Hyped hip-hop phenoms are like new cars: They depreciate in value as soon as they drive off the lot. For every Nas living up to his advance buzz, there’s a Canibus done in by the heads’ great expectations. Eminem has plenty of hype to justify. He’s not only the first new protege from Dr. Dre in years, he’s the first new sound from Dr. Dre in years. He’s also a white MC in a rap scene that hasn’t gotten any less black in two decades. A twenty-four-year-old ghetto child from Detroit — a town with a history of race tricksters, from Funkadelic to Madonna — Eminem has to bring something new to the table, and he does with The Slim Shady LP. Simply put, Eminem will crack you up — proclaiming, “I try to keep it positive/And play it cool/Shoot up the playground/And tell the kids to stay in school,” he’s the dizziest hip-hop clown since Biz Markie first got the vapors.
If Eminem has a white-rap precedent, it’s Rodney Dangerfield in his strictly-for-tha-hardcore 1983 hit, “Rappin’ Rodney,” in which R-Boogie busted rhymes like, “Steak and sex, my favorite pair/I have them both the same way: very rare.” Eminem is on some serious Dangerfield shit in loser anthems like “My Name Is,” “Brain Damage” and “I’m Shady.” He plays the race card for laughs, goofing on his role as the ultimate white geek, the “class-clown freshman/ Dressed like Les Nessman.” The whine in his upper register recalls other hip-hop comics, like the Beasties’ Ad-Rock, Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav and Cypress Hill’s B-Real, but Eminem has his own flat Midwestern twang to help him parody the white cornball in a black world, kind of like that cop on Sanford and Son or Bentley on The Jeffersons. It’s a good joke, and Eminem milks it — he reminds you how much Eighties hip-hop heads loved Pee-wee Herman.
The beats on Slim Shady are low-affect West Coast funk in the Dre style, with the Doctor producing or co-producing three cuts. But the steady midtempo grooves won’t distract anyone from the voice. Eminem has skills — he’s a warp-speed human rhyming dictionary with LL Cool J’s gift for the killer dis. He doesn’t rap about the hustling high life, just minimum-wage jobs, high school beat-downs and decidedly ill drug dementia, while tossing curves like, “I bought Lauryn Hill’s tape so her kids could starve.” Eminem’s Zen-like pursuit of the ultimate gross-out joke leads him down roads you may not care to travel, but on such an avowedly offensive album, that’s the name of the game. The bitch bashing gets tired fast; the wife-killing jokes of “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” aren’t any funnier than Garth Brooks’, and “My Fault” belongs on some sorry-ass Bloodhound Gang record. But the sicko giggles keep coming whenever Eminem rips into his favorite target: himself.
A hip-hop disciple inheriting a twisted American racial history he didn’t create, Eminem probably speaks for a lot of his fans when he asks, “How the fuck can I be white?/I don’t even exist.” Other white people are incomprehensible to him; cowboys, hippies, ravers, frat boys and British twits all appear on Slim Shady as cartoon stereotypes, barely worth the trouble of laughing at. Eminem doesn’t have many peeps to shout out to, not even his old hood, and there’s something lonely about the sound of one voice rapping for nearly a whole album — he has hardly any homeys making cameos. Eminem is clever enough to make a running gag out of his cultural alienation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. For all the alienation on Slim Shady, Eminem earns his buzz as a bona fide rap star one tasteless insult at a time, battling the world with a mouthful of adjectives and a boxful of laxatives.