Roundtable May 2009

Eminem, Meet Obama

A genre that once thrived by flipping off authority now has a place on the president's iPod. Where does rap go from here?
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Shady's back. Eminem spent 1999 to 2004 on a wildly successful crusade to shock suburban parents and separate American teenagers from their allowances before disappearing for five years. Now, he's returned with a new album, Relapse, and he and Interscope Records are taking to the Jimmy Kimmel Show, YouTube, and even the pages of The Punisher comics in an effort to make the record the music event of the year. But it won't be that easy. Rap's changed since Eminem took his last bow, and no matter what impact his talent—and his backstory as a white, working-class dude from Detroit—had on the genre in the past, he's no longer on the cutting edge of hip-hop.

He's not alone in trying to figure out where that edge is. A genre that once thrived by flipping off authority—be it by defying your parents or shooting at cops—now has a place on the president's iPod. Rappers are using computer programs to tweak their voices on breakup albums, rhyming guest verses on pop hits for tweens, and making the charts with nonsense songs. But hip-hop's omnipresence is a result of its evolution away from its roots in neighborhood parties, politicized anger, and urban culture.

Does that evolution and acceptance come at a cost to rap's political power? Will its absorption into mainstream popular music blunt its impact as a unique—and uniquely disruptive—sound? Is Eminem any fun to listen to anymore? In an email roundtable, Atlantic correspondent and Vassar College assistant professor Hua Hsu, frequent Atlantic.com culture contributor Alyssa Rosenberg, and Government Executive staff correspondent Gautham Nagesh discuss rap's future in the age of Obama.

Hip-Hop Roundtable
Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Round 5 | Round 6

Round 1: Alyssa Rosenberg

I've been tapping my feet in impatience for the last five years, waiting for Eminem to release another full-length album. Eminem and his alter ego Slim Shady were annoying, immature, occasionally nervous-making, but so clever, sometimes so funny and sometimes perceptive, so undeniably, insanely good with words that I wanted to spend time with them. But on Relapse, the album that he's releasing this week, Eminem's a pill-popping psychopath. And I'd rather listen to Lil Wayne, who is truly weird, or Kanye West, who became more outsized in real life than Eminem ever was in his songs.

Eminem isn't rhyming as fast as he used to, either, and on the new album, the words rise through sludgy music, blunting the percussive quality that was so striking in “Forgot About Dre” all those years ago. His diss tracks don't work in a 24-hour celebrity news cycle, something that was still nascent when he bowed out in 2004: Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson had broken up by the time “We Made You,” which parodied their relationship, started getting airplay.

But I guess what disappoints me most about Relapse is that it feels like a substantial step backwards from the feints Eminem was making towards political relevance. In 2002, he pushed back against the imminent invasion of Iraq in “Square Dance,” where his scatting shows off his skills at wordplay. And 2004's “Mockingbird,” a powerful look at the psychological impact of poverty, was four years ahead of the emotional consequences of the economic downturn.

Today, Eminem's slicing up a hospital ward and joking about reality star Kim Kardashian's ass. And who are our alternatives? Asher Roth, a skinny suburbanite who is the next inheritor of the white boy rapper mantle has, depressingly, scored a hit with “I Love College,” a lackadaisical ode to sleeping late, drinking hard, eating cheap, and acting stupid. Even worse, the gloriously eccentric southern rapper Cee-Lo Green, whose song “Die Trying” just slays me, is two albums into what ought to have been a side project collaboration with DJ Danger Mouse, and is singing hooks for Roth, when he's not recording covers of “Kung Fu Fighting.”

Jay-Z's still rapping, but hearing him rhyme “My president is black / My Maybach, too / And I'll be goddamned if my diamonds ain't blue” on his cover of a Young Jeezy track celebrating Obama's inauguration in the middle of an economic downturn just depressed me.

I guess maybe if we reach the day when Jay-Z's not showing off his diamonds, it's time to stick my money in my mattress. But we do, after all, have a rap fan in the White House. So what are you guys listening to that sounds fresh, and of this particular moment?

Next page: Gautham Nagesh
"The days of hip-hop as a 'dispatch from the ghetto' are over."

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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