Music has changed a lot in the past five years. It's become more urgent, more immediate, gained a higher degree of calculated grittiness and a slightly lower tolerance for bullshit. Pity nobody told Eminem that.
Back in the late 90s, as well as the first half of this decade, Mr. Shady set the pace for artists around the world. His unbelievable ability with a mic and unabashed willingness to speak his mind--no matter how much controversy it stirred--put him at the forefront. As the first white rapper to carry real credibility among all sections of the Rap community, he helped usher in an era when Hip-Hop was to become an unstoppable global phenomenon with universal appeal well beyond the limits of the American ghetto:
"Look at these eyes, they be blue baby, just like yourself
If they were brown, Shady lose, Shady sits on the shelf...
Let's do the math, if I was Black, I would have sold half
I ain't have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that"
Lyrics like these from 2002's "White America" displayed how aware Em was of his role--and all the contradictions in American culture that it brought to the forefront.
Which means he should know better than anyone that Hip-Hop shifts at a pace unseen in any other popular genre. Why then, one might ask, is he releasing an album that sounds like it was recorded five years ago?Relapse is Eminem's first album since 2004, and listening to the singles leaked on the internet, it certainly shows.
"We Made You" just about sums it up. Em still has a great skill with rhyme and flow. His penchant for skewering pop culture icons remains intact as ever, leading him to lambast everyone from Kim Kardashian to Samantha Ronson. But five years after he went into recluse, it doesn't seem irreverent so much as self-referential. Even the Dr. Dre-produced beats seem recycled, as if they were created in a bubble where nothing ages or evolves.
None of this has stopped Interscope from putting every ounce into generating positive publicity for Relapse. Street teams have slapped up posters in every major urban area in the country, and the web has been abuzz with hype for the album for weeks now. The album's content, however, has been met with little more than shrugs and yawns from critics and fans alike.
It's not simply that Eminem hasn't kept up. All the alienation, the raw and untempered outrage he once tapped into is still there in millions of young people. In times like this, however, it takes a much more dynamic and focused form. The bottom-up rumblings that have made themselves known since the beginning of the recession cry for a soundtrack that directs its anger at something more specific than the celebrity elite. What's truly confusing is that Em has been more than happy to sharpen the point of his lyrical spear before. In a time that calls for it to be sharper than ever, Mr. Shady has chosen to hold back on giving his barbs some real purpose.
Compare this to the current status of M.I.A., the seemingly unlikely standard bearer whose star never seems to stop rising. The Tamil refugee turned super-artist has a lot more in common with Eminem than one might think: an unapologetic willingness to speak her mind, a background not stereotypically associated with Hip-Hop (aka "she's not Black"), and an aesthetic that bends the boundaries of her genre and dares her audience to shed their preconceived notions.
Record execs are either oblivious or begrudgingly accepting of the fact that "Paper Planes," one of the most recognized songs in the world right now, is essentially about robbing white tourists in a Third World country. More broadly, though, it's about taking back the wealth stolen from these countries by the West.
It's not far-fetched to say that the global explosion of "Paper Planes" is indicative of a shift in mass consciousness the likes of which hasn't been seen in almost two generations. Surely, this shift has been a long time coming, but it has only been in recent months that it's made itself known. Where yesterday's youth seemed divided and out for themselves, today's young people were willing to vote a Black man in as president and are keenly aware that their collective futures are at risk of being flushed down the crapper.
Musically, the new direction of this energy is best embodied in an artist like M.I.A. A refugee, daughter of a freedom fighter, an unabashed militant whose vision of the future doesn't include compromise. Though she spent her early career as a favorite in the Indie scene, her music has always been unmistakably Hip-Hop. Its collision with Punk and Electronica and her ability to gain acceptance in multiple sub-cultures highlights just how much people's ideas have changed in recent years.
When she was selected at one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" last month, it took many people, including this writer, by surprise. To some it might be her first step toward selling out. The events of Time's honorary gala, though, show an artist as willing as ever to speak truth to power. What's more, she was in the rare position to speak it to its actual face.
Writing on her MySpace blog, M.I.A. recounted the admittedly odd experience of meeting such figures as Oprah Winfrey, and actually urging her to speak out on the Sri Lankan war against Tamils. In her signature tongue-in-cheeky style, she also wrote:
"MICHELLE OBAMA GAVE A SPEECH AND THERE WAS MAD SECRET SERVICE IN THE AIR SO I DIDNT GET TO THROW A PAPER PLANE AT HER SAYING 'STOP THE BOMBING OF THE TAMILS IN SRI LANKA'"
What seems surreal about this is the sheer clash of interests taking place. It's worth taking a step back to note the real significance of the whole phenomenon. Here is the daughter of a guerilla fighter, a woman who has never shied from making clear whose side she is on, being pointed to by one of the most establishment magazines in the world as a major influence. Ultimately, very little has changed in M.I.A.'s outlook. What's changed is the way ordinary people look at the world around them and what they are willing to fight for.
When cultures shift, it's not uncommon to see a new and dynamic future alongside the stale, rehashed past. It's unfortunate that the latter of the two can be found so pronounced in an artist who not so long ago was on top of his game. The embodiment of the former, however, in a musician who sees the world in a radically different way is something that can give us all a lot more hope.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for The Society of Cinema and Arts and SleptOn.com, and a regular contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.