A Whiter Shade of Pale

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There was a time-maybe it started back in the '60s, maybe it ended around the time of the L.A. uprising in the '90s-when a sizable number of people thought American culture was drifting inevitably toward a comforting state of colorblindness. Sure, the nation was confronted with myriad racial difficulties and divisions, but eventually, at some dreamed-of point in the perhaps distant future, things would work their way out: Americans would learn to love their neighbors; the Census form would be reduced to one box, human; and everybody from Compton, Calif., to Greenwich, Conn., would hug, link hands and sing Kum ba yah together.

Well, there's music in the air, but it ain't campfire songs. It's the sound of white rapper Eminem and his gay-taunting, mum-bashing, wordplay-loving new album The Marshall Mathers LP. The old take on white rappers (circa the 15-min.-long Vanilla Ice era) was that they were, for the most part, whites who wanted to be black. But the new breed of white rappers-guys like Eminem, Kid Rock and the punkish Bloodhound Gang-is proudly white, and they tell you all about it on their songs (Kid Rock's new album, The History of Rock, boasts a track titled Born to Be a Hick). Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks famously explored black identity; the book on the new crop of hip-hoppers could be named White Skin, White Masks. Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady, a.k.a. Marshall Mathers, has managed to create a media-ready outsize racial persona-dyed blond hair, played-up trailer-trash roots, weapons charges-that can compete with the color and spark of other stars in today's multicultural music universe, from gangsta rapper DMX to Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin.

Hip-hop's fire is often fueled by drawing on the black community's history of resistance to oppression. Since there's not much of a history of the Man keeping down blond, blue-eyed white kids, Eminem turns to another source to crank up his rage: his mum. On the very first line of the very first song, the stuttery Kill You, he starts taking shots: "When I was just a little baby boy my momma used to tell me these crazy things Š then I got a little bit older and I realized she was the crazy one." After the release of his 1999 debut, The Slim Shady LP, Eminem's mother filed a defamation suit against him, claiming he portrayed her as a deadbeat. On the new album, Eminem addresses the suit: "My f______ bitch mom's suing for $10 million." Lawyers, start your engines.

Eminem isn't big on family values. On his last album, he offered up a revenge fantasy called 97' Bonnie & Clyde in which he rapped about killing his ex-girlfriend (and the mother of his daughter). Since then, in real life, he has married the woman who inspired the song. But the murder fantasies keep coming. On the song Kim, he kidnaps his wife and slashes her throat, rapping, "Now bleed, bitch, bleed!" Apparently, when Eminem says, "Till death do us part," he's leaving himself an out.

On other tracks, Eminem goes after gays with a fervor that would shame sharp-tongued talk-radio host Dr. Laura. On one song, he raps: "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That'll stab you in the head whether you're a fag or lez," and then goes on to make fun of the 1997 killing of designer Gianni Versace ("Whoops-somebody shot me!").

His lyrics, when they aren't flat-out offensive, can be witty. "And it seems like the media immediately/ points a finger at me/ so I point one back at them/ but not the index or pinky," he raps on one of the album's best cuts, the gruff The Way I Am. Eminem is also fearlessly blunt at times, cruelly deriding the talents of the hottest pop stars. "Don't get me started/ these f_______ brats can't sing," he raps about the boy band 'N Sync. "And Britney's garbage/ What-is this bitch retarded?"

The one thing the album lacks-other than, of course, a moral compass-is great beats. Eminem is a protégé of master rap producer Dr. Dre (who serves as executive producer), but the songs showcase Eminem's lyrics more than Dre's studio skills. Dancing to this album would be like dancing to a Lenny Bruce routine. The CD also gets old quickly: Who wants to hear the same joke told five times?

On one track, Eminem raps that he "became a commodity/ because I'm W-H-I-T-E/ cause mtv was so friendly to me." Maybe someday we'll get to the colorblind place. Maybe some day Britney and Ricky and Eminem and DMX will sit around a campfire and their voices will drift up to the sky: "Kum ba yah, my Lord, Kum ba yah Š" But for now, guys like Eminem have an advantage, and they're working it for all it's worth.