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As Chris Rock had it, something sure has changed in America when the best golfer is black and the best rapper, white. Rock's choice of words is remarkable: not richest, not most famous, but best. Because there can be no doubt about it anymore, and it's getting sort of churlish to deny it. You may dislike the language, the philosophy (and it is philosophy), or the hair dye. You may say Eminem can't last, and, unusual for a rapper, he'll agree with you. "I'm gonna do the music as long as I feel it, but if I'm sitting in the studio all tapped out, I just won't do it," he says. "The truth is that I can't rap forever."
But let's settle on the bald facts: Eminem has secured his place in the rap pantheon. Tupac, Biggie, and Pun are gone, and right now there just isn't anyone else but Eminem who can rhyme 14 syllables a line, enrage the U.S. Senate, play the dozens, spin a tale, write a speech, push his voice into every register, toy with rhythm, subvert a whole goddamn genre, get metaphorical, allegorical, political, comical, and deeply, deeply personal-all in one groove of vinyl.
Eminem is a word technician. He makes words work for him, and he's never lazy. Most rappers can be branded: We play Snoop for that down-and-dirty feeling; when you want to nod your head and pop your collar, there's Dr. Dre; Nelly will give you the songs of home; Mos Def makes you want to start a revolution; and Busta Rhymes is purely for freaking to. But Eminem, like Tupac before him, does a little of all these things. Like 'Pac, he does them with the integrity of an artist. This doesn't mean he's above the vulgar business of entertainment. It's just that elements of these two rappers are, in the sacred terminology of hip hop, kept real. Tupac sold himself only so far. As unlikely as it seemed when we first met Eminem on The Slim Shady LP, he has demonstrated a similar attitude. Words matter to him. "The truth of the matter." This is his favorite phrase when he speaks. During an interview (in which he's oddly stilted and lost for words, the opposite of his persona on records), he says it nine times in an hour. His music shares Tupac's obsession with truthfully representing a group of disenfranchised people. "I love that Tupac cared about his people, from his background, his generation," Eminem says. "He cared what they thought, and anybody else who didn't understand him could go to hell."
That role, being the truth-telling prophet to a generation, is troublesome. Some truths are hard and self-destructive. Some are conflicting to the point of schizophrenia. Tupac wrote the feminist elegy "Brenda's Got a Baby" and the abusive "Wonda Why They Call U Bitch"; Eminem wrote the desperate "Rock Bottom" and the mischievous "Just Don't Give a Fuck." These boys are both "mad at cha" and not mad. They "Just Don't Give a Fuck," and they do. And they're not in the business of committing crimes. They're rappers. "The fact that a man picks up a microphone-that's it, you see?" says Eminem. "That's what makes him a rapper. It's not a gun. It's a microphone." This is something the antirap contingent of the Senate has never understood. Eminem's show on the Anger Management Tour (he's on the same bill with Ludacris and Papa Roach) opens with a video montage of real American politicians condemning the dangerous social phenomenon that is Eminem. Reality check: The FBI reports that there were 90,186 rapes and 15,517 murders reported in America in 2000. Eminem committed none of them.
In the face of this kind of misplaced hysteria, good rappers don't back down. They defend the right to use words in the same way any novelist or filmmaker is free to do. They tell their personal truths. Sometimes they connect with millions of American teenagers. Then the question becomes one of incitement, of what happens when the music stops? The question of whose words make which people do what things:
How many retards'll listen to me? / And run up in the school shooting when they're pissed at a teach / er, her, him, is it you, is it them? / "Wasn't me-Slim Shady said to do it again!" / Damn! How much damage can you do with a pen?
Oh, plenty, but primarily to himself. Keeping it real is a dangerous game. How real is real? Real in the lyrics, real in an interview? Real on the streets, real in the 'hood? The rap survivors-Dr. Dre and Master P-have determinedly drawn a line between the "realness" of their past lives and their right to live like any other music mogul: money and a big house on the hill far from the ghetto. For Tupac, keeping it real was more perilous; it dogged his life and contributed to his death. With Eminem, the question came to a head two years ago as he became increasingly embroiled in the justice system. But meeting him now, it's clear that he will not be going the tragic Behind the Music route. He's still talking it-"Don't think I won't go there / Go to Beirut and do a show there!"-but, it seems, no longer living it. "I had a wake-up call with my almost going to jail and shit, like, slow down," he says. "It wasn't me trying to portray a certain image or live up to anything. That was me letting my anger get the best of me, which I've done many times. No more."
This is the Anger Management Tour, after all, and Eminem in dress rehearsal is slick and professional. There's no wilding out. Even D12 is all business. My impression watching him rehearse: serious. There's no Slim about him. If something's wrong onstage, he wants it fixed. And the seedy-sounding girl on "Superman" and "Drug Ballad" isn't a ho-she's a charming woman called Dina Rae who's hoping, she says, to be "a sort of white Ashanti, maybe." She has been on all three albums but has never performed the songs live ("They call me Track 13 Girl"). Rae's in awe of this opportunity and the man who gave it to her. I ask for a description. "Sweet. Lovely. Shy." Like he's a puppy.
When I am finally ushered into the presence of the Most Evil Rapper Alive, he's not like his cohorts on TV. I've just watched 48 hours of MTV waiting for him to arrive in Buffalo from Detroit, so I know. Rappers wear diamonds, endorse everything, and talk a lot. Eminem doesn't even look like himself on TV. Nathan, his half-brother, looks more like how you'd imagine Eminem would-tall, cartoon bright. Eminem is small, slender faced, and more innocuous than the picture in your mind. He talks quietly, rarely, and only makes eye contact when the questions are about other people or rappers he admires. He does not shill ("I couldn't do that, I wouldn't," he says. "I mean, I drink a whole lot of [a popular soda], but I wouldn't sponsor it. That's not what I'm about"). Nor does he spend lavishly. He has a car-a car. A leased Mercedes-Benz. He's dressed exactly like the millions of adolescents he represents: sweatpants, a white T-shirt, and a baseball cap. No more, no less. No jewels of any kind. The other thing I learned from MTV: Rappers always tell you they are the greatest. Most rappers.
VIBE: So tell me something about this new album. Eminem: I learned how to ride a beat better, like, that's what I wanted to focus on doing. On the last album, I hadn't completely mastered it yet, to sink into the beat? That's what I don't like about that second album-I'd listen, and I'd be like, Why am I so far behind that beat? [voice rising] The first album was TERRIBLE-like, I was playing catch-up with the beat constantly.
VIBE: You talk a lot about ease in this record. Is it easy to write these raps? Eminem: Well, actually, I'd be lying if I said it was easy. The truth of the matter is, it's not. Sometimes I'll spend hours on a single rhyme, or days, or I'll give up and come back to it later. Anyone who says they write a verse in less than 20 minutes is full of shit, I believe. Even if I have my ideas stacked, if I'm flooded with ideas, I'm always trying to figure out how to make it better, make it smoother-that's how it is. Unless you're just somebody who doesn't care.
A lot of people don't care. You can make a lot of money in rap these days without caring: "Pissed off, 'cause Biggie and 'Pac just missed all this / Watching all these cheap imitations get rich off 'em." For every Eminem or Mos Def, for every rapper trying to push the medium forward, 20 branded rappers are selling you their lifestyle: the poolside life, the gangsta life, the playa life. Image is everything (the video is everything), nobody cares about the words. We can assume that P. Diddy ("Don't worry if I write rhymes, I write checks") simply doesn't care as much as the man who wrote, in "Square Dance":
Nothing moves me more than a groove that soothes me, nothing soothes me more than a groove that boosts me, nothing boosts me more, or suits me beautifully / There's nothing you can do to me, stab me, shoot me / Psychotic, hypnotic product, I got it, the antibiotic, ain't nobody hotter and so on / And yada yada, God-I talk a lotta of hem de lay la la la, oochie walla walla um dah da dah da dah but you gotta gotta / Keep movin', there's more music to make, keep makin' new shit, produce hits to break / The monotony, what's gotten into me? Drugs, rock and Hennessy, thug like I'm 'Pac on my enemies!
Eminem delivers the last line in knowing imitation of Tupac's unforgettable preacher's delivery. On the drive to the arena, I mention this lyric admiringly to his publicist, who smiles. "You know, I told him, Man, no one'll notice the fucking 'Pac thing. But Em said, ,ÃÃ²If they love 'Pac, they'll know it.' I thought nobody noticed stuff like that."
As thousands of inches of newsprint show, people are busy noticing a few other things. Every article ever published on Eminem can be paraphrased thus: Mother, Libel, Gun, Homosexuals, Drugs, Own Daughter, Wife, Rape, Trunk of Car, Youth of America, Tattoos, Prison, Gangsta, White Trash.
People want to know which bits are real and which bits are hip hop exaggeration. Does he hate fags ("the answer's -yes!'" he says in his song "Criminal," from The Marshall Mathers LP)? Or does he love gay men ("Right, Ken? Give me an Amen!")? I don't know. All I can say is that in person he doesn't speak like that, and he barely swears. The only reference to homosexuality all day long comes from me, bored in the front seat of a hot car waiting to meet Eminem, singing alternative gay lyrics to popular songs (Usher: "You don't have to call, 'cause I'm gay girl, and I got other things on tonight").
Ask Eminem about his writing, and he can't understand why you took him so seriously in the first place. He's like the Zen master who tells his disciple that enlightenment can be found in a pile of dog dung, and then shakes his head in dismay as the young man gets his hands dirty. "I'm saying this to piss you off, and you're getting mad?" Em says of his lyrical provocations. "That's childish shit!" But what does he expect? On the records, moralist Eminem commands people to say what you say and stand by it, but at the same time, he defends the right to his own peculiar double standard. "It's like, I've grown up a lot the past two years, and I've learned that you got to be able to separate the truth from entertainment to an extent," he says. "Like, I'm always gonna be real with myself, and people should know the difference. Not always, when I'm joking and when I'm not-but for the most part, they should know what's entertainment and what's not." So it's our responsibility, not the artist's? You mean, wait-let me get this right: We're responsible for our own morality? Well, goddamn! This concept of personal responsibility, I imagine, might be a little too Zen-like for the fiercely Christian, antirap Senate contingent.
But Eminem isn't devoid of parental, protective instincts. In "Stan," he satirized his own fears about wielding negative influence, but those fears are real. He knows how many people listen to him. "Truthfully," he says, sinking down in his seat, "I really don't watch that much TV anymore. I can't stand to see myself all the time like that." His lyrics suggest he's bemused by how awful people think he is, but he's also capable of thinking that way about himself: "It's all political, if my music is literal / And I'm a criminal / How the fuck can I raise a little girl? / I couldn't, I wouldn't be fit to."
It is Em's daughter, Hailie, age 6, who inspires both his most positive lyrics and his life choices. She makes him think differently. When asked The Women in Rap Lyrics Question and how he squares it with bringing up a daughter, Eminem is suddenly impassioned. "See, that's where the separation is, right there," he says. "I'm not going to walk up to women saying, Word up, bitch? I wouldn't have got anywhere in this business if I was just a complete asshole like some of the music portrays. But the other truth of the matter is, whenever I do say something bad about women like that, it usually is an emotion that I'm going through at the time. And," he adds softly, "my experience with women has not been great, man. I have not had the greatest women in my life. So all I can do is be the best father that I can and try to instill in Hailie the best values, because I do care about what is said around her and done around her."
But does she listen to the music? "Sure she listens to it," he says. "And she did a song with me, 'My Dad's Gone Crazy.' But in the second verse, there's a part that's really pretty bad, so I made her a clean version, and she listens to that. Because 'fuck that shit bitch, eat a motherfucking cock'-that's a little much."
Eminem seems tired, as if he's in a 24-hour battle with the world, another Tupac-like trait. When I tell him that a customs official in Buffalo asked me, "What the fuck you wanna interview that guy for?" he nods wearily. Nothing about America's love-hate relationship with him is a surprise anymore. And, dear reader, imagine for a moment having a relationship like that with a whole country. But he is evolving, despite the pressure. Work and parenthood make him calm. He talks enthusiastically about one day moving over to producing and the new life that might engender: "Getting gas for my car like a normal person, walking down the street!" He speaks almost wistfully about his days as a "really hungry underground MC," back when he really didn't give a fuck. He does now. About 9/11: "That was, like, a dark day. It's a subject I couldn't really bring myself to make fun about-then I'd just have no fucking morals or scruples at all." About the N-word: "It's not my place to say it. There's some things that I just don't do"; and about fame, the subject he's most eloquent about: "If I was the type of person who got in it for the money and fame, I would have quit after the first album." Em fears the alienation his money has produced. On the album, he worries that he has sold his soul, that he's trapped.
But again, there are contradictions: He says he wants to say goodbye to Hollywood-"I just wanna leave this game with level head intact"-but he has also just made a movie with Kim Basinger, 8 Mile, a semiautobiographical effort that he's proud of. "Acting was hard, though," he muses, "not second nature, like rapping. I might do another, but not one where I'm in every scene and the whole movie's riding on me." If he stays in the game, he wants to be cast because of his acting skills, not his rap reputation.
Thing is, people love the way he raps. Even when they're agonizing over the content, they can't get enough of the form. To these people, I can confirm Dina Rae's judgment: Sweet. Lovely. Shy. But even if he wasn't, so what? Salvador DalÃ was an asshole. So was John Milton. Eminem's life and opinions are not his art. His art is his art. Sometimes people with bad problems make good art. The interesting question is this: When the problems go, does the art go, too? Oh, and if that word "art" is still bothering you in the context of a white-trash rapper from Detroit, here's a quick, useful definition of an artist: someone with an expressive talent most of us do not have.
I quoted the lyric from "Square Dance" at length for a reason. Look back there and read it again. Hey you, the kid reading this article, wanting to be a rapper-can you do that? Hey, journalist who believes rap is a social deviancy-can you do that? Lynne Cheney-can you do that?
Zadie Smith. Cover Story: The Zen of Eminem. Copyright 2005 Vibe.com.