Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Eminem and Kanye: A Comparative Appraisal


Is it wrong that two of my favorite rappers are Eminem and Kanye West?
I only ask because I know that they’re the two most obvious choices for a whiteboy rap listener such as myself. But I like to believe that they appeal to me not because I’m racist and/or a pussy, but rather because they’ve both expanded hip-hop’s potential in ways that few other mainstream rap artists have done since NWA.
Don’t get me wrong, gangsta rap has value. I doubt that there’s any other cultural force that has done as much to raise American awareness of the problems of inner-city youth. But the subgenre quickly became so dominant that it degenerated into empty, formulaic, commercialized posturing. For hip-hop to continue to grow as an art form, it needed fresh perspectives. The great thing about Eminem and Kanye is that they both moved away from the norm, but in two totally opposite directions. Kanye tried to be more positive: “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind/A creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns.” Eminem went, uh, a little more negative: “I ain’t no fucking G, I’m a cannibal/I ain’t trying to shoot you, I’m trying to chop you into pieces and eat you.”
From there, countless clear contrasts emerge: Eminem was white but poor; Kanye was black but middle-class. Eminem is a lyrical master; Kanye is a master of production. Eminem walked around in a wifebeater; Kanye is the Louis Vuitton don. Eminem wrote “Cleaning Out My Closet;” Kanye wrote “Hey Mama.” Etc.
Being a fan of both artists, and aware of how much material rappers release outside of their own albums, I’ve scoured the internets in search of some sort of collaboration between the two. Sadly, I’ve only been able to find “Stir Crazy,” a 2000 Madd Rapper joint produced by Ye and featuring Em:

Kind of disappointing, right? Slim’s lyrics are pretty damn good, as they always were around that time, but the beat pretty much sounds like every other beat Mr. Mathers was rapping over back then. It’s not surprising, I guess, when you consider that
The College Dropout was four years away; Yeezy hadn’t perfected his skills, and no one really recognized the earth-shaking potential of this pairing.*
However, there’s still hope of hearing Eminem’s flow mesh with a truly great Kanye beat. Although Dr. Dre is supposedly handling most of the production on the upcoming
Relapse, the fact that the album’s release has been pushed back to the spring of ’09 means that rap’s two least likely superstars still have time to reunite.
On the other hand, I’m guessing an Eminem guest spot on
808s & Heartbreak is out of the question.
Whatever. Even if neither of them ever make another good album (and given the average pop music lifespan, that’s entirely possible), they’ve still managed to turn rap from a stereotype into an art form that accomodates an increasingly diverse array of performers, as well as an increasingly diverse array of listeners—including, but not limited to, whiteboys such as myself.

*Two near-misses since “Stir Crazy”: Kanye produced the title track for the album
D12 World, but Eminem doesn’t appear on that song. “Like Toy Soldiers” wasn’t produced by Kanye, but it sounds like it was.

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