The following is part of a series of essays I’ve been writing on the “character arcs” and dramatic story structure of the Eminem CDs. I apologize if they’re excruciating, or (if you like them) if the wait between essays is excruciating. Life is busy. But click here to start at the start.
previous: The Eminem Show (opening songs)
So the first third of The Eminem Show serves to (1) set up Eminem as the unwitting leader of a generational movement that he’d never intended on starting, (2) remind us of the conflicts that have weaved throughout the first two albums, and in particular the “white artist in a black art form, who is bringing the profane/ vulgar/ scary black art form to the white suburbs” conflict, (3) and end the ongoing conflict with his mother in “Cleaning Out My Closet.”
So where does the album go from here?
I’ve made continuous comparisons to The Star Wars trilogy, since this is the third album in Eminem’s career, and I think it’s important to continue thinking with that analogy in mind. Our heroes have just killed Jabba the Hut and rescued Han Solo, so they’ve finished one task…but now the much-larger threat of the Empire still looms. Likewise, Eminem has given us his final words about his feud with his mother, but there are still some pretty big conflicts left to resolve: in particular, we’ve still got to address that whole Kim thing, and then we’ve got to come to some conclusions about fame and celebrity and about being a white rapper in a sea of black rappers.
Eminem knows it. He set it up in the opening song. And the audience knows it, too. He knows that’s where we’re eventually going.
“Square Dance,” the White Establishment, and White Insecurity
When I first heard “Square Dance,” I thought it was a brilliant beat and a brilliant concept, that weird country/rap mash-up. After all, here was the world’s most popular and important white rapper (ever); who else could mix these genres in a meaningful way? And when he began using his “cracker” white-guy voice, too, telling the audience to doe-see-doe, etc., it didn’t feel like he was making fun of white people, necessarily, but instead making fun of those white people who were scared of rap. The suburban moms and dads. The senators who’d called him out for easy political gain. With “Square Dance,” Eminem was simultaneously appropriating white-people music, and lashing out at the criticism he’d faced from the insulated white establishment. One of the first lines in the song, after all, is “No friend of Bush,” and in the second verse we get “a plan to ambush this Bush administration/ mush the Senate’s face in/ push this generation of kids to stand and fight/ for the right to say something/ you might not like.” (And then there’s my favorite line, when he seems to be speaking to his army of suburban followers: “You just a baby/ Gettin’ recruited at eighteen/ You’re on a plane now,/ Eating their food and their baked beans./ I’m 28, they gon’ take you ‘fore they take me.”)
But that doesn’t mean that “Square Dance” only targets the white establishment. Really, the song is an embodiment of several white-related conflicts.
The first stanza takes aim at Canibus: “Cani-bitch don’t want no beef with Slim, noooo.” And, though it’s never outright stated, the Canibus attacks seem to have a racial undertone (which we see play out later in the album, too): there is suddenly an insistence upon being recognized by black rappers: responding to attacks from some black rappers, and honoring the other black rappers he sees as heroes (and whose respect he craves). In previous albums, this is a frustration that reared its head only occasionally, but it was never a primary conflict for the character of Eminem. He was building himself as a rapper and found it difficult to do so as a white boy, but he managed pretty well by being self-deprecatory and taking shots at the other (inferior) white artists, the Vanilla Ices and the Fred Dursts and the Everlasts and what-not; and really, most of his attacks were a response to critics outside of the rap world. Yes, there were mentions of other rappers we know he respected: the line in “Stan” about “underground shit” and “Ruckus” and “Scam,” the collaborations with Nate Dogg and Snoop and Royce and Sticky Fingaz, the D12 album, but the majority of the conflicts explored in the songs revolved around Marshall’s mother, and around fame and celebrity, and around profanity. Not necessarily the rap world, or (more specifically) Eminem’s place in the rap world. Yes, race was always an issue in the first two CDs. It was always there. But it never really seemed as if this–being a white rapper in a black world, and getting the same respect as prominent black rappers–caused him real frustration or insecurity. He was comfortable in this world. And fuck everyone outside that world if they wanted to judge him.
But now, in The Eminem Show, we see that maybe Eminem has lingering insecurities about the way that other rappers view him. It’s a chip on his shoulder. In The Slim Shady LP, he’d gained credibility from the Dr. Dre appearance on “Guilty Conscience,” and obviously he appeared throughout the D12 Devil’s Night CD, too, but at the same time, those songs sort of felt like jokes. It was mostly the prankster Slim Shady persona appearing alongside these black rappers, and nobody would confuse the jokey “Guilty Conscience” verses with the career-defining Snoop Dogg verses from “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang.” You can only play a snarky persona for so long, after all, before people start saying, “Okay, show us the real you.” With the exception of the “Dead Wrong” verse alongside B.I.G., it had never really felt like Eminem was a serious rapper when he appeared alongside black rappers.
Maybe this was in the back of his mind all along? Maybe it was even the reason that he never took his beefs with Everlast and Limp Bizkit and ICP very far, because why continually position himself as just the best white rapper? What value is there in such a title? So here in the middle portion of his third album, Eminem–the serious Eminem rapper persona–is vocalizing that he belongs in the black world of rap, responding to criticism from other established black rappers, rather than simply doing the easy thing and making fun of the white rappers who have come before him. (Take note of this, by the way. This is one of the conflicts that remains unresolved at the end of this CD. And it’s one of the reasons why those Recovery-era verses with Lil Wayne and Drake and Kanye, et all, are so unbelievably powerful.)
That’s a big step.
And yet it’s under-stated on this song: the initial reference to Canibus, and then the “oochie walla” reference, the lines “What’s gotten into me?/ Drugs, rock and Hennessy,/ Thug like I’m ‘Pac on my enemies.” This is a rapper who wants to belong, but he won’t yet come right out and say it. Where it initially becomes prominent is in the final fading stanza of “Square Dance,” which feels almost improvised:
Dr. Dre wants to square with me,
Nasty Nas wants to square dance with me,
X to the Z wants to square dance with me,
Busta Rhymes wants to square dance with me,
Cana-bitch won’t square dance with me…
Dirty Dozen wants to square dance with you–YEE-HAW!
And it’s here that Eminem puts himself into the company of the larger world of black rappers. He’s no longer just Dr. Dre’s little buddy, a funny prankster of a rapper with a couple black friends (D12); now he’s square-dancing with Busta Rhymes and Xzibit and (most important) Nas.
Like I said, it’s under-stated. But the first time I listened to this song, I knew that this was important. I knew that there was something different about his approach toward the world of rap, the faintest trace of insecurity about his place in it, and a real desire to be taken seriously by the rappers he most admired. (If I wanted to make another comparison to the conflict in The Star Wars trilogy, maybe I’d say that this was like the sudden arrival of The Emperor, an inevitable twist in the narrative…but something that felt like it was long overdue. We knew it was coming, that Eminem couldn’t keep rapping about pop culture without really delving into his place in the rap world.)
But then, as quickly as this new conflict appeared, it was gone.
Here are the first lines of track 7 on The Eminem Show, the song “Soldier”: “Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,/never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one.” It’s almost as if he’s anticipating the argument that he doesn’t belong in the world of “gangsta rap,” and he’s admitting it. He belongs in the rap world, but let’s not confuse that with gangsta rap. Let’s not assume he’s saying he’s a gangsta just because he’s a rapper.
Then he shifts back and forth between the Eminem and Marshall Mathers characters, the relationship between the things he raps about and how he might have begun believing in the violent persona he portrayed in his records. Here’s the opening of “Soldier,” and I suppose it’s just best to paste the lines directly:
Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,
never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one,
and got the rep of a villain, for weapon concealin’.
Took the image of a thug, kept shit appealin’,
willin’ to stick out my neck for respect if it meant life or death,
never live to regret what I said.
When you’re me, people just want to see
if it’s true, if it’s you, what you say in your rap’s, what you do,
so they feel as part of your obligation to fulfill
when they see you on the streets, face to face, if you for real?
There’s a real struggle here, as if Marshall feels he must live up to the persona he’s created on his albums. This has been brewing since The Marshall Mathers LP, but it’s mostly been general and hypothetical: a fake character named “Stan” who believes in the Eminem raps, and a series of generalized encounters in “The Way I Am.” But now this conflict reaches a boiling point because there is some truth to everything he has feared:
Anything I do bitch, it’s news,
pistol-whippin’ motherfuckin’ bouncers, six-two.
You can smell the lawsuits soon as I waltz in the room.
Everybody halts and stops, calls the cops,
all you see is bitches comin’ out their halter tops,
runnin’ and duckin’ out the Hard Rocks parking lot.
So far in this analysis, I’ve tried to keep the focus on the characters in the albums, rather than bringing in any real-life events. This is important, I think, because the texts/songs have a life of their own. Yes, they are heightened by our knowledge of what was happened in the “real world,” too, but I’m not trying to write a biography of Eminem; I’m trying to chart how he’s built the characters in the story of his albums. (If that makes sense?)
I’m going to make a small exception here, though, since this is a moment where Eminem is literally trying to show how the real world and the fictional persona have overlapped. And I’m going to try to do this as quickly and simply as possible. Okay, so this is from Wikipedia, the most trustworthy source ever:
Eminem was arrested on June 3, 2000 during an altercation at a car audio store in Royal Oak, Michigan, with Douglas Dail, where he pulled out an unloaded gun and kept it pointed at the ground. The following day, in Warren, Michigan, he allegedly saw his then wife, Kim, kiss bouncer John Guerrera in the parking lot of the Hot Rock Café, and he assaulted him and was then arrested. Eminem recreated the Guerrera assault in a skit on his junior album The Eminem Show on a track called “The Kiss (Skit).” Mathers was charged with possession of a concealed weapon and assault. Mathers plead guilty to the charges and was given two years probation for both episodes.
I take no responsibility for any errors or omissions or typos in the above (Hot Rock Cafe?). I just want to illustrate the real-world facts that (as discussed in the song) seem to be a result of the real-world Marshall Mathers believing in the song-persona of Eminem or Slim Shady. The song “Soldier” (and the skit “The Kiss”), in other words, is not just a narrative depicting Marshall Mathers getting angry upon seeing his wife kiss a bouncer, then beating the bouncer, then getting arrested for the concealed weapon…it’s also a meditation on what it means to develop personas for yourself, to get lost and confused about which personas are real, to believe in the wrong personas, and to find yourself becoming something you didn’t want to become. We have the line, “motherfuckers know that I’ll never be Marshall again,” which seems to be a resounding final word on a dark transformation: Darth Vader declaring that he is beyond help, that it is too late for him.
Oh yeah, and then there’s that whole Kim thing, which we’ll get to next.
Next: Kim, and Celebreality (forthcoming)