Eminem is a Talented Man

Rap is not for everybody. And Eminem is for an even smaller subset of people. Still, no matter how you feel about him and his politics, his social attitudes, and his affect on society, I really think you have to admit he is linguistically talented.

I’ve sort of wanted to post an argument in favor of this position for a while, but I’ve had trouble finding songs that I could use as evidence which were sufficiently clean to appear on my blog. But I was listening to “Lose Yourself” this afternoon and I realized that a decent amount of it is free from swear words, and also showcases his impressive knack for both multi-syllable rhymes and for overlapping rhyme schemes. So here’s my current best evidence in support of my thesis.

Take the first four lines of the third verse, which, when lightly edited, are:

No more games, I’mma change what you call rage
Tear this (expletive) roof off like two dogs caged
I was playing in the beginning, the mood all changed
I been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage

You’ll notice that all three of the last syllables of each line rhyme with each other, and since each line is 12-15 syllables in length that’s a full 20-25 percent of each which is devoted to getting the rhyme scheme to work out, and yet, the clarity of the lyrics isn’t sacrificed. In fact, I think “I’mma change what you call rage” is a downright clever threat; definitely a full step and a half above crap like “I’ll show you!” and “You’ll be sorry.” The “two dogs caged” image, if mildly rearranged to fit the rhyme scheme, fits perfectly with the tone of the song on several levels, in that it not only invokes the image of someone angry, but more specifically of someone angry because they feel they’ve been unjustly held back, and trapped in an environment where they couldn’t flourish. But the rhyming virtuosity doesn’t stop after these lines. The verse continues:

But I kept rhyming and kept writin’ the next cypher

Best believe somebody’s paying the pied piper

All the pain inside amplified by the

Fact that I can’t get by with my nine to

Five And I can’t provide the right type of

life for my family, ’cause man, these goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers

As you can see, the rhythmic structure has changed and condensed a bit, so that each line is now just 10 syllables long, but the last three syllables still all rhyme, including several places where a phrase is cleverly broken in the middle to make the rhyme come out (and if you know the song, you know this happens without sounding forced, which is even more miraculous). This should really impress you. I defy anyone to sit down right now and write 5 lines of about 10 syllables each with the last three syllables of each line rhyme and yet the whole thing makes clear thematic sense and maintains a pure Anapestic meter. In the sixth line, of course, there’s a brief, nearly iambic interlude (” ’cause MAN, these GODDAMN food STAMPS”), but since each of the stressed syllables rhymes with the other, it feels less like a detour and more like a rewind/repeat of the line to build up towards the end of the verse.

After that he transitions into a faster-paced rap where the rhyme scheme that can only be described as “A…BA/A…BA,” where each LINE has an internal ABA rhyming pattern and each of these patterns rhymes with the subsequent verses. The meter shifts to something a little more free-form that I can’t figure out how to describe in words, but I think I’ve made the point. If I haven’t, I refer you back to the second verse, in which each line actually ends with four rhyming syllables. If you don’t know the song already I think typing the lyrics out will just confuse you, since the meter is rather irregular and hard to pick up on just by reading, but suffice it to say that among the phrases rhymed are “only grows hotter,” “known as the globetrotter,” “knows he’s grown farther,” “…home, he’s no father,” “barely knows his own daughter,” and “here goes the cold water.” After that he goes back into a complicated rhyme scheme that rhymes a single syllable three times within each line and a separate syllable between them at the end of each. It’s really mind-boggling to even think of trying to replicate its intricate structure.

In fact, it’s so difficult to imagine reproducing that as my final witness, I call to the stand someone who actually tried: Weird Al Yankovic, whose clever parody “Couch Potato,” about a guy who watches too much TV, does a wonderful job of mimicking the tone, structure, and even vocal style of the original. Basically, everything except the rhyming pattern. Consider the lines he uses to replace very first four I cited above:

Never missed “Melrose Place” or “Lost in Space”

I’ve seen each “Amazing Race” or “Without a Trace”

And I only watched “Will and Grace” one time, one day

Wish I hadn’t, ’cause TiVO now thinks I’m gay

It’s a good try, and it’s funny. But it rhymes only one syllable per line, and it can’t even sustain that, changing to a different rhymed syllable halfway through. Remember, in the eminem version, the same three syllables are rhymed at the end of all four lines. The same thing happens in the second verse; where Eminem is rhyming 4 syllables at a time, plus the occasional internal rhyme, Weird Al uses just one syllable that changes every two lines.

This is no rag on Weird Al. It’s incredibly impressive that he squeezed a coherent song, packed with pop-culture references, into the same syllabic pattern. I just mean to point out that if you heard the Weird Al song before you heard “Lose Yourself,” you’d already be impressed, and yet the level of structural complexity (and depth of subject matter, arguably) are only going to go up from there. And don’t forget, a large part of the reason the song works even when you simplify the rhyme scheme is because the sneaky, shifting meter would maintain the energy of the song even if it were in blank verse. Don’t believe me? Substitute in some non-rhyming words and try for yourself.

So that’s my argument, presented from this one song only. As I said, I don’t mean it as a vindication of rap as a genre or of Eminem as a person. You may believe that the social impacts of both have been sufficiently negative to outweigh the merits of some cleverly constructed lyrics. I might even be inclined to agree with you; I’d have to think about it. But don’t think that the entire genre just consists of mumbling over a steady beat. Very few of Eminem’s detractors could produce lyrics with the same structural complexities as his.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

3 Responses to Eminem is a Talented Man

  1. Evan West says:

    haha very nicely presented. I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that Eminem is probably the greatest rapper there is.

    Its really weird though, I just listened to that weird Al song for the first time in years tonight before I came here and read this.

  2. S says:

    The happless rhyme of clever wit
    conflated with the odd ball twit
    Remove a ‘t’ and then a ‘c’:
    a “witty rappers” spelling bee
    Oh hell, that’s four not five; oh shit.

    Sorry, I was defied.

  3. lola says:

    well i have always thought of him as immensely talented and I’m not even a rap fan. the first time i noticed is when he was on the award show singing the song about killing his girlfriend. (sorry the name escapes me). i stopped and thought “wow, this guy is good, and this is deep.”I just saw “i’m not afraid” and once again he made me stop and notice. that’s the test of a true artist. you may not follow his career that closely or even be the biggest fan of the kind of art. in this case rap. but every time i see him I stop and listen and am usely memsmerized by the man’s performance.

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