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Photo by Jonathan Mannion

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)