First and foremost, Eminem's success reinforces what cultural observers have known for years. When white people take on a traditionally African-American or minority-driven art form, it sells. It's not too far-out to parallel Eminem's rise to that of Elvis Presley. Like "the King," Eminem is very talented, but 14-year-old white girls, radio DJs, and show-business movers and shakers didn't care about Presley's unique interpretation of the rhythm-and-blues tradition then, and they don't care about Eminem's formidable MC skills now. For most artists to reach a certain sales status (let's say multiplatinum), their appeal has to transcend their particular genre and deal with issues of "marketability" and "crossover appeal." In the best-case scenario--and Eminem is such a case--marketability doesn't get in the way of his music. But it's there, and it's naive at best and blatantly disingenuous at worst to ignore it.
But writing Eminem off as just another in the steady line of watered-down black-culture thieves who have been shamelessly pushed on listeners since Pat Boone is simplistic, and it's a disservice to Eminem and his hip-hop fans. Because Eminem's got skills. His storytelling ability throughout Marshall Mathers is top-notch. His use of metaphor and wordplay is bold and witty; his nasal, rapid-fire delivery is distinct and unique. His alter ego, Slim Shady, is everything you could hope for in an MC; when he says, "I'm better than 90 percent of the rappers out there" on "The Real Slim Shady," it's not an idle boast. It goes without saying that he's a better MC than just about any of the lyrical jokes who get played on mainstream urban radio, but he also held it down on Rawkus' Soundbombing II, an album that featured heavyweight MCs like Mos Def and Pharoah Monche. And every time Eminem shares a cut with Snoop Dogg or Xzibit, he carries his weight. Vanilla Ice he ain't.
Still, all of Eminem's praiseworthiness comes with the caveat that his race gives him an advantage his black peers don't enjoy. It's hard to walk the path of the traditional MC and focus on your skills in the 2K. Mos Def, Pharoah Monche, Snoop, and Xzibit are all better MCs than Eminem, but except for Snoop, none will probably ever get close to Eminem's sales. And Snoop's early-'90s image as a gangbanging West Coast monster thug had as much to do with his success as his skills. Post-NWA, image has been crucial to the success of black hip-hop artists.
To achieve crossover success, black MCs have to cultivate an exotic persona that will excite suburban children, usually to the detriment of their art. Nas' first album is a lyrical masterpiece, but as the years have gone by it's proven far more lucrative for him to just find more words that rhyme with "Bentley" and play into the whole post-Biggie pimp/playa style. And even though Master P, Trick Daddy, the Hot Boys, and their ilk are inarticulate buffoons, the fact that they look like caricatures out of a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet--one-man explosions of jewelry, tattoos, and gold teeth--and write simplistic tales of sex, violence, and crime help them sell really well to the middle-school set.
On the other hand, white MCs with the talent to be taken seriously get an automatic bye when it comes to creativity and subject matter--they can talk about the bitches and the environment and still move units in bulk because their sales aren't so tied to their image. Everybody talks about keeping it real, but the top-selling rappers seem trapped in a particular, narrow kind of reality. (Can you imagine DMX rapping about breast cancer?) But on Marshall Mathers, Eminem has license to create one of the most stunningly original hip-hop songs of the last 10 years, "Stan," the focus of much of the controversy over his nihilistic lyrics. Related through a series of fan letters to Em, "Stan" depicts the emotional disintegration of a young man who looks up to the rapper but goes totally off the rails after his notes go unanswered. Wrapped around an eerie hook of a woman singing, "Your picture on my wall/ it reminds me that it's not so bad/ it's not so bad at all," and set against the low rumble of a thunderstorm, "Stan" is chilling, bold, and powerful hip-hop. It also forces the listener to think about what kind of fucked-up world a kid like Stan lives in where he has to depend on Eminem for guidance.
Long after Marshall Mathers falls down the charts and is retired from Total Request Live, lonely, messed-up kids like Stan will still be listening to Eminem. It's become kind of passé to talk about the "problem of American boys." As horrible as it is, we've become numbed to school shootings and violence perpetuated by young people. But blaming Columbine on Marilyn Manson or any random drug-related shooting on hip-hop will neither fully explain these tragedies nor prevent them from happening again. When you start going in that direction, you have to start looking at issues of society, education, spirituality, and parenting (or lack thereof). If the easy answers don't work, that leaves only the hard ones no one wants to mess with.
Unlike most of the successful black rappers of the last decade, Eminem is not selling a fantasy of gangsta/playa life; unlike Elvis, he's not a safe-as-milk entertainer taking black cultural identifiers as his own. He's turning his own troubled psyche inside out on hip-hop records. Under the bombast and braggadocio, Eminem's vulnerability and outrage in the face of his critics' hypocrisy come through loud and clear, as do his genuine issues with various, non-fame-related matters.
Unfortunately, nothing else on Marshall Mathers comes near the sensitivity of "Stan" when it comes to speaking to that audience. For all of his considerable talent, Eminem is, in many ways, a hateful, homophobic, misogynistic, self-destructive man. ("Just kidding" or not, Marshall Mathers is splattered with unrepentant lyrical violence against specific women in the rapper's life.) If Eminem were just a regular Joe or even simply a singer, that would only be a problem for him and those closest to him. But he is well on his way to bypassing the Fred Dursts of the word and achieving a Tupac Shakur- or Kurt Cobain-level influence. As Eminem makes clear on cut after cut on Marshall Mathers, he knows he has the power, but he's shrugging off any responsibility for it. He has gained the attention and following of a large group of lonely, disenchanted teenagers. The real story lies in examining why Eminem got their attention in the first place--and figuring out what the rest of us are going to do about it. Vincent Williams writes about music for a Baltimore City paper. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org