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.