1. Eminem is riding a wave of hype that dwarfs his skills. I imagine that only Seattleites who went to college in the p.c. '80s are dumb enough to believe this one. It should only take one run through The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope) for any but the most humor-impaired listener to admit that Eminem has great comic timing. Even the song/story about murdering the mother of his child ("'97 Bonnie & Clyde") has a brilliant burst of rappin' baby talk.
Eminem's knack for piling on ever-more-offensive rhymes makes for first-rate class-clown stuff ("...suck my dick without a condom on/While I'm on the john"), and his song about a 'shroom overdose ("My Fault") beat all the hilarious rave scenes in Go to the punch by a month. Best of all, his litany of "tired of," in what at first sounds like it's gonna be the weakest track on the album ("If I Had"), demonstrates a willingness to be forthright that few rappers share. That he remains funny and entertaining while confessing to self-doubt, insomnia, and feelings of helplessness makes Eminem's talent rarer still.
Besides, no one sells a million CDs on the strength of videos and press releases. Hate him if you must, but don't deny that this little white guy forged a powerful connection to a lot of hiphop-lovin' people very quickly. Which brings us to....
2. Eminem is a great rapper, just like other great rappers, except that he happens to be white. The justification for this one is that Eminem grew up poor, in a black part of inner-city Detroit, and has been rapping from a very early age. It's the wigger theory: his skin is white; but culturally speaking, the man is African American.
I imagine it's possible for such an artist to exist, but Eminem ain't him (El-P from Company Flow comes much closer). How do I know? Because I attended Eminem's sold-out April 15th show in New York, and the crowd there made it clear that at least three-quarters of the folks with whom he made that powerful connection are about as culturally black as Metallica.
Actually, that's exaggerating a bit. Eminem's New York-area fans proved they knew the words to "DWYCK" when it came time to sing along with Nice from Nice 'n' Smooth (a guest during the Beatnuts' opening set). But that's not exactly gonna get you into Morehouse. Especially if you haven't heard of Morehouse. (The guy whose "DWYCK" verse starts "eenie, meenie, miny, moe" went there, y'know--so don't pretend poverty is key to emceeing.)
Even though he thinks he's straight-up hiphop, Eminem's whiteness affects his flavor profoundly. It makes him punk. Black ghetto kids are never proud to be poor, whereas just by flying a white-trash flag while being bored and rude in the Motor City, Eminem evokes the Stooges. Ten-thousand Dr. Dre mic-checks on his album wouldn't have changed that. Having grown up disempowered and aware of it makes Eminem even punker than his claimed primary source of rap-star inspiration, the Beastie Boys. And he doesn't even bust the current street slang, like they did.
It's rough on those of us paid to sum stuff up in 800 words or less that Eminem's hype, his skills, his urban flavor, and his modern-rock snottiness are all for real. It's great for him, though. The guy's gonna be free to do anything he wants.
Over in the world of "real" rapdom, meanwhile, heads are pissed at another former poor kid, Nas, for courting the pop audience. Nas emerged as a great hardcore MC from the projects, but soon started hiring star producers (first Dr. Dre, now Puffy) to make him hit singles. The results (opera-sampling single "Hate Me Now") are tepid, corny, and above all, compromised. But what are you gonna do?
I'm for talented poor kids uniting disparate audiences to make themselves pop stars, if that's what they want to do. It might not make for the best music, but don't tell me it precludes artistry. It's a choice.
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