Rapping on Empty
Several weeks ago the 32-year-old hip-hop superstar Eminem, America's staunchest and most spectacular amoralist, found himself in an unusual position, suddenly cast as the moral hope of his generation. The occasion was the release, just days before the presidential election, of "Mosh," a torrid anti-Bush protest single that endeared the rapper to the sort of older blue-state listeners whose musical taste runs more to James Taylor than 50 Cent, and who would otherwise have steered clear of a man known for his extravagant political incorrectness. Here was an Eminem song that a Nation charter subscriber could love: "No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil," Eminem bellows over a glum piano line and a martial beat. "No more psychological warfare, to trick us to thinking that we ain't loyal."
This brutishly effective piece of musical agitprop was accompanied by an animated video, directed by Ian Inaba of the activist group Guerrilla News Network, which concluded with images of a black-hooded Eminem leading a youthful throng on a march to voter registration tables. The video shot to the top of MTV's countdown and spread like wildfire over the Internet; for a few days Air America buzzed with hopeful talk of an "Eminem factor" in the upcoming election. But for some of us who found the idea that Eminem could deliver swing-state votes farfetched, "Mosh" held another kind of promise. The rapper's previous album, The Eminem Show (2002), had been a mess. Might the forthcoming Encore mark a return to form?
Well, let's just say it's been a dispiriting autumn all around. Encore, which arrived in stores nine days after Kerry's concession, has a strong claim to being the worst blockbuster record of 2004. It's dreary, it's plodding and, what's worse, it plods drearily at epic length. Encore is seventy-seven minutes and twenty songs long (a bonus disc adds three additional tunes, rounding the running time up to a neat hour and a half), and every song is buried under an avalanche of words. Eminem has always been prolix, but on earlier records like The Slim Shady LP (1999) and The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) his lyrics whizzed past in a blur of rhythm and wit. Encore, though, simply drags; for all the words spoken here--a torrent of pop culture references, invective and potty humor--you can't help feeling that this talented motormouth has run out of things to say.
And he knows it. "I don't even gotta make no god damn sense/I just did a whole song and I didn't say shit," Eminem raps at the conclusion of "Rain Man," the album's clomping centerpiece song. It's an amazingly cynical boast--I don't even gotta make no god damn sense--a veritable caricature of superstar complacency; but one listen through Encore will dispel any doubts that he's serious about his devotion to nonsense. Several songs are hitched to infantile singsong choruses that dissolve into a patter of gibberish. ("Da doing doing doing"; "poo poo ka ka"; "Oh ah ah ah oh ah"; etc.) Then there's "My 1st Single," a song that glories in its own meaninglessness. "This was supposed to be my first single/But I just fucked that off," Eminem raps. "Hey! So fuck a chicken, lick a chicken suck a chicken, beat a chicken/Eat a chicken, like it's a big cock, big a big cock." These lyrics are delivered over a jittery beat, punctuated by farting and belching sound effects, in a voice that occasionally squawks in imitation of a chicken--none of which, I can assure you, makes them any more amusing on a CD than in the pages of a journal of politics and ideas.
Such tin-eared attempts at humor would be annoying on any record; but they're especially depressing coming from Eminem, who has made some of the best comic art of the past decade. When he burst on the scene in the late 1990s, Eminem was a novel character: a self-proclaimed "white trash" rapper, up from a hardscrabble Midwestern childhood, who courted scandal with a fervor that was equal parts Johnny Rotten and Bart Simpson. His words were as profane as any gangsta rapper's, but he preferred self-mockery (and self-loathing) to the usual braggadocio. And he was an incredibly fluid and witty rhymer. (No less a poet than Seamus Heaney has extolled Eminem's "verbal energy.") His best songs collapsed pop-culture parody, cartoon violence and personal confession into a nearly continuous string of punch lines. Consider his 1999 debut single, "My Name Is":
Hi kids, do you like violence?
Wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?
Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?
Try 'cid and get fucked up worse than my life is?
My brain's dead weight, I'm trying to get my head straight
But I can't figure out which Spice Girl I want to impregnate...
Well, since age twelve, I've felt like I'm someone else
Cause I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt...
I'm steaming mad
And by the way, when you see my Dad
Tell him that I slit his throat, in this dream I had
These lines are buoyed by a sneaky little bass and electric piano figure, an appropriately slippery soundtrack for the trickster who speaks them. Is that speaker Eminem? Slim Shady? Marshall Mathers? The rapper has constantly flitted among alter egos, defying efforts to pin him down. His songs have reveled in contradictions and cognitive dissonances. He's set horrific tales of drug overdoses, chainsaw murders and matricide to a jubilant beat. He's juxtaposed cartoonish fantasy with the most painful and revealing details of his childhood deprivations and wrecked marriage. He's laid traps for listeners, frustrating our sense of decency by making us laugh at violence and misogyny. ("Hillary Clinton tried to slap me and call me a pervert/I ripped her fuckin' tonsils out and fed her sherbet.") His rage is unrelenting, implacable and ecumenical, encompassing everyone from Britney Spears to Lynne Cheney, "faggots" to homophobes, bosses who slighted him in his wage-slave days to magazine editors who dissed him when he was a millionaire. And then there are his favorite targets, his mother and ex-wife, the subjects of a series of attack songs that can politely be called sociopathic. Repellent? Sure, but so is a lot of art (see Céline, or Tarantino), and it's hard to argue with Eminem's artistry. Like all the best MCs, he has a distinctive way of syncopating his speech over a beat, packing verses thick with interior rhymes and hammering away at tricky vocal rhythms for minutes on end. Above all, there is the thrill of the language itself, the little poetic jolts and moments of surprise that great hip-hop supplies: Just where, and when, will the next rhyme land? Did he really just rhyme "antelope" and "can't elope"?