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Eminem - Poet or not?

Welcome to WEEK 255 of MUSIC is not a GENRE (Video #81 & S4Ep19)

Eminem – One of the Greatest Poets of All Time?

When I choose a podcast topic, I can usually get a handle on my angle with some research, listening & general contemplation. This week I’m gonna come right out and say I need some help. There are certain artists whose output is so dense & prolific that to try to summarize it in one podcast is overwhelming. Dylan comes to mind. Zappa. Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson. Apparently Buckethead holds the record for most albums with 166?!?!

With Eminem, it’s not about raw numbers. It’s about density. Few artists of any kind pack as much into their lyrics as he does. Whether you’re into his content or not, anyone paying attention who has any knowledge of wordsmithing has to agree that he is one of the masters. Story & character. Flow, dexterity & clarity. All that, yes. But what blows me away over & over is the wordplay. Internal rhymes. Alliteration. Assonance & consonance. Multisyllabic rhyming! I’m using these words purposely to bring home the point that Eminem is one of the greatest poets of all time.

A study was done in 2015 that found Eminem has the largest vocabulary of any music artist ever, beating second place Jay Z by more than 2,000 words. Side note: the top four richest music vocabularies are all hip hop artists, followed immediately by Bob Dylan. I don’t find this surprising at all. And how he uses those words is repeatedly stunning. Take this lyric as one of hundreds of examples:

My pen & paper cause a chain reaction to get your brain relaxin’, the zany actin’ maniac in action. A brainiac in fact son, you mainly lack attraction. You look insanely wack when just a fraction of my tracks run.

I count NINE multisyllabic near rhymes, in the midst of several coherent ideas making one unifying point. I’d make parallels to the lyrics of Sondheim or Lin-Manuel Miranda for sheer dexterity & ingenuity. If we’re talking legit poets, I’ve seen comparisons to the bigs like Shakespeare, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and many others including the obscure but apt John Skelton. What about beat poets & their raw emotion? Free verse poets and their flow? Certainly slam poetry, which has some connection to hip hop, especially freestyling. Point is, there are way too many elements in Eminem’s lyrics to dismiss it as anything other than poetry.

My discussion on the “controversy” in his lyrics? Eminem demands that you go beneath the surface by hitting you in the face over & over. Surface dwellers only hear the “bad language” or disturbing stories, and completely miss the context & often deft characterizations. Has he overstepped? Yes, mostly when dissing other celebrities or music. But overall he is an illustrator of the grotesque – calling it out for the twisted horror that it is.

That said, one of my favorite aspects of his work is the humor. I recently had a talk with someone who said that any artist who can incorporate humor into their music is fully evolved. Eminem – like Prince or the Beatles or even Bob Dylan – showed it’s possible to be self-serious AND self-deprecating, meaningful AND ridiculous. And it’s a mark of a listener’s evolution if they can identify the humor and know how to take a joke.

From the moment I heard Eminem, I started incorporating some of his lyrical technique – especially sounds & rhymes turning in on themselves, twisting, repeating with variation. As a former poet, it was an easy adaptation. I absolutely LOVE multisyllabic rhyming, and throw it in whenever it feels organic. Even certain aspects of his delivery & humor have filtered through me. “Stop It!”, “Never Tell”, “Different People”, and especially this one:

REC – “Sing Owwt” (from Syncopy for the Weird)

What do you think of Eminem? Are you able to get beyond his shock value, or is it too off putting? Do you consider all lyrics to be poetry, or only some? Or none at all? Discuss dammit!


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