Eminem’s rise from the rubble is well known. A shy white boy from East Detroit, Eminem was trailer park trash raised by a single mother who was often too high to mother. He regularly changed schools, repeated the ninth grade three times and was constantly bullied. By retreating inward — he read the dictionary and riffed rhymes at the floor — Marshal Mathers (M&M) found his way around ridicule and attack.
Like most rappers, words were Eminem’s weapon and escape. Unlike most rappers, however, Eminem is white. He stands out like a sore thumb. The lyrics that express his deep sense of isolation and vulnerability otherwise absent from rap are twice born — first, he uses rap to talk about growing up “white trash, broke and always poor” and second, he is a white dude in a nearly all black art form, and he believes he is isolated, rejected and often singled out because of the color of his skin.
Eminem does boast but what he brags about having, and having in spades, is unbeatable talent. His linguistic prowess is undeniable, but what separates him is not really his skill — I am not here to say who the best rapper is, though most claim the title — it is what he uses his skill to express: anxiety, timidity, envy and rage. When Eminem digresses on the many shades of depression, he extends rap’s emotional range beyond its hyper-macho comfort zone.
On the debut album 8 Mile, in “Lose Yourself,” Eminem says he cannot:
Stay in one spot, another day of monotony
Has gotten to me, to the point I’m like a snail I’ve got
To formulate a plot, or end up in jail or shot
Success is my only motherfuckin’option, failure’s not
Mom I love you, but this trailer’s got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot
So here I go it’s my shot, feet fail me not
This may be the only opportunity that I got
The stanzas stack tricky syncopations, bury rhymes mid-sentence and trade on illusions of life outside of “Salem’s Lot.” But the young punk trapped in a dead-end life agonizes over his cowardice — he fears undermining self sabotage (feet fail me not) and rues that this may be it, his only shot.
The writing is airtight. Even the seeming throw-away “motherfuckin’” has meaning. Eminem is terrified of repeating his mother’s blighted fate.
All three Eminem songs on the first album are about performance anxiety (listen to “Run Rabbit Run” with lyrics below). He says he is “nervous,” and, continuing to speak of himself in the third person, describes his feelings as follows “his arms are heavy,” and his “palms are sweaty” and reassures himself “I got all the ingredients/ all I need is the courage.” Ultimately, he triumphs and his talent rips and reigns.
Eminem is white trash. His whiteness alienates him. He writes: “But I’m still white, sometimes I just hate life/ Somethin ain’t right, hit the brake lights.” Being white is a source of despair, or hating life, and makes him feel off, like something is not right.
On The Slim Shady LP, race is introduced in the title with Slim Shady, Eminem’s nickname. Slim refers to his frame and shady to his color. The resonance of the word shady goes beyond the obvious double entendre into the limbo Eminem feels because shady, in so far as it connotes neither white nor black, conjures up a racial purgatory. Eminem raps a charged anomie:
Some people only see that I’m white, ignoring skill
Cause I stand out like a green hat with a orange bill
But I don’t get pissed, y’all don’t see through the mist
How the fuck can I be white
I don’t even exist
I get a clean shave, bathe, go to a rave
Die from an overdose and dig myself up out of my grave
My middle finger won’t go down, how do I wave?
And this is how I’m supposed to teach kids how to behave?
Initially, Eminem’s verbal agility went unnoticed. His color made him a target, a sitting duck. Not at home in his skin — “How the fuck can I be white” he feels invisible, non-existent. Anger becomes indifference, and finally he proves resilient: “dig(ging) myself out of my grave.”
Eminem feels isolated, and I take this very seriously, but it would be unfair of me not to note that, once his skill was noted, major talents threw their weight behind him, from Jay Z to 50 Cent. Throughout his battle with drugs, black rappers have been there to help him, to the extent that anyone can help someone who wrestles with addiction. And, Eminem has collaborated with most major rap artists and gets many of his beats from his creative partner Dr Dre.
The Slim Shady LP is nearly all rage, with songs about robbery, murder and rape. In his perversion of the outlaw love story “Bonnie and Clyde 97,” Eminem riffs about murdering his wife and dumping her body. He flees the law with his daughter, who he shields from the crime as he details it in, by turns, deadpan and lavish rhyme. Fantasies this dark usually remain buried, scenting a way out of the corners of our consciousness in our dreams. For Eminem, however, dreams this dark — he wrote the song when he was angry with his wife — are the stuff of art.
Murderous rage shares the stage with suicidal desire. Consider the opening lines of the first tune: “since age 12, I felt like I was someone else because I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt.” In his dance number with the crassly loaded title “Cum on Everybody” (get down tonight), he sings “I tried suicide once and I’ll try it again/that’s why I always write songs where I die in the end” — and then the suicidal urge flips to indifference “but I don’t give a fuck/like my middle finger was stuck” and returns to suicide later in the song, “if you ever see a video for this shit/ I’ll probably be dressed up like a mummy with my wrists slit.” And he confesses he wants “to murder all the rich rappers that I’m jealous of.” With breathless rhymes, Eminem’s songs oscillate between tales of murder and imaginings of suicide.
The mobile home was no home. Eminem was white trash, tossed out and left to rot. He articulates his feelings of apathy, rejection and being stuck:
I’m tired of jobs startin off at five fifty an hour
then this boss wonders why I’m smartin off
I’m tired of being fired everytime I fart and cough
Tired of having to work as a gas station clerk
for this jerk breathing down my neck driving me bezerk
I’m tired of using plastic silverware
Tired of working in Building Square
Tired of not being a millionaire….
The repetition of the word tired mimics tedium. The first line alone has five short is — in fact, the entire stanza has several short is of the first person singular — most lines, grouped in twos or threes, house several internal rhymes — startin and smartin or off and cough— or work, clerk, jerk, beserk. Eminem’s scabby reality is figured metonymically. Using plastic silverware, working at Builder’s Square and working as a gas station clerk serve as glib verbal shorthand for lower-middle class drudgery.
We know how the story ends. Eminem scribbled and spit his way out of hell. Yet he never seemed less lonely. He prayed “god understand,” rapped his rage and finally tried to fill or kill the void with enough drugs to land him in the hospital once and re-hab twice.
His second act, which we treat in the next post, opens like the first. With a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes, Eminem dropped Relapse, wherein he raps about his not very macho cry for help and his painful struggle for sobriety. Relapse returns us to (it relapses) the heart of the skittish and skinny misfit.