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Has He No Shame?

Eminem's no-holds-barred raps bring him criticism from parents and even some music industry players. But that hasn't tamed him at all on his new album.

May 14, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

It's just past 5 p.m., which is early in the day by recording studio standards, but Eminem is racing against the clock.

The 26-year-old rap phenom is trying to jam an interview . . . a meeting with rapper and producer Dr. Dre about their summer tour . . . a quick photo session . . . and still complete a few final details on his new album--all in time to leave for the airport in three hours to catch a flight home to Detroit.


Eminem (who was born Marshall Mathers, hence the M&M nickname) is a little stressed.

"Where's Paul?" he shouts, sending aides scurrying in search of his manager, who has a touch of the flu and is resting somewhere in the sprawling Sherman Oaks recording complex. "We've gotta finish this [expletive]."

Paul Rosenberg, a burly 28-year-old, is known to Eminem fans from the humorous skit "Paul" on the rapper's 1999 major-label debut album, "The Slim Shady LP." Rosenberg plays a nervous attorney who pleads with Eminem to tone down some of the album's foulmouthed, sex- and violence-laced content.

"Hey, what's going on, this is Paul. . . ," he says on the record, speaking into an answering machine. "I listened to the rough copy of the album and . . . I've got to be honest with you. Can you tone it down a little bit? There's only so much I can explain [to the record company]. Give me a call."

The sequence is funny because it's clear from the language and subject matter on the rest of the album that Eminem didn't tone anything down. Its outrage and defiance helped "Slim Shady" sell more than 3 million copies in the U.S. and turn Eminem into a major player in the crowded world of rap.

In the studio, Eminem wants Rosenberg to make another cameo on the new album, which is titled "The Marshall Mathers LP" and is due May 23.

This time, you'll hear Rosenberg say on the answering machine--well, Eminem asks that the skit be off the record so that fans don't read about album contents before they hear them. But Rosenberg's character is still nervous.

It's easy to see why.

Eminem's records mix the bratty humor of "South Park" with the violent imagery of films such as "Pulp Fiction," all delivered in a high-pitched, rapid-fire nasal delivery that is sure to grate further on parents' nerves.

The plots are often grisly. In one song, his alter ego, Slim Shady, murders his wife and brings their infant daughter along while he disposes of the body--all set against a seductive hip-hop beat.

This nothing's-sacred mix of sex and violence in the age of Columbine has lots of parents asking: What kind of madman is this? Shortly after the first album's release, the editor of Billboard, the nation's most influential record trade publication, denounced the disc as "making money by exploiting the world's misery."

But music critics generally have sided with Eminem and his fans, saying that the music is part of the rap and rock tradition of youthful independence and rebellion that has stretched from the sex 'n' drugs escapades of the Rolling Stones to the gallows humor of Alice Cooper. For the most part, Eminem's tales are fictional and farcical--not approved codes of conduct.

Yet, clearly, Eminem connects with today's young rap and rock audience. At a time when repeat commercial success is increasingly difficult in the pop world, Eminem is still heating up. Many industry observers credit his presence on Dr. Dre's "Dr. Dre 2001" with helping push that collection past the 4 million sales mark in six months.

Eminem's new video and spectacularly catchy single, both titled "The Real Slim Shady," are taking off like fireworks at a KISS concert.

"The single is blowin' up with our audience," says Kevin Weatherly, program director at Los Angeles alt-rock radio station KROQ-FM (106.7). "I think it shows he's someone who is plugged into the pop culture in a huge way."

Eminem scoffs at charges his music is harmful for his fans. He even speaks about it as a positive force.

"I don't think music can make you kill or rape someone any more than a movie is going to make you do something you know is wrong, but music can give you strength," Eminem says. "It can make a 15-year-old kid, who is being picked on by everyone and made to feel worthless, throw his middle fingers up and say, '[expletive] you, you don't know who I am.' It can help make them respect their individuality, which is what music did for me.

"If people take anything from my music, it should be motivation to know that anything is possible as long as you keep working at it and don't back down. I didn't have nothin' going for me . . . school, home . . . until I found something I loved, which was music, and that changed everything."


There are reasons you shouldn't call Eminem the Elvis Presley of rap, starting with the fact that he'd probably take a swing at you if you did it in his presence. He's in no way defining rap the way Elvis defined rock, nor is he going to shift the focus away from the African Americans who created the genre.

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