. “Kids!” he yells out at the end of “Without Me,” naming those most at risk in a vacuum of culture and moral dimension. Kids are who’s at stake in all this. And the rest of us, as Eminem suggests, need to pay closer attention.