Friday, October 15, 2010

The Boy Who Cried Wolf: Eminem Has Become Hip-Hop's Perpetual Victim

By Scott Tre

In a moment bizarre enough to be a sign of the apocalypse, a white rapper has complained about racism.  During a 60 minutes interview that aired last Sunday, Eminem stated that his melanin deficiency is the reason why the homophobic content of his lyrics come under constant and intense scrutiny since other rappers say the same things that he does.  That's right, Marshall Mathers is using that most dreaded of gambits, the race card.  At one time, the very idea of a white rapper was considered far fetched.  Even further fetched was the idea of white rapper who could be respected among his black peers and  outsell them.  The farthest fetched idea in the history of mankind would be said white rapper having the stones to play the race card.  Hip-Hop has officially entered the land of the surreal.  Go to the 8 minute and 19 second mark on the clip posted below to witness the sheer lunacy first hand:

But wait, none of this is the least bit surprising when one takes a good hard look at not only Eminem's image, but his track record.  Almost from day one, Eminem has been Hip-Hop's perpetual victim.  His image is based in something wholly different than what white rappers that preceded him were selling.  He hasn't/can't pull off the kind of "wigger" swagger that signifies a white kid that was brought up around black folks.  He hasn't the psuedo-bohemian/intellectual vibe of a backpacker.  He is simply a white guy who raps.  He is also arguably the first white rapper to not be actively at odds with his whiteness.  In fact, he has always been all too aware of it.  He is Hip-Hop's version of the nerd who uses his new found fame in a particular arena to not only vent his angst, but to take revenge on his attackers.  He carries the scars of the beatings he took as the "corny white boy" in school, and he allows the world to see them.  That has always been his shtick.

He is also a symbol of the bitterness and suppressed rage that all nerds and perpetual victims carry around with them like luggage.  He is quick to spew acidic bile to other helpless targets, but reluctant to deal with the fallout.  He is the victim who has grown up to be a victimizer.  Whenever he is confronted on the insults he hurls at others, he acts as if he is being attacked and the reprisals are unsolicited.  Either that or he goes at people that he knows either can't fight back or see his nonsense as not worth addressing.  Em has the shtick down pat.  It couldn't be anymore complete if it came from a case study.  That has always been Em's hook, and what makes him interesting as a performer.  He markets the angst of victimhood, wrapped in shrouds of dark humor and absurdist imagery.  It doesn't hurt that he is one of the most talented lyricists ever.  That's right.  White or not, Em is one of the best to ever pick up a mic, and therein lies his true grievance.

His whiteness prevents him from earning that most coveted of titles from the portion of the Hip-Hop audience that matters most: black kids.  Not all black kids, but a very specific subsection of black kids.  Go to any "black section" of Detroit and I'm guessing you aren't very likely to hear Em's name tossed around as a G.O.A.T candidate.  Maybe local heroes like Esham or MC Breed, or fallen heroes like Pac and Pimp C.    Go to other "urban" areas around the U.S. and the story is probably very similar, only thing that changes are the names.  From High-rise housing projects in New York to dirt floor shacks in the rural south, Marshall Mathers isn't that renowned.  His lyrical prowess will definitely be acknowledged in some of those circles, but the actual love will be withheld. 

Luke & the 2 Live Crew

I suspect that is what is at the heart of Mr. Mathers current delusion, and a delusion it is, make no mistake about it.  For Eminem to say that his skin color causes him to be unfairly scrutinized while his black brethren go unchecked is sheer lunacy.  Even before the inception of Gangsta Rap, Hip-hop has always come under fire for extreme lyrical content in one form or another.  Lest we forget the battles that Luther Campbell and the 2 Live Crew won for free speech.  Their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was ruled obscene and illegal to sell by district U.S. court judge Jose Gonzalez.  A Florida retailer was arrested after selling the album to an undercover and three group members were subsequently arrested after performing songs from it at a nightclub.  Judge Gonzalez ruling was later overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

N.W.A Sans Ice Cube In All of Their Gun-Toting Glory
What of N.W.A's infamous (and quite overblown) admonishment from the Federal Bureau of Investigations?  Ruthless records was sent a letter from the government agency that scolded the group for it's song "Fuck The Police".  They were prohibited from performing it at various concert venues.  What about the controversy over Ice-T's heavy metal band Body Count and the infamous song "Cop Killer"?  The song was removed their self-titled debut.  Ice-T soon ended his relationship with parent label Warner Bros. when they expressed concern over the cover art for his 1992 album Home Invasion. Remember when Public Enemy came under fire for the video for "By The Time I Get Arizona"?  Let's not even get into the way Death Row Records was hampered by the likes of C. Delores Tucker and Dionne Warwick, much less more recent controversies involving Ludacris and Nelly.

50 Cent, Eminem, and Dr. Dre

Growing up as a fan and student of the music, Em more than likely has a strong familiarity with all of them.  That is as it should be, since Em is a direct beneficiary of the battles won by those artists.  That they were not necessarily cited for homophobic content is beside the point.  They all caught hell by the bucketloads for lyrics that had different combinations of violence, sexuality, misogyny, and profanity.  They suffered consequences that ranged from jail time to canceled shows and tours to being dropped by their labels and more.  Name one time in Eminem's career that he has ever been in any real danger of being dropped from Aftermath/Interscope or having his CD's yanked from store shelves.  Such exploits and accomplishments far outweigh the run-ins Marshall has had with organizations like GLAAD.  He can do what he does because scores of black rappers already paved that road with their blood.

The Notorious B.I.G, The Reputed "King of New York, Sporting That Which Marshall Mathers Covets Most

Em is quite possibly the biggest selling rapper of all time, having moved over 80 million records worldwide.  He performs to sold out crowds and has the respect of many of his peers, not least of which 50 Cent.  That is not enough for him.  The crown worn at different moments by the likes of LL and Pac (in death) beckons.  He wants it, and he has the chops and the catalog to claim it.  Alas, he cannot have it.  THAT is the discrimination that truly chaps his hide, and to that I say tough shit.  There are scores of ultra-talented black rappers from a variety of regions and sub-genres who have yet to get their due.  Eminem is no more important than any of them... the only difference is that he is is white.  Take a number and get in line, chump.

Perhaps to mask his frustration over that little dilemma, he has fabricated a different kind of discrimination that he may have thought would go over better.  In its own way, this may be worse than Em's use of the N-Bomb and other racial epithets directed toward black folk (that were exposed by Benzino) in that this time Em is spreading an outright lie.  This is something that he knows isn't true.  He has finally and completely become the character he has always played.  Everybody hates him, Nobody likes him, so instead of eating worms he spreads misinformation.  "Black rappers get away with it so why can't I?"  It all ties in with the same thing he has always been selling the public.  On the 60 Minutes segment, his bouts with drugs and the like are packaged as a comeback story.  His career as a whole is sold as the ultimate rags-to-riches come up.  The hurt little boy has healed and is on the comeback trail.  Since Em plays all of it straight-faced, it cannot be written off as one of his many publicity stunts.

What makes it so insulting is that he knows it's bullshit.  Andre Young aka Doctor Dre, the man largely responsible for introducing Em to the world, is no stranger to controversy.  As a member of N.W.A and as founder of both Death Row and Aftermath, the good doctor has endured his far share of criticism.  In fact Eminem has famously come to his defense.  When accepting an award at MTV Video music awards, Will Smith famously told the crowd that he was able to do so without a curse during his acceptance speech.  Mr. Mathers took exception to this, looking at it as a slight to the brand of profane gangsta music the good Doctor pioneered.  He then took aim at the Fresh Prince in a the first single off his second (and best) album, the Marshall Mathers LP, "The Real Slim Shady":

Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell records/well, I do. So fuck him, and fuck you too.

From this line, it can be deduced that from very early on, Em was well aware of the criticism that rap receives not only from without but from within as well.  Old school east coast rappers of Will Smith's ilk were very vocal about their disdain for the profane and violent turn rap music took in the wake of Straight Outta Compton.  Em's own artist, superstar rapper 50 Cent, has recently come under fire for comments made about gays on Twitter.  Em knows better, and his comments prove him to be delusional at best, a liar at worst.  Perhaps he has has fallen completely out of touch with the culture that he became a part of.

Coming seven years after the scandal involving his use of racial slurs against black women on a recording uncovered by then owners of The Source Magazine Benzino and David Mays, this situation will only serve as confirmation of Eminem's racism.  Em has not only cast the light of suspicion on himself, but made things harder on white rappers and rap fans who hope to shed the wigger label and be taken seriously.  Whites who indulge in Hip-Hop culture often carry the stigma of outsiders who treat black culture as a novelty, a clown suit for wayward white teens searching for an identity in their formative years.  Certainly, such an blanket accusation is unfair.  However, Eminem has now given considerable weight to such accusations.   For me, his shtick has finally lost its charm and no more passes can be given.  This is one disgrace too many for raps great white hope. Not only has he racially insulted his peers, but he has the nerve to claim that the media has unfairly singled him out due to his skin color.  In that sense, he isn't all that dissimilar from right-wing extremists who shout reverse racism at the drop of a hat.  Fuck you Mr. Mathers, for knowingly spreading misinformation about a culture that embraced you with it's arms wide open.

The Feeling Is Mutual, Mr. Mathers!

Movie Review: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren Paint the Town "Red"

By Scott Tre

Action and comedy are two of the hardest elements to bring together successfully in a single film.  Modern blockbusters include heaping portions of both in order to fill out the requirements for so-called "four quadrant" films.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks, many media outlets predicted the impending "death of irony" as a reaction to the tragedy.  Well, reports of said death were greatly exaggerated as Hollywood has found new ways to implement humor into otherwise serious subject matter.  Movie violence always has and always will go over easier with audiences when it's coated in a sugary capsule of irony and/or humor.  In a society that looks to comedians like John Stewart to shape its perspective on current events and world issues, it is necessary to keep reminding them that it is all a joke.  Thus, the breaking of the fourth wall continues indefinitely.

In Red, former CIA black-ops agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is in retirement, living the sort of schnook lifestyle that would have driven Henry Hill insane.  His main source of entertainment is running a scam on pension services that enables him to flirt with a phone rep named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).   After a CIA "wet team" tears his home to shreds during a failed assassination attempt, Frank anticipates that the next move of his unknown assailants will be to track down Sarah and grill her as to his whereabouts.  Frank finds Sarah and the two investigate the situation while on the run.  They uncover a conspiracy that requires Frank to seek out fellow retirees.  Cooper (Karl Urban), the CIA agent in charge of eliminating them comes to find out that they are much more than what he was lead to believe. Frank, Joe(Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich), and Victoria (Helen Mirren) come out of retirement with both guns blazing, intent on avoiding a premature death at the hands of their former employer.

Red is an adaptation of the Wildstorm/Homage comics limited series written by Warren Ellis.  It shares a number of similarities with The Losers, also an adaptation of a comic put out by a DC imprint.  Both revolve around a group of operatives with the best military training imaginable.  Both are filled with characters who don't seem to take anything all that seriously.  Both feature excessive violence that is clearly not meant to be taken seriously.  The final and most telling similarity is that both achieve middling results as entertainments.

Visually, the films are are not identical but carry many of the same hallmarks: gimmicks that are meant to  keep things interesting.  Animated, three dimensional post cards are used to signify a change of location.  It is used similarly to how the Indiana Jones films employed the image of a red line tracing its tracks on a map of the world to signify globe hopping.  Unlike the Indiana Jones films, the method used in Red calls attention to itself.  It's meant to be noticed and laughed at, which is in keeping with the spirit of the film.  Slow motion is used to enhance the awe factor during key moments of action sequences as well as to elicit laughs by highlighting the implausibility of said physical feats.  As expected, it is all capped of with smart ass remarks courtesy of the main characters.

The action itself is staged well, though it is not distinct from other recent offerings in the genre.  Audiences are treated to a very effective and very brutal fight scene in an office.  It serves as proof positive that MMA style choreography has supplanted graceful and intricate martial arts fight choreography in the post Bourne Ultimatum era.  The larger set-pieces aren't quite as successful.  They are bigger but not necessarily better.  This is a phenomenon that holds true for the duration of the film.  The "wet teams" assault on Franks home is easily funnier, more suspenseful and more thrilling than any of the firefights that follow.

As for the acting, all of the principles do exactly what they have been known for their whole careers.  In recent years Bruce Willis has incessantly milked the "old man who is a lot more than he appears to be" shtick for all it's worth.  This time out he doesn't bother to find a new variation on it.  Ditto for Morgan Freeman and John Malcovich.  Freeman is just simply there, while Marvin is another one of Malchovich's stock weirdos.  This is were yet another similarity to The Losers makes itself known:  the film tries to conjure a chemistry and mood similar to that of Steven Soderbergh's Oceans films.  It is essential to understand that the boys are back together again and that they always come out on top.  Red never approaches that level of enjoyability, though its cast is likable enough regardless.

Around the hour and twenty minute mark, the story pauses for a much needed moment of deadly seriousness.  An interesting dynamic also develops between Frank and Cooper (Karl Urban).  It's too bad there could not have been more of these.  A fatal mistake made by many action-comedies is that ham fisted, self aware humor is poured on in excessive amounts.  This may take the edge off the violence and make make the film more palatable for general audiences, but it also robs the proceedings of any sense of consequence.  None of the humor feels organic.  No amount of slick film making can mask this, and usually only makes it all the more obvious how insubstantial the film in question is.  It's easy to say that movies like Red are not meant to be especially memorable, and that is the whole problem.  A film need not weightless to be diverting.  Hollywood seems to take it for granted that substance is the enemy of fun.

Red is yet another forgettable yet very mildly entertaining action comedy.  It is an example of where modern filmmakers seem intent on pushing this hybrid genre.  Some might say that genre fans and purists should simply pull the stick out, especially since the snarky tone is very much in keeping with the action classics of the 1980's.  To them I will point out the smart remark and humor laden films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard gave us sympathetic protagonists and a sense of urgency.  Audiences were made to feel that what transpired on the screen mattered.  I defy anyone to say that they truly care about any of the characters in Red, regardless of whether or not they found them entertaining.  Go ahead, I'll wait.