When Eminem learned that the release of his third album, The Eminem Show, had to be moved up a week to combat a nationwide bootlegging epidemic, he said, "Whoever put my s___ on the Internet, I want to meet that motherf_____ and beat the s___ out of him."
This may be the first of Eminem's famously foul-mouthed tirades that gets a chuckle from his critics. While The Eminem Show (out May 28) is being pirated on modems and street corners across the country, those who believe that the rapper's coarseness has inspired a generation of delinquents can treasure the irony: those supposed hooligans are now picking his pocket. Eminem could lose millions of dollars to bootleggers, but his rant obscures the fact that as a performer, he's actually maturing. The Eminem Show has offensive and profane lyrics, but it's also a significant work of pop culture. If it comes up a bit short of being a great rap album, it leaves no doubt that Eminem is a great rapper.
Most of the controversy surrounding Eminem's two previous records--The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP--stemmed from his now infamous lyrics threatening to kill his wife and his mother and expressing his rampant homophobia. Charged with being a bad human and a toxic influence, Eminem pleaded not guilty by reason of artistic integrity. He was a guy named Marshall Mathers with a rap alter ego named Eminem, and that alter ego happened to have a lunatic doppelganger of its own named Slim Shady. He was merely playing a role (or three).
As a rapper, Eminem has always shown a talent for wordplay, but on his previous work, the lines between his characters--and those characters' broader meanings--were pretty fuzzy. On The Eminem Show, however, the three personalities fit together like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Slim Shady is the raging fantasy id, a nightmare projection of overprotective parents and the devil on the shoulder of teenage rebels. Eminem, meanwhile, functions as the voice of present-tense reality. He's the rapper who has run-ins with the law, an unraveling marriage and a nose for politics. At the wounded core is Marshall Mathers, a drippy kid plagued by insecurities.
The Eminem Show's first single, Without Me, is a Slim song that starts, "I've created a monster/ 'Cause nobody wants to see Marshall no more/ They want Shady/ I'm chopped liver." Once summoned, Shady delivers the funniest diatribe in recent rap history. Over an upbeat snare reminiscent of Billie Jean and a woolly sax torn from the Coasters' playbook, Shady sums up his appeal: "Little hellions/ Kids feeling rebellious/ Embarrassed their parents still listen to Elvis/ They start feeling like prisoners, helpless." He says this at top speed with the clarity of Henry Higgins, over music that makes you want to get up and dance. In the Without Me video, he does a jig dressed as Osama bin Laden. Slim's art is offensive, but offensiveness is his art. If you don't think there's value in that, then this is not your album.
The Eminem voice gets the majority of play on The Eminem Show, and he's sharpest on White America. Eminem is disingenuous when he says he can't understand why people are always talking about him, but he doesn't mind using the culture's fascination with him to point out its own bankruptcy. "White America/ I could be one of your kids/ Little Eric looks just like this/ Erica loves my s___/ I go to TRL; look how many hugs I get."