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Mar 15

EMINEM – “The Real Slim Shady”

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#864, 8th July 2000

eminem rss Never has the “early, funny stuff” cliche held such weight in pop: we’re at a stage now where the new stars coming through are still heavyweights now, and the sclerotic Marshall Mathers of the mid-10s haunts this swaggering, sparkling kid. But “The Real Slim Shady” is still an Eminem who knows how to tell a joke – though how much he’s joking is open to question – and he’s the most technically audacious and exciting rapper to have hit number one yet. By a considerable distance – take the “Now there’s a million of us…” climax, thirty-seven staccato monosyllables from “just like me” to “not quite me”, a pattern of triple stresses reeled out and back like a man casually doing tricks on a yo-yo. Or the animals – cannibals – canteloupes – antelopes – can’t elope rhyme set, as bravura in its wordplay as anything you’d find on an underground mixtape. Or the entire first verse (”Act like you never seen a white person before…”) and its teetering jenga of internal rhymes. Or the single’s best gag, delivered barely as rap, just as a great one-liner: “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss on his raps to sell records / Well I do / So fuck him and fuck you too”

And then you might take a step back. That sumptuous rhyme set builds to a homophobic punchline, that first verse is the most technically superlative domestic violence gag you’ll ever hear, and Will Smith, like Britney and Christina and Fred Durst and boy bands, is a very, very soft target, even in 2000.

Your response to that might be “so what?” – Eminem’s command of his track is so total, and his presence so strong, that introducing my own sense of morality or discomfort to proceedings can feel a little like cheating. The man is selective in the taboos he breaks, but breaking them is part of his deal. That was certainly the appeal of Eminem on his breakthrough single. “Hi… My Name Is”, where the Shady persona felt like pure id, a mix of horrorcore tropes, grand guignol shock tactics, a real and festering resentment at a shitty childhood poking through… and an odd, self-deprecating streak where Shady is half-pathetic and very much part of a fucked-up world, not simply a response to it.

“The Real Slim Shady” comes on as a sequel, the second in a series of straight-to-video shockers: Slim Shady Goes To Hollywood, maybe. But that’s the problem with horror franchises – the monster is what people pay to see, and the longer the series runs, the more he becomes the hero. In “The Real Slim Shady” his enemies now stop being the world and himself and start being more specific parts of pop culture. Which is where the “soft targets” problem comes in. Eminem is announcing his arrival as a pop fixture – and the success of his first album had made that inevitable – by taking on the weakest of imaginable enemies. He knows his tribe, and their prejudices well, but this stuff is the opposite of shocking. He’s consciously consolidating the audience he’s found. But the arrival of Slim Shady in the real world loses something. In the twisted universe of “My Name Is” he’s a force of chaos, a self-destructive trickster. Here he presents himself as just another cultural commentator, needling away at the entertainment biz’ foibles and hypocrisies. What’s his actual critique of those “little girl and boy groups”? They annoy him, and maybe Christina Aguilera slept her way to the top. It’s less Loki, more Perez Hilton.

That’s not to say he’s insincere about his distaste for pop – and certainly much of his audience, his crowd of mini-Shadys, also felt it for real. It’s not even to say he’s unsympathetic – in Popular terms, the allure of “The Real Slim Shady” is much boosted by the relative lulls on either side of it: however gross or lazy this single is in places, it gets points just for sounding alive and motivated. Pop fans – obviously I am one – can be as brittle as anyone about slights to their chosen music, which is often corny, distasteful, exploitative or just idiotic. Nothing could be more shrill and misguided than insisting everyone like that stuff. And in the case of 13- or 14-year old Eminem fans, you might as well ask them to stop watching slasher movies, or trying to score pot off their older brothers. Or wanking. “The Real Slim Shady” is as pure, as toxic and as well-made a shot of teenage exploitation as “Born To Make You Happy” was.

But there’s something else that’s changed since “My Name Is”, too. The point of Slim Shady is that he’s a nihilist, he doesn’t give a fuck what you think. But strip away the cartwheeling delivery and the Dre production – whose simple, jolly bounce is a hook in its own right, and a great example of how Eminem used sound effects to establish and bolster his comic persona – and what do you have left? Behind the jokes, “The Real Slim Shady” is a surprisingly defensive single, giving rather a lot of fucks, and mostly concerned not just with taking down pop’s star system but with establishing Eminem’s counter-arguments and get-out clauses.

These run along familiar lines – real life is just as fucked up as Shady’s raps, and lots of people are thinking or saying privately what he has the balls to say out loud. (He saves the question of whether any great responsibility goes along with this great power for his next number one.) This is a third role for Shady – not psychopathic id, or biz outsider, but a kind of frustrated everytroll, speaking for a silenced mass who express themselves mainly by buying his records. It’s a persona that’s halfway between the political outsider – Slim Farage – and the shock-tactic comedian – Andrew Dice Shady. And not knowing which way it might tip – into comedy or cultural politics or, in Eminem’s case, something more nihilist and personal – is part of the appeal.

It’s an appeal with parallels – you can look forward to Anonymous but also backwards to punk, and this – plus stardom and proficiency – was why Eminem was such critical catnip. “Half of you critics can’t even stomach me” – but the other half adored him, for his volatility, and the sense that here, at last, was a story we hadn’t seen before, one whose ending we didn’t know. Well, we know it now: not just for Eminem, whose peak and slow decline I’ll have to write about in depth, but for Shady, whose blend of psychopath, critic and everyman once seemed dangerously new and now feels exhaustingly, inescapably, familiar.

“Now there’s a million of us just like me who cuss like me who just don’t give a fuck like me who dress like me walk talk and act like me it just might be the next best thing but not quite me!”
Fifteen years on, this seems just as true but far less funny. Eminem didn’t invent trolling, or stay good at it for long, but his signature brand of it has thrived in the Internet century. Wreathed in lulz, self-righteous if challenged, somehow bitter about a culture it has a box seat in, vengeful against mothers, lovers, women who have the gall to speak or fuck or simply be noticed. The real Slim Shadys haunt Twitter mentions tabs, newspaper comments boxes, subreddits, social media from YouTube to YikYak, anywhere axes can be ground. Marshall Mathers no more caused our culture than Elvis caused the sexual revolution, but like Elvis he could feel some crackle in the air and he knew how to draw that lightning down through himself. He was hard to ignore, he has become hard to enjoy.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Apr 2015 #

    (I obviously take Phil’s point that England and Ireland have a lot of, ahem, shared history – that doesn’t make pushing against it any less of a thing)

  2. 92
    Chelovek na lune on 4 Apr 2015 #

    I’d say based on casual observation that it’s not so much Irish Catholics who try to stand out with flamboyant attention-seeking names (quite the reverse, in fact), but rather the old recusant families of the English Aristocracy (who tend to be more flamboyant about their religion than, well, most believers, in general).

  3. 93
    Mark M on 19 Apr 2015 #

    Re27: Just heard My Name Is… and liked it better a lot more than I thought I now did (i.e. the way I feel about it now is closer to how I did when I very first heard it). Maybe that’s because it’s a long time since I’d last heard it so it’s lost that overplayed vibe for me.

  4. 94
    ciaran on 10 Jun 2015 #

    Eminem really seemed like a ready-made star and I’d struggle to think of a hip hop artist before that had such an appeal to non-rap fans. You’d have fans of Kayne, Jay-Z, 50 Cent afterwards but people could point out flaws in others that they didn’t or maybe didn’t want to recognise in Slim Shady.

    That he delivered perhaps one of the finest collection of early singles made it easy for the crossover. Of the first 7 to 8 singles there is so many that would get the 8 to 10 mark and My Name Is was up there with Wannabe as one of the best entrances you could wish for. Even the guest stuff like Forgot About Dre and Renegade is for me just as accomplished as his main work. You could maybe point to the gap in a market what with Oasis and Blur not gathering the plaudits and spice mania gone quiet. The time was perfect for Michigan’s hellcat with a chip finely balanced his shoulder.The sound of a picked upon teenager shaking Middle America to its core.

    TRSS is arguably one of the Eminem less enjoyable hits mainly because as pointed out the pop culture references sound a bit tired and dated now but theres no doubting the skill of Eminem and his way of sticking it to the man. By the start I’m groaning a bit hearing the thing once but for a finish can fully buy into it and don’t want it to end.

    It doesn’t rest easily with the more maniac offerings of the Marshall Mathers LP but the goofy was/is as much a charm of Eminem as the gloom. 8.

  5. 95
    Tommy Mack on 15 Jun 2015 #

    We love a bit of self-deprecation in the UK. As such, I think we’ve always had a bit of suspicion (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) of rap as being too boastful, perhaps not fully understanding US racial politics. No surprise, at least, on this side of the side of the pond, we lapped up a bloke rapping ‘I’ve got genital warts and it burns when I pee’

  6. 96
    Tommy Mack on 16 Aug 2015 #

    I’ve read a couple of articles recently, trying to reclaim The Macc Lads as arch satirists. Which made me think of this. It seems the answer’s fairly simple: just because someone’s self-aware and good at self-deprecation doesn’t excempt them from bigotry. The world is not divided into clever, good people and bad, stupid people. Obviously.

  7. 97
    flahr on 25 Nov 2015 #

    #59 – I really need to stop making these enigmatic comments about the future and then entirely forgetting to what they refer. Think I’ve figured this one out.

  8. 98
    Ed on 25 Nov 2015 #

    Mark M @77: Just noticed your comment, browsing back into history, and it resonated because I’ve been playing the Geto Boys’ Mind Playing Tricks On Me on repeat recently.

    OK, it may be a precursor of Eminem, but MPTOM is (no joke) one of the great works of art of the 20th Century. The ending is more powerful than anything else I can think of in the history of pop.

    Eminem would dream of coming anywhere close to that achievement, even at his absolute peaks. (Like everyone, I’d count Stan as one of those. More controversially, I think Mosh is another.)

    There’s a closer precedent from the Geto Boys, I would say, in their much more cartoonish Mind Of A Lunatic. Cartoonish where the cartoon in question is Itchy and Scratchy, that is.

  9. 99
    Mark M on 25 Nov 2015 #

    Re98: Yeah, Mind Of A Lunatic is more to the point. In any case, I don’t think that Eminem has anything anywhere as good as Mind Playing Tricks On Me (or indeed 1-800-Suicide). My broader was that a number of critics who had a fairly hazy knowledge of hip-hop claimed a bunch of innovations for him, some of which may be true for all I know (some of the rhyme schemes?), and some of which weren’t (use of very dark humour to take on serious issues). But (I was trying to argue) the last person who would put him apart from hip-hop history or who would deny forbearers such as the Geto Boys.

  10. 100
    Tommy Mack on 25 Nov 2015 #

    Claiming Eminem was the first horror-rapper is like claiming Elvis was the first rock’n’roller: the barest bit of research reveals plenty others came before but to millions of people at the time, Elvis WAS the first rock’n’roller that they heard and Eminem WAS the first bloke they* heard rapping about stuff that wasn’t cool and tough and street but was weird pervy Cronenburg meets Bukowski stuff.

    *Probably a different ‘they’: Eminem certainly seemed to think so on [possible future bunny]

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