Monday, April 13, 2009

Marshall Blathers

I had a discussion the other day with a dear, dear friend about Eminem, and his value as a rapper and as a musician. She finds him to be great, I countered with the argument that I always have, which is that his being white has a lot to do with his popularity. (If G. Rap Giancana and Pharaohe Monch were white boys, they would have been on the cover of Rolling Stone years ago.)

So anyway, Eminem released a new video, and here it is. (By the way Em, quit being a bitch and disabling embedding of your videos):

I liked it the first two times I saw it, when it was called "My Name Is" and "The Real Slim Shady." Once again, Marshall decides that he wants to be "controversial," directing his ire this time toward such ripe targets as Brett Michaels, Sarah Palin, Amy Winehouse, Jessica Simpson and other personalities that were edgy fodder a year and a half ago. There is a "Jailhouse Rock" parody and a "Star Trek" spoof! Was this video directed by Weird Al? (May his name be praised.)

Not only does the song kind of blow, it shows Em at his most desperate.

There are two sides to Eminem: the serious martyr side, and the goofy celebrity-hating side. When he was a younger rapper in the mid-1990s, he was a pretty typical freestyle battler. He would show up on mixtapes every once in a while to drop a few hot verses, but his freestyles were seldom better than anything from Big L or Madd Skillz. But with a little help from Dr. Dre, he got enough exposure to become arguably the most well-known rapper of the decade. (Apologize to Kanye and Lil Weezy.)

But the song with which he broke through was a crude -- if clever -- harangue against basically anyone who was popular at the time. He speaks of having mammary-related relations with Pamela Anderson (Lee at the time), impregnating Spice Girls and stapling his high school English teacher's scrotum to his leg. This apparently was the "Slim Shady" persona that we were all supposed to find naughty and incorrigible!

Given the novelty nature of this first single, Eminem by all rights should have been relegated to the nerd-rap category next to MC Paul Barman. But Em did a smart thing and immediately positioned himself as not just a nasally blonde jokester, but rather as a tortured and self-reflective storyteller. He ceded his cartoony voice for one of deep rage on songs such as "The Way I Am" and "Stan." In these songs, the pressure of overnight success clearly has gotten to him, driving him and his fans to extreme measures. Ironically, he blames the same media that contributed to his meteoric rise for his torment at that time.

To me, it's this Eminem (is it the "real Marshall Mathers"?) that is the most tiresome. Not only is there something terribly annoying about the meta-nature of rappers making videos for MTV about how the media gives them no respect, but this Eminem is humorless, not clever and woefully uninteresting to me. The delusions of persecution -- whether by Eminem, Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern -- are disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst. Personalities like this thrive on being seen as dangerous, and use it as a bullet-proof shield against any criticism; basically someone can put out a bullshit album, and when the media takes a dump on it, the artist will say that people are "haters" and are out to get them. It's all very phony and annoying.

So usually, when Em comes back to the fanciful whimsy of celebrity-skewering, it's a guilty pleasure. But this one is just so lazy. He talks about Kim Kardashian's fanny (that's American "fanny," not British "fanny"), Lindsay Lohan's lesbianism, Ellen and Portia, and even John Mayer (he whom, although it seems everyone thinks is a douche, actually seems kind of like a relatively cool guy to me). There is no insight here that you wouldn't already find in a Perez Hilton post, and no target that he would have to be afraid would bite back. (Em has yet to talk smack about anyone with any kind of rhetorical savvy.) Even the video is subpar, substituting extravagance, porn stars and special effects for satire.

So I fear that Eminem has leaped above the proverbial shark, and if this is what he's become, we may have already seen his best days. It's too bad, really, because there was a time that he was at least interesting, even if just sporadically so.


I came across an article at Passion of the Weiss, where he ranks the 10 best rappers of all time. They are listed as such, with my own approval/disapproval:

[Note: missing are Sage Francis, LMNO, Brother Ali, Sole (kinda), Sixtoo and yes, MC Paul Barman, who is kind of annoying, but you can't deny the multi-syllabic technique.]
10. Eyedea (yes, he looks like Eric Devendorf, but he's probably the best battle MC of the bunch)
09. Cage (possibly)
08. 3rd Bass (MC Serch yes, Pete Nice no)
07. The Beastie Boys (no, no and hell no)
06. Slug from Atmosphere (terrible freestyler, decent studio rapper, makes a heck of a song)
05. The Streets (no, but I'm not really into that UK Grime stuff; still he's cool as hell)
04. Edan (fuuuuuuck yes)
03. Aesop Rock (good sweet lord yes, probably should be #1; the only guy out right now whose lyrics actually give me chills)
02. Eminem (for technique, I'd probably put him top 10, but my reservations are listed above)
01. El-P (there is no better lyrical display by anyone of any race than Funcrusher Plus)

Don't believe what Rolling Stone and Spin tell you, babies. Let Unkie Herb lead you in the right direction.

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