Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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White American:
Eminem Makes His Rock Move

The Eminem song of the year is now and will forever remain the Pet Shop Boys' "The Night I Fell in Love," where a certainly fictional, probably underage male spends a night with a performer who tells Stan and Dre jokes and shrugs off those homophobia rumors. In bed, said performer is a nine. Next morning, he "couldn't have been a nicer bloke."

The Eminem moment of the year, however, is where you'd hope it would be, on The Eminem Show, rush-released nine days early on Sunday, May 26--UniMoth-Vivendi's defense against downloaders, together with the bonus DVD included in the first two million copies. Unfortunately, the moment isn't situated where you'd hope it would be on the CD itself. Not until the very last of the 15 songs on the 77-minute album (there are also five skits, all but one dead on their feet) does The Eminem Show recapture what was so irresistible about Eminem from the first seconds of "My Name Is," with its turf-claiming scratches, catchy-funny chorus, and he-fuck-da-police-in-three-different-voices. "My Name Is" had a spirit that popped up continually and irrepressibly on The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP: a lightness, a delightedness, a formal mastery whose sense of absolute entitlement never dampens its astonishment that so many CD buyers get the joke.

What's amazing about "My Dad's Gone Crazy" is only secondarily a message. Bottom line, it's a sound. But it's no coincidence that the brashest track on the album sonically is also the deepest thematically. It's the track where Eminem answers the Pet Shop Boys by admitting that he and Dre have been fucking for years. The one where he identifies first with the WTC bombers and then with the bombers' victims. The one where he comes out and explains his aesthetic in terms only a member of Congress or daily rock critic could fail to understand: "My songs can make you cry, take you by surprise at the same time, can make you dry your eyes with the same rhyme/See what you're seeing is a genius at work, which to me isn't work, so it's easy to misinterpret it at first/Cus when I speak, it's tongue-in-cheek, I'd yank my fuckin' teeth before I'd ever bite my tongue." And that's just the beginning.

It's also the one where he admits--a tongue-in-cheek verb for which you may substitute "claims" or "posits" or "pretends"--that "there's no one on earth can save me, not even Hailie." That would be his six-year-old daughter Hailie Jade, joint-custody prize of a 2001 divorce agreement, who on this album represents everything that makes life worth living and sanity worth pursuing. Suitably, crucially, it's Hailie who provides the sonic stroke, a supreme moment among several. She cuts off coke-snorting sounds with a childish "Daddy, what are you doing?" and punctuates a whiny rationalization for homophobia with the older-sounding admonishment "Dad!"; she imitates a chain saw and gets the party started by doubling her father's "OK then, everybody listen up." But most important on an album that proves Eminem's sanity, she utters the words "I think my dad gone crazy" over and over, the perfect take of that phrase looped as a beat. The voice is a child's and yet isn't--overwhelming its little-girl drawl is a guttural gusto that evokes Mercedes McCambridge speaking through Linda Blair, or maybe just the young Brenda Lee. The beat is a celebration, and an exploitation, of Hailie's six-year-old capacity for delight and all the painful experience and threatened entitlement that lurks beyond it. That is the nearest Eminem can come to the 26-year-old amalgam of pain and delight that makes The Marshall Mathers LP a stone classic.

I'm not saying The Eminem Show isn't a good album. I like it and I enjoy it; I think it represents an articulate, coherent, formally appropriate response to Eminem's changing position and role, one that acknowledges the privileges and alienations that accrue to all fame as well as the resolution of Marshall Mathers's worst traumas and the specifics of his success. It states its business exactly where it should, on the first song, which is one of the good ones: "White America." Some terrific lyrics here. Rather than complaining about his oppression by the media--a wheeze that comes up briefly on only two tracks--he accentuates the positive: "so many motherfuckin' people who feel like me," "a fuckin' army marchin' in back of me." He observes, realistically, that when he was an unknown MC his skin color worked against him, that he was probably as good for Dre's stalled career as Dre was for his potential one. But he also recognizes that at his level of stardom whiteness is an advantage: "Let's do the math, If I was black I would've sold half." Eminem's audience is no longer an expanded version of the hip hop audience. It's bigger and whiter--a "rock" audience. His musical conclusion: to cut back his involvement in the genre he's explored with such brilliance, passion, wit, fidelity, and respect.

There's no such thing as a beat that isn't hip hop--"Walk This Way" proved that long ago. Nevertheless, the music of The Eminem Show--12 of its songs produced by Eminem, mostly with longtime beat provider Jeff Bass--owes more to '70s rock than to any strain of black music. Eminem makes no bones about this; in an interview in The Face, he asserts it. The rhythms march, stride, and vaunt; they stomp when they're able-bodied and plod when they're lame. The Nate Dogg feature " 'Till I Collapse" is a "We Will Rock You" rip; the one now listed as "Sing for the Moment" used to be called "Dream On," like the old Aerosmith hit it rewrites; for a change, the debut single "Without Me" moves like the most mechanical kind of '70s disco over a simplistic synth hook. Not all of Eminem's grooves are like this; "Cleanin' Out My Closet" and "Soldier" are much jumpier, and "Square Dance," done without Bass, sets Eminem's do-si-do over ominous soundtrack-symphony metal chords, a weird conjunction almost as arresting musically as Hailie's dybbuk voice. Nevertheless, the contrast with the three Dre tracks--which happen to include "My Dad's Gone Crazy"--is pretty stark. The off-kilter shape the Dre beats share, hardly the man's specialty, sticks out in part because it comes as a relief. Especially on the Batman-themed "Business," where among other things Eminem finds a rhyme for "oranges," Dre's funk hints at the lost lightness too often buried underneath the rock self-importance that threatens to sink this album.

Unfortunately, Dre's dull-ass "Hell, yeah"s compromise the effect, a failing that typifies what's saddest about The Eminem Show--insofar as it's hip hop, it ain't exactly, how they say it, fresh. It's not funny enough, for one thing. None of the first-rate rhymes are up to the standard of, for example, "The Way I Am," and although Eminem has never been the "storyteller" lazy defenders pretend he is, the few tracks you could call narratives never think to try for the complexity of "Stan" or "My Fault." Sadder still is that his greatest formal gift--his knack for persona play in which Marshall Mathers, Slim Shady, and Eminem joust over patches of psychic and semiotic territory whose borders no surveyor will ever lay out--only resurfaces with "My Dad's Gone Crazy." When his mom and his ex-wife make their brief appearances, the tone is rock-confessional no matter how extreme or cruel the conceits; the insults leveled at Moby and Jermaine Dupri have no madness in them. Moreover, neither do the much worse insults marshalled at women--"Drips," a vile skank-as-AIDS-carrier vehicle that he shares with his asshole buddies D-12, is even more pro forma than the hackneyed rockboy/rapboy fuck-'em-and-forget-'em of the Dina Rae duet "Superman." It's a depressing testimony to the acuity and diminished expectations of today's sexual discourse that neither of these songs will excite a tenth of the vituperation aimed at "Kim," an agonized working critique of the misogynist mindset both voice so stupidly and regressively.

The self-involved follow-up to a star-time breakthrough is a tale rock has told countless times without enough happy endings, though they certainly happen: Highway 61 Revisited and Rumours raising, Fear of a Black Planet and In Utero holding. Maybe we could make The Slim Shady LP the breakthrough and The Marshall Mathers LP its untoppable culmination. But if it's hope for the future you want, you'll have to seek it out in Eminem's capacity for stupidity and regression. "The Night I Fell in Love" is a great Eminem song because it assumes the standard argument that hip hop's songs of mayhem are "just stories," daring Eminem to take offense at a skillful fable that insults his pathetic manhood while calling him a nice bloke. Where ordinarily the Pet Shop Boys are masters of narrative distance, what's missing in their gibe is persona play--the possibility that the schoolboy protagonist could be Neil Tennant or Chris Lowe. The reason Eminem means more than the Pet Shop Boys at his best is how provocatively and passionately he leaves such questions open, testing the tension between representation and authenticity that's given rock and roll fans that funny feeling in their stomachs for nearly half a century. Because he can be such a jerk, he can also be such a genius. Whether the failure of this album to sell like the last one will drive him to such heights again remains to be heard.

Village Voice, Jun. 11, 2002