Turns out that my psychic gifts aren't quite on par with Cleo's. Just as I was struggling to comprehend how Destiny's Child (a.k.a. Beyonce and them) and Toni Braxton cleaned up while Erykah Badu and Jill Scott got blanked, the phone rang. A friend excitedly detailed the exploits of the one entertainer I had forgotten.
She explained to me how this fellow had won three Grammys, performed with a pop legend and flicked off the world while he was being applauded. None of this surprised me. By this point, Marshall Mathers acting out is about as shocking as seeing a new face in Destiny's Child. The thing that got me was my obliviousness. Not only did I fail to ask whether he'd won; I didn't care.
The first time I heard Eminem was on WHPK radio in Chicago. I remember thinking that he was the most pathetic biter to ever touch a mic. Even the DJ apologized for the track. That was 1996. Back then, Mathers was a lame white boy trying to sound like Nas and failing miserably. He was, without question, wack.
A year later, I saw Eminem live. To my surprise, he stayed for the cyphers after the show. I watched in awe as he battled all challengers for over an hour. He eventually got ripped apart by a local cat, but that wasn't important. What mattered was that he stayed. Even gifted lyricists abstain from open freestyle battles after they blow up. And here was this blonde m.c. from Detroit who had everything to lose and was still willing to put his rep on the line.
That's when it became clear that Marshall Mathers was for real. He had a deep passion not just for rapping or stardom but for the culture that made it possible for rappers to be stars. Eminem was representing hip hop. I've been a fan of him ever since.
When he won the Freestyle Olympics, I cheered. When he dropped The Slim Shady LP, I bought it twice. Whenever an obscure single or verse appeared, I found it. So why didn't I throw a party or get a tattoo last week?
I can't explain all the reasons, but the most glaring is the album itself. The Marshall Mathers LP is far from great, and, considering his gifts, is nowhere near Eminem's best work.
Yes, I dig Eminem, but I love hip hop. And Mathers wasn't the best album of the summer, let alone the year.
Still, there was never a question as to who would bring home the hardware in the genre. And that's when the problem becomes painfully obvious -- Eminem is no longer hip hop. Through almost no fault of his own, Slim Shady is now as pop-friendly as Britney or 'N Sync.
Eminem has been embraced by mainstream America like no other rapper in history. And, while I am pleased with his success, I chafe at the price attached to it. Mathers' acclaim has coincided with the erasure of his artistic roots and cultural values. And, unlike the efforts to whitewash Lauryn Hill in 1999, it hasn't been very hard to do.
He is referred to as "controversial" and "edgy," but rarely is criticism -- or praise -- of Mathers framed in a larger context. Instead of being a hip-hop hero, he is a crossover aberration. He is a white boy who raps like a black guy. Do you think DMX and Elton John will ever be on the same track? Of course not. Even though their lyrics are equally homophobic, DMX doesn't warrant the attention heaped on the Shady one.
That is why it is so difficult for me to get excited about his achievements. Because, despite Mathers' own efforts, none of the light that shines on Eminem will be reflected onto the artists who he emulated and the community that remembers when he was wack. America has its great white hope, and he is whatever they say he is.
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