Deconstructing a Deity

Everybody who knows me well understands that, while the music to which I listen is almost exclusively rap (Tenacious D and the Book of Mormon soundtrack aside!), Eminem stands apart. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of the work of many other rappers. Illmatic. Enter the 36 Chambers. Ready to Die. Reasonable Doubt. Drought 3. But when Kanye comes out with Yeezus, I don’t take the quality of it personally. When Lil Wayne comes out with a sub-par Tha Carter IV, it’s a bit disappointing but I really don’t care. Eminem’s work stands in contrast – I NEED it to be good. It actually makes me upset when it’s not, because his early work is so transcendent, and holds such a special status in my life. Hell, I not only wrote an entire lengthy column, on my own free time, about my theory of Eminem and familiarization, but I’m writing a 3,000 word one about him now, and I’m planning on writing another when his next album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, is released on November 5. Clearly, I have some psychological investment in the music the dude produces.

That’s why, when the song Rap God came out this past Tuesday, and caused a localized storm on the internet, I felt the need to write a Blogcat about it. Marshall had already released two singles to the upcoming LP , but this one is different. In this post, I’d like to share my take on all three, focusing mostly on a thorough parsing of the aforementioned Rap God, and then dive into my hopes, dreams and fears about the sequel to my favorite music album of all time.

Before we continue, though, if any of you actually will, I’d strongly recommend being somewhat familiar with my theories and preferences voiced in my previous Blogcat, Eminem: A Theory of Value. I know I linked to it earlier, but the opinions I’m about to express make more sense in the context of what I’ve expressed before. If, on the other hand, you’re running short on time, here’s the wildly condensed version:

1. While Eminem is better than anyone at being a “normal” rapper – touching on normal content – he is not at his best when being normal (at least in the way I define it). Thus, my favorite Eminem songs are dark – sometimes angry, but always twisted.

2. What made Eminem such a genius was not bragging about all the fucked up things in his mind. It was rather that he talked about them in such a cavalier fashion that he made the deranged seem familiar (e.g. “all I wanted to do was rape the bitch and snatch her purse/).

Let’s move on, by getting the first two singles, Survival and Berserk out of the way.

I almost feel like I don’t have too much to say about these, since I don’t really love them. I think, though, that I’ll probably have a better take on them in the context of the entire album, once it drops. As I think back to his last couple albums, this has been the case. The analogous singles strike me as We Made You (Relapse) and Not Afraid (Recovery). These all manifest Em’s trend of releasing relatively lighthearted, poppy tracks. While neither one of these would make my personal list of top 50 Eminem songs, I think they both worked better when considered in the midst of the rest of the album’s content.

Listening to these first two – Survival and Berserk – also would make me worry that they represent the paradigm of MMLP2; fairly standard rap tropes (“Wait is up/ Hands up like it’s 12 noon, nah, homie, hold them bitches straighter up/ wave ’em ’til you dislocate a rotator cuff/”) scripted with prolific rhyming capacity. Yet the fact that they seem so akin to his two previous albums’ pop singles makes me less concerned. While the tone of Recovery could easily be characterized as “redemptive” – which is not the tone I’m really looking for, even though it was a great album – Relapse certainly had its fair share of twisted tracks (e.g. 3 AM). We shall have to wait and see.

Survival was commercial enough to be a Call of Duty plug, but one thing I do like about it is that Em is back to yelling. Many of his lyrics have claimed for awhile now that he’s hungry, but now the way he flows is starting to convince me of that. Additionally, he still does have his fastball, which appears in lines such as these:

“So floor’s open if you’d like to discuss/
Top 5 in this motherfucker and if I don’t make the cut/
What, like I give a fuck, I’ma light this bitch up like I’m driving a truck/
To the side of a pump, 0 to 60 hop in and gun it/
Like G-Unit without the hyphen, I’m ‘hypen’ ’em up/”

This is all good news,  even if the majority of the song is pretty tame.

Berzerk is a peculiar track – a zany beat with a heavy Beastie Boys influence. It starts off strong with some Shady crassness:

“I’m bout to bloody this track up, everybody get back/
That’s why my pen needs a pad cause my rhymes on the ra-aag/”

but tapers off quickly into a smattering of generic subject matter. This song is definitely my least favorite of three. While I enjoy his stilted flow, the content is just too straight forward for my taste. Again, he’s better at delivering it than any other rapper, but I mean, the song’s chorus could have been lifted from a Miley Cyrus song:

“Kick your shoes off, let your hair down/
(Go berserk) all night long/
….
We’re gonna rock this house until we knock it down/
So turn the volume loud, cause it’s mayhem ’til the a.m/”

I suppose you could argue that Em knows he’s being cheesy, citing as evidence his mocking tone while singing that hook, but either way, it’s not doing it for me.

Ahh, time for Rap God. What a brilliant, fascinating song. This song takes longer to listen to than any rap song I can think of, not only because it’s over 6 minutes on its own, but because it has like 395 parts that you simply HAVE to rewind and listen to again. It’s like running suicides with a 6 minute song. I do have my issues with the song, which sort of speak to my concerns about the general trend of his recent music (and I’ll get to those in a second), but I’d be remiss in failing to unequivocally agree with the masses that this is a fucking masterpiece.

I have to admit that at first I wasn’t a huge fan of the beat. That lasted until somewhere in the middle of my second listen. Now I love it.  It’s perky, gloomy, epic, electronic and eerie all at the same time. I really haven’t been pleased with the overall paradigm shift of the musical backing of Eminem’s lyrics; back in the days of Nuttin to Do and Role Model he was rapping on simple, clownish beats with lots of bouncy bass, yet in recent times (e.g. Echo) there’s been a lot of more complicated, guitar-based backings. The beat on Rap God is mostly built around the same piano chord being banged on relentlessly for bars and bars, with some squeaky synth overlayed back and forth. Not quite back to the good old days, but still a shift in a great direction.

He just comes on so strong with his lyrics, too. I love how his first lines are tied into the rapping robot idea he brings up in the first iteration of the song’s hook, which occurs right before said lines. Great thematic transition. And the doubling of his voice over “for me to rap like a computer must be in my genes/” really hammers that electronic concept home through spectacular production. As soon as those lyrics come in, I actually get chills, and the adrenaline stays with me for virtually the entire verse.

This song makes me picture a savvy, veteran point-guard who is so on top of his game that he’s toying with his opponent. Point-guards in basketball rely on an innate ability to float through the defense by alternating between different speeds. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow, but it’s the unpredictable changing of pace that keeps the competition off-balance. This song is like that, while also giving off that perfect Slim Shady feel that the sanity of it all is teetering on the edge, about to crumble. The effects used on the words “morphed” and “time warp” just give the sense that Shady is both effortlessly riding the beat in hyperdrive, while also wavering in and out of lunacy.

At this point, it makes sense to bring up some numbers, because the pace of his flow – his blurring fast “supersonic speed” – has been a subject of conversation. The song is 6 minutes and 3 seconds long. Pasting the lyrics of the song in a Word document (and not even including the intro voice-over), I get a word count of 1,450. That comes out to be 3.99 words per second, a number which actually downplays how fast he goes at times. I’ve also heard through the grapevine that Eminem flows in 10 different time signatures. This is one of the most technically advanced and difficult rap songs ever, which is insanely impressive, although a bit troubling.

What concerns me is that in a few areas, the song seems to actually be – in a way – too difficult, even for Marshall the master. He’s the king – actually, “why be a king when you can be a God?” – of rhyming compound syllables, but while the words  “Nascar,” “Rap God,” and “Slap Box” would rhyme if spewed at breakneck speed, they simply don’t when slowly spoken in the song’s chorus. If anybody could make something rhyme, it’s Eminem, but in this case, even he is coming up short.

I’m a bit confused and conflicted too by the “lookin’ boy” section at the tail of the second verse. I guess I’m a bit befuddled by what it’s doing in this song; what purpose is it serving? The rhyme structure isn’t complicated or compelling. Further, it comes across as extremely homophobic, and while Eminem has obviously engaged in that before, it used to at least felt organic; this feels almost like he was getting anxious, like “oh shit, I haven’t clowned around with any gay-bashing in awhile, better work that in somewhere.” Yea, he wants to change the pace in a point-guard-esque manner, but doing so incorrectly is ineffective. At the same time, I still love the change of the beat itself. It’s just such a great little two bar switch, especially in conjunction with the cadence of his flow. I’m willing to admit, it makes me feel like shimmying every time, regardless of the meaning of the words he’s saying.

The other issue is the lack of conviction – and, really, effectiveness – of specific sections of his verses. I hate to say it, but the beginning of his third verse (“So you be Thor and I’ll be Odin”) , until the line “pinch yourself in the arm and pay homage, pupil/”, honestly sounds like something that Demon Snow Squad (my high school rap group) would have recorded. It’s slow. The flow is a bit awkward. It rhymes, but it’s only mildly clever. This, and to some extent some other sections (e.g. the song’s last few lines, or still chunky, but funky/ But in my head there’s something I can feel tugging and struggling/), just are not up to the same exquisite caliber that we expect, as we see Em’s potential so many times in the rest of the song.

It appears he knows it, too. You can clearly hear his intensity crescendo when he starts into the line “But it’s honestly futile if I don’t utilize what I do though/.” It’s crazy, but it’s almost like he’s his own listener, mentally checking out during the bland parts, but getting more and more engaged and excited to sing along to the words when the good part of the song comes on. And man, is the middle of the third verse spectacular.

—–

These songs collectively give a good look into where Eminem stands as of now, and while I see many problems, and don’t really have faith that we’ll ever see him quite return to his true peak, I’m now, after Rap God, pretty optimistic that the follow up to MMLP – the fastest selling album in American music history – will be much closer to Godfather II than Godfather III.

First, Eminem needs to get rid of all his female vocalists. Nothing against them, but when I think back to the glory days, women collaborators were non-existent, because they make his music more uplifting. Eminem should be sublimating. The first one he worked with  – that comes to mind, at least – was Dido on Stan, which is an amazing song; after that, though, he’s tapped into people like Rihanna  way too much, and most of those songs are relatively sub-par (e.g. Don’t Back Down, Love the Way You Lie), regardless if they were commercial hits or not. The fact that Survival features Liz Rodrigues on an underwhelming hook does not get me terribly excited.

Second, I worry that the person Marshall Mathers that created Slim Shady no longer exists, an idea which has been voiced by others for sure. When he was first gaining popularity, he was a student of the rap game (as cliche as that sounds), but you never heard about how technically complex his time signatures were; seriously, he might not have known what a time signature was at all. Instead, he just knew how to rhyme, and he let that be the outlet for one of the most powerful Id’s of our lifetime. Songs like “As the World Turns” or “Bonnie & Clyde ’97” are just oozing with unfiltered venom. Now that he knows a ton about musical theory, his material is being derived from his Superego, which means it’s no longer nearly as organic or powerful.

And it might be impossible to change back, because his emotions are now more subdued, far less toxic. In the early days, he was filled with rage and fear, “cloaked in self loathing.” At his mom, and Kim. At the media. At his dead end jobs, and being broke. At himself. He wasn’t “pushing bricks,” like other rappers; instead, he was blowing lines of coke off the edge of a razor blade, for both the high of the drug and the thrill of the violence. His music wasn’t planned, calculated and designed like it is now; it flowed from his soul and, with “no apologies,” lashed out like a cornered animal.

His fire, no matter what he claims on his commercial singles, just doesn’t burn as strongly anymore. He’s incredibly wealthy. He’s been sober for a few years. He and Kim have agreed they’ll never be with each other again. And nobody – Bill Clinton or your parents – is terrified of having children listen to his music anymore. Media members cover his album’s release, but nobody’s up in arms any longer about how controversial his material is. Basically, he has nobody lashing out at him, so he doesn’t have much reason to lash back. That’s why, even in Rap God, you hear him still dwelling on stuff that happened over a decade ago. The Eminem from MMLP was focused in the here and now, whereas in the present time, he’s still dwelling on the past.

You can see the shift when you consider the theme of honesty. His Slim Shady persona was evil and inverted, but a joke, and yet the truth would seep through unintentionally (“I lay awake, and strap myself to the bed/ with a bulletproof vest on, and shoot myself in the head/“). When he was overtly honest, though, it was resentful, a challenge, like in the opening lines from Kill You:

“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more/
They ain’t say I can’t rap about coke no more/
Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore/
’til the vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?/
These mothafuckas are thinking I’m playing/
Thinking I’m saying the shit cause I’m thinking it just to be saying it/
Put your hands down bitch, I ain’t gon’ shoot you/
I’mma pull you to this bullet and put it through you/”

We were fascinated by this rhyming savant, so we wanted him to be honest, and when he was, what we saw were gaping, open wounds; ones that he didn’t know how to heal, but that also allowed him to produce untouchable art. Now, years later, those gashes have scabbed over. I’m happy for Marshall the Man, but I suspect that doesn’t bode well for the music that he makes.

My philosophical worry is that – because of all this – we’ve seen the last of true Slim Shady, the guy who made the perverted seem normal. I still hear lines discussing twisted actions, but he’s now glorifying it. This one line from Rap God is sort of a case in point, even though I sort of like the line:

“You’re like normal/
fuck being normal/”

What I used to love about Slim Shady was that, before, his whole thesis was different. It wasn’t what he states in those two lines above. It was the opposite. It was, “I’m sick, yea, but I’m normal as fuck.” So this is a constant worry of mine – that he’s now concerned with convincing us that he’s more perverse than us, rather than we’re just as perverse as him – but while I do see this manifest itself in Rap God, I also see him revert back to his true self a few times across these three songs. For example, he drops a true Shady line in Survival:

“And I look like I might just give up/
eh you might’ve mistook me for bowing out I ain’t taking a bow, I’m stabbing myself with a fucking knife in the gut/
while I’m wiping my butt!”

What I think is telling is his harkening back to bits and pieces from MMLP. The song starts off with a sampling of 6 minutes, Slim Shady, you’re on!from I’m Back. Then he has his re-use of his “take seven kids from Columbine/ stand em all in line/” lyrics. They were censored on the original LP, and so for years I had no idea what they said, until I looked them up one day, which gave me the chills the next time I listened to the track. What blows my mind is how different those lines sound on Rap God than they do on I’m Back – the same exact words from 12 years ago, but with a completely different flow. And because of that delivery, the same lines this time around don’t even rhyme with themselves from back in the day. Who else would do that? Who else could do that. Genius.

The fact that Eminem is doubling down on his old work speaks volumes; that he’s still complaining about stuff from back in the day isn’t great, but since he’s no longer nearly as culturally relevant, I can’t blame him. What I do see, though, is a serious attempt to “relapse” back in his old style. And I can’t imagine how that could be a bad thing.

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