by Michael Goldberg
Monday, June 24, 2002
How can so many critics be so wrong about Eminem?
It is amazing that otherwise intelligent people can so easily lose their bearings. Yet what else is one to think, when in a review of the latest album from the guy I call The Whiner, a critic says of the rapper's previous longplayer: "On May 23, 2000, Eminem released the last great album of the 20th century." Say what?
If that review had run in Vibe or The Source one could perhaps understand the hype. But The New Yorker? Certainly writer Kelefa Sanneh knows hip-hop; I was impressed with the presentation he gave at the Experience Music Project's music conference this past April, and I've found him consistently knowledgeable and smart in his other pieces that I've read. But "the last great album of the 20th century"? Where are those legendary New Yorker editors when we need them most?
Less surprising was Rolling Stone giving The Eminem Show four stars. But dig how their review begins: "With The Eminem Show, Eminem just may have made the best rock-rap album in history." Come on, dude! Best rock-rap album in history? Why stop there? How 'bout just telling it like it is and proclaiming it simply the best collection of musical compositions, recorded or otherwise, since the beginning of time?
One must assume that writer Kris Ex (where did they find this guy? Have I just not been paying attention to bylines in Rolling Stone lately, or is this his debut in the onetime rock bible?) is suffering from amnesia. Did he somehow miss Run-D.M.C.'s King of Rock, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill? (And those are just the first that come to mind I'm sure serious students of hip-hop could come up with numerous others.)
And then we have the Dean of Rock Crits, Robert Christgau. In the course of writing about The Eminem Show in the Village Voice he raves about Eminem's first two major-label albums (The Slim Shady LP is the "breakthrough" while The Marshall Mathers LP is "its untoppable culmination" and a "stone classic."). Christgau finds The Eminem Show a relative letdown, but is quick to add: "I'm not saying The Eminem Show isn't a good album. I like it and I enjoy it; I think it represents an articulate, coherent, formally appropriate response to Eminem's changing position and role, one that acknowledges the privileges and alienations that accrue to all fame as well as the resolution of Marshall Mathers' worst traumas and the specifics of his success."
So what is going on here? Local newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle fell right in line, praising The Eminem Show to the heavens. In fact, everywhere you look, it seems, rock and hip-hop critics have been falling all over themselves to praise the work of Eminem.
I am not one of them. Me, I think Eminem makes mediocre hip-hop albums that include enough vulgar raps and just plain offensive verbal slurs addressed at women and gays to endear him to millions of impressionable teenagers who need to demonstrate how different they are from their parents. Who are so worried about being perceived by their peers as "square" that they're not thinking about how lame, egocentric and just plain off much of Eminem's recordings are.
I've listened to Eminem. Spread across his last three albums are a handful of solid grooves, such as "My Name Is." He's got a decent rapping voice and style. Average, really, but serviceable, at least in small doses. But, really, his albums wear thin. They commit the sin of being boring. Most of the grooves go nowhere, and he just raps on and on and on. They wouldn't be worth writing about except that some of the things Eminem says are so offensive that to not comment is, in a way, to silently endorse him.
I think these Eminem-praising critics fall, loosely, into two camps. First, there are the old fogeys, including Christgau, who don't dare to appear out of touch. There's a kind of desperation to stay current, to remain in the game. And there's the contrarian in some of these critics. They know that "the kids" dig Eminem, and they like identifying with "the kids." No way do they want to be seen agreeing with all those classic-rock-loving parents. Also, they don't want to lose their jobs. If a recording artist is selling millions of albums, publications from Rolling Stone to the dailies want fawning articles that all those readers will relate to (although in the case of the dailies and The New Yorker, you really have to wonder).
And then there are the younger critics who've been brainwashed. Hopeless cases.
What's disturbing to me about The New Yorker and Rolling Stone (and the rest) raving about Eminem is how quick the critics are to excuse his misogyny, homophobia and sexism. About Eminem's last album (still in The New Yorker), Sanneh writes: "He won us over with jokes, enthralled us with stories, disarmed us with his passion for language. Even his homophobic slurs were unleashed with a wink and a nudge. His works would 'stab you in the head, whether you're a fag or les,' he said, but the threat quickly dissolved into wordplay: 'or the homo-sex, hermaph or a trans-a-ves, pants or dress.' He has always understood the sophisticated pleasures of complicity. You succumbed to his charms with a sigh and, perhaps, a few reservations the way you succumbed to Britney Spears, or *Nsync, or, for that matter, Bill Clinton."
No, I don't think so. He didn't win me over. In fact, I was disgusted by Eminem from the first time Gil Kaufman came to me in the SonicNet office a month or two before the release of The Slim Shady LP to explain that he'd just gotten off the phone with this new rapper who had made some homophobic comments during the interview. I mean, does Sanneh think it's OK to make homophobic comments or dis women as long as you're just joking?
Here's the kind of thing you'll hear if you listen to The Eminem Show, what Christgau calls " an articulate, coherent, formally appropriate response to Eminem's changing position and role...": "I'll never let another chick bring me down, in a relationship, save it bitch, babysit? You make me sick/ Superman ain't savin' shit, girl you can jump on Shady's dick/ straight from the hip, cut to the chase, I tell a muthfuckin' slut, to her face.../ Don't put out, I'll put you out..."
I guess I can understand how ignorant teenage males who haven't really thought much about anything and who feel frustrated 'cause they can't get laid might relate to Eminem's objectification of women, his rants about "bitches" and "sluts." But I don't understand how any intelligent music critic can hear that shit and not be offended. And don't give me that garbage about how he's just tellin' it like it is, just using the language of the street and so on and so forth. You know what jive that is!
Or perhaps not. One can only laugh at the way these critics intellectualize about a guy who spends most of his album whining about his problems. Navel gazing is taken to a whole new level on The Eminem Show.
Eminem is currently one of the most popular recording artists in the U.S. Clearly a lot of kids can relate to what he has to say (Eminem spends quite a bit of the opening track, "White America," making sure we know that). We can look at that reality. We can analyze it. We can come up with theories about it. But as critics, it's our job to separate what is popular from what is good, and what is art. That Eminem's recordings are popular does not mean that they are good in fact, they aren't.
I would be greatly surprised to find these critics, including Mr. Ex and Mr. Sanneh, ever again listening to any of Eminem's albums (unless, of course, they get an assignment to write about him, in which case they'll dig them out). But maybe I'm wrong. I know people I respect who tell me they like MTV, that they enjoy Maxim's Blender. (And as for Christgau, I was laughing my ass off today imagining him sitting in his New York apartment listening to this drivel over and over again.)
Yet even if a critic thinks Eminem is the king of the rappers, even if they find his beats to be the dopest in the land, to rationalize the ugly sentiments of his raps, or to ignore them, does a disservice to their readers. Someone needs to stand up and say, in magazines such as The New Yorker and Rolling Stone (and The Source and Vibe), that calling a woman a "bitch" and slagging gays is just not acceptable.
In fact, praising the mediocre recordings of an emotionally troubled, hateful recording artist simply makes you the squarest of the square.