“I’ve never been an attention-seeker, and that seems like probably a hell of a career choice … ” – Eminem

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Finally spent some time with his latest, titled The Marshall Mathers LP2 (no pressure there, huh…).

It’s full, rich, fast as hell, adventurous, quite sad at times, hysterical at others, and also filled with perspective of the road he has traveled. He goes back, he re-visits (the title of the album announces its intentions), but he is too innovative and too courageous to just present us with a re-tread. Lots of surprises here. An honest-to-god love song, Marshall? What’s happened? A mea culpa to his mother (the flip side of “Cleaning Out My Closet”). And then lots of songs about strength and survival and coming through the chaos, which he has. There’s still anger. But something else is coming through: the positive energy of survival, and triumph.

Some of his themes are repetitive, but that’s the case with most great artists. Vincent Van Gogh didn’t have 5,000,000 diverse themes. He worked on a couple of personal things with the devotion of a fanatic. James Joyce had one topic, let’s be honest. And he worked that shit. Woody Allen (happy birthday) doesn’t flow far from the concerns that interested him at the get-go. People who demand diversity from artists don’t understand art. Sorry. Those who bemoan that Wes Anderson has a “style” don’t understand style. What, they want him to do an action film that looks nothing like his style just to “prove” he has range? I don’t listen to people who talk like that. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe they don’t like Wes Anderson’s style, which is (of course) valid. You don’t have to like it. But to demand that Wes Anderson pretend he’s another filmmaker with another style just to prove to you that … what … he has it in him to not be himself? … Well, you certainly won’t mind if I don’t listen to a damn word you say about art, right? Most great artists are very very gifted one-trick ponies. Look at how the great artists plumb the depths of their one pet theme, the one thing they can’t let go of, the one thought they can’t shake. George Eliot worked out the same shit in book after book. So did Dostoevsky. So did Fitzgerald. Mary Gaitskill has enough of a style that you could pick a sentence of hers out of a lineup, and she also has a recognizable stamp in her interests and her take on things. Annie Proulx. Jane Austen. A.S. Byatt. Dickens. Mark Twain. I don’t know, pick your poison. As awesome as all of these people are, a very good thinker could boil each one down into a sentence. “This person was interested, most of all, in this.”

6

Eminem has the same concerns he has always had, although seasoned by time and distance. Things change. Attitudes change. Things look different. But anyone who follows him will know all about him and what he cares about/worries about/obsesses over/fumes over. Eminem fans all know his characters. There’s his mother. There’s his absent father. There’s his brother Nate. There’s his ex-wife (two times over). There are his daughters. There are his rivalries in rap, and his continued sense of both rage and triumphalism over how far he has risen, and how much he showed the assholes who said he would never amount to much (in life, or in rap). I mean, that’s about it. Within the lyrics themselves, he travels as far as one man can travel, with a dizzying vocabulary and a broad spectrum of references that makes you want to lie down and cry, “Uncle!” He reads the dictionary for fun, he is competitive with himself, he has a great respect for all kinds of music (the stuff he samples shows that), and he is also filled with self-loathing, fear, rage, and a sense that he is worthless. All of this shows up in almost every song. It is the Eminem Stamp. He isn’t suddenly rapping about political issues (although I think he is very political, especially in terms of class), or social change or Big Topics (although The Eminem Show is a great post 9/11 album – it came out the year after – with a couple of searing lyrics that address that event in a way nobody else was even approaching at the time). But being political is not Eminem’s thing. We know his things. He’s been rapping about the same shit from the get-go.

He is 5 years sober now. He did an entire album about his recovery process (with a chilling skit starting the whole thing off presenting Eminem meeting with his doctor in rehab, who then turns Demonic and starts dissing the 12 steps and dissing Eminem’s prospects. Eminem shows his intuitive brilliance as an actor, which I’ve written about before, in these made-up situations he creates for himself as cathartic expressions of what he most fears).

Listen to how the situation turns, and listen to how Eminem shows the vulnerability of the early days of recovery and sobriety, where you must protect yourself from bad influences and you are terrified of falling off the wagon. Here’s the thing: Eminem is REALLY letting himself experience the nightmare of that, by putting those “come on, one drink won’t hurt you” words into the mouth of a trusted doctor. It’s very vulnerable what he is doing there. Listen to him screaming “No”.

All of that recovery stuff could be potentially very emo stuff for such a tough guy. He knows that and he feels anxiety about that (being perceived as unmanly is obviously a big deal for him, an Achilles heel, perhaps). But the tough guy thing, while very real for him, and very much a part of him, is also just armor hiding a world of pain, which he also has been honest about from the start. He always let us see that side of him. Other people, in similar positions, armor up even further with being the baddest toughest motherfuckers who ever lived, and their music suffers, and their personae rigidify into monoliths that are boring and repetitive. Eminem, both isolated by fame, and wracked by personal failings and fears, always went beneath the surface. Again, the tough guy stuff is a very sincere part of him, but imagine “Kim” without that engine of raw vulnerability. (I suppose some people wish “Kim” never existed at all. I am sure his ex-wife has some feelings along those lines. But as I wrote here, “Kim” represents one of the best acting performances I’ve ever heard. It’s a high watermark for me, in terms of sheer belief in the fantasy of what you are creating, belief so strong that the situation plays out AS IF it was really going down. And when a man kills his wife in a fit of rage, you can bet that there’s probably a lot of crying and pathetic sniveling and weeping at how hurt he is – alongside the murderous rage. That’s what Eminem let us in on. I hear him sob, “You think I’m ugly, don’t you?” and no matter how many times I have heard it, I still get a thrill/dread-shiver, thinking, “Wow. You really want to let us know that’s how you think? You really are going to let us in on that?”)

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The trick (and it’s no trick, it’s actually just a matter of talent and courage) is to continue to worry over/work on your same themes without turning yourself into schtick or a nostalgia act. Eminem, whose fame was so supernova-hot so fast, was aware of that from the beginning, and talks about it constantly in his songs. He is self-aware. Sometimes it is that self-awareness (the “I’ll say this about myself before YOU can say it” thing) that becomes repetitive. And you want him to bust out with something silly and stupid like “Just Lose It” or “Business”. Yes, they are throw-downs, everything Eminem does is a throw-down, but they are also totally stupid catchy pop-songs that make millions of people swarm onto dance floors at the first damn note. Or this gorgeous bit of absolute silliness (And how much do I love the “Jailhouse Rock” reference there?)

Eminem’s silliness is one of his aces-in-the-hole, his saving grace, and signs of his native intelligence. He knows he is an asshole for complaining about fame, and yet fame comes with legitimate beefs. (The classic story he tells in a couple of different songs is of sitting on the toilet in a Burger King, doing his business, with someone passing TP under the stall for him to sign an autograph. Like: can I please take my dump first? What the hell is wrong with you? I’m busy.)

Complaining about fame is poor form, and yet it is inevitable, to some degree. Eminem can’t go outside. He can’t circulate. Detroit wouldn’t let him put up a fence around his property. He tries to protect his daughters. Of course he loves being famous and needed to become famous … but THAT famous? How can you be prepared for something like THAT? Eminem talks about all of this in his songs. Some of his very best songs careen right above the heads of the critics and the nay-sayers and the rivals and go directly into the veins of his waiting hungry fans. That’s what his triumph at the end of 8 Mile represents. Throughout the film, we see the rappers battling it out, insulting one another in words on the stage at The Shelter. It’s combat. The focus of each rapper is the other rapper. But in that final exhilarating moment, what Eminem’s character does is turn OUT to the crowd. Who then go … APE. SHIT.

He’s personal but he turns it OUT.

He cuts out the middle man. Fans respond to authenticity like that. Fans know when an artist is saying to them, “You out there. I see you. I hear you. This is for you.” Eminem, as much as he complains about being unable to go out in public, is fully aware of his own appeal and what he means to people, and the songs where he reaches out over the heads of anything that gets in the way to grab onto his fans … those are the songs that KILL. “Lose Yourself”. “Sing for the Moment”.

“Stan”, too, covers this ground, although that represents the scary dark side of being a fan. But even there, Eminem is saying, to some degree, to the fans who love him too much: “Look, man, I get it. I had the same feelings about stars growing up that you did. But hold on to yourself. Don’t go crazy. Be good to yourself. Focus on your own life.”

But as we see in artist after artist, what matters is the ability to project. I’ve been re-reading Lester Bangs’ stuff these days (would love to have heard his take on Marshall, whatever the hell it may have been), and it seems to me that what he can’t stand is “rock” that is focused inward. He likes those who project. Even if all they are singing is “be-bop-a-lula”, if you project that shit, your stuff will have reverb, your stuff will last, and have something of the human spirit in it. For Lester, this was true of Elvis Presley and this was true of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. He became annoyed with stars who cloaked themselves in the trappings of stardom, those who were so cut off from who they used to be that they cut themselves off from the wellsprings of creativity. The natural reaction to fame at the level of, say, Elvis’, or Eminem’s, is to put a wall around yourself so you don’t get hurt and you can maintain some privacy. That’s all well and good and necessary to survive, I imagine. But that wall MUST go down when you go in front of an audience, or go into a studio to record. It is FORBIDDEN that you carry that wall onstage with you, because once you do that, you are dunzo, a dead artist. Those who manage to maintain that vulnerability while also creating a safe space where they can live a personal life (which Elvis, to some degree, did, and it seems that Eminem has too) are the ones who have even the slightest shot at SURVIVING fame that intense.

It requires great self-confidence to project like that, because you are putting out your SELF, something that (ideally) is not manufactured. And so if rejection comes, there is no way to protect yourself from it: YOU are being rejected. Eminem has, of course, experienced that. There will be those who never like him, who hate him even. But one cannot say that he is putting out something false. What he is projecting is HIM, wherever he happens to be at that moment in time.

It’s a high-risk game. Elvis Presley wore pink suits in high school and carried his guitar around with him in between classes. And yet he was also shy and his mother still wiped his mouth for him at the dinner table. So what the fuck, Elvis, who the hell are you?? He was HIMSELF, that’s who. There were better singers. There were better guitar players. But nobody, to this day, had the ability to project HIMSELF like he did. “Here I am. See me. Here I am. This is what I am about. See me?” Dave Marsh beautifully posits that if Elvis had one underlying passion in life, one driving ambition, it was to be an “unignorable man”.

One could say the same thing about Eminem.

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I listened to the entire album, start to finish, a couple of times on my drive home for Thanksgiving. Favorites so far: Legacy, Survival, So Far …

“I count my blessings, but I suck at math.”

Speaking of “So Far”, I cannot express how happy it makes me when Eminem actually sings, and he sings like a banshee on “So Far”. And it’s flat out hilarious (and perfect) to sample “Life’s Been Good” during a song where Eminem goes off (yet again) on fame, and the Eagles song, with its braggy rock star energy, is a perfect mirror-image for what Eminem is doing in his lyrics. And Rap God is dizzying. It lives up to its name.

Like … how … how … how??

I love the song with Rihanna too. There are lots of ladies on this album: it’s always interesting when Eminem has a woman singing with him or around him: there’s a softness to women that Eminem seems to need, as much as he resents that fact and then has to lash out at us. The way he “uses” women as his partners has been fascinating, maybe the first example being “Stan” with Dido? She helps MAKE that song.

Here’s a great radio interview Eminem just did with Zane Lowe on the BBC. They go through the new album song by song.

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3 Responses to “I’ve never been an attention-seeker, and that seems like probably a hell of a career choice … ” – Eminem

  1. Desirae says:

    Most controversial artists go on to become the elder statesmen of their respective genres, but that really hasn’t happened with Eminem. Maybe it’s his habit of/need for self exposure. I don’t really know.

    The rap battle at the end of 8 Mile is one of my favorite sports movie moments (because that’s what it is). “Tell these people something they don’t already know about me”. Chills. I was surprised as well at how casually funny the movie was. The part when Jimmy wakes up and his Mom’s weirdo boyfriend is hovering over him … I laughed out loud. He has this look on his face like, please let this be a nightmare.

    Are you familar with Angel Haze, Sheila? She did a cover of Cleaning Out My Closet that is so hair-raising that it makes the original sound like something you’d play at a grade school birthday party. She’s amazing in general – she has a remix of Falling for Your Type that even brings a tear to my gimlet eye, and her covers of Wrecking Ball and Summertime Sadness are better than the originals. I’d include links here but I don’t want to get caught in the spam trap.

    • sheila says:

      Ooh, I don’t know Angel Haze – will check her out pronto – thank you – she sounds amazing!!

      Eminem keeps talking about how much he loves producing (and he’s a great producer) but I can’t picture him leaving the spotlight for good. I don’t know. I mean, he really did check out for those years after his best friend was killed – we didn’t hear a word from him, he put on, what, 70 or 80 pounds and lose himself to addiction. It was horrible (for those of us who love him). But he’s back – and he’s super skinny. I hope he hangs on to himself. He’s got a lot that keeps him stable – his art, his family, his childhood friends. So there’s hope.

      I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to think all this stuff is re-treads – but that seems to me like they are playing into his hands. He’s calling this album the Marshall Mathers LP2 for a reason. He wrote songs to dovetail with the songs in that original album, to re-visit those old landscapes and see how things have changed … I don’t think this is a re-tread at all. The only thing I find only slightly boring is his “I’m the greatest rapper ever, just try to beat me” rhymes – although if you look at it in another way, by continuing to re-visit that ground (like he does in the crazy Rap God) – it’s an excuse to show off, to show his stuff. You know, peacocking about, like Muhammad Ali. He’s earned it.

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