So what do you say to somebody you hate?
In February of 1999, Eminem changed hip-hop for both the better and worse with the release of his debut studio album The Slim Shady LP. You can’t talk about Eminem without also talking about race in hip-hop. He didn’t necessarily blow up because he was white but to say he still would’ve reached the pinnacles he did had he been a black artist is moronic (and also pointless, since race as an issue is so prevalent in his music that a black Eminem would’ve been a completely different rapper). But being white isn’t the only thing that made Em’s entry into mainstream rap interesting. Believe it or not, white people did listen to rap before “My Name Is” (though rap is, always was, and always will primarily be black art. It’s important for me to continually state this as white man who consumes more rap music than 99% of the population. I’m fully aware I will never fully understand the struggle against predjudice many of these artists rap about). Being white surely helped Eminem sell records, but it’s not the sole reason for his success. If it was, then why didn’t the many failed white rappers who came out before him go on to sell 170 million albums?
Em’s constant references/threats to celebrities, his over-the-top explicit nature, and his ability to straddle the line between serious and sarcastic invented the subgenre we refer to today as “shock rap”, or at least introduced it to the radio waves. We’re desensitized now, but in 1999 when Em released a song about driving his infant daughter to the beach to dispose of his wife’s corpse and then PUT HER VOICE ON THE SONG, it surprised people. Unfortunately, what made Em a legend is also what’s made him irrelevant this decade. A 40-year-old man threatening to “punch Lana Del Rey in the face twice like Ray Rice” and saying things like “I even make the bitches I rape cum” is a little sad. Not necessarily offensive, just pathetic.
There’s also Dr. Dre. Having perhaps the biggest producer in the game at your back, producing nearly all your songs, and constantly shouting you out certainly helps an up-and-coming artist. Dre’s history of introducing future superstars to the mainstream rap world started long-before Eminem and continues to this day (please go stream Anderson .Paak’s new album Malibu, after you read this). If you dig deep and listen to some of Eminem’s pre-Dre music you’ll find it to be, well, far inferior. Not only are the instrumentals amateurish, but the rapping just doesn’t land. It’s still nuanced on a technical level, but there’s really no narrative heft or passion attached to most of it (there are also many noted complaints of Em trying to copy other rappers styles, most notably that of AZ). Eminem never found his footing until he invented the Slim Shady character. The 1997 project he did so on, The Slim Shady EP, eventually found its way to Dr. Dre. Many of the songs that would make The Slim Shady LP are reworkings of those on the EP, and they sound 100x better. Eminem needed Dr. Dre. There’s no way around that.
So while Dre’s long-delayed album 2001, or The Chronic 2001, came 8 months after Eminem’s debut, the single “Forgot About Dre” was released a month before his debut, thus serving as Eminem’s coming out party as well as a promotional vehicle for both albums. In a way, Em’s contributions to this album are similar to those of Snoop on The Chronic. So let’s get to “Forgot About Dre”, a high-charting single that featured Eminem on both the hook and a verse. He even wrote Dre’s verses. In many ways, “Forgot About Dre” is Eminem’s best song. It features some fantastic rhyme schemes, a lightning quick pace, and some of the best quotables ever heard in rap.
Skip to “1:25” to hear Em’s verse, though I’d recommend listening to the song in full, or at least the hook leading into the verse.
Syllables: 300 (1.29 syllables per word)
Time: 57 seconds (5.26 syllables per second)
End Rhymes: 9 (3.3 bars per end rhyme)
Multi-Syllabic rhyme schemes?: Yes
Internal rhyme schemes?: Yes
“Bad” words: 5 (2.1% of all words)
“tape of N.W.A. = A collection of musical musing by the influential rap group N.W.A., of which Andre Young (Dr. Dre) was a founding member.
“Karl Kani” = A clothing brand started by Carl Williams, oft-cited as the first hip-hop fashion line.
“Chronic II” = An unofficial nickname for this album, a follow-up to Dre’s 1992 debut, The Chronic.
“Charlestown Chew” = A stretchy, chewy chocolate bar notorious for not breaking into pieces.
“Hailie” = Eminem’s daughter (at time of release, just a baby), who’s often referenced in his music.
First off, Eminem ends his hook with “And motherfuckers act like they forgot about Dre” and then transitions DIRECTLY into his verse, keeping the same cadence, almost making his verse serve as a bridge between Dre’s two verses. I’ll mostly be focused on his rhyme patterns, so note the color coding.
So what do you say to somebody you hate?
Or anyone tryna bring trouble your way?
Wanna resolve things in a bloodier way?
Just study a tape of N.W.A.
As I very briefly described in my analysis of Jay Rock’s “Money Trees”, good rappers show the ability to shorten or change the pronunciation of words in order to fit them into rhyme schemes. Eminem does that right away here, basically saying “waddaya say” quickly so to match what he does with “study a tape” in the fourth line. This an example of what we call internal rhyme. Em does it again with “bring” and “things”. Then there’s the multi-syllabic end rhyme that Eminem keeps up for four bars. “Forgot About Dre” is mostly a defense of Dre’s legacy and warning to any detractors. Em makes it clear from the get-go, reminding us of N.W.A.
One day I was walkin’ by
With a Walkman on
When I caught a guy
Give me an awkward eye
So I strangled him up in the parking lot
With his Karl Kani
I don’t give a fuck if it’s dark or not
I’m harder than me tryna park a Dodge
When I’m drunk as fuck
Right next to a humungous truck in a two-car garage
Hoppin’ out with two broken legs, tryna walk it off
Fuck you too bitch, call the cops
I’ma kill you and them loud-ass muthafuckin’ barking dogs
Savage. Nonsensical. But also, genius. You really have to look at some of these lyrics to fully appreciate their sophistication. Eminem’s pronunciation of words that technically don’t rhyme makes this possible. The first syllables in “walkin’”, “awkward”, and “parking” don’t really rhyme, but Em’s accent and emphasis on the letter “a” allow him to manipulate the words and create an additional internal rhyme scheme, one that he holds for a whopping 13 bars (ending with the “bar” in “barking dogs”). There are various other internal rhymes within this part of the verse, and at times, Em even blurs the line between internal and end rhyme (“drunk as fuck”, -mungous truck”, “muthafuck”).
In terms of content, this is pure Slim Shady, complete with both ridiculous threats and controversial boasts. While this section may seem off-topic given that he started the verse by referencing N.W.A., the next few lines complete this little “story” and bring things back to Dre.
And when the cops came through me and Dre stood next to a burnt down house
With a can full of gas and a handful of matches
And still weren’t found out
Funny image. And you also have Eminem using an internal rhyme to break up two bars that each carry 3-syllable end rhymes. After he says “weren’t found out” you hear him ad-lib in a high-pitched voice, “right here!”. Ad-libs are a huge part of modern rap music. Hell, some rappers base verses around ad-libs (2 Chainz, Big Sean, others). This wasn’t always the case. Eminem’s ad-libs are, in most cases, used for comedic effect. They add another element to the narrative of a verse without actually breaking up the meter of a particular line.
So from here on out it’s the Chronic two
Startin’ today, and tomorrow’s anew
And I’m still loco enough to choke you to death with a Charleston Chew
I love how Em manages to make “loco enough” and “choke you to death” work as an internal rhyme here. Without that, the 17-syllable bar would fall apart and sound awkward. And “choke you to death with a Charleston Chew” remains hip-hop’s great comedic threat. Peak Eminem. Well, maybe the next few bars are peak Eminem.
Chica-chica-chica Slim Shady
Hotter than a set of twin babies
In a Mercedes Benz with the windows up
When the temp goes up to the mid-eighties
Callin’ men ladies
Sorry Doc but I been crazy
There’s no way that you can save me
It’s okay, go with him, Hailie
Young, drugged-out Eminem is probably the only one with the gall to compare his hot skills on the mic to babies trapped inside a car on a summer day and then tell his infant daughter to go with Dr. Dre- and thank god for that. But even those put off by the lyrics can’t really deny the quality poetic structure of said lyrics. A key to keeping the end rhyme scheme going here is Em pronouncing “men” like “min” and “can” like “kin”. You know what he’s saying and no meaning is lost. He discusses this technique to great extent in Ice-T’s documentary The Art of Rap (which I highly recommend if you’re a Netflix-er). There’s also a bit he did for 60 Minutes where he discusses this, using the example of how everyone says nothing rhymes with “orange”, and then rattling of like 12 words/phrases that do rhyme with orange when tweaked. Eminem is a student of hip-hop. He may be washed and desperate for attention, but let’s not forget that his run from ’99-’03 is one of the greatest in rap history. He may have become a phenomenon in part due to his race and the controversy surrounding him, but he had the initial opportunity due his deft rapping abilities.
I believe the line “Sorry Doc but I been crazy” is pretty important here. In order for the masses to buy into Slim Shady, they had to believe that he really has been this warped motherfucker all along, not just when he realized he could profit off it. I don’t know the truth, and you don’t either. During the stretch I mentioned above Eminem came off as a maniacal piece of shit. But his rapping was flawless. That’s what made him interesting.
*thinks about Recovery & The Marshall Mathers LP 2*
I can at least cheer myself up by posting this video of Chris Pratt rapping this verse.
Until next time.