Why I Like Eminem’s Music

Posted on November 23rd, 2002 in Entertainment,Music by mynagirl

I like Eminem’s music. A lot. I bought “The Eminem Show” when it came out, and it’s been in nearly constant CD player rotation since. Even my favorite I-listen-to-classic-rock older guy is starting to find it interesting and catchy. (Although I have to admit I didn’t even try to expose him to the music until after he saw and liked 8 Mile).

My first introduction to his music was from my nieces and nephew controlling the constantly-on TV during summer family gatherings. Eminem was a relief after what seemed like a solid week of Real World histrionics. The video was “What I Am” from his disc The Marshall Mathers LP. It seemed catchy and at least somewhat interesting, lyrically. When the “The Eminem Show” was released, I bought it on spec. Let’s see if this guy actually has anything to say, I thought.

Before I launch into any blisteringly insightful analysis of why I like Eminem’s music, I should provide you with my general taste requirements for music:

Marie’s Grand Musical Requirement Number One
It’s interesting, musically. I know this sounds self-evident, but my main requirement for liking something is that it has a good bassline (“I Wish” by Stevie Wonder), interesting harmonies (“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel or anything by Gillian Welch), a great beat (um, somewhat embarrassingly, I offer “Jukebox Hero” by Foreigner), or a relentless but interesting hook to keep me, well, hooked (“Jump Around” by House of Pain or “Insane in the Membrane” by Cypress Hill epitomize this category).

Marie’s Grand Musical Requirement Number Two
It’s interesting, lyrically. I am a play-it-super-loud-until-it-wears-out kinda music listener. (I think I get this from my dad, who shares my penchant for sternum-rattling stereo volume in one’s car). I’m also in the Car Singer’s All Time Hall of Fame. This means that I end up knowing every single word, breath, and nuance of a song when I play it for even a few number of repetitions. So… if it’s lyrical drivel, I just can’t tolerate it for too long, even if it’s decent, musically. (Witness my short infatuations with a Britney Spears song or N*Sync – well produced pop songs, all right, but not very compelling). Songs I would consider lyrically amazing include:

• “The Boxer”, also by Simon and Garfunkel:
I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises

• “Strawberry Letter 22” by Shuggie Otis, a little more well known by the Brothers Johnson:
Stained window, yellow candy screen
See speakers of kite – with velvet roses diggin’ freedom flight
(See, it doesn’t even have to make sense to the non-mind-altered, it just has to be interesting!)

• “Barroom Girls” by Gillian Welch
Oh the night came undone like a party dress
And fell at her feet in a beautiful mess
The smoke and the whiskey came home in her curls
And they crept through the dreams of the barroom girls

• “Empty Smile” by Robert Frith
I guess I am the black sheep
My brother’s an only son

• “Living Dead Girl” by Rob Zombie
Operation filth
They love to love the wealth
Of an SS Whore
Making scary sounds
(Again, who knows what the hell it means, but I can guarantee there isn’t another song with quite that combination of concepts floating together – other Zombie songs excepted.)

Okay, so those are really my two main requirements for really liking a piece of music. I will add a third partial-requirement, however – it may actually just be a passing phase of mine, or maybe a preference but not a requirement (a “nice to have”, as we say in the projects business).

Marie’s Musical Preference Number Three: Songs in the Key of (Someone Else’s) Life
I find myself liking songs that have a perspective, specifically a perspective from someone who’s perhaps not in my particular age/race/socioeconomic bracket. I’m not sure why this is – maybe it’s analogous to the escapism we all enjoy in movies and TV (everyone watches the Sopranos’ Mafioso protagonist but they probably wouldn’t agree with mob principles in actual life). Maybe it’s the manifestation of my Sociology and Anthropology degree – I want to hear and understand others’ origins and points of view, or maybe it’s just a cheap and safe way for a middle-class white girl to pretend she’s walking on the wild side. I listened to “Sublime” for weeks because of this appeal: there’s nothing like the succinct but emasculating Hispanic bravado of “Tell Sanchito that if he knows what is good for him, he’d best go run and hide… Daddy’s got a new .45”. Most of Everlast’s socially-conscious folk-rock has this appeal for me, too, especially their hit “What It’s Like”.

Oh yeah, um, what was this topic about, again?
In any case, Eminem’s The Eminem Show CD hits me soundly in all three categories. It’s excellently mixed and produced (thanks, Dr. Dre), has unbelievably tightly-woven and self-referential (even occasionally self-deprecating) lyrics, and it’s got that didn’t-grow-up-in-Georgetown perspective that I find fascinating.

On the purely musical side, I can’t really give you a flavor of its sound without providing a clip or two (and “no thanks” to any legal issues that might arise out of that one). But it’s got these incredibly catchy little hooks created out of keyboard, drum, saxophone (synthesized, maybe – I’m none the wiser), and whatever it is that emits that West Coast rap squeal. “Business” has this relentless siren-like whine woven with a simple but pervasive little keyboard motif. “Without Me” (beyond any doubt, my absolute favorite song on this album) starts with no more than a basic upbeat drum theme with a sax ditty, and it provides an interesting-but-not-distracting canvas for the trademark Eminem lyrics.

And now to his lyrics… the area where I have to give Eminem total and complete respect. (Would it sound too white-girl-poseur to say that I give him “props” for his lyrical content?) They are amazing – dense, funny, relevant. They trip from one concept to the next, handing over rhyming themes from the end of one verse to the beginning of the next.

Moreover, however, the lyrics are often about something interesting, something a little beyond the normal pop or R&B drivel.

I present a sample:

“Square Dance”
Yeah, you laugh ‘til your motherfuckin’ ass gets drafted
When you’re at band camp thinkin’ the draft can’t happen
Til you fuck around, get an Anthrax napkin
Inside a package wrapped in Saran Wrap wrappin’
Open up the plastic and then you stand back gaspin’
Fuckin’ assassins hijackin’ Amtracks, crashin’
All this terror, America demands action,
Next thing you know you got Uncle Sam’s ass askin’

To join the army or what you do for their navy…

A little profane, but at least somewhat relevant to the current political environment. It’s more interesting than “Bye, Bye, Bye”, anyway, even if it will sound dated in five years. Of course, Eminem is also very much about the environment where he came from, and that is pervasive in his songs:

“Cleanin’ Out My Closet”
Now I would never dis my own mama just to get recognition,
Take a second to listen to who you think this record is dissin,
But put yourself in my position,
Just try to envision,
Witnessin’ your mama poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen…Bitchin’ that someone’s always goin’ through her purse and shit’s missin’
Goin’ through public housin’ systems, victim of Munchausen syndrome

And another common theme is his travails as the publicity-hounded, often rash (and thus often-sued), hated harbinger of evil white rap’s emergence into the suburban mainstream.

“White America”
All I hear is
Lyrics, lyrics, constant controversy
Sponsors working round the clock to try to stop my concerts early…Surely hip hop was never a problem in Harlem
Only in Boston
After it bothered the fathers
Of daughters starting to blossom

So to the parents of America
I am the Derringer
Aimed at little Erica
To attack her character

These serious/“politically aware” themes could get tiresome in their aggressive self-focus, but for me, somehow they don’t. Maybe it’s because the music is catchy enough to carry it along. I think for me it’s the fact that the words are strung together so quickly, they pass you by before it feels like you’re being made to wallow in his self pity. And his use of language is so clever (in my opinion, and I’ll exposit more on that in a moment), that it just lets him get away with what would come across as overblown histrionics if delivered in any other musical style.

But, Eminem’s “serious artist” side aside, I especially love when he’s silly or making fun of himself. He does this on his two catchiest songs on the album, “Business” and “Without Me” (which, incidentally, won best video of the year at the MTV music awards and is the song with the infamous Moby “36-year-old bald-headed fag” reference).

You can even call collect
The most feared duet
Since me and Elton
Played career Russian Roulette

A reference, presumably, to Eminem’s appearance on the Grammies with Elton John, which was viewed as ‘groundbreaking’ because of Eminem’s reputation as a homophobe. The song is sort of a throwaway piece about being in the hip-hop music biz with Dr. Dre, but its light lyrics and instantly-head-bounce-inducing beat make it quite palatable.

“Without Me”
I’m gonna enter in up in your skin like a splinter
The center of attention
Back for the winter
I’m interesting
The best thing since wrestling
In your kid’s ears and nesting… Testing… attention please
Feel the tension soon as someone mentions me
Here’s my ten cents…my two cents is free
A nuisance… who sent ( you sent?) for me?

Sometimes it just seems everybody only wants to discuss me
So this must mean I’m disgusting
But it’s just me, I’m just obscene
Though I’m not the first king of controversy
I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley
To do black music so selfishly
And use it to get myself wealthy

What can I say… this is my favorite song not just because of its beat and catchy sax riff but because the lyrics are fun and seem to indicate that he doesn’t take himself so seriously… at least not ALL of the time.

Marie’s Newly Discovered Fourth Preference: More than Rhyming
Content aside, however, the thing that truly makes his music hypnotic for me is the actual linguistic structure of the lyrics. Perhaps this is old hat for true hip-hop experts (and I definitely do not claim to be one of those) but the way he goes beyond just rhyming lyrics is mind-blowingly interesting and novel for me.

Look at the sample I excerpted from “Square Dance”. He’s not only relentless with the rhymes (repeating the same rhyming theme seven or eight times, depending on whether or not you argue with ‘drafted’ rhyming with ‘happen’), but the lines have a parallel sound structure beyond just the last word being rhymed. The last seven lines of that first verse include the soft “a” sound before the ending word, a parallelism that sounds infinitely more structured than a pop song that just rhymes every other line. Again, the best word I can come up with is hypnotic.

One of my other favorite tricks of his is when he takes the ending sound and wraps it around to the first word of the following line (“kitchen” and “bitchin’” in “Cleanin’ out my Closet”, “nesting” and “testing” in “Without Me”, “early” and “surely” in “White America”). He does this line-wrapping without a traditional pause to signal the beginning of the next line, which makes the concepts and sounds an enjoyable rapid-fire assault.

But wait, isn’t he a punk and a misogynist?
Yes, of course he’s still the pistol toting hothead you’ve read about in Entertainment Weekly, and many of his songs on earlier albums include lyrics about strangling women (specifically, “whores”) and there’s a whole song where he enacts taking his now-ex-wife into the woods to kill her.

There’s less of that kind of thing on this album, but even on this album he does sometimes fit what Scott described in his 8 Mile review as the “very definition of a punk-ass moron”:
But I can rap, so fuck school, I’m too cool to go back
Gimme the mic, show me where the fuckin’ studio’s at
And don’t even get me started on the album’s graphic and infantile song “Drips”, which paints a sordid little scene of sex, infidelity, and venereal disease (hence the title).

Yep, but I like the music anyway
But somehow I seem to forgive all that because he’s bright enough and clever enough to win me over with most of his lyrics, or I just take the “take what you like and leave the rest” approach with the Track Select button. (Luckily, one has the luxury of purposive sampling when it comes to matters of taste).

In the end, it comes down to whether or not I like the music, and I really like it. It’s not only well-produced and lyrically intense, it’s got a whole new way of delivering sound, rhyme, and concept that I find amazing and infinitely listenable. It’ll probably be a few months yet before I even take the CD out of daily rotation.

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