Why Eminem still matters

This post represents a shift from how I programmed Plug One in the past. Before, I wouldn’t imagine adding a piece about a mainstream artist. But times have changed.

Plug One isn’t designed to represent everything I write, but it should reflect my current ideas about hip-hop culture. At the moment, it’s important to engage with mainstream culture, if only to try and imagine a space where authentic and imaginative art can thrive. Whether that includes deliberately commercial music or independently released recordings doesn’t matter as much. Five years ago, it did — at least to me.

Regardless of the fact that he’s a mainstream rapper, I think Eminem’s Recovery is a great example of an musician who is valiantly trying to redefine himself. Although I consider it an creative failure so far — with 2.9 million albums sold, it’s certainly a commercial success — the album holds some important lessons on artistic renewal for the hip-hop community.

This essay was posted September 22 on the Rhapsody SoundBoard blog. I wrote it for my Rap Is Not Pop column.

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Why Eminem still matters

The rap nerds don’t know what to do with Eminem. Ten years ago, they loudly proclaimed him a genius, the greatest MC of all time. He was a master of the 16-bar verse, and a vocal stylist who employed bounce, speed-rapping, and drawling affectations at whim. His lyrical provocations, from turning his ex-girlfriend Kim into a symbol for abusive male-female relationships to exporting Detroit street rap culture to the suburbs, drew kudos from songwriters like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, and rock dudes that usually denigrated rappers as mumbling, inarticulate hooligans. And as acclaim followed, so did massive success, as megahits like 2000’s classic The Marshall Mathers LP blasted through the marketplace.

But now, the hip-hop intelligentsia has written Eminem off. For them, he’s just another aging rapper with rapidly deteriorating skills. They believe that his new album Recovery is a noble failure, an unsuccessful attempt to reignite the dying embers of his early 2000s dominance over the pop Zeitgeist. The Internet teems with mockery over some of his lyrics, with this line from the number one hit “Love the Way You Lie” achieving special infamy: “Now you get to watch her leave out the window/ I guess that’s why they call it window pane.”

So why is Recovery the biggest selling album of 2010 so far? Are critics and hardcore rap fans getting it wrong? Most of them wouldn’t readily admit it. They would rather offer Recovery faint praise, musing that at best it’s a minor improvement over Em’s last two albums, 2004’s widely panned Encore and last year’s equally derided Relapse.

In some ways, Eminem tailored Recovery as a response to complaints that his music had grown stale, stuck between the Dr. Dre school of classic melodious thump (first heard on Em’s breakthrough single “Hi, My Name Is”) and his plodding self-produced derivations of the good Doctor’s innovations (as heard on “Without Me” and “When I’m Gone”). So Eminem turned to L.A. producer DJ Khalil (Clipse’s “Kinda like a Big Deal”), who delivered the scratchy rock-rap “Talkin’ 2 Myself” and the glam blues of “Won’t Back Down.” Drake’s right-hand man Boi-1da (“Not Afraid”), New York kingpin Just Blaze, Kid Cudi mentor Emile and Mobb Deep’s Havoc also contributed beats. The result is an album that sounds more dynamic than previous Em efforts, yet retains the cinematic bombast that, for better or worse, has become his trademark.

At varying points, Eminem acknowledges criticism of his past work. On “Talking 2 Myself,” he memorably dismisses his past two albums by claiming “Encore I was high on drugs/ Relapse I was flushing them out.” Other times, though, he sounds prickly. “Critics never got nothing nice to say,” he complains on “On Fire,” before lobbing yet another embarrassingly bad pun: “I’m so tired of this I could blow/ Fire in the hole.”

Throughout Recovery, Eminem sounds like he’s still trying to figure out what type of person he has become post-rehab, much less the type of rapper he’ll be. He seems to mimic Lil Wayne’s penchant for corny punchlines, but without Weezy’s humor or lack of self-consciousness. (Indeed, Lil Wayne is the only guest rapper on Recovery. On “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” Eminem admits “I almost made a song dissin’ Lil Wayne/ I was jealous of him because of the attention he was getting.”) His stabs at classic Slim Shady shock humor sound forced and half-hearted. He even undercuts an attempt to reprise his woman-hating “Superman” persona for “So Bad” with uncharacteristic moments of tenderness (“Relax woman, you know that I’m only kidding wit’ ya”). After the bad parody that was Relapse, he has turned deadly serious and genuinely concerned about his life.

Part of the problem is that Recovery forces listeners to accept Eminem as a broken man trying to put his life back together. This is a stark reversal from the self-proclaimed “white trash” brat who once gleefully air-humped the music industry, called himself a “Criminal” who “hated f*gg*ts” and dropped “Purple Pills.” Perhaps it would be easier if he was fighting an adversary, rather than his addictions. As a result, some hear honest introspection in Recovery’s post-rehab ballads like “Going through Changes,” replete with soaring Ozzy Osbourne arena-metal samples. Others hear self-pitying moans. It doesn’t help that Eminem doesn’t give a great lyrical performance – I mean, it’s hard to look past some of his awful rhymes.

Then again, these days critics seem overly concerned with regional niches and technical virtuosity, whether it be the “country rap” of Big K.R.I.T. and YelaWolf or the laconic weed raps of Curren$y and Wiz Khalifa. In contrast, Eminem’s Recovery speaks to the continued power of mainstream hip-hop as a generational unifier and a source of great storytelling. No matter how diminished his once-fluid cadences and rhyme schemes may be, he draws you into his personal struggles with a compelling narrative. And audiences are responding. When he calls out “I’m Not Afraid,” he delivers a power ballad that ballasts their emotions. When he rhymes about dysfunctional love affairs on “Space Bound” and “Love the Way You Lie,” he sympathizes with young lovers torn apart by violent arguments and traumatic fights.

Throughout Recovery, Eminem displays a continued ability to engage his listeners, even while at his most vulnerable. Whether that means it is a great album or just a mainstream hit remains open to debate. But his fans may simply appreciate the effort.

At one point, he introduces “Talkin’ 2 Myself” by saying, “I just want to thank everyone for being so patient these past couple of years while I figure this sh*t out.” He even admits he has trouble writing a decent verse sometimes. How many rappers have the balls to say that? Eminem seems to really value us.

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2 Responses to Why Eminem still matters

  1. Lily Russell says:

    (“His stabs at classic Slim Shady shock humor sound forced and half-hearted. He even undercuts an attempt to reprise his woman-hating “Superman” persona for “So Bad” with uncharacteristic moments of tenderness (“Relax woman, you know that I’m only kidding wit’ ya”).

    Do you guys even listen to Eminem when he gives interviews? No he’s NOT taking a stab at anything Slim Shady. Slim Shady does not exist on this album. He left him off completely! That is pure quirky Marshall/Eminem! AND that is NOT a moment of tenderness. http://rapgenius.com/19240/ He’s seducing a drunk chick, and he gets pushier & pushier towards the end. ” but if I’m what you wanted, why’d you panic when I grabbed ya? Girl, don’t be so frantic” how many tender “frantic” moments have you had on a date?? …smh…

    If you don’t even understand what the songs are about, how can you possibly offer anyone a quality analysis on the albums quality, and on the Artist. – Fail

    Two, I am a rap nerd, I’ve been reading Rap Lyrics since I was 10, when I found an old CD sleeve of Eazy’E’s lyrics. Trust me they don’t get any bigger than myself.
    For every weak line you just pointed out, (or think you pointed out) I can point out 2-3 witty, clever & brilliant lines. And half that off every other MC in the game. You write as thou he had no weak lines on his first 3 albums. Well I can point out just as many for you & twice as many off every single other MC’s album in the game, including Nas! None of these guys are perfect at any moment in their lives. But he’s still doin it 10 times better than anyone else in tha game!

    Why now is that line you quoted in “On Fire” an embarrassingly bad pun? It sounds like a statement to me. Do you even know what a pun is? That verse is a beautiful display of assonance and consonance, and the rhymes are ILL on that track. Its one of the sickest ones on it! WTF?

    “Flow’s tighter, hot headed as ghost rider, cold hearted as Spider-Man throwin’ a spider in the snow” –That 100% quirky comic book nerd, Eminem/Marshall humor. He’s true to himself.
    “So you better get lower than Flo-Rida inside of a low-rider with no tires in the hole.” Dayum can’t get any lower than that now can you..

    “Listen dog, Christmas is off, this is as soft as it gets, this isn’t golf
    This is a blisterin’ assault, those are your wounds, this is the salt ”

    “Yeah I’m pissed, but I would rather take this energy and stash it in a can
    Come back and whip your ass with it again
    Saliva’s like sulfuric acid in your hand, it’ll eat through anything, melt the ass off iron man” lol!
    The whole song is one after another of sick Rhymes

    Seduction one my favorites on the album. The whole song is a double entendre, The Guy is other Rappers and the girl is Hip Hop fans. Had he spit that to you in a battle he’d have taken out your manhood and skillz in one swipe, what the hell are you gonna come back with? Bash his mom???

    “I feel like I’m morphin, into something that’s so incredible that I’m dwarfin, all competitors. Better get your girlfriend in check. It’s psychological warfare. Endorphin’s I affect. His self esteem shatters, his dialect, comes blastin out your deck, ” — Beautiful!
    You try to turn your charm on. Cuz you just think your Bishop the Don Juan.
    But if you think that your f-cken with me, homie your on one.
    I’m cockin my head back like Ed lover, come on son, She’s on my johnson.
    She brings my name up constant.” Your boys are like, “She’s f-cken wit dude. She wants him.”
    homeboy you better get a clue, she’s on my d-ck cuz I spit better than you. What you expect her to do?
    How you expect her to act in the sack, when she’s closing her eyes,
    fantasizing of digging her nails in my back to this track”

    “She say’s it’s quicker to count the things that ain’t wrong with you, than to count the things that are.
    There’s a seven disc cd changer in her car, and I’m in every single slot, and you’re not. Aww. (ouch)

    Prick, you really feeling that bullsh-t?
    You think you killin them syllables. Quit playing. These beats ain’t nothin to fool with.
    They call me Fire Marshall. I shut the sh-t down.
    Your entire arsenal is not enough to fck with one round.
    I am also the opposite of what you are like.
    You are microcosm of what the f-ck I am on the mic.
    I am awesome and you are just aww struck. She’s love stricken.
    She’s got her jaw stuck, from sucken my d-ck. Awwww F-ck. — Down Right nasty! It’s not about women at all, as it a ‘verbal’ seduction yet its one of the sexiest songs, the guy has ever written

    Now you see this line.
    “I’m the big shot, get it, d*ck snots, you’re just small pokes, little pricks”

    This man spit a TRUE Triple Entendre just making a penis joke! imagine if he were being serious! That’s not a Hip Hop/ Jay-z entendre either, or one that you have to be informed about the artist or his past work to interpret it 3 different ways either. In the context of this song “Little pricks” is a true literary triple. The thing about those is, they DO NOT Exist. Yet there’s your very first one. http://rapgenius.com/18034

    Now you STILL wanna tap those little keys on your keyboard and say the man ain’t on top of his pen game?? …smh… Go Ahead cuz as REAL Hip Hop nerds analyze them (rather than these fake wanna be elitist) he just makes you all look more and more like a joke..

    BTW, There is only two personal songs of his on that album, I’ve listened to repeatedly Space Bound and you’re never over. Not afraid and WTP are probably the two weakest tracks on the whole album but even they aren’t bad.

  2. Tay Holland says:

    Cosign Lily Russell and Imma go beat the person who tweeted me this article…

    “After the bad parody that was Relapse, ”

    Find me the rap Nerd calling Relapse a bad anything? That Album won the Grammy for Best Rap Album because even when Eminem is at his worst he’s still better than the rest! Relapse – Remove the accents and you your left the Rap equivalent of Edgar Allen Poe! – http://thequietus.com/articles/04918-the-curious-similarities-betwixt-edgar-allan-poe-the-rapper-eminem

    “embarrassingly bad pun: “I’m so tired of this I could blow/ Fire in the hole.”

    Umm, thats a cliche not a pun! And you call yourselves Rap nerds, smh

    “I remind you that I don’t need the f**king swine flu to be a sick pig?”

    “Fork was in the road, took the psycho path. Poison Ivy wouldn’t have me thinking rash”

    “Talented with the tongue, muthf**ker you ain’t got a lick in yours.

    “They Call Me A Freak Cause I Like To Spit On These Pu**y’s Before I Eat Them.’

    ‘Get These Wack C**ksuckers Off Stage, Where The F**k Is Kanye When You Need Him? Snatch The Mic From Them, Bitch Ima Let You Finish In A Minute…..’

    ‘Proof Is Here In Spirit And Im His Spittin Image I Mirror It When I Stand Near It, Your Pu**y Lyric I Cu*t Hear It, Who Forms Pyramids And Raps Circles Around Square Lyricists..’

    God, I give up, call it “Evil That Men Do”
    Lord forgive me for what my pen do
    “This is for your sins, I cleanse you
    You can repent, but I warn you, if you continue
    To hell I send you” And just then the wind blew

    It’s like apples to oranges, peach to plums, yeah
    I’m bananas, pussy – cut off the grapes and grow a pair

    Hell Almost Famous & Cinderella Man those whole songs are quotable!
    But we know why you wanna-be Rap nerds, (as lily russell put it) are mad. It’s because of “You Dont Own Me!” the untitled havoc track! Eminem’s response to all you fools who was askin why he came back, and saying he should retire and start producing after Relapse… LOL y’all mad he let y’all have it! Now y’all sittin in the corner cryin! waahahahaaaaa

    “Put your eggs in the same basket
    You can count every motherf*ckin’ chicken fore it hatches
    Cause you can bet your a*s we gonna get it crackin’
    Like Kraken and Titans when they’re clashin’
    Get your brains bashed in so bad, you’re gonna have Kurt Cobain askin’
    To autograph a bloodstained napkin.. lol!

    hahaaaaa suckas

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