Controversy and acclaim: the Eminem saga

By Quincey D.

The undisputed largest musical controversy of this summer swirled around the new release by the artist who fellow rapper Snoop Dogg has called the ‘Great White Hope’ of hip hop, Eminem. The Marshall Mathers LP became one of the fastest selling albums in hip hop history and as a consequence, scared the hell out of much of the conservative public.

It is so much easier to stick one’s head in the sand, but the beauty of hip hop has always been, in the much-repeated phrase, keeping it real. Eminem calls it like he sees it, from his bad upbringing, the bad parenting of others, poverty, personal isolation, class strata in this supposedly classless country, relations between the sexes and the often blatant hypocrisy of the music industry.
Speaking out on social ills is nothing new in music, but Eminem does it in a way many have never heard in hip hop before: satire.

Satire is a notoriously difficult medium in which to create because, in short, many people just may not get it. The effectiveness of satire comes from its ability to be realized as such, and the overwhelming critical and popular acclaim the album and the artist have received is an indication that a great many people do get it.

‘Eminem’s lyrics are seeped in sarcasm and riddled with irony,’ said Aaron Schultz, music director for WBUL, USF’s student-run radio station. ‘But (his detractors) take them at face value and don’t look deeper into what he is saying.’

An indication of the album’s satire is the use of characters, and on The Marshall Mathers LP Eminem takes on the roles of two characters for perhaps the album’s most controversial track, ‘Kim.’

‘Kim’ is a frighteningly powerful scenario that enacts a violent fight between a husband and wife, ultimately ending in the kidnapping and murder of the wife. The track is powerful not because it seems to glorify domestic violence, but because it is probably an internal dialogue or fantasy that is more common in men than society would like to think. The use of Eminem’s real name, Marshall, and that of his wife, Kim, further drives home the idea that this scenario is a common one that even the rapper has fantasized about.

It is to Eminem’s credit, in fact, that he is brave enough to present such a frightening fantasy to a society that would rather deny the existence of domestic abuse in reality or as a fantasy in the minds of some men.
One of the most significant things about the track is that Eminem also performs the part of the female. The performance is not mocking or derisive at all. Rather, it is a staggeringly real portrayal of a woman in an abusive situation.
The song is at the peak of its realism during a brief moment in which the abuser male drops his bravado and reveals the staggering insecurities that fuel the abuse. This touch of character motivation and the realism of the scene, coupled with Eminem’s sharp ear for dialogue, is what makes the track the opposite of everything its detractors say it is. It is not a glorification of domestic abuse, but rather a warning and powerfully real portrayal of what happens every day to dysfunctional couples.

Eminem has also been accused of homophobia by organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation. It is true that Eminem uses the word f”t when describing gays, but in two of the instances he follows it up with a denial that he is homophobic.

The use of the slur is a broad topic in hip hop, almost as broad as the use of the word b’-h in hip hop to describe women. A master’s thesis in popular cultural studies might begin to address the implications and motivations behind the use of such language. But in a nutshell, hip hop has always been the music of survivors, be it survivors of the street or abuse in the home or society.
In a culture of survivalism, the merest hint of weakness is leapt upon, and in many cases the gender-implicit f- or b-word is used to deride that weakness. And in many instances, those words are used only to comment on weakness, not the sexual preference or gender. So in effect, the word is detached from its denotation and given a different connotation of ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘inadequate.’

Eminem does understand the power certain language has for certain groups of people, however, because in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine he vehemently denied that he would ever or has ever used the n-word to talk about African Americans.

‘These people rap about the people they know and what’s going on on their block,’ said Orlando, a DJ and the program director for Wild 98.7. ‘When Eminem says the word ‘bitch’ to talk about a girl, he is not talking about every girl.’

Perhaps what Eminem must understand is that for some people, hearing that language at all is akin to being slapped in the face, and no explanation can take away that sting. That fact should not curtail him as an artist, but it should also not make controversy a surprise.

And let’s face it folks, much of the controversy about the album has an undertone of race. For years African American rappers have been saying roughly the same things Eminem is saying now, and have also had success. But now a Caucasian guy is doing the same thing, and getting a great deal of attention and critical success to boot, and that scares those who would rather their children and the public in general not be clued in to the issues addressed by hip hop.

In the midst of the controversy, one almost takes for granted the amazing artistry of the album. Eminem is an innovative and consistently excellent lyricist whose metaphors, similes and caustic one-liners snap and land on the listener’s brain like a whiplash. It is also obvious on the album that the songs are as tightly structured sonically as the lyrics are verbally. Dr. Dre, the critically- acclaimed rap superstar who also produced Eminem’s Slim Shady LP, is at his finest when working with such a prodigious talent as Eminem.

The controversies surrounding The Marshall Mathers LP has not hurt Eminem’s commercial viability, however, and he continues to be a favorite among the mainstream and underground hip hop audiences.
‘The single ‘The Real Slim Shady’ was played all summer,’ said Matthew Whitten, a hip hop DJ and marketing director for WBUL. ‘When the semester kicks in, the DJs here will probably be playing the rest of the album as well more. I personally still play The Slim Shady LP.’
‘We caught a lot of flack for playing the first CD,’ said Orlando. ‘So (controversy regarding Eminem) is nothing new to us. We fully support Eminem’s product. We find it compelling and we welcome the music he sends up. We also find no parity between (the music) and the social ill people are trying to pin on (Eminem).’

The question of whether art fuels society or society fuels art is as old as culture itself and as impossible to answer as the chicken-and-the-egg question. But one thing is definite, one cannot exist without the other. Artists such as Eminem reveal to us the extent of our problems, and perhaps it is through this honest expression that society can begin to heal its wounds.

Quincy D. Vierling offers us an excellent analysis and understanding of Eminem and hip hop in general. This article is definitly worth reading.

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