Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Eminem- "Deja Vu"
Eminem's Relapse is his first proper album in four years, and our expectations for an Eminem record have changed way more than he has in that time. After two-and-a-half perfect hip-hop albums--just enough self-meditation to chew on, huge hooks to hum to, technical proficiency to burn--he left us with the sour taste of Encore, as sophomoric and pointless an album as possible. While Relapse certainly doesn't reach the highs of his early output, it's a return to form that's a huge step-up.
Re-listening to Encore reveals that it's five skits; a misguided, dated lead single; three maudlin ballads; and a sprinkling of disgusting, half-baked doodles. Relapse is...five skits; a misguided, dated lead single; three maudlin ballads; and a sprinkling of disgusting, half-baked doodles. So what's the difference?
The main thing that has changed, besides our expectations and a middling rap climate, is the way he uses Slim Shady. Romanticizing The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, it's easy to forget that Slim Shady was always a device. As the horror-core alter-ego for the more austere, modest Marshall of the first two Eminem albums, he attracted widespread attention and fin de siecle paranoia. On Relapse, he is a manifestation of paranoia itself--screams are singing, fighting is dancing. He is id-gobbling exaggeration that places the album in a skewed, inward-turning light. It's not a symbiotic relationship anymore; Slim ate Em. There's a subtle intimation that, in the 21st century junk culture Eminem is skewering and the drug-addled world he is relapsing back into, Slim Shady is more at home than ever. Slim Shady is purposeful extremism, and he's back with a vengeance. He used to be funny; now he's too busy being terrifying.
It's also easy to forget that Eminem's technique never fell off in the first place. Even when he was rhyming about inflating Jessica Simpson's boobs, he was the best rapper alive from a technical standpoint, and he still is. If you don't believe that, then rhyme sixteen different words with "month," which he does on "Same Song & Dance." Flick a compound sentence off your tongue as if it's one word, something like "Picasso with a pick-axe, a sick asshole/Tic-tac-toe with a six-pack of X-acto...knives." Perhaps you'll want to contrast that with some couplets that, while maintaining a preternatural understanding of approximate rhyme and consonance, cut with refreshing honesty, maybe something like: "See, you and me almost had the same outcome, Heath/'Cuz that Christmas, you know the whole pneumonia thing?/It was bologna--was it the methadone ya think?/Or the hydrocordone you hide inside your pornos/Your VCR tape cases with your Ambien CR--great places/To hide 'em, ain't it?" He can do all of this with his endless toolbox, and we've somehow forgotten it.
Most critical attention lent to other rappers concentrates on their flow. Eminem's weaker songs garner so much criticism because people skip that first step and go straight to the content. The messages and themes of Eminem's rhymes have been analyzed more than nearly any other MC because he is technically unimpeachable.
In the leaks leading up to Relapse, bloggers decried Eminem's frequent use of affectations, such as holding his nose while rapping a chorus, performing a verse as Christopher Reeve, rolling his tongue through a bizarre Arabian accent. Indeed, we don't hear his natural voice until about halfway through Relapse, and that gamble comes off mostly as a challenge to himself. He knows people don't like it, but he does it anyway, as if he's possessed, which sounds quite possible at times. That thing people say about, "He could rap the phone book, and I would still blah blah blah..." is really being tested.
For the most part, he comes through. Even the biggest opponents of the album can't deny that it's intensely focused around this theme of literal and figurative relapse, so much so that even the bad songs kind of work in context.
Nearly every song is backed by Dr. Dre's beats, which sound like Blade Runner looks in that their handclaps and left-handed piano chords are perenially state-of-the-art but still dingy and cold even at their crispest. They are lumbering but strenuous, stark but echoing, antiseptic but sort of used. (How many pitches for "temple bell" settings can there be?) Dre doesn't really challenge himself, and he doesn't need to. He's not the star of this show.
Eminem, or more accurately, Slim Shady is, and he's quite the villain. Anchored by his violent, disturbing persona, Relapse is not an easy album to listen to, especially at its outset. You might want to take a shower after it. There's rape, homophobia, misogyny, murder, drug abuse, child abuse. And then the fourth song starts. I remember making that same joke when explaining Eminem albums to people in high school, so perhaps we've come full circle. Even if it isn't the most graceful return to form, I, for one, am grateful for that.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy- Adam McKay (2004)
Most comedies that have a long shelf-life--Caddyshack, Trading Places, Stripes--boast capsule reviews that look something like this: "While the premise of the film is thin, the rich structure and deceptively complex characters are what keep it from being one-note. It stands on its own feet not only as a great comedy, but a great film overall."
Anchorman is not one of those movies. Its plot is superfluous and silly. It really is a bunch of jokes strung together, but its lack of any sort of apology for that fact is what sets it apart. In writing it (and allowing what must have been considerable improvisation), McKay and Ferrell placed the value of the gag over anything else. I know many people might believe that calling it the number twelve movie of the decade is being too generous, but think back to how many memorable sequences there are, how many hilarious lines get quoted every day, and how many movies have taken the lessons Anchorman applied and run with them.
The first of those lessons is to place the joke above anything else. The second one, which was just as important, is collecting funny people and letting them be funny. The late '90s/early aughts model of the studio comedy was to get a funny--or even just likable--star and insert him into some mannered, screwball situation that provided enough witty claptrap to cut into a trailer. I saw a bunch of these in high school. Making sure all of the supporting players are funny doesn't sound like rocket science, but it wasn't until Old School became such a big hit that it became commonplace.* Acting be damned. If the lead actor feels comfortable working with and bouncing bits off his best friends, who are mostly comedians, then let him do it and have some trust in the people making the movie. Every single person in Anchorman's cast--even the bit parts--is funny. Chris Parnell has two or three lines in it. Seth Rogen doesn't have any, and you probably forgot he was Eager Cameraman.
"Little bit of ham and eggs..."
That being said, as impressive as the cast is overall, this is Will Ferrell's movie. His best characters are delusional men whose false confidence leads them to believe they're one step ahead of everyone else, when they're really a step behind. Mastering that persona is the reason he looks and sounds nothing like George Bush but can imitate him better than anyone else. In that regard Ron Burgundy is his masterpiece. Most of the comedy comes from, depending on the character, the undeserved reverence or repulsion with which anyone reacts to him, and he imbues the character with enough pompous swagger to pull that dynamic off.
What makes you laugh is subjective, so I understand if this is not your kind of movie. I can't deny that it's weird. But the absurdity of Anchorman contributes to its ballsy, anything-goes tone. It's that spirit that ends up being its legacy. All parties involved seem so giddy to be realizing this bizarre vision that it wears off on the audience. It's obvious that everyone is cracking up as soon as "cut" is called. It's that fun translated to us that keeps us ignoring the panda sub-plot, and it's the reason the whole of the movie towers above any petty summary of its parts.
*- By the way, Old School just missed the top fifty cut. I love it. There was one end-of-summer week when I watched it every day. I did, however, pass out during the birthday party sequence almost every time. So I don't know how to score that.