My friend Jake Johnson, an alumnus of both Lafayette College and my Niskayuna High School Varsity soccer team, asked me a provocative question a while back: “run rabbit run might be eminem’s best song, yay or nay?”
Now, anyone who has known me for over 39.5 minutes is painfully aware that: (1) I’m of the opinion that Eminem is the second coming of the Messiah, (2) I believe his genius is not confined simply to lyrical talent, but extends to a staggering amount of sociological awareness, and (3) His song Seduction (about how his songs cause girls to leave their boyfriends for him) is ironic, because I am much more of a candidate to run away with Marshall than my girlfriend would ever be. Schmalacker’s last-day-of-pledging skit can attest – I’m obsessed (but not the Mariah Carey kind of way).
The point here is that Jake should have known that my answer to his question was not going to be a simple monosyllabic response. So, here we gooo-oo-oooooo (see: last song on Recovery).
Jake’s original question is a little too vague for us to be able to directly answer. What does he mean by “best?” Let’s assume that by wondering which song is “best,” we are essentially wondering which song has the most value. What Jake is asking, then is which of Eminem song has the most value.
Still, though, what makes an Eminem song valuable? Is he asking which is Eminem’s catchiest song? Which one has the best beat? Which one has been most successful? Which one is relatable to the most people? He could mean any of these things when asking which is Eminem’s “best” song. However, he probably means none of these things. These aspects are not the standard by which to rate the quality of an Eminem song, especially considering I believe that the defining characteristics of Eminem’s success are different from any other artist. The question then, is what is that characteristic? To answer that, we need a theory of value.
The goal of this essay, then, is to argue for a theory of what makes Eminem’s songs valuable, and then propose Eminem’s best song based on that criteria.
Yes, I realize I take this way too seriously, but whatever. Back off.
My theory is based on two ideas, the first stolen, the second original. The first central idea is that you cannot consider “Eminem” simply as the artist as a whole. Instead, we must break down the artist into his 3 different paradigms: Eminem, Slim Shady, and Marshall Mathers (all of whom have distinctive styles).
The failure to differentiate Shady, Eminem, and Marshall Mathers the person is what had the media up in arms (something which I discuss in my previous blog post). It’s understandable that so many people were unable to pick up on the distinction, for if you only give his music a surface listen, as opposed to endlessly on repeat like the enlightened, it’s easy to miss. Eminem says it best in his autobiography The Way I Am: “The line that separates Slim from Em can be really thin. Where does this Shady guy stop and Eminem come in?”
If there’s a difference, that means we must be able to characterize each of the distinctions. Here’s how I would describe each persona: Slim Shady is the sado-masochistic rapist who licks the blades of his chainsaws after dipping them in PF Chang’s sauce. Eminem is the socially aware emcee who raps in tornadoes, who murders a rhyme one word at a time. Then, lastly, Marshall Mathers is the person, the nervous wreck walking a tight rope without a circus net.
Marshall himself provides us with examples. “When does Slim Shady kick in, when does Eminem step in, where does Marshall begin? Let’s say “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” is Slim Shady, Eminem is “Lose Yourself,” and “Mockingbird” is Marshall. I think those are the most blatant, extreme examples.” If I were to have given examples, I would have said “As the World Turns” for Slim Shady and “Cleanin Out My Closet” for Marshall. And then an apt example of Eminem is, of course, “Rabbit Run.”
The original direction this essay was headed was to try and figure out which was the best song that falls under the Eminem paradigm. The initial roadblock was that too many songs fall under multiple paradigms – he switches back and forth constantly. However, once I got to thinking about it, I realized it was missing the point of the original question – it wasn’t answering what Eminem the artist’s best song was.
Continuing down this line of thought, I wondered what the best combination of the three paradigms was. What does each bring to the table?
The Marshall Mathers paradigm humanizes Slim Shady – it links the character to a real world individual. For example:
“My fuckin bitch mom’s suin for ten million
She must want a dollar for every pill I’ve been stealin
Shit, where the fuck you think I picked up the habit?
All I had to do was go in her room and lift up her mattress”
– Marshall Mathers, Marshall Mathers LP
Marshall Mathers is the real life source for the emotion creating Slim.
The Eminem paradigm is the rapper, and he puts the words into an intricate rhyme scheme, true. But he also reflects on the context of Slim Shady – the character’s impact on society, and society’s reaction to it. Possibly my favorite line of all time comes from the Eminem paradigm:
“Damn, how much damage can you do with a pen?”
– Who Knew, Marshall Mathers LP
Only a few lines later comes the perfect, and utterly genius example of the Eminem paradigm’s relationship toward Slim Shady:
“who woulda thought
Slim Shady would be somethin that you woulda bought
that woulda made you get a gun and shoot at a cop
I just said it – I ain’t know if you’d do it or not”
-Who Knew, Marshall Mathers LP
What Slim Shady brings to the table is a much more complex question. After all, he’s the paradigm the media was up in arms about. Just take a look at Infinite, the album that’s style makes it so clear it was released before Marshall invented Slim while sitting on a toilet. Nobody paid any attention to the Marshall Mathers and Eminem paradigms rhyming about having a rough life and struggling with raising a child.
So why did people get so upset about Slim Shady? I know he says fucked up shit, but come on, isn’t that the norm for rappers? Take the following Lil Wayne line for instance:
“I might go crazy on these niggas I don’t give a motherfuck
Run up in the nigga house and shoot his grandmother up, what”
-3Peat, Carter III
I mean, that’s not exactly a polite thing to do. Why were Slim Shady’s lyrics considered by many to be so much more heinous than this? Em prompts the question himself:
“And there’s a million of us just like me
who cuss like me; who just don’t give a fuck like me
who dress like me; walk, talk and act like me
and just might be the next best thing but not quite me!”
– The Real Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers LP
Why is nobody else out there quite like Em? The answer, you claggarts, rests upon my theory’s second central idea. The concept is what I’ll call Familiarization.
The idea that spawns mine is the theory of literature I learned from Donahue, my college English professor, called Defamiliarization, which was first proposed by Russian critics in 1917. As any novice can read on Wikipedia, it is the theory that ‘poetic language’ is fundamentally different than ‘everyday language’ because it causes people to “see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.” The classic example is that literature makes the stone seem stony. In the context of our discussion, the theory is that to defamiliarize something is to make the normal seem abnormal, whether in a positive or a negative way.
My idea of Familiarization, as one might guess, is the opposite. To Familiarize something, then, is to make the abnormal, strange, and sometimes taboo seem commonplace. You can probably now see where I’m going with this – what makes Slim Shady so controversial, as well as valuable, is that the character of Shady engaged in some fucking crazy Familiarization.
Sure, the rapper engaged in a good amount of Defamiliarization too. Songs like Rabbit Run and Lose Yourself are perfect examples – they glorify and make brilliantly clear the familiar idea of the aspiring rapper and the universal wish of capturing success by snatching it against stacked odds. However, this sentiment is nothing new in rap. Biggie’s song Big Papa illustrated the exact same rags to riches story. Eminem’s Defamiliarization isn’t distinctive, so while those songs are still sweet, it isn’t worthy of this essay’s attention. It’s not what defines Eminem.
His Familiarization is his defining characteristic, because he was able to familiarize the things that 90‘s society deemed abhorrent. There are countless examples, but a few jumped out during my “research.”
“All I see is sissies in magazines smiling
Whatever happened to whylin out and bein violent?
Whatever happened to catchin a good-ol’ fashioned
passionate ass-whoopin and gettin your shoes coat and your hat tooken?”
– Marhsall Mathers, Marshall Mathers LP
With this essay’s ideas in mind, it’s easy to note how Slim is Familiarizing here. It’s all about context. Think about how much 90’s culture stressed being politically correct, not stepping on anybody’s toes. This is the time period that parents got super protective of their children – instead of kicking kids out of the house to go play, they had their entire days filled with sports teams and after-school programs. The norm of the day was to be politically correct and avoid confrontation. With these lines, Eminem completely flipped the social norm. These rhymes are saying ‘Oh, you think that weak shit is normal? Well that’s not how I remember it. That’s not my life.”
A song that does some major Familiarization is As The World Turns, arguably the purest Slim Shady song out there (and probably my favorite song ever). Remember the lines that epitomize Shady’s Familiarization:
“Thank god I was smoking crack all day
And doped up off coke and smack
All I wanted to do was rape the bitch and snatch her purse
Now I wanna kill her
But so I gotta catch her first”
– As the World Turns, Slim Shady LP
The first two lines here are saying, ‘If you want to bring things back to a calm equilibrium, do narcotics. That’s what’s normal.” The next two lines are even more Familiarizing. ‘Rape and robbery? What’s the big fuckin deal, yo?’
So why is this a big deal? Em describes the effect here in The Real Slim Shady:
“I’m like a head trip to listen to, cause I’m only givin you
things you joke about with your friends inside your living room”
– The Real Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers LP
How about that for making things normal.
Let’s think about it in general Freudian terms. Society in the 90’s was a raging superego trying to fully repress the Id’s existence. Slim Shady was a crazier Id than anyone could have possibly imagined, and society didn’t like it. ‘That stuff he’s rapping about, that shouldn’t be normal.’ Unfortunately for the do-gooders, Eminem was telling us otherwise. “Every single person is a Slim Shady lurkin” (NB: dirty line). The stuff he’s saying, that is like us. We think the way he thinks. “The only difference is I got the balls to say it/ in front of y’all and I don’t gotta be false or sugarcoated at all.”
Now the astute reader, if anyone is still reading at this point, is probably saying, ‘hey, other rappers have this effect.’ After all, Lil Wayne raps about killing people, and has a song called I Feel Like Dying glorifying excessive narcotic use. He’s not the only one. Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, ODB – they, and countless more, all talk about casual murder and drugs. They use derogatory terms for women. This stuff isn’t accepted by society. Why is what they talk about any different?
Two reasons, and both regard the norms of rap subculture.
First, Eminem’s white. That one’s pretty obvious, and had more of an effect than the can be discussed in the reach of this essay.
Second, guns, misogyny, and certain drugs are not moral in society, true, but they’ve become commonplace in braggadocios rap culture. You breezed over what I said before, but “they all talk about casual murder and drugs.” If you’re rapping about that stuff, you’re conforming to the behavior of the subculture.
Eminem was not rapping about the same things. He was not conforming. The typical rapper fucks models; Slim asks “Where all the raunchy fat white trashy blondes be at ?“ We’re used to rappers who boast about themselves. Weezy says:
“Bitch I’m me, I’m me, I’m me, I’m me
Baby I’m me, so who you? Ur not me, you’re not me
And I know that ain’t fair, but I don’t care
I’ma mother fucking Cash Money Millionaire”
– I’m Me, Carter III Mixtape
Shady, in contrast, hurts himself. He commits suicide.
“I’m bored out of my gourd
So i took a hammer and nailed my foot to the floorboard of my ford”
– Role Model, Slim Shady LP
We expect rappers to stand up for themselves. Instead of proving people wrong, Shady does the opposite. ‘You think I suck? You have no idea!’
“And all the other kids said Eminem’s a dishead,
He’ll never last, the only class he’ll pass is phys ed
May be true, till I told this bitch in gym class
That she was too fat to swim laps, she needed Slim Fast”
– As the World Turns, Slim Shady LP
The difference between Shady and the field is illustrated perfectly by Slim himself:
“I ain’t no fuckin’ G, I’m a cannibal!
I ain’t tryin’ to shoot you, I’m trying to chop you into pieces and eat you!”
– Hellbound, Eminem Is Back
and is put succinctly by Steve Berman:
“You know why Dre’s record was so successful?
He’s rapping about big screen tvs, blunts, 40s, and bitches
You’re rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin.
I can’t sell this shit”
– Steve Berman (skit), Marshall Mathers LP
Ya boy Steve was exactly right in what sets Eminem apart – his rhyme content wasn’t accepted in any culture, including rap. What Steve was wrong about was that he couldn’t sell the shit, that Dre’s content was more successful. In fact, the opposite is true.
That distinction Steve was talking about is what gives Eminem’s songs value. This ability of Eminem’s, to Familiarize us with the universal abnormal, is what sets him apart, what his value is derived from. It’s why “whether you like to admit it [*ERR*] I just shit it better than ninety percent of you rappers out can.” Ninety? Make that 100.
Now we have a theory of value. Eminem’s songs are valuable in that they familiarize us with the socially universal abnormal. Now it’s time to move on to the original task of determining which song is best.
First, let’s narrow our parameters by going back to our distinction between the three paradigms and evaluating each one. Is any one paradigm more important than the others? Would Slim Shady be the the most Familiarizing, or maybe a combination of some sort? Thinking about it for a bit, I came to the somewhat-obvious-in-hind-sight conclusion that the most valuable songs have all three, because you need all three paradigms to truly Familiarize.
It’s obvious you have to have Slim Shady. He’s the Id of this whole situation. He’s providing the content that’s being Familiarized. The Marshall Mathers paradigm is already familiar. We know the story of being anxious, struggling with being poor, and the dream of making it big. And that’s exactly the point.
When Slim Shady is by himself, he is just abnormal. He’s not familiarized. If you think about D12 member Bizarre, he raps about having sex with a 12 year old babysitter, but nobody pays him any attention. It doesn’t help that he has no lyrical talent, but more importantly in this case, he has nothing to Familiarize his bizarre nature. Eminem’s Familiarization is provided by the link between Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers. We know Marshall is a person. Everyone can identify with the suffering man. Slim Shady tells us:
“The ill type
I stab myself with a steel spike
While I blow my brains out just to see what it feels like
cuz this is how I am in real life
I don’t want to just die a normal death, I want to be killed twice”
– I’m Shady, Marshall Mathers LP
This is all fine and dandy, until we link this to a person that we can all identify with.
“I’m a nervous wreck
I deserve respect;
but I work a sweat for this worthless check
Living in this house with no furnace, unfurnished
And I’m sick of working dead end jobs with lame pay
And I’m tired of being hired and fired the same day
yesterday went by so quick it seems like it was just today
My daughter wants to throw the ball but I’m too stressed to play
Live half my life and throw the rest away”
– Rock Bottom, Slim Shady LP
Slim Shady is the content we wanted to reject, but Marshall Mathers is who Familiarizes that content. Then Eminem paradigm steps in to explain this entire idea, tying it in a neat little bow:
“Yeah, I probably got a couple of screws up in my head loose
But no worse, than what’s goin on in your parents’ bedrooms”
– The Real Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers LP
As such, we need all three paradigms, so when looking for Eminem’s best song, I looked at songs that had all three voices. Most of the songs that qualify fell on the Marshall Mathers LP, which is not surprising as it’s his crowning achievement. The song that surpassed all the others in terms of Familiarization, in my opinion, falls on that album. In fact, it’s the opening song.
Kill You epitomizes Eminem’s ability to familiarize, providing heinous Shady, vulnerable Marshall, and insightful Eminem. I dare you to listen to the opening lines of the song right now and tell me I’m wrong.
He opens up with Marshall, and while this is the the paradigm’s only main occurrence in the song, it’s enough – its sentiment sets the precedent for the entire song:
“When I was just a little baby boy,
my momma used to tell me these crazy things
She used to tell me my daddy was an evil man,
she used to tell me he hated me
But then I got a little bit older
and I realized, she was the crazy one
But there was nothing I could do or say to try to change it
cause that’s just the way she was”
– Kill You, Marshall Mathers LP
He then shifts quickly to Eminem:
“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more
They ain’t say I can’t rap about coke no more”
– Kill You, Marshall Mathers LP
Captain! Warp speed to Shady!:
“Slut, think I won’t choke no whore/
til the vocal folds won’t work in your throat no more!”
– Kill You, Marshall Mathers LP
In Kill You, Eminem establishes Familiarization from the first words, mixing Marshall and Shady together to Familiarize the abnormal, and including Eminem to explain the whole thing. The Familiarizing content, mostly provided by Shady, goes on to ring out through the rest of the song.
Thus based on my theory, Kill You is Eminem’s greatest song.