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Public Eminem No. 1

The ‘Marshall Mathers LP’ rapper is selling a quarter million albums a week while dodging charges of homophobia and hate-mongering

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Sawing through the shrink-wrap with a fingernail, a 12-year-old cracks open his latest CD purchase, Eminem’s sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP. He eagerly slips the disc into his boom box and hits ”play.” The first cut is a so-called public service announcement: ”Slim Shady does not give a f— what you think. If you don’t like it, you can suck his f—ing c—.” And that’s just the beginning. Rape, murder, homophobia, misogyny, wanton drug abuse — in the course of the 70-minute disc, 26-year-old Eminem (a.k.a. Slim Shady, né Marshall Mathers) raps about it all in graphic detail.

And the youth of America are listening — avidly, in great numbers. Already, The Marshall Mathers LP has become the fastest-selling hip-hop album in history, with more than 5 million copies bought since its May 23 release. The disc is red-hot in every sense, drawing the ire of gay-rights groups, feminists, parents, and pundits outraged by its content.

Of course, lyrically scandalous rap and rock albums are nothing new. 2 Live Crew faced criminal prosecution for the content of their 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, while Slayer’s 1986 Reign in Blood — with songs about Nazi death doc Josef Mengele, decapitation, and all-out carnage — is a veritable symphony of sickness. Traditionally, these types of records lurked in the margins of the culture, feeding the appetites of the rebellious, the disaffected, or the just plain nihilistic. What distinguishes The Marshall Mathers LP — and what has a growing cross section of shocked adults asking the rhetorical question, Eminem: Clown Prince or Menace? — is the sudden ease and enthusiasm with which a mainstream of teens and preteens is absorbing its corrosive vision.

In the wake of the album’s blockbuster success, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) issued a statement that suggested lyrics such as ”My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head/Whether you’re a fag or les” (from ”Criminal”) could fuel hate crimes against gays. ”We took a strong stance because, first, the lyrics are blatantly homophobic and could encourage violence,” says GLAAD entertainment media director Scott Seomin, ”and second, because he was being so heavily promoted on MTV that we knew record sales would go through the roof.”

Few would argue that the music-video network (which produced an oft-repeated two-hour program called EmTV devoted to the rapper) has helped propel Eminem to his current superstar status; as Eminem gleefully raps on ”I’m Back,” ”MTV was so friendly to me.” But the relationship may be cooling. GLAAD recently met with MTV execs to suggest organizing a televised, sit-down discussion between the artist and gay youth, and also asked the network to produce a public service announcement with Eminem speaking out against hate crimes. ”MTV agreed to do both,” says Seomin, ”but when they put out the request to Eminem, he refused.”

The rapper, who insists he’s not homophobic and sees Mathers as darkly comic, declines to comment. But the flap has caused MTV to do some soul-searching. The result: The network is rushing to complete a special, MTVNewsNow: When Lyrics Attack, which will air in late August. Hosted by Kurt Loder, the program will examine the Eminem brouhaha and will feature a roundtable discussion among artists and music fans. ”We take our responsibility to our audience seriously and will continue to have an on- and off-air dialogue with them about the controversy surrounding the lyrical content of Eminem’s music,” says an MTV spokesperson. Of course, the network also plans to continue airing Eminem’s videos, albeit in heavily censored form.