Remember when Eminem was only a rapper? It was just a few years ago. But since then, his records, videos and movie debut have made him…...what, exactly? If you're looking for a precedent, you may find yourself rumbling with hypotheticals. What if Kurt Cobain had been a movie star? What if Madonna were a virtuoso? What if Tupac Shakur had been twice as popular – and blond?
It's not just a matter of numbers, although numbers matter. Eminem has sold 20 million albums, making him the top-selling rapper ever. At a time when most stars aren't selling what they used to, he remains the only sure bet in the music industry. The Eminem Show was the bestselling CD of 2002, 8 Mile brought in more than $51 million in U.S. theaters, and its soundtrack moved 4 million copies. Even his business is booming; the year's most popular act, 50 Cent, is signed to Eminem's Shady Records.
It's partly a matter of skills; Eminem can rap circles around the competition. But it's also a matter of sensibility. Eminem is an extremist by inclination, but he also has a knack for triangulation, an ability to find a midpoint between seemingly contradictory impulses. His style is all hip-hop swagger and hard-rock self-loathing (can we call him the original angsta?), and he knows how to court pop fans by insulting them. In "Soldier," when he declares, "Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns," he is simultaneously asserting his hip-hop credentials and disavowing them.
Then there are the family ties. The rapper who raps like an angry kid is also a thirty-year-old divorced father of one, and Eminem is always reminding us how much he hates his mother and loves his daughter. If his songs sometimes sound like dinner-table monologues, that only heightens his appeal to disaffected kids who – as he likes to say – dress like him, act like him and feel like him. Eminem explains how it all works in "Sing for the Moment," where he imagines a parent's nightmare:
Walking around with his headphones blaring
Alone in his own zone, cold and he don't care
He's a problem child, what bothers him all comes out
When he talks about his fucking dad walking out
'Cause he hates him so bad that he blocks him out
But if he ever saw him again, he'd probably knock him out
His thoughts are whacked, he's mad so he's talking back
Talking black, brainwashed from rock and rap.
But before he became a hero to crabby white teenagers everywhere, and before his testy encounters with Moby and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog – before, that is, he decided that you catch more listeners with vinegar than with funny – Eminem was just another rapper doing what rappers always do: begging to be liked. Wasn't that the reason he invented Slim Shady in the first place? He wanted to entertain everybody. It's there in his rhyme flow, in the way he rants a mile a minute, trying to impress us all, like the most insecure guy at the party. Listen to "Just Don't Give a Fuck," where he calls himself "the looniest, zaniest, spontaneous, sporadic/Impulsive thinker, compulsive drinker, addict/Half animal, half man." He sounds as if he's just waiting for someone to offer him a beer and tell him to relax.
He probably wouldn't know how. Eminem is far and away the least laid-back hip-hop star ever, and overachievement has always been part of his appeal. His rise to fame began with a kind of audition – at the 1997 Rap Olympics MC Battle, in Los Angeles – and a few years later, he was still rapping like a guy who was out to win a competition. He won over Dr. Dre by freestyling on a radio station, so maybe he figured he could win over listeners the same way.
It was 1999 when The Slim Shady LP came out, and hip-hop was in full "crews-control" mode, thanks to the Wu-Tang Clan and Puff Daddy and Master P and everyone else. Rappers wanted to make us believe it was easy: Put together a big enough army and the money would flow in. By contrast, Eminem was on his best behavior, humble and hardworking. He wanted to be a famous rapper, like the ones he idolized – you could detect a trace of awe in "Guilty Conscience," one of the best songs from The Slim Shady LP, where he mocks Dr. Dre for being "Mr. N.W.A/Mr. AK-comin'-straight-outta-Compton-y'all-better-make-way."
He was good, even – or especially – when he was running his mouth off about how bad he was, ranting about how he had persuaded a college girl to experiment with drugs. Those dirty jokes were his way of proving his sincerity, and his enthusiasm. He was willing to do whatever it took. Eminem is far and away the least laid-back hip-hop star ever.
In retrospect, it's hard to imagine a better way for the first great white rapper to make his entrance. For two decades, hip-hop had been awash in black stereotypes, and now Eminem was bringing two of the most infamous white stereotypes to life: He was both a crazyass white boy and a hardworking white man. He was nasty without being disrespectful, and his flow was as ridiculous as his videos.
If success made him uncomfortable then, it wasn't because he didn't like having fans but because he knew all the tricks he'd used to pull them in. And so, on The Marshall Mathers LP, he spent more than an hour assessing his own appeal. "Now, because of this blond mop that's on top/And this fucked-up head that I've got/I've gone pop?" Well, yes – wasn't that the whole idea? Whoever said that "Kim," his bloodcurdling wife-killing narrative, was an affront to women was missing the point. It was an affront to listeners. He was asking us, "Is this what you want?"
If Eminem's goal was to be accepted in the world of hip-hop, then his strategy succeeded and backfired at the same time. Anyone who was serious about hip-hop had to respect him, but his most enthusiastic fans were the people who saw him on MTV. He was doing all the things rappers are supposed to do: making records with Dr. Dre, filling his verses with unexpected rhymes and analogies, cursing up a storm, getting arrested. And yet the more Eminem acted like a rapper, the more he was praised for his individuality. People who had never paid much attention to brilliant black rappers such as Jay-Z and Rakim suddenly found themselves raving about Eminem's nasty stories, his rough reputation and even – when they really got carried away – his enjambment.
Obviously, a backlash was on the way, and The Eminem Show – clever and paranoid and hermetic – seemed to anticipate it, maybe even conjure it into existence. His success had been built on a deception: He was the rapper everyone loved to hate, and yet it was getting harder to find anyone who really hated him. His performance at the 2001 Grammys with Elton John may have been awkward, but it wasn't ineffective; after that, only his most fanatical detractors could still be bothered to hold a grudge.
When the backlash finally arrived, at the end of last year, it seemed like a letdown. No one can deny that Eminem's race has a lot to do with his huge popularity, and it might have been exciting to hear, say, Jay-Z or Nas say so. Instead, we got clumsy distracks from B-team rapper Benzino, character assassination from Benzino's magazine, The Source, and more clumsy dis tracks, from Ja Rule, who growled, "You'll never know black pain/But you could become the first white rapper slain." On G-Unit's "Bump Heads," Eminem offered playful taunts in response: "Just keep singing that same song recycled/We'd all much rather get along than fight you/Me and Hailie dance to your songs/We like you." It was like listening to an outtake from 8 Mile.
For years now, Eminem has been predicting not just his own downfall but his own obsolescence, a byproduct of popularity. On "Without Me," he imitated an imagination deprived record executive: "Hey! Here's a concept that works/Twenty million other white rappers emerge." But the imitators never showed up. Eminem is bigger than Kurt Cobain ever was, so you would think he'd be just as influential, but he has yet to attract an army of sound-alikes, the way Cobain did. (The answer may have something to do with the fact that hip-hop is harder to master than grunge.) There is no movement, no trend; there's just him, bigger and more isolated than ever.
In some ways, isolation suits Eminem. He has never seemed totally comfortable trading lame punch lines with D12, and although Shady Records has scored a huge hit with 50 Cent, he and Eminem seem to see each other more as business partners than as collaborators. The two performed together at the Summer Jam X concert in Giants Stadium in June, and although they presented a united front onstage, the audience reaction wasn't quite so unanimous. Maybe it was the rain or the lineup or just the night, but by the time Eminem took the stage for his headlining spot, many of the black attendees had split, and the crowd that stuck around looked a lot like the "White America" Eminem raps about. But "White America" wouldn't have meant as much if it had been delivered by, say, Good Charlotte – a white rock band with white fans. When Eminem raps his version, the true target seems to be not White America but non-White America; he's telling black rap fans that he knows what they're thinking and that he cares what they think. Eminem is always bragging about challenging his listeners, but it seems that these are the only listeners who really challenge him. And you can't help but wonder what he'll do when there's no one left who's willing to put up a fight.