Photo by Jonathan Mannion

White Man’s Burden

The differences are numerous and obvious, but it’s the similarities that tell the tale: Two peroxide-blond young Caucasians pull themselves up from the ruins of the same crumbling blue-collar chocolate city. They do so on the transcendent force of the Negro culture and its signifiers (music, fashion and vernacular) that they grew up on. With better than a decade separating their ascents, they become darlings of popular media, academia, and the corporate forces that box and sell their slickly commodified rebellion. Both also become complicated symbols of America’s long-standing racial and sexual quagmire, as well as beneficiaries of the oldest and least challenged form of affirmative action — the reflexive elevation of whiteness, particularly the white entertainer mining (or, is that miming?) blackness. And, as a special added bonus, they’re each emblematic of the Zeitgeist in which they rule. At her peak, she embodied the greed-is-good/out-for-self mentality of the Reagan era (yeah, yeah, yeah . . . irony); he personifies, with newfound but rarely examined complexity and contradictions, the rage and uncertainty of straight white men struggling to keep their heads above nigger status in Dubya’s America.

Both Madonna and Eminem are icons of post–civil rights era white skin (and hetero) privilege. It’s a time when appropriation and culture-vulture shopping sprees are sanctioned as the organic evolution of art as opposed to the carefully managed co-option that is filled with historic precedent. But while Madonna would likely never own up to the role that alabaster tits played in her rise to world domination (I’m a fookin’ ahtist . . .), Em is more honest, more self-aware. From the moment he dropped his debut, the keebler media gushed that he’d brought psychological depth, lyrical wit and verbal dexterity to hip-hop — as though Chino XL, Cannibal, the Geto Boys and Redman (before he became Jerry Lewis to Meth’s Dean Martin) had never grabbed a mic. They vaulted him to GOAT status as though Rakim had never been born and Jay-Z’s sole claim to fame was snagging Beyoncé. But Em is more on the level than the critics who fellate him. He knows that it’s more a matter of whiteness than talent that has granted him his particular measure of visibility and acclaim. "If I was black, I woulda sold half . . .," he rapped point-blank in the song "White America," on 2002’s The Eminem Show. End of convo.

Except . . . Eminem really is talented. He cannot be fucked with in terms of his flow — cadence, timing, the nimble tossing of the most ass-whipping, laugh-inducing rhyme. Still, Negroes who’ve watched him be given dap from people who don’t know shit about hip-hop (The New York Times’ Frank Rich is only one high-profile crotch jockey) are forced to use surgical precision in differentiating their fury at the media’s blatant white-supremacy-in-practice from a critique of his skills. (This is nothing new, of course. Similar contortions exist around the Beastie Boys.) Some don’t even try, and are stuck on a "Fuck that cracka-ass-cracka" mindset. Some up him without pause or question, while others give him love with reservation. In the words of Run-DMC, it’s tricky. And the impetus is, once again, with the Negro to transcend the prickly murk of the racial matter. As Greg Tate pointed out in a recent Village Voice article discussing how race has played out in Em’s career, "It has . . . found him scribed on the covers of hip-hop magazines as the greatest living rapper, which always makes me laugh and think of how predisposed white supremacy has made even colored journalists crown any white man who takes a Black art form to the bank . . . as the greatest who ever lived."

The issue of queerness is another area in which Eminem has been a lightning rod for controversy but not for serious mainstream dialogue. In a Rolling Stone interview published in 2000, comparing the uses of the words faggot and nigger/nigga in his music, Em said, "That word [nigger] is not even in my vocabulary. I don’t think that you can put race alongside gender, a man preferring a man. Those are two completely different things. A gay person can be of any race. And I do black music, so out of respect, why would I put that word in my vocabulary?" (This was before the irrelevant powers that be at the Source dug up and floated an audiotape of the teenage Eminem using the word nigger in a basement-tape rap to describe a black girlfriend who’d dumped him.) He reiterated that point of distinction in this year’s November 25 issue of Rolling Stone, and his rationale for why using the word faggot is cool but "nigga/nigger" is not ("Like, if you’re using [faggot] . . . in the way of calling them a name, that’s different than a racial slur to me") is no less disingenuous for being the standard rap party line. And you can almost hear the bubbling up of Eminem’s unconsciousness: Damn, G, a wigga done ceded some white-skin privilege; ya’ll ain’t fuckin’ wit my hetero portfolio.

But, in fairness, his shtick is more complex than that. Genuine homo-hatred and its less virulent cousin, homo-anxiety, are both categorized as homophobia. And both are often strong undercurrents in homoeroticism, particularly the unexamined and accidental kind. Eminem sticks a finger in all those dikes. He’s clearly fascinated by gayness, and he runs with that fascination, with the resultant wordplay ranging from the discomforting to the silly. As his career unfolds, it becomes obvious that while he ain’t the most enlightened on sexual mores and nuances, he also ain’t the hip-hop Jerry Falwell. (Jerry Springer’s more like it.) His constant flirtations with gender-bending in his videos and the various kinds of homo attraction and repulsion found in his storytelling and skits are yet another avenue of artistic freedom and personal exploration granted "the white rapper" but not the black ones (at least none who want a high-profile career), but they also give voice to that which all straight boys are forced to suppress for fear of being called out.

In the song "Rain Man," off the new album, Encore, he asks Dr. Dre, ". . . is it gay to play putt putt golf with a friend . . . and watch his butt butt when he tees off . . . I just need to clear things up / till then I’ll just walk around with a manly strut . . ." The question is posed within a verse filled with played-for-laughs questions that are ringed with discomfort over what a man can get away with and still be considered a real man.

So, you might be asking, why has so much space been spent talking about race and sexuality, and not the new album? Part of the reason is that Eminem, as a vibrant if somewhat contrived modern pop icon, has become a canvas against which these kinds of questions are thrown. He and his work embody them. By virtue of what he raps about — and how he raps about it — these questions are part of what makes him interesting, relevant. But the larger reason is that the new album simply sucks. It’s not even close to being worthy of his talent.

It should have been obvious when he dropped the gimmicky, true-to-formula first single and accompanying video, "Just Lose It," that he was running on fumes. In taking cheap shots at washed-up, certifiable pop stars (Michael Jackson), parodying the already clichéd (Madonna’s cone bras) and clowning Pee-wee Herman, he showed clearly that his shit was ragged. (How daring. Clowning Pee-wee Herman in the year 2004. Never mind that Paul Reubens’ sly creation is more genuinely subversive than Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers or Eminem could ever hope to be.)

On the rest of the album, he plumbs dusty mommy and wifey issues with increasingly less depth and no new insights. He contextualizes and apologizes for the aforementioned use of the word nigger when he was younger, with the apology sounding both sincere and perfunctory. The mama-hating "Puke" is the kind of shit his 10th-grade geeky, bored-with-school, fuming-about-home suburban fans would pen in class. The shrill "Toy Soldiers" is unlistenable, and the lame "My First Single" is pure filler. But so is most of the album. His and Dr. Dre’s overall production is so flat, so lacking in soul (which means not lazily sampled R&B tracks but inspiration, passion) that it never sparks the sum of the parts into a worthwhile whole. In the documentary Fade to Black, Jay-Z is shown listening to hours upon hours of tracks that producers have submitted to him, shaking his head at the lackluster efforts offered and then putting the most acclaimed beat masters (Kanye, Pharrell, Timbaland) through their paces in order to bring him heat. Em seems to have settled for any synth doodling and dry beats thrown his way. Only on "Mockingbird," a love song for his daughter, Hailie, does he push beyond gimmick and trifling production. Finally, Em’s well-thumbed autobiography is used for something other than juvenile riffing or cloying self-pity, at last giving you some reminder of why this white boy is more than just the machine’s answered prayer.

EMINEM | Encore | (Aftermath)


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