The rapper is overpraised, oversold, and maybe just plain over, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
June 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why Eminem deserves his own bashing

The massive sales figures and critical raves for Eminem’s new release ”The Marshall Mathers LP” have done much to obscure the stench of his assiduously obscene, tiresomely garrulous music. At first I thought the ”LP” in the title was odd — that Eminem was probably the last rapper this side of Grandmaster Flash who thinks in terms of ”long playing” records; then I realized it’s just that even he seems to know it takes forever to play this tedious thing all the way through.

Just as I can admire the sadomasochistic literary fiction of prose writers ranging from Jean Genet to Dennis Cooper while still finding the stuff a chore to plow through, so do Eminem’s tales of wife beating and murdering, and proclamations of hatred for women and gays, strike me as admirably self aware. Marshall Mathers, to use his real name, is no dim bulb know nothing; he understands EXACTLY what his provocations are: shock turn-ons for an audience who’d never think to crack the pages of Genet or Cooper.

Praise for Eminem concentrates on his technical skills. Neil Strauss in the New York Times is typical, citing one of Eminem’s ”gifts” as ”the ability to make any two words with a letter in common rhyme” and praising his raps’ ”complex internal rhyme schemes and rhythmic repetitions.”

This is the kind of reasoning that’s often applied to dull folk music — the melodies may be wearisome, but the artist composes like, gosh, a real literary artist. To which I reply, whether the subject is Judy Collins or Eminem: If I want poetry, I’ll read it on the page, thank you, where complex internal rhyme schemes and rhythmic repetitions are, in the best poetry on the page, infinitely superior. I go to CDs (or ”LP”s) for popular song — that is, that nexus of word and music — a synthesis at which Eminem fails.

For Eminem to be effective — to be more than an overrated novelty act — he’d have to do something besides rap simplistic couplets over bare-bones rhythm tracks. His voice — the vocal equivalent of the expression Bart Simpson has when dad Homer has both hands around his neck and is squeezing hard — is as unvarying as his insults, which obsess upon male/male oral sex.

I’d say that current master rappers such as Jay-Z and DMX have no reason to lose sleep over this twerp, but unfortunately, as black artists, they do. Because once again, the predominantly white media have seized upon a white artist whom they can valorize beyond aesthetic reason.

The best response to Eminem has come from an unlikely but welcome corner: Britney Spears, slandered along with other teen pop stars on ”The Marshall Mathers LP,” has, instead of getting mad, laughed off ”Slim Shady”’s insults with admirable derisiveness. Me, I echo her snickers, crank up the new Del the Funky Homosapien CD, and settle down to read some Elizabeth Bishop. Talk about your internal rhyme — that’s one ‘ho who’s got it goin’ on.