Friday, August 3, 2012

Eminem -- "My Name Is" (1999)

Hi!  My name is -- what? 
My name is -- who?
My name is Slim Shady

Eminem is going to be a very hard sell for many of you.  But this isn't going to be the only "Hip Hop 101" lecture featuring an Eminem song.  

A class on rap music that ignored Eminem would be like a physics class that ignored Einstein -- or a modern history class that skipped over Hitler and Stalin.

Marshall Mathers
You don't have to like Eminem, but you can't ignore him.  So get over yourselves, all you haters.

I remember how a very smart baseball writer once described the difference between two outstanding hitters.  Player A had outstanding stats -- he got on base, hit for power, was quite consistent over a long career, and would probably be in the Hall of Fame if he hadn't been widely suspected of using steroids.  But when you looked more closely at player B's numbers -- also aided by steroids, it turned out -- you could see that he was a uniquely productive hitter.  

The first hitter was very, very good, the writer acknowledged.  But he described the second hitter as "a force of nature."

In terms of both artistic accomplishment and worldwide popularity, Eminem -- who was born Marshall Bruce Mathers III in 1972 -- is a hip-hop force of nature.  His first three major-studio albums each won the Grammy for Best Rap Album, and he has sold over 40 million albums in the United States and more than 90 million albums worldwide.  

It's no wonder that Eminem has been called the Elvis of hip-hop music.  He is by far the greatest white rapper ever and arguably the greatest MC period.  But he is also nutty as a fruitcake, and is the poster child for everything people hate about rap.

An artist once said that "happy people could not make great art."  Well, Eminem makes great art.  His verbal skills are unsurpassed by any other MC, although much of his writing is as distasteful as it is brilliant.  (A Toronto newspaper editorialist once wrote, "Being offensive is Eminem's job description."  Canadians have a real talent for understatement.)

Eminem with his mom, Debbie Nelson
Mathers' father abandoned his family when Marshall was a baby.  Eminem's music depicts his mother (who had married his father when she was 15, and who later married three other allegedly abusive men) as a drunken, pill-popping welfare mom, and says he had to raise himself and his little brother largely on his own.  (His mother sued him in 1999, alleging that his song lyrics slandered her.)

Because Eminem was small for his age, he was victimized by bullies.  When he was 9, he was beaten so badly that he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.  Until he recovered from his brain injury -- which forced him to relearn how to tie his shoes, among other things -- he had to wear a football helmet to play outside.  

Mathers had to repeat 9th grade, and dropped out of high school when he was 17.  He kept showing up  at freestyle rap competitions in Detroit, but struggled to win the respect of the predominantly black audiences.  His debut album was a commercial failure.  Addled by drugs and alcohol, he attempted suicide.

Mr. and Mrs. Eminem in happier times
The most pathological aspect of Eminem's life was his relationship with Kim Scott.  She ran away from home and moved in with Mathers and his mother when he was 15 and she was 13.

Kim gave birth to their daughter, Hailie (who is the subject of a number of Eminem's songs), on Christmas Day, 1995.  The couple got married in 1999, divorced in 2001 (she had attempted suicide in 2000), remarried in 2006, and divorced again later that same year.

Eminem's daughter is now 16
Several of Eminem's songs -- most notably 2000's "Kim" -- reflect a level of hatred for Kim that is not only disturbing but seems to cross the sane-insane line.  Rolling Stone magazine described Kim as "the star of the world's most public ongoing murder fantasy."   

Eminem has had more legal problems than all the ex-Miami Hurricanes playing in the NFL combined.  In 2000, Mathers was arrested after he pulled out a loaded gun during an argument at a car audio store in Detroit.  The very next day, he assaulted a bouncer whom he saw Kim kissing in a parking lot.  Eminem's aunt and uncle sued him for allegedly breaking a promise to give them a house.  The bully who allegedly beat Eminem up when he was a child sued him when Eminem wrote a song about the incident.

Last but not least, in 2003, the Secret Service confirmed that it was investigating allegations that the lyrics of one of Eminem's unreleased songs threatened the life of President George W. Bush.

Eminem's first major-label album, The Slim Shady LP, is named for the rapper's crazy alter ego, Slim Shady.  (When you are as crazy as Eminem is, do you really need a crazy alter ego?)  "My Name Is," the first single from the album, is a typical Eminem song, characterized by what one reviewer described as "surreal, ultraviolent, trailer-trash/post-gangsta-rap extremism."  (That same reviewer went on to say that Eminem's music is "a breath of fresh air in a rap world that's despairingly low on new ideas.")

Let's stick our toe very gingerly into the very murky waters of the lyrics of "My Name Is":

My brain's dead weight
I'm tryin' to get my head straight
But I can't figure out 
Which Spice Girl I want to impregnate

(Remember the Spice Girls?  They used to be a big deal.)

Not an easy choice . . .
My English teacher wanted to flunk me in junior high
Thanks a lot -- next semester I'll be thirty-five
I smacked him in his face with an eraser 
Chased him with a stapler
And stapled his nuts to a stack of papers

(Oh behave, Marshall!)

Ninety-nine percent of my life I was lied to
I just found out my mom does more dope than I do

(Even the most obnoxious rappers usually say nice things about their moms.  By the way, this was the line that cause Eminem's mom to sue him for defamation.)

Am I coming or going? I can barely decide
I just drank a fifth of vodka, dare me to drive?
All my life I was very deprived
I ain't had a woman in years
And my palms are too hairy to hide

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  Marshall Mathers' lyrics may be misogynistic, homophobic, deeply disturbing, and nothing that you'd want the kiddies to touch with a ten-foot pole, but they are also undeniably clever and funny.  

A lot of you won't even listen to this song, and many of you who do will be repelled by it.  But Eminem is a one-of-a-kind artist, and "Hip Hop 101" can't ignore him.  If you can't handle the truth, you need to transfer to a different class.

Here's the official music video for "My Name Is," which features a couple of  references to iconic sixties sitcoms and an appearance by 7-foot, 7-inch ex-NBA'er, Gheorge Muresan:

You can click on this to order the song from Amazon:

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