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Missing the Point of the Many Masks

Eminem's critics cite the imagery; his champions look beyond it. They're all wrong. Fans know the rapper's gift lies in how he deploys the words.

February 18, 2001|ROBERT CHRISTGAU | Village Voice senior editor Robert Christgau is the author of "Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s" and "Grown Up All Wrong."

Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" begins with a statement of principles read by an announcer, the climactic sentence of which has gone strangely unremarked. Pardon me for sacrificing scansion and flava to the hyphen god as I quote it in full: "Slim Shady is fed up with your ----, and he's going to ------- kill you."

Without question, this is a mortal threat directed at anyone who hears it. Bye-bye to all 8 million Americans who have purchased the Grammy-nominated CD. Luckily for the future of profundity, few of the solons clamoring for Eminem's expulsion from the temple of civilized discourse are in danger, because they don't listen to Eminem--they just read about him. Still, moral arbiters agree that it's a bad thing to kill anyone, even teenage hip-hop fans. So why do you think I'm being silly? Because Hitler himself found killing that many people a logistical nightmare? Because Slim Shady is a fictional creation who can't kill anyone? Of course not--the reason's much simpler. It's because you don't think Eminem means it. So now let's figure out whether you think he means anything else.

Granted, that is to demand from the Eminem controversy a clarity it rarely achieves. Obtuse and uninformed though his critics may be, they're aware that his songs aren't pure acts of advocacy. With Marshall Mathers' fraught relationship with his real-life wife adding clear-and-present piquancy to the hand-wringing, there's generally reference to the rapper's violent "fantasies," his homophobic "epithets." The feeling seems to be, however, that Eminem's audience of unformed minds isn't up to such fine distinctions, and that his juvenile/sociopathic/exploitative/yucky self isn't either. Surely that's why "Janie Runaway" has gone unremarked in the current Grammy brouhaha.

You'll find "Janie Runaway" on another nominee's album, Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature." It's sung in the voice of an aging pedophile trying to set up a threesome with his jailbait house guest and a friend of hers. This being Steely Dan, the tone is complex, but that just means the pedophile isn't presented as a beast. But aging males attracted to underage females are notorious rationalizers, far more hypocritical than young men enraged at their female sexual partners. Will "Janie Runaway" lessen their tendency to kid themselves about their own morality? As a critic who's the father of a 15-year-old daughter, I'd say there's more chance it will titillate. And as critic and father, I nonetheless insist that "Janie Runaway" is a brilliant song.

But the members of Steely Dan are in their 50s--now evolved, by the strange alchemy of respectability, into "Serious Artists." Eminem is a 27-year-old white practitioner of a genre that 20 years on was recently accused by anti-Eminem New York Times columnist Bob Herbert--a reliably left-liberal African American, so he should know--as having "thoroughly broken faith with the surpassingly great, centuries-long tradition of black music in America." Which is why I doubt hearing the music would tip the balance for many Eminem bashers. If you hate hip-hop, then of course you hate Eminem. You probably aren't too fond of Lauryn Hill, either.

Yet how else is Eminem to be judged? This is the first major white practitioner of a sophisticated, foul-mouthed, "ill" aesthetic designed to give middle-aged blacks like Herbert conniptions--although, confusingly, Eminem's defenders rarely pin down his precise achievement. Despite "Stan," about a crazed fan, or "My Fault," about a woman who ODs on Slim Shady's 'shrooms, he's not so much a storyteller as a rhymer; although no name rapper has done so much with enjambment and polysyllabic line endings, many are more poetic in other ways. Both his sound and his delivery privilege treble over bass, a pop strategy that leaves hip-hop's rhythmic and textural innovations to deeper musicians. In short, he's a gifted technician, not a titanic one. But he's the funniest rapper ever. No rapper has ever made clearer, especially to young whites who view black rappers as romantic outlaws, that hip-hop is a verbal construct, not to be taken literally. And no rapper has ever done so much with the fine distinctions that are supposedly over his audience's heads. It's not, as is too often said, that his artistry justifies his offensive content. His offensive content is the essence of his artistry.

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