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Can You Relate to Eminem? – Subject Matter vs. Lyrical Skill

Inside the XXL offices yesterday, during a discussion about Eminem’s Recovery, an interesting point was made. One that I’d never considered before in regards to Marshall Mathers’s standing as, arguably, the best lyricist of all time (this is paraphrased, by the way): “I just can’t relate to a lot of his content—the killing of his wife and stuff like that.”

This was said in the context of, “Yes, Em is incredible on a technical level, but there’s always been an unavoidable disconnect for me.”

A perfectly valid point, if you ask me. Just not one that’s ever crossed my mind when it comes to Em, probably because I’m an outspoken connoisseur of demented fiction and vivid horror (but I won’t get back on that train here; this is hip-hop, after all). Not that I’ve ever killed anyone, of course, or done anything that’d even earn a hard R-rating and fall into the “Horror” aisle at your local Blockbuster. (Do they still have those?) But, this side of my psyche seems to explain why I’ll forever sing the praises of Em’s mostly frowned-upon Relapse.

That album is Em largely on a horrorcore tip, and I love every second of the damn thing. Yet, I get it; it’s questionable that others can fully absorb and embrace something as absurd and dark as “Same Song & Dance,” or marvel at the detailed descriptions of body disposal on “Must be the Ganja” without batting any eyelash and changing the track.

In a strange way, thinking about this topic brought me back to Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, which in turn reminded me of a bigger question I’ve long had: Can someone totally love a piece of hip-hop music when he or she can’t relate to the content in any way? Meaning, in relation to that Pusha T and Malice work, can I—a suburban dude with a purely middle-class, suburban background—connect with constant talk of drugs and other paraphernalia I’ve never actually held in my hand?

My answer, to cut to the chase here, is a resounding “Yes.” Though, I connect to the material on a purely artistic level. How the MC puts his or her words together, and how he or she catches the beat; the songwriting and lyricism, outweighing the actual subject matter. It’s the same as someone loving Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, really—you may not have fought in World War II, and you may not be able to speak in French or German, but you can (I’d hope) appreciate the skill in which Tarantino creates such a brilliantly heightened history. Enjoyment over relation. Pusha T is a hell of a rapper, and I know this. Thus, I’m on board.

So when people condemn Eminem’s unsettling lines and twisted grabs toward shock value, I’m left a bit confused. Sure, we’re all entitled to our opinions, and I certainly have some divisive ones of my own. But, honestly, how many of us grew up listening to N.W.A from the comfort of our cozy living rooms, next to a window overlooking a quiet, relatively safe street? Not all of us, but a good amount, I’m sure. I know I did, a 28-year-old White dude who still loves bumping Ice Cube’s vicious opening lines from “Straight Outta Compton” on occasion.

How do you all feel about this? When Eminem spits blood-soaked punchlines, do you turn the other cheek? Is it important for a listener to relate to a song’s content on a deeper level? —Matt Barone

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