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Remember me? Eminem’s cracked comeback

February 26, 2009 |  1:01 pm

No need to paraphrase any dog-eared dogma about there being no second acts in life — reality television torpedoed that Fitzgeraldian fallacy faster than any contumelious Hemingway quip. Hell, if Flavor Flav could smoke unidentified foreign objects for the entirety of the '90s and reinvent himself as a reality/sitcom star complete with slatternly seraglio, than it’s little surprise that Eminem could once again ascend the charts with his official comeback single, “Crack a Bottle,” a song that currently sits at the top of Power 106’s playlist, and recently broke the first-week record for digital sales with 418,000 sold.

After all, it was just 5 million years ago that Slim Shady sold 5 million copies of the execrable "Encore," a record so bad its finer moments occurred when Eminem was impersonating a sock puppet and trying to Xerox-copy “Hailie’s Song.” Song titles included “Puke,” “Big Weenie” and “Mosh,” the latter track, an anti-Bush political diatribe so dated as to make “Austin Powers” quotes seem fresh. During the ensuing half-decade hiatus, Eminem occasionally re-emerged from hibernation: remarrying Kim, re-divorcing Kim, dealing with Proof's death and starting Shady45, his Sirius hip-hop channel.

His most recent effort at new material, the Aftermath compilation, 2006’s "Eminem Presents: The Re-Up," was an abject artistic failure, which featured the newest mutation of the Slim Shady persona: 50 Cent. The nimble wit of the onetime greatest rapper alive had been replaced by a surly growl and toothless crime boasts — an egocentricity that once seemed like insightful introspection had ballooned into narcissistic self-absorption. It was enough to make you wonder if we’d been dreaming that Eminem was as good as once advertised. He was. It’s just that the zenith of the Eminem epoch ('99-'01) feels antediluvian. Forget the pre-Obama era, this was pre-9/11, a time when the nation’s most pressing concerns were Y2K preparation and what to do with our record surpluses.

So maybe it’s not all Eminem’s fault. Every artist ages, but not everyone has to feel like a gilded age artifact — with Marshall Mathers’ onetime cynosure status partially predicated on the obvious observation that during boom times, the media tend to focus on banalities. Every writer needs a story, and there were few better than Dr. Dre’s protégé: a relentlessly attention-starved white rapper from 8 Mile (or close enough), prone to making malevolent remarks about homosexuals, his ex-wife, his mother, and Moby.* 

The post-Columbine conservative press took the bait, with everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Lynne Cheney inveighing against Eminem’s indecency, with the latter going so far as to recite his most scabrous lyrics before a Senate committee. Wisely, “Crack a Bottle” opens with Eminem lamely rehashing his Slim Shady persona, sneering about his record of “17 rapes,” “400 assaults” and “four murders"; lines that would’ve inevitably got the peanut gallery gasping a decade ago feel forced and contrived today. Forget the odious ethical implications, it’s just artless, dull shtick.

Over a Dr. Dre-laced sample of French-Israeli pop star Mike Brant’s “Mais Dans la Lumiere,”** Eminem hollers that he’s “the most diabolical villain in the world.” Clearly, he has no idea who Bernie Madoff is. The old Eminem was sly and incisive, “meta" before it became the prevailing cliché — his new material feels hopelessly dated, with references to Chevy Tahoes, Andre the Giant and another acarpous analogy comparing him and Dre to Batman and Robin. Seriously, man, it’s 2009, rich people are driving Lexus Hybrids. And nothing against late French wrestlers, but Andre the Giant retired in 1992. Though this perhaps solves the mystery as to what Eminem did over the last four years: watched "The Princess Bride" repeatedly.

“Crack a Bottle’s” hook finds Slim spitting a generic club couplet that sounds ripped from 50 Cent’s rhyme book: “Crack a Bottle/Let your body waddle/Don’t act like a snobby model/You just hit the lotto.” Then he rambles, “uh oh, uh oh, bitches hoppin’ in my Tahoe.” Congratulations Em, you’re able to get women "to hop in your Tahoe.” Considering you’re worth approximately $100 million and are beloved the world over, if this was a problem you’re either leprous, Chris Brown, or both. Moreover, there’s something obviously schematic about it. Eminem never was a club rapper; in fact, the closest thing in his songbook resembling a party track is “My Fault,” where a character attends a rave, meets a nurse’s aide and allows her to accidentally overdose on mushrooms. Party on.

With ringtones, individual downloads and party joints the last remaining commercially viable bastion of rap music, Eminem’s intentions are nakedly commercial. Yet the problem isn’t cupidity, it’s content, or lack thereof. While his flow remains ferocious, an emptiness palls over the proceedings — a complete absence of ideas. Turning 38 in October, Eminem is practically senescent in rap terms and diaphanously eager to stay relevant. Accordingly, “Crack a Bottle” finds him running from his strengths, mistaking being funny for being “fun.” Eminem was always the former, but never the latter. Now he’s just done.

Most damning is the flaw inherent in the song’s central conceit: “Crack a bottle/You’ve just hit the lotto?” By hanging out with Dre, Eminem and 50? Eminem’s pushing 40, Dre’s 44. Somehow, they’ve devolved from caustic young Turks into the sad old guys wearing I Am King cologne and cheesy sport coats, trying to crack open a bottle of Gray Goose vodka and woo girls their daughter’s age. After all, few things sound more inherently dull than hanging out with the Aftermath roster these days. Presumably, 50 would be constantly busy animating webisodes and double-checking that his songs are still played at the club; with Eminem constantly carping about stopping at the Burger King drive-through, and Dre leafing through back issues of Muscle and Fitness.

Eminem’s technical ability remains razor-sharp, but the salient sense of hunger that once propelled him has vanished, his focus diffuse and derivative. As in war, rappers rely on the element of surprise. Having exorcised every demon on wax and having provocatively posed for every print rag, Eminem’s antics seem tired and stale. “Crack a Bottle” might be one of the young year’s greatest successes, but behind the fiscal windfall, it leaves little doubt that Eminem’s foundation is cracked.

-- Jeff Weiss

*On one hand, Eminem deserves credit for being the only one in 1999 to call out Moby and Chris Kirkpatrick. On the other, he bragged about hanging out with Fred Durst and Carson Daly, which is the modern-day equivalent of boasting about kicking it with the star of a Canadian soap opera and Pete Wentz.

**Already sampled four years prior, on the infinitely better Aesop Rock and Del the Funkee Homosapien collaboration, "Preservation."

Photo by Anthony Harvey / EPA