Music is arguably the oldest form of storytelling, even older than writing.
Long before cavemen were documenting their stories on stone walls, melody and rhythm could be found in the whistle of the wind through the treetops; in the way birds greet the sunrise, how whales speak to each other across great distances.
As an art form, music has come a long way since the days of bone flutes and elephant-skin drums (although, with the likes of Justin Bieber and Little Mix dominating the airwaves these days, it may not seem like it).
We now have rock ‘n’ roll, country music, techno and trance, pop music, gospel, easy listening, hip-hop and RnB, grunge, dubstep, jazz, heavy metal…
…and it is a truly humbling notion when one realises they were privileged to grow up alongside the lyrics and music of the second best-selling musical storyteller of all time.
Born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, American rapper Eminem (also known as his alter-ego, Slim Shady) is also the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time and the best selling music artist of the 2000s. Over the course of a 25 year career, the King of Hip-Hop’s distinctive style of rhythmical rap, unique lyrics and approach to music producing has changed not only the genre, but pop culture and society as a whole.
In a special edition post of Fan Girl Corner, I will examine the techniques and style that makes Mathers one of my writing role models.
1. OVERCOMING ADVERSITY
Only those who’ve been living under a rock on Pluto for the past twenty years are unfamiliar with Eminem’s upbringing in a working-class, primarily black, Detroit neighbourhood.
But just in case you are a rock-dwelling Plutonian…
Mathers was raised by single mother Debbie after his father abandoned the family when he was 18 months old. A victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy at home and abusive bullying in the local streets, Eminem was forced to constantly change schools as he and his mother bounced between public housing homes. He has maintained that his estranged mother never had a job, and that they survived on welfare checks and the occasional payout from lawsuits where she’d dramatized minor incidents. She would go on to sue Eminem himself, in 2001, for defamation.
His on/off relationship with twice ex-wife Kimberly Anne “Kim” Scott has been equally inspirational in his lyrics and music. High school sweethearts who briefly separated in 1996, Mathers and Kim first married in 1999 just as Mathers’ career was taking off; however, their already rocky relationship couldn’t withstand Eminem’s international success and they divorced in 2001. They remarried in January 2006, but separated again in April 2006, agreeing to joint custody of their daughter Hailie Jade.
Despite his tough-guy stage persona, Eminem has continually been noted as a devoted family man, with his love for his daughters being the subject of as many songs as his hate for his mother. In addition to Hailie, Mathers also has custody of Alaina (the daughter of Kim’s twin sister, Dawn, who passed away from a heroin overdose in 2016) and Whitney, Kim’s daughter from another relationship. He had legal custody of his younger half-brother Nathan, until the latter became of age.
Interested in storytelling from a young age, Eminem initially aspired to be a comic book artist before he was introduced to hip-hop music by his Uncle Ronnie (Ronnie would commit suicide in 1991; Mathers refused to talk for days afterwards). After dropping out of high school at age 17, he worked several minimum wage jobs to pay the bills while pursuing a musical career in his free time.
As a Caucasian performer in an industry renowned for its predominately African American talent, Mathers was forced to work harder in the face of criticism by his peers.
Participating in freestyle rap battles from the age of fourteen, to open mic contests at Detroit’s premiere hip-hop club, to being recruited to several groups and producing two underground albums, his big break finally came when he came second place in the 1997 Rap Olympics. A rep from Interscope Records sent a copy of Eminem’s second self-produced album to Dr Dre, and the rest, as they say, is pop-culture history!
Obviously, there were great hip-hop artists before Eminem – Dr Dre, Ice Cube, Easy E (let’s face it, the entire N.W.A line-up), Tupac, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Biggie, Busta Rhymes. The genre wouldn’t exist without these pioneering musical storytellers.
However, Eminem brought hip-hop to white, middle-class suburbia; the genre was a mainstream curiosity prior to the mid 1990s and Mathers gave it substance.
If one was to take a deeper look at Eminem’s discography and the film clips accompanying the single releases, profoundly insightful short stories/ poems similar to an author’s bibliography can be found. For example:
- Love the Way You Lie = a drama about a couple trapped in the cycle of domestic violence
- Stan = a thriller about an obsessive fan
- the Way I Am = a drama about the pressures of fame
- Mockingbird = a poem from a father to his daughters
- Lose Yourself = a drama about a musician trying to balance fame and family; a drama about a musician striving for success; a poem about turning dreams into reality
- If I Had = a drama about poverty
Eminem doesn’t rap about having money, guns and women like most rappers; he raps about the struggles with his family, his living situation, and his struggles with addiction, real issues that most people can relate to. And because his issues continued after he became successful, his music has managed to remain genuine.
Aspects of Mathers’ distinctive musical style include carrying a concept over a series of albums; complex rhyme schemes, multisyllabic rhymes, numerous rhymes to a bar; “stacking” vocals, and the use of syncopation. Additionally, he is known for taking several days or weeks to craft the lyrics to his songs.
One of Eminem’s other trademarks is the use of alter egos in his songs, which allows him to explore different styles and subject matters. For example, his most famous alter ego, the violent and dark Slim Shady, allows for tongue-in-cheek, politically incorrect comic relief.
Mathers may have shifted his focus to producing in more recent years, but his lyrical genius will remain a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, and his influence over the hip-hop genre is far from over, with a new album rumoured to be released in 2018.
3. ENUNCIATION MANIPULATION
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the only word that rhymes perfectly with orange is sporange (lit. a very rare alternative form of sporangium, which is a botanical term for a part of a fern or similar plant).
The above link is a 2011 interview between Eminem and 60 minutes presenter Anderson Cooper, in which Eminem proceeds to rhyme orange with four-inch, door hinge, storage, porridge, and even George, simply by breaking word into different syllables and enunciating each syllable differently.
The first time I saw the above interview, I literally got goose bumps. It was as if everything I’d been taught about the English language was a lie. I began to listen to the different speech patterns of individuals, and have found this assists in writing more realistic dialogue for my characters.
Whether you love or hate his music, it’s impossible to deny Eminem’s incredible command of the English language, or his prowess over musical storytelling.
Are you a fan of Eminem’s “literary” techniques? Leave a comment below.
© Tara Jenkinson 2017
Infinite, 1996, Web Entertainment
Slim Shady LP, 1999, Aftermath Entertainment/ Interscope Records/ Web
The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000, Shady Records/ Aftermath / Interscope/ Goliath Management
The Eminem Show, 2002, Shady/ Aftermath/ Interscope/ Goliath
Encore, 2004, Shady/ Aftermath/ Interscope/ Goliath
Relapse, 2009, Shady/ Aftermath/ Interscope/ Goliath
Recovery, 2010, Shady/ Aftermath/ Interscope/ Goliath
The Marshall Mathers LP 2, 2013, Shady/ Aftermath/ Interscope/ Goliath
8 Mile, DVD, 2002, Universal Studios