Okay so this is the very first blog post, but rather than write a self-explanatory and otherwise pointless ‘welcome post’, I thought I’d kick off off with an in series of posts analyzing the evolution of Eminem; his various styles and sounds, his aims and artistry, and for the sake of neatness and ease – each album and subsequent era, style and point in his career.
Eminem has been rapping a lot longer than fourteen years, and material is available from further back than that, but given that 1996 was the year of his official studio debut, I thought it’d be the best place to start. Also, rather than post each analysis in one gigantic post, since I tend to write quite a lot – I thought it’d be good to post each one somewhat sporadically, but in chronological order. With other posts in-between. That way there’s an element of anticipation in waiting for the next one and… it gives me time to collect my thoughts and reflect on what I’ve written after each one. As, I’ve learned over time that you can look back on what you’ve written with a very different perspective.
So, let’s begin…
Infinite – 1996
By its very matter of fact this album is significant due to the fact it was the first official studio footprint in the world of music, from Eminem. Yes, he had been recording at a studio level prior to this and there’s even output to that effect, but if we’re talking ‘official’ output, as in… work with his name and stamp (as Eminem, a solo artist)
Infinite, was released in November 1996. As Eminem himself has said, it was mainly an attempt to get radio spins. Back in the mid-90s, and especially in downtown Detroit – the way to get known, at least locally, was to get on radio. If you could get on local radio, you could maybe get picked up on national radio and ala record deal. This was Eminem’s thinking and that’s why the material here is more tamed and relaxed, more chilled and radio-friendly. Not to say that the material is totally watered down, don’t get me wrong – it’s hip-hop to the fullest but, Em was taming his thoughts, writing more positively for the sake of getting a break.
Now, the album came out and was received lukewarm at best. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say it got a negative response. People were saying Em sounded a lot like AZ and Nas, and as any up and coming rapper with any artistic self-respect will tell you – being told you sound like a clone is possibly the worst criticism you can get. Which, isn’t specific to rapping of course, just as an artist period, to be stripped of your intended originality, to be told you’re bringing nothing new to the game (any game) – that’s not good at all. It’s disheartening, especially if you feel that you put your heart and soul into something, if you think that you did bring something original… to then have people deny you that claim in abundance, and dismiss you as a clone… ouch.
But were the criticisms valid? Well, to some degree: yes. Eminem did sound like AZ and Nas, there’s also tons of homages sprinkled throughout the lyrics – homages to the likes of Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. Which is to be expected, rap by its very nature borrows from other genres and, from its own. All rappers influence each other, the genre feeds off of influence and competition. Everybody is going for that number one spot and the best of the best listen to the game religiously. So it’s no surprise that you hear rappers constantly paying each other homages by re-spitting each other’s lyrics. Certain lines in hip-hop, such as Nas’ “I don’t sleep, cuz sleep is the cousin of death” (from Illmatic, “N.Y. State of Mind”) stick. They stick to the wall of hip-hop. In most things, most things… are awful. A lot of hip-hop fans (in every era) complain most hip-hop is garbage but, that’s always the case.
Most hip-hop is always garbage. Most rock is garbage, most everything is always garbage. Which is why we value, and should value the top percentage quality of anything so very much. Which is exactly what rappers do, especially good rappers. They constantly value and pay homage to the best hip-hop, it’s what inspires their next of kin, so to speak, and it’s what keeps the game breathing. The strong must stick together, in the fight against garbage, real recognize real, and so on.
So coming back to whether the criciticisms of Em being dismissed as an AZ / Nas copycat were valid or not… well like I said, he certainly did display elements of their craft. He payed homage, he phrased things in similar ways etc. but at the same time, it was just influence. He did sound like them but he didn’t sound exactly like them, he still had a lot of originality going for him on that album, a lot of personality traits and fantastic skill that was very new and that was simply dismissed in one foul swoop. Personally, I think that’s because he’s white. Now, I know, it may seem cheap to play the race-card, but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Think about how many other black rappers sound like AZ or Nas, or 2Pac or… whoevever, even in the mainstream today – who get no criticism at all in that direction. Because, like it or not – it IS easy to get accepted in hip-hop if you’re black. If you’re white, you need to be ten times as dope as every other rapper around, it’s as simple as that.
As for what Eminem was defined by in this era the most – he was defined by what mid-90s hip-hop was defined by. There was a lot of punchlines; a lot of cerebral one-liners, a lot of complex rhyme schemes for their own sake, a lot of cramming in as many words into each bar as possible (although, Em is always incredible at that). As usual, Em’s flow was beautifully on-point. I once saw a critic cite Eminem’s great gift as his flow and, whilst he has many others – I’d have to agree. Even back when he was figuring out how he wanted to sound, his flow was brilliant. Crisp and on-beat, catchy and melodic. It’s always unique because… rather than just ride a beat, loop for loop, Eminem works out musical flows in his head, patterns of rhyme and melody. Infinite is cram-packed with rhymes, wit and also some light introspection. People who say this album was impersonal (himself included) I think are forgetting songs like “It’s OK”, which is an incredibly personal, real and honest portrayl of his life at that point.
He wasn’t quite putting his life into his music yet, but the foundations were there.
So whilst Em wasn’t the most mind-blowing of innovators on Infinite, he certainly did not deserve to get dismissed to the degree that he did and should of gotten a lot more respect for that album. Think even, of how much Nas sounds ilke A Tribe Called Quest, or… how much he did on Illmatic. Every rapper takes influence, I think there was a hyper-focus on Eminem because of his skin colour. Thats why he had to bring something totally undeniable and outstanding to get any sort of public recognition.
Which, is what he did next…
So that’s the Infinite. Keep reading and watch out for The Slim Shady EP next.