“I could tell you about my life
And keep you amused I’m sure”
Let me say straight off the bat that I have a lot of time for Eminem. An awful lot of time in fact. In the months and years ahead there will be occasions where the mediocrity of what I’m called to listen to and then write about will weigh heavily. But then just when things seem irredeemably hopeless, like a cavalry charge over the horizon a new Eminem single will arrive to banish the badness and restore my faith in popular music. But that’s to come – for his first appearance I think there are some other points to address that are more pressing.
Unless you’ve been living under a stone for the past ten years or so then there are at least two facts about Eminem that are likely to be regarded as common knowledge; that he’s one of those rappers and that he’s white. By themselves alone these two facts are enough to furrow brows aplenty in certain circles and to raise the question as to whether both are meant to co-exist within the same being, or should they be mutually exclusive? Bottom line question – can white men rap? We have to go back to 1990 and Vanilla Ice for the last example on these pages, but Mr Ice’s infamous effort doesn’t exactly do his ethnicity proud.
Then again, being predominantly black in origin and predominantly a product of the inner city born from the inventiveness that poverty can bring then maybe the question should be ‘do white folk have any business rapping’? The same simplistic analysis can be applied to the blues too, and that genre has witnessed its own long raging debate over whether white men can play it. Is there any value in (for example) the Rolling Stones’ take on ‘Little Red Rooster’ over any version by Willie Dixon or Howling Wolf? Probably not; the Stones smoothed out the edges to make it more palatable to a white audience, but while Jagger caught and carried the sexuality of the “Cause little red rooster is on the prowl”, the front facing ‘down on the farm’ lyric is not something a white boy from Dartford is going to invest with any believability. And he doesn’t, but I think a line can be drawn between playing the blues and covering them. Certainly, musicians from the Home Counties would like to think they’re steeped in the Mississippi Delta culture that spawned it, but that’s not to say they don’t have their own hardships to sing about.
And that’s why I opened this review with some lines from Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Man Of The World’. To this writer, Peter Green is probably the single most definitive statement or example to illustrate that white men can play the blues. “I guess I’ve got everything I need. I wouldn’t ask for more. And there’s no one I’d rather be, but I just wish that I’d never been born” - I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that believes if a black man is singing about hardship then it’s ‘the blues’ but a white man doing the same is just whingeing. Green’s blues (sorry) are no less real or heartfelt than Howling Wolf’s, and the fact he’s working within the medium and fashioning it to his own ends rather than copying it is important. Green wrote ‘Man Of The World’ about his own mental state and experiences rather than trying to impose them onto an existing blues standard and then processing through some dust bowl, sharecropper with a failed harvest imagery or persona, a gimmick of ‘authenticity’ that rarely works and is frequently embarrassing. Early White Stripes managed to pull it off to an extent, but such examples are the exception rather than the rule.
So, whither Eminem – can white men rap? Hailing from Missouri and raised in Detroit, the one time Marshal Mather’s background was no less impoverished or broken than any of the acts that rap made famous, but what separates him from the pack is that, for the most part, Eminem’s raps are as personal as the blues were to Green. “I could tell you about my life and keep you amused I’m sure” – Eminem does, and Eminem does. Sometimes acerbic, sometimes humorous but always honest, Eminem has detailed his personal trials and tribulations in excruciating detail on his releases in a way that’s unique to him; rather than try to copy black rap he avoids rap cliché and fashions the genre after his own ends by celebrating his own white trash culture with a style that at a stroke puts paid to any wannabe accusations in the same way that Peter Green did by not singing about dust bowls and boll weevils.
On ‘The Real Slim Shady’ Eminem is in a playful mood, adopting his ‘other’ slim shady persona to detail the trials and tribulations of himself and your average white jock filtered through the medium of rap. As a song it has the jovial jaunt of a fairground cantaloupe as Eminem throws up his hands in mock despair at the world around him with comments tuned to appeal to the outsider “Screaming "I don't give a fuck!" with his windows down and his system up” and reduced to minor acts of rebellion (“And every single person is a Slim Shady lurking. He could be working at Burger King, spitting on your onion rings” – a line that always reminds of Johnny Rotten’s own simplistic brand of “Give the wrong time, stop a traffic line” anarchy and I’m always struck at how both artists are seen as equal parts court jester and antichrist) to get through the day and exert some control over a world they otherwise can’t.
There are no blings, beefs, ho’s, bitches, niggas, working the corners in the hood or playing ‘the game here’; it’s a tongue in cheek state of Eminem’s nation address of all that’s wrong with his world where figures from the white side of the tracks (Britney, Christina, Fred Durst, Pamela Anderson, Tommy Lee and Carson Daly et al) are name checked as cameo role models and marshalled by ringmaster Eminem in the low rent, throwaway three ring circus that he and his ilk inhabit. And by singing about his own world within the medium of rap, Eminem climbs inside the genre and wrestles with the controls until the machine does his bidding instead of letting it control his presentation and delivery. Can white men rap? Hell yes; that's one question that Eminem has successfully put to bed.