Eminem in the "Sing for the Moment" video / Screenshot via YouTube
Being a music fan in 2002 was strange: Rock had splintered into the dying groans of post-grunge and the beginnings of blog-friendly indie rock with pop-punk trouncing both in sales. Electronic music was coming down from the rave days of the late 90s, discovering its sensitive side through Four Tet and various IDM acts. Meanwhile, hip-hop was ruled by Roc-a-Fella and the Neptunes. Rap-rock was a thing. And the biggest star anywhere was Eminem.
It feels funny to refer to The Eminem Show as a grappling-with-fame album—The Slim Shady LP had already made Eminem a star, and The Marshall Mathers LP had already done its share of addressing that fame—but the extent to which Em became not only ubiquitous but suffocatingly present post-Marshall Mathers was beyond anything even he probably expected. As such, the album was filled with gloats, hand-wringing, and tales of excess that bordered on self-destruction. Amid the wasteland was an oasis of sorts, a somber ballad that bafflingly remade Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” Whether Em or co-producer Jeff Bass meant the sample as a nod to Run-DMC or were simply Puff Daddy-ing an older hit is unclear, but the ramifications of this artistic choice cannot be overstated, especially if you are a white dude who raps or listens to white dudes who rap. The earnestness of "Sing for the Moment" resulted in a questionable direction for the genre.
Hold on, let’s back up here a minute. Yeah, “Lose Yourself” would become the bigger hit, the career-defining single that really kickstarted this butt-rap wave, but the seeds had already been sown by the time Joe Perry finished his guitar solo. “Sing for the Moment” is one of Em’s “real talk” songs. He makes a case for himself, about how rap—specifically his vision— speaks to kids from broken and impoverished homes much like he did. His writing plays it straight with none of the irreverent pop culture cross-referencing and mock conversations that characterized his bars beforehand. Serious Eminem—Marshall Mathers—had made an appearance before on songs like “The Way I Am,” but never before had he spoken directly to his fans like this.
Em no doubt intended to legitimize the work of other rappers with “Sing for the Moment,” painting a picture of kids wearing do-rags and sagging their pants who "are nightmares to white parents” but attempting to show how rap is more than the “guns, bitches, and cars” music it was assumed to be at the time. It can be argued that the opposite then happened. By using an undanceable, plodding beat, he divorced the idea of fun and levity from his hip-hop, an approach which appealed very strongly to his crossover audience of frowning, angst-ridden rock fans. Em’s nightmarish mirror world was comforting mainly because he tempered his killing sprees with songs like “Sing for the Moment.” These tracks gave him the voice of experience, saying “I’m just as fucked up as you are, so follow me.” And that’s all right because that’s part of what rap has historically been: a way out for those who lack one.
But as he said himself on “White America,” Em resonated with the blue-eyed and fair-haired people that he resembled, and their lives are still the easiest even in the worst living conditions. He spends some time on the same song checking his privilege—something many have forgotten or refused to remember—but by then it was too late. The comparatively mundane woes and travails of white North America were given voice and a context: that of the serious artist spilling their guts and hoping to inspire others. And by giving that character the backing of a breast-beating rock song, Em removed the need for any of the next-gen Shady disciples to make their music club or radio-friendly. All they had to do was scrunch their faces up—no smiles allowed.
This mode persists today. One of the biggest rap hits right now is G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself, and I,” a song with barely any rhythmic pulse and the tone of a funeral announcement. It’s just a pop song about how the dude wants some space, but it’s delivered with a preachy self-seriousness that imagines its subject matter is as important as that of a Kendrick Lamar song. This is what “Sing for the Moment” created. This—the overly sincere hand-wringing over anemic, rock-leaning beats—is white rap. It’s rap music that courts people who claim not to like the genre, that maintains the idea that rap’s message is most legitimate when it sounds serious and super-technical and it maybe features an acoustic guitar.
If, as Vince Staples and Mac Miller said, “white rapper” is a “corny” genre, “Sing for the Moment” is its own “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s the moment when the direction and general form was crystallized. From here, we have Asher Roth couching his ode to American Pie frat house antics in the aching strums of “Say It Ain’t So” (or is it John Mayer?) and Machine Gun Kelly bombastically covering that acoustic Rise Against song. Why in the hell does beer pong have to be wistful? How does one pivot from possibly the hardest Southside beat to circa 2007 alt-rock radio? Because it’s deeper than that, bro (it isn’t). Logic, who is mixed race, nonetheless makes white rap because his music is usually a chore to get through, as it's nothing but piano-driven ballads. It’s as though it’s a requirement to be joylessly self-important if you’re white and you rap.
Eminem probably didn’t mean to have this effect, but "Sing for the Moment” launched this trend; its legacy is a subsection of rap that caters to non-rap fans and exists outside of the mainstream genre conversation. By extension, this type of "white rapper" rap sells the genre short with the implicit suggestion that it takes a white voice rapping over a guitar to make the music’s message serious, legitimate, and safe. That schism leads to the success of artists like Lil Dicky, who is unable to fully inhabit his chosen genre under the guise of ironic self-deprecation. His example doesn't need to speak for the entire category of white rappers—Mac Miller, the Beastie Boys, and many others show that whiteness and this brand of rap aren’t synonymous. What would happen if white rap actually decided to be a part of rap itself? Who knows. The sarcastic, divided social media response to the mere mention of that still-mythical Drake diss from Em reaffirmed the idea that Em belongs to a bygone era, yet he’s still held up as the pinnacle of rap by all the Slim Shadys who followed. Eminem, the Rap Boy turned Rap God, can no longer save rap from what he created.
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