Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Uncontainable, Uncontrollable, Incomprehensible

Let's cut to the chase here. On the very first track of The Marshall Mathers LP, the rapper Eminem, who sometimes assumes the sobriquet "Slim Shady," reveals all we need know about his "music" by concluding: "Slim Shady is fed up with your shit, and he's going to kill you." All that remains to be explained is why he wasn't immediately arrested for this clear and present threat to the well-being--nay, the very lives--of the seven million innocents seduced into purchasing his CD by a terminally cynical entertainment-industrial complex.

Red light. Just kidding, folks. What, you couldn't tell? Of course you could (I hope). I'm a critic who's been to college, and thus belong to a cultural class that's expected to deploy "irony" on occasion. Rappers aren't, and without further reference to the incalculably subtle varieties of rhetorical indirection ingrained in a people who've been down so long it looks like up to them, let me point out that not even Lynne Cheney believes Marshall Mathers/Eminem/Slim Shady means to kill all seven million of his fans. In fact, she doesn't believe he wants to kill her. And one of the many reasons I love Eminem is that in the latter instance she may be wrong. Eminem can't be contained, controlled, or fully comprehended. And that, I thought, is the way good art is supposed to be.

Too often in hip hop, rage, especially against women, is merely a convention. It's unexamined, and thus brutal. When Eminem rhymes about raping his mother or murdering his wife, it's not. Eminem unpacks rage, and the conventionalizing of rage; he's deeply frightening, yet at the same time devastatingly funny, and not only because he could make Lynne Cheney shit chads. Does every one of his seven million understand that he's representing rather than advocating? Of course not--but the percentage that doesn't is lower by a factor of 100 than the percentage of pundits who never listen to hip hop yet assume Eminem is destroying America's moral fiber.

None of this would mean much if Eminem didn't rhyme complexly and rap lucidly, meld rhythmic instinct with melodic savvy. It's interesting too that he's white--and that black hip hoppers respect him anyway. But the most compelling thing about him is the clueless moralists he pisses off left and right. The chorus of blame reveals all we need know about America's moral fiber, and what it reveals is a real bummer.

City Pages, 2000