Rapping on Empty

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 gener


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”?

Eminem’s revenge fantasies have always been linked to his acute sense of victimhood, and on his first album–fresh out of a Detroit trailer park, shouldering a lifetime’s worth of underclass resentment–he had lots of material to work with. When the multiplatinum success of The Slim Shady LP deprived him of his seemingly most potent theme (“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more,” began album number two, The Marshall Mathers LP), he assumed the role of embattled cultural outlaw and reluctant star, producing some riveting music, including perhaps his best song, “Stan,” about a crazed fan. But on Eminem’s third CD, The Eminem Show, the Superstar Agonistes routine was getting old; and as the public became accustomed to Eminem’s shtick, his ability to stir outrage waned, leaving him starved for new enemies. The result was an increasingly shrill and stolid batch of songs that nonetheless sold a cool 8 million-plus copies.

Encore may equal those sales figures, but it’s an even more dismal affair. Eminem sounds like a man who is bored with himself. His once pugnacious delivery has slowed to a lazy slur. The backing tracks have turned dour; nearly every song sets a minor-key synthesizer tune against a staccato drumbeat that nudges things along at medium tempo. Part of the problem is that Eminem is now producing most of his music himself, taking over from his vastly more musically gifted mentor, Dr. Dre.

But nowhere is the torpor more evident than in Eminem’s lyrics. Fresh out of inspiration, he’s fallen back on his tics: taking aim at easy targets like Michael Jackson, savaging his mom and his ex-, resorting to potty-mouth talk (sample song titles: “Big Weenie,” “Puke”). The album’s biggest clunker is “Ass Like That,” in which Eminem impersonates Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a puppet character from the Late Night With Conan O’Brien show, with whom the rapper had a celebrated contretemps during a televised awards ceremony. (You can’t make this stuff up.) It’s not exactly clear what Eminem is on about in this song, which jump-cuts wildly from dirty lyrics about underage pop stars to sniggling about “pee pees.” Like the bathroom noises and chicken clucking heard elsewhere on Encore, it makes no goddamn sense; it all seems like a desperate stab at absurdist comedy, an attempt to pass off a nasty case of writer’s block as an outré new aesthetic.

There are a couple of moments on Encore when Eminem plays it straight, and these may offer clues to the deeper roots of his malaise. “Yellow Brick Road” and “Like Toy Soldiers” are elaborate apologias, revolving around Eminem’s various “beefs,” or feuds, with fellow rappers. The most notorious of these involves Raymond “Benzino” Scott, a middling MC and CEO of The Source, a prominent hip-hop magazine. For several years, Benzino has waged a war of words with Eminem–on records, in interviews and in the pages of The Source–slighting his music, calling him a racist and accusing him of diluting the racial purity of hop-hop culture. Benzino’s rather unsavory propaganda campaign has earned him few supporters in the rap community, but he has persisted nonetheless, and he pulled off something of a coup earlier this year when he unearthed a couple of old Eminem demo tapes, recorded more than a decade ago, in which the rapper poured scorn on black women. (The songs were included on a special CD folded into The Source‘s February 2004 issue.)

In the past, Eminem hit back at Benzino on bootleg “battle tracks,” but on Encore he strikes a conciliatory posture. “Yellow Brick Road” apologizes for the racist recordings (“I was wrong”) in an intricate autobiographical narrative that is by far the album’s best bit of storytelling. “Like Toy Soldiers,” meanwhile, seems to forswear battling altogether: “I’m just willing to be the bigger man if y’all can quit poppin’/Off at the jaws with the knockin’, well then I can, ’cause frankly I’m sick of talkin’.” These songs have led more than one reviewer to invoke the notion of a newly “mature” Eminem.

But has the creator of “Big Weenie” really grown up? Or does he simply not have the stomach for a fair fight? One of the more curious aspects of Encore is that while Eminem endlessly insults women, including a shooting gallery of the most harmless pop divas (Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, the Olsen Twins), and merrily stokes his “feud” with a hand puppet, he shies away from conflicts with the men who are–at least according to the hip-hop ethos that lets no dis go unanswered–legitimate foes.

In fact, Eminem seems constitutionally incapable of partaking in hip-hop’s most venerable traditions. When’s the last time he recorded a song devoted to the MC’s traditional ur-subject, his own rapping excellence? When did Eminem last roll tape and simply let the rhymes flow, without straining to shock us? The persona that made Eminem so original a few years ago has generated its own clichés; it may be time for him to drop the endless pursuit of succès de scandale and join Jay-Z, Nas, Jadakiss and other elite MCs in their friendly contest for rhyme pre-eminence–time, in other words, to become a regular old rapper. It’s not quite as sexy a job title as Great Satan, but it’s noble work, and the pay is good.

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