Eminem, Ludacris pander to the depths

August 4, 2002



Following a week after the Smokin’ Grooves tour, Anger Management, the second major multi-act hip-hop showcase of the summer, provided a jarring contrast when it pulled into a sold-out Allstate Arena on Thursday night.

With artists such as Outkast, Jurassic Five, the Roots, and Lauryn Hill, Smokin’ Grooves vividly illustrated the artistic boundaries that remain for hip-hop to challenge and expand in the new millennium. Anger Management, meanwhile, proved simply that mainstream hip-hop artists such as Ludacris and headliner Eminem know no limits in stooping to pander to the lowest common denominator.

A nimble-tongued comedian on his own releases for Def Jam South, as well as on guest appearances on hits by other artists such as Missy Elliott and Jermaine Dupri, the Atlanta M.C. Ludacris suffered in part from a typically miserable Allstate Arena sound mix (it was all bass, making his lyrics nearly unintelligible) and partly from his own reluctance to simply let the music speak for itself.

Joined by members of his crew, Disturbing the Peace, and performing on a stage flanked by two giant bobbing head statues (one a pit bull, the other an image of Ludacris himself), the rapper interspersed his own jams with the standard, miserably cliched hip-hop routines of “wave your hands in the air” and the “left side/right side” battle. Combined with his frequent use of “bitches” and “hoes,” it all made him seem dumber and much less talented than he actually is, unless his recordings have been a fluke.

Eminem’s recordings are no fluke: They are brilliantly crafted mainstream pop, designed to seduce MTV and radio, despite his whining that “radio won’t even play my jams.” They succeed brilliantly—not on the artistic level, but at the primary goal of helping young Marshall Mathers move millions of units and make boatloads of money for his corporate sponsors, Interscope Records, while continuing to maintain the transparent pose of being an unjustly vilified, wrongly set-upon outsider/rebel.

The most amusing segment of Eminem’s skimpy, 70-minute set was the opening montage of C-Span clips of him being savaged by critics such as Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joseph Lieberman. The hyperbole of their attacks was indeed laughable—Eminem is a lot of things, but he isn’t a significant threat to the moral fabric of American society—but the intro grew even funnier if you stopped to think about what it did not include: any hint of the more warranted criticism that the guy simply makes shallow music.

The rapper’s legions of young defenders have a point about his winning delivery and powerful flow—he somehow manages to sound both laconic and frenzied at the same time—but they refuse to grant that when you remove the superficial trappings of his shock-rock lyrics (“I’m gonna kill you!”) and bad-boy pose, his massive, sing-songy jams are at their core nothing more than bubblegum pop.

In fact, with its elaborate videos and circus theme (complete with Ferris wheel, fireworks, and tuxedoed midget), Eminem’s stage show resembled nothing so much as the likeminded, glossy, short-attention-span productions of Britney Spears and N’ Sync.

The music was clearly secondary to the spectacle. The artist truncated many of his hits, performing only a verse and a chorus or two of tunes such as “Stan” and “Way I Am” before moving on to the next snippet. And once again, he devoted a significant four-song chunk of the set to showcasing his unremarkable Detroit buddies in D12.

This was perhaps understandable during his last performance at the Allstate Arena in 2000; he had only two albums at the time, plus an earlier indie release with material he no longer performs. But now he’s had three multi-platinum releases, including the recent smash, “The Eminem Show.” So why is he wasting so much time in an already short performance?

The reliance on gimmickry at the expense of music is starting to seem very tired indeed, as when he urged the crowd to join in cursing out his mother (Hey, Marshall: We’ve got it already, your childhood sucked. Get over it!) and when he tortured Moby in effigy. (The techno star is one of the few fellow pop stars with the cojones to publicly decry Eminem’s misogyny and homophobia.) Neither target seemed worthy of such bile, and to believe that any of this anger was real and not just part of the show is to think that pro-wrestling isn’t carefully staged, either.

A wrestling crowd was what the Anger Management fans evoked during the interminable waits between set changes. (These were made all the more aggravating because the excellent turntablist crew the X-ecutioners were only allowed to perform for a portion of the time.) Fans tirelessly indulged in tedious rounds of “Show us your tits!,” with many young women gleefully complying.

Sad as this was, it was more entertaining than the middle act on the bill, the thoroughly generic Northern California rap-rock/nu-metal quartet Papa Roach. The band’s rhythms are stunted, its melodies are non-existent, and its lyrics are wrought with ridiculous, angst-ridden cliches.

   Still, the musicians sweat a lot, and lead singer Coby Dick runs through the crowd and smashes himself in the head with his microphone. Somehow, these goobers use these displays to con an indiscriminating audience into thinking they’re getting real rock ’n’ roll excitement and energy.

As P.T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute—and that really should have been the Anger Management Tour T-shirt.