15. Eminem - Lose Yourself

When I first heard "My Name Is" in late 1999, I was instantly intrigued.  The vocal delivery was unlike anything I'd heard before.  The nasal whinyness* reminded me of the Beastie Boys' Ad Rock, but the delivery was different.  Couldn't be Beastie Boys, I thought to myself.  When I found out who it was, my first response was, "What a weird name.  M&M?  Isn't he going to get sued or something?"  Turns out he spelled it differently, and he was going to change the face of hip hop.

The big, purple elephant in the room was that Eminem was white.  And historically, white men couldn't rap.  The statement might be racist, but since black rappers can use the "N" word and get away with it, I can say that before Eminem, almost all white rappers were not very good.  Don't believe me?  Vanilla Ice, 3rd Bass, Marky Mark, Stereo MCs, hell, even Rodney Dangerfield did a rap song.  The lone exception was the groundbreaking Beastie Boys.

Eminem became the voice of white urban America.  He talked of hard times, really hard times, and not in the tongue-and-cheek way that the Beasties did with "She's Crafty."  He rapped of relationship troubles with everyone - his mom, fellow rappers, his ex-wife.  He was pissed off, and he wasn't afraid to let loose.  If Neil Young was thirty years younger and later, he might have been Eminem.  But it wasn't white urban America who made him famous.  It was the black urban hardcore hip hop fans who first brought him to the public's eye.

He had the credibility and the pure talent to pull in a strong contingent of black rappers to collaborate and bring their followers.  Black hip-hop fans liked him because he worked hard and had the respect of the artists they loved.  "If he's good enough for Dre," they thought, "he's good enough for me."  White suburban kids liked him because he lived the hardcore, real life that they only read about in magazines in the back seats of their parents' SUVs.  It didn't even occur to them that most of them wouldn't have lasted a week in the same environment that Eminem grew up in.  He looked like them and acted like they wished they could, so it was easier for them to relate.  Unlike those kids who would be terrified to be in the presence of hip-hop god Dr. Dre, Eminem wasn't intimidated by working with Dre.  He knew he had to learn.  He was paying attention.

"Lose Yourself" was Eminem's hip hop PhD.  Like any great doctoral student, he took something that existed, in this case his own song "Till I Collapse," and built on it, using his life's story as the lyrical basis.  Throughout the song he hits beats at different points in the lines, changing up the cadence to help intensify the feeling that his voice is an actual instrument.  While many, many rap songs are musically elementary, "Lose Yourself" builds layer upon layer of musical depth.  Most rappers have a beat that they rhyme to, but Eminem actually had his musicians frame the beat of the music around his vocals.

Starting with a piano refrain that would normally sound like an accordion would in a metal song, in this case it works.  It helps build the complexity of the song, with a quickly added guitar riff, played much more like a drum beat.  That creates the tension that leads to Eminem's first, nervous lyrics:

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?

That's the theme of the entire song, and why it speaks to so many people.  There are certain moments in life that define it - where a choice made one way or the other will forever alter that life.  They only happen a few times in each lifetime.  Many people don't even realize the opportunity until it's already gone.  Eminem poses the simple question, "Are you or aren't you?"  But with any monumental decision, the fear and apprehension about the consequences often paralyzes someone:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready

But he fails.  He fails horribly.  But like the Chinese proverb says, "Failure lies not in falling down. Failure lies in not getting up."  The music in the song adds a contemporary authenticity to the song that most hip hop songs not only don't have, but pride themselves in not having.  It has horns, strings, woodwinds, and rich keyboard sounds, giving the song a more mainstream pop/rock foundation than almost any hip-hop song before it.  Eminem wasn't afraid to throw the usual hip-hop conventions away and build a song for the ages, not just the latest fad of the summer.  Not only are the lyrics about taking your shot, but musically, it was a radical departure and a huge risk.  While the lyrics are a story about taking risks, the music was an actual risk, considering the audience that was his base.  But Eminem has never been one to shy away from a fight.

I've got to formulate a plot or end up in jail or shot
Success is my only motherfucking option, failure's not
Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem's Lot
So here I go is my shot.
Feet fail me not 'cause maybe the only opportunity that I got

As much as he's been painted as an a-hole party guy who hates everyone (and while most of that may be true), Eminem is a tireless worker who is constantly not only working on his own music, but is often collaborating with fellow artists with vocals on records, but more likely the behind the scenes work of songwriting and production.  He heeded the advice of those who came before him, most especially Dr. Dre, and took it to the next level, transforming much of hip-hop in the way that Dre did.

Back in the early 80's many people thought that rap and hip-hop would go the way of disco and other "fad" musical styles and die a none-too-quick death.  Now, almost thirty years later, it's apparent that hip-hop has not only lasted longer than the pop/rock people thought it would, but it's more than likely that hip-hop has supplanted pop/rock as the first music of choice in the United States, based on popularity.  The student has become the master indeed.

* Go ahead, Webster's, put that in your damn dictionary.  (Whinyness. n.  The act of being whiny.)  It's not a word but it should be.

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