If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, Eminem damn sure has a right to feel insulted. The white rapper's debut record, "The Slim Shady LP," was supposed to set off a stampede of fair-haired MCs who would overrun hip-hop. Yet since last year, Eminem's success has launched the careers of exactly as many white MCs as his white, multiplatinum predecessors the Beasties and Vanilla Ice did in their time: none.
So why does the first single of his follow-up record, "The Real Slim Shady" on "The Marshall Mathers LP," explode with such wicked vitriol toward supposed imitators? Well, like any self-respecting battle MC, Eminem feels the need to dis imaginary foes. It's the same reason that he slobbers with the hoarse intensity of DMX, the same reason that the bloodshed level has risen almost as high as the "fag"-per-minute quotient and the same reason why he unleashes jaw-dropping feats of verbal dexterity with impunity. Example: "We ain't nothin' but mammals/Well some of us cannibals/Who cut other people open like cantaloupes/But if we can hump dead animals/And antelopes/Than there's no reason that a man and another man can't elope."
In other words, Eminem is, uh, keeping it real. So real, in fact, that he's beyond fake: I mean, what other rapper would prove his street cred by calling out boy-girl groups as "sissy" music? Would Jay-Z even bother griping about 'N Sync? Christina Aguilera? Carson friggin' Daly? But "The Marshall Mathers LP" is the first hip-hop album to assume universal attention -- not just from hip-hop fans, not just from under-20s, not just from media watchhounds, but from the American culture at large -- and it relishes the attention, even as it recoils from it.
If Eminem's expert convolutions use the tired gangsta excuse that he's "telling it like it is," they make even Madonna's expert media-twiddling seem like standard issue PR. The track "Stan," for instance, reads a series of letters from an imaginary fan who identifies too closely with Eminem, or Marshall Mathers, and as a result drives off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk when he doesn't hear back from his idol. These are the sort of imitators the "real" Slim Shady fears -- and in his mind that the media accuses him of cultivating -- stupid, desperate and, above all, full of rage. And it is exactly this sort of rage that Eminem wallows in here, exploiting its every ugly, hilarious and multifaceted aspect.
In its rise to prominence, after all, gangsta rap has often inadvertently isolated rage in the public eye as a solely black male pathology. Eminem -- backed by Dr. Dre's beats -- returns that destructive passion to the transracial Y chromosome. This rage is something more than the party slugs of Limp Bizkit's fratty violence, something even more than the macabre wisecracks of Eminem's own "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," the cut on his first record where he fantasized about killing "his baby's mama." The melodramatic prequel "Kim," which details his wife's "actual" "murder" over an intense thrash metal stomp, breaks down into self-hatred, self-doubt and those other nasty demons that make the American male such a disheartening specimen.
"The Marshall Mathers LP" is an airtight masterpiece of rhyme. It's a self-serving retort from a troubled smartass who got too fast too quick. And it's also a more cogent essay on the fan-star nexus than any media panel blurt or chat room gossip could ever provide. Because in this era of winner-take-all corporate pop, the increasing distance between the famous and the rest of us -- and the question of how much control we cede to them in the process -- may be the only valid topic left. And so, Mathers has constructed a hall of mirrors that reflects the reality and fantasy of both himself and of every kid who identifies with him. We may just never know who the real Slim Shady is after all.