Why the white rap star has come to be considered one of the greats

<p. He's not the first white rapper, and he won't be the last (look out, Mom!).

But Eminem, this year, became the first great white rap star — the first to channel, with electrifying obsessiveness, the anger and the strut, the power-lust desperation, the proud sociopathic hardness that has become the unholy essence of hip-hop. That this stance is now the credo of mainstream youth culture is due in no small part to Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady, a.k.a. Marshall Mathers III. The first white rapper to remake a generation in his own image, he may, at 27, be to rap what Elvis Presley was to rhythm and blues. How, exactly, did this feral, small-framed man with the stare of Timothy McVeigh, the daydreams of Leatherface, and the coruscating street lyricism of Snoop Dogg crossed with William Burroughs become the most revolutionary pop-music artist in America?

You could learn the answer by tuning in to the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. Trailed by an army of platinum-blond clones, sauntering down the aisle as he barked out the identity-tweaking lyrics to ”The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem was mesmerizing in his theatrical aggression, the lockstep defiance of his attack. The answer could be found, as well, in the spit and fire, the blisteringly propulsive rage-churning rhymes of The Marshall Mathers LP, which has sold 7 million copies. Just listen to the seething majesty of ”The Way I Am,” with its syncopated litany of confession rolling forward in a kind of stream-of-invective: ”I just do not got the pa-tience to deal with these cock-y cau-ca-sians who think I’m some wigg-er who just tries to be black….”

And yet, in this year of his mass-market sonic boom, Eminem was defined most dramatically by his shock-treatment lyrics, which included violently flip fantasies about murdering his wife and attacking ”fags.” Many found these lyrics indefensible, and rightly so, even as the words bled into the headlines of his real-life scandals, which include twin felonious charges for gun possession and assault that he has yet to plead to.

To a vast, devoted audience, Eminem’s verbal dance of fury, vulnerability, and madness, his desire to purge himself even as he parades his worst impulses, makes him as cathartic a lost soul as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. ”He has said that the microphone is his psychiatrist,” says his manager, Paul Rosenberg. ”One of the things that distinguishes between him and a ‘hardcore rapper’ is that a hardcore rapper isn’t going to write about his feelings.” Eminem rages, and outrages, for our sins. And maybe some of us feel purged, too.