“Take off that Onyx T-shirt”

This is a screen cap of Eminem during his interview in the forthcoming HBO documentary The Defiant Ones. When I saw it, I thought about two things:

*In 1994, I witnessed KRS-One give an incredible performance in San Francisco. This was when he was at the height of his powers, and often mentioned as one of the best rappers alive, if not ever. But what I remember most is how he’d frequently stop mid-song and dive right into off-the-dome freestyles, riffing extemporaneously and lodging random disses. One of his unexpected targets was Onyx; he turned to one of his hypemen and said, “You should take off that Onyx T-shirt.”

I don’t know whether he had “beef” with Onyx, or if he just didn’t like their music at the time. Much like the subliminals at rival rappers that Kool Keith lodged during his Ultramagnetic years, Kris’ remark may have been the kind of unfiltered opinion you can rarely get away with nowadays, not with Complex and other trendspotting sites ready to pump up any lyrical remark into a controversial “stray shot,” and not with audiences filming every performance with their phones for social media dispersal.

Having said that, when I saw Chance the Rapper perform at the Greek Theatre last year, he said something to the effect of, “Are you ready for the blessings? Not the fake blessings you hear about…but the real blessings.” It was clearly aimed at Big Sean’s “Blessed,” and how the Detroit rapper equated material success with being in God’s grace. However, Chance’s critique went unmentioned on the Internets.

*Did you notice that Eminem is developing a bit of a widow’s peak in the photo? It looks like he’s starting to lose his hair.

Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP2’

Eminem - MMLP2

Eminem should have picked a different title for The Marshall Mathers LP2. On its 2000 predecessor, he plumbed the ugly depths of the male ID with anguished ferocity, giving voice to blasphemous dreams of criminality and murder. He created a fictional character, “Stan,” that so vividly captured how we the audience – and hip-hop fans in particular – mistake complex rap lyrics for pure autobiography that it has become shorthand for a kind of perverse idolatry. Eminem tried to repeat that performance for many years afterward, or at least live up to it, by wearing us down with increasingly hammy shock tactics. It wasn’t until he repositioned himself as a man who employs self-help jargon to prove his decency in 2010’s Recovery that he found a credible follow-up.

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Eminem, ‘Recovery’

Eminem - RecoveryThe rap nerds don’t know what to do with Eminem. Ten years ago, they loudly proclaimed him a genius, the greatest MC of all time. He was a master of the 16-bar verse, and a vocal stylist who employed bounce, speed-rapping, and drawling affectations at whim. His lyrical provocations, from turning his ex-girlfriend Kim into a symbol for abusive male-female relationships to exporting Detroit street rap culture to the suburbs, drew kudos from songwriters like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, and rock dudes that usually denigrated rappers as mumbling, inarticulate hooligans. And as acclaim followed, so did massive success, as mega-hits like 2000’s classic The Marshall Mathers LP blasted through the marketplace.

But now, the hip-hop intelligentsia has written Eminem off. For them, he’s just another aging rapper with rapidly deteriorating skills. They believe that his new album Recovery is a noble failure, an unsuccessful attempt to reignite the dying embers of his early 2000s dominance over the pop Zeitgeist. The Internet teems with mockery over some of his lyrics, with this line from the number one hit “Love the Way You Lie” achieving special infamy: “Now you get to watch her leave out the window/ I guess that’s why they call it window pane.”

So why is Recovery the biggest selling album of 2010 so far? Are critics and hardcore rap fans getting it wrong? Most of them wouldn’t readily admit it. They would rather offer Recovery faint praise, musing that at best it’s a minor improvement over Em’s last two albums, 2004’s widely panned Encore and last year’s equally derided Relapse.

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