[Heat magazine, 2000]
“GOD sent me,” Eminem once proclaimed, “to piss the world off.” So far he's made an impressive job of it. You don't get to be the biggest star in the rap business without making a few enemies; just ask Tupac or Biggie, if you know a good psychic. But in addition to the usual suspects - right wingers, Christians, gay, lesbian and women's pressure groups - the 25 year-old Michigan rapper has also succeeded in aggravating Backstreet Boys, N-Sync, his wife, his mother, the law courts of his home state, the bandload of bozos who go under the name of Insane Clown Posse, and Christina Aguilera, whom he depicted in a lyric as performing oral sex on him. Just about the only people left on Eminem's side right now are his fans, who number in the millions, and that motley collection of infighting reprobates known as the hip hop community. Eminem's fellow rappers have been surprisingly unified in their support; surprising, partly because they never agree on anything, but principally because Eminem is white.
Post-Vanilla Ice, it's been a rap truism: white kids needn't bother to apply. Eminem has changed that. When he issued his first album, Infinite, in 1996, he was dismissed as an imitator of the hardcore rapper Nas, and the record sold wretchedly. Chastened, Eminem cultivated a new style based on a brilliantly simple idea: he didn't try to sound black. Instead he developed a lurid caricature of his own white trash background, which he christened Slim Shady. This persona, the distilled essence of the Jerry Springer show, is by far the wittiest and most self-aware portrayal of poor, white America since Roseanne was at its peak. Slim Shady's motto? “Don't do drugs, don't have unprotected sex, don't be violent. Leave that to me.”<
Lyrical ingenuity, combined with the patronage of legendary producer Dr Dre, ensured Eminem's credibility in the rap world and set him up for huge mainstream success. His second album, The Slim Shady LP, has shifted over 4 million copies worldwide, while his latest, The Marshall Mathers LP, became the fastest selling solo album in US chart history.
But in true rapper fashion, the boy from Detroit has been dogged by problems - many of them, it would seem, self-inflicted. June has seen him charged in two separate incidents, for supposedly pulling a handgun on an employee of sub-Kiss rap outfit Insane Clown Posse, and for the alleged pistol-whipping of an acquaintance for playing tonsil hockey with his wife, Kimberly, in - a perfect trailer trash detail, this - the Warren, Michigan Hot Rocks Cafe parking lot. Kimberly also made a fictional appearance in Eminem's track 97 Bonnie and Clyde as a corpse in the boot of his car, destined to be dropped off the end of a dock. Background vocals were supplied by the couple's daughter, Hailie, then a toddler; Eminem lured her to the studio on the pretext of a visit to kiddie restaurant Chuck E Cheese.
Only Eminem's lawyer knows how many civil cases are ranged against him, including one initiated by the man he purportedly beat up. Eminem is no stranger to litigation. He claimed that his mother was a drug user who made a living filing nuisance lawsuits. She promptly sued him for 10 million dollars. There is no love lost between the two. “She's a bitch,” he tells interviewers. He blames much of his childhood misery on her. She was a teenage single mother who moved him from one grim Detroit neighbourhood to another, to avoid paying rent. Eminem, born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, never knew his father, and rarely attended any one school for longer than a few months. Small, skinny and often in a white minority of one, he spent most of his schooldays running away from trouble, although usually not fast enough. He was stripped naked, shot at, put into a coma with a blow to the head. His mother sent him to school in pyjamas. He was arrested for shooting at hookers with paintballs. These facts may be connected.
Almost inevitably, Eminem's lyrics are filled with violent imagery, often directed at women, some of it truly disturbing. He defends his use of slurs like “faggot” on novel grounds: “To me it doesn't necessarily mean gay people; it means taking away your manhood. You're a sissy. You're a coward.” He has also avowed that, “If just for one minute I feel like a misogynist dick, then I'm gonna rap it.” Still, many other rappers couldn't spell “misogynist” - or even, probably, “dick”. Eminem has been backed by no less an authority than producer/star Missy Elliot, a committee member of the anti-domestic violence charity Break The Cycle: “He's lyrically dope. If you listen, you know whether this happened, or whether he's just making a song funny.” Eminem concurs, astutely: “It's the South Park version of rap.”
The Slim Shady character has clearly touched the same nerve as Kenny, Cartman and co. Extravagantly foul-mouthed, mutinous and unruly, abhorred by sensible grown-ups, he is a hero to runty teenage nihilists everywhere. Hiding behind his evil alter ego, Eminem can fantasise about killing his wife, silencing his critics and humiliating his enemies. Meanwhile, those who should and do know better are won over by the manic humour, dark imagination and outright excellence of his records, which rank among the most original in rap today. And as Eminem is no doubt well aware, no rapper ever had his sales figures dented by getting into a spot of bother or twenty.
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