On Saturday afternoon I was having dinner with my friend Amanda Kenney, who name checked Eminem as her favorite musical performer. Eminem? Her mother Michelle mentioned Rod Stewart, and that I can see, and her kid sister Maggi talked about Taylor Swift and One Direction -and that I can understand. The three young ladies were in town with rock nyc writer Margaret Mullen for The Monster tour at Metlife, Saturday night. And seemed rational enough for Massachusetts natives. But Eminem? Your favorite? That’s like making a Hammerhead Shark your favorite pet, you can do it but I doubt too much snuggling is going on.
For all Eminem’s gifts, and yesterday night he certainly proved himself one of the top, if not the top, MC’s in the business, warmth isn’t his currency, which figures, but neither is passion: his rage is ice cold, if he had a color it would be white heat not red hell. During a 20 song solo set, Eminem was a true Monster of rap, digging up all the old skeletons, bearing all the old wounds in a career spanning assault. When you see just about any modern rapper (unless you wanna go underground) the story remains the same: from slinging crack rock outside the projects to Rolex watches and “bitches and hos”, but the Eminem trajectory doesn’t allow him to revel in his gifts. The American White Trash success story tells of an intense fury towards his mother, his father, his upbringing, poverty, Detroit, school, a society that wanted to throw him away. There is no pleasure in the story, not even in the retelling of the story, the language of the story or the deep satisfaction of showing everybody the story. Nothing helps, certainly not the audience who won’t leave him alone and helped him on a downward spiral which left him nearly dead from downers in the mid ’00s, All Eminem has that matters to him is this towering anger which through wit and skills he has made into a 21st Century music story second to none.
So easy to admire sure, but easy to love?
Not unlike his co-star for the evening, Rihanna. Rihanna is a brittle, bemused cold woman. I’ve seen her live several times and she is never that good (until last night). On record she is all about leveraging distance between herself and her lover and by extension her audience. From early hits like “Umbrella” through later hits like “Pour It Up”, the words and the tone don’t mesh. Rihanna isn’t a soul singer, she isn’t a belter, she is a hip hop singer, the precedent here is the late Aaliyah: both singers hold back hard on feeling. Rihanna has no Gospel in her (she comes from Barbados not South Africa), every single track comes from a cool blue place and Ree can only point to the signposts of her soul, she can’t let you in. Indeed, though dressed relatively discretely in a “Motley Crue” tee shirt, Rihanna exudes the dispassion of a topless dancer: she goes through the motions but she doesn’t want to be there.
That is why the mix of the two artists worked so well last night. A fine 150 minute state of the art of hip hop set which started promptly at 810pm and maintained a consistent attention grabbing honor roll of hits by both performers. If the duo lack anything approaching chemistry on stage, well chemistry is hard to project to the cheap seats, and if the crowd reaction was not the towering howl that greeted Jay Z and Beyonce earlier this year at the same venue, I heard calls for Eminem during Ree’s set by a bunch of overage Frat Boys, the set itself was better, with less of the silly sticky sweetness that made “On The Run” so irritating.
I arrived late, so I missed the intro film and the duo were midway through “Live Your Life” by the time I got to my seat. The sun had set and the stage was a bare but beautiful hi-def world of utility. Fronting a 10 piece band who sounded a little too metallic for my tastes (again, a lack of warmth replaced by precision), I did see the first masterpiece, “Crack A Bottle” (off the underrated Relapse). The song itself is all about the beats, the words aren’t the greatest, but the chorus is masterful and even in the midst of the 80,000 seater Metife Stadium, the sound is tremendous, his voice a great voice, hits every syllable (by which I mean beat). “are you ready for some motherfucking activity?” Eminem asks before Rihanna rejoins him for “Won’t Back Down” which leads directly to Rihanna’s set.
Many years ago, I mean circa The Velvet Rope, 1997, I saw Janet Jackson at Radio City Music Hall and she would get so out of breath dancing she had to sing sitting down at times. That could never happen to Rihanna because, in the several time I have seen her emotionally indigent, obnoxious headlining concerts, she has lip synced and used backing tapes. She has not even danced very well and, to add insult to injury, she showed up very late and played very little. The hope was Eminem would force Rihanna to up her game and Ree upped her game through the roof (well, the sky). With no lip syncing, though liberal use of backing tapes, Ree mixed her dance hits with her ballads and a very fine “Umbrella” was the pleasure till in the live performance of her career, she nailed “Stay” with just piano. It was an amazing transformation for the notoriously lax performer. “Love The Way You Lie” marked the transition back to Eminem and it was the only time I’ve been sorry to see the singer leave the stage.
And it is a damn good thing she did bring it because you can’t screw around with Slim Shady about to follow you. A Slim Shade off his 2010 gig at Yankee Stadium (the last time I saw him perform), that probably has a lot to do with the sheer size of Metlife; the distance can contort the emotions, even though gigantic LCD screens gave the promise of intimacy. With Nate Dogg playing wingman (I didn’t recognize him till they played “‘Till I Collapse”), Eminem gave a masterclass in rap. He roamed one side of the huge stage to the other, with his signature mime scratching hand moves and head tucked down in his hoodie, he spat out one rap after another. All virtuosity raps but at his best during a mindblowing “Rap God” where the band drops out and just a DJ scratches a record to the beat, much more and Em was fast, punchy, very very dexterous. This was Em’s equivalent of Ree’s “Stay”. Just to remind us, he didn’t need as much as he had on hand to sell himself to an audience. Just a DJ could have done it.
If “Rap God” was the highlight of the evening, a shout of “People” lead to a personal fave “Square Dance” and a set closing “Without Me” was as funny as ever. Ree came out to sing Hayley’s part on “Airplane Pt 2” and Dido’s on “Stan”. Neither songs are favorites of mine but she acquitted herself well. Yet, there is so sexual chemistry between the two, I once had a friend who told me he broke up with a gorgeous girl he was dating because they had no chemistry. Since they were both attractive looking people, I didn’t understand it but he explained that they were both used to being serviced, not having to do the work so they were always waiting for the other to do the heavy lifting. The thing about Ree and Em is they are both cool customers, they can’t feign feelings, they work distance, and neither compromised on stage. Something else, Ree is on the record as only finding black men attractive, so quite literally there is no sparks on her part for Eminem and it shows. No flirting, no hand holding, nada. Em ended his set with a handful of very early tracks.
Ree took us to the encore with “Diamonds” and the Calvin Harris track that changed her from star to superstar “We Found Love”. And then I left, so wait for Margaret Mullen’s review if you wanna read about the encore.
The audience was a mix of men and women and got me to wondering about Amanda’s comment as to how Eminem is her favorite performer. Very strange. Amanda is 18 years old and Em has been around since before she was born so the age doesn’t quite make sense. My niece Kristin Diab is older and mentioned “I’ve just always liked his music. I love how angry he is and just the tone of his voice.” But I wonder if both these women are not telling me something in their replies: with his curled lip, slim muscular physique, and cold tude, maybe they find Em attractive? He reminds me a little of Presley, I mean Elvis 56, the white blue collar guy playing black music and siphoning some of the sexual intensity of black performers without the racial threat.
Or maybe his music is a form of therapy. Maggi mentioned she is going to be studying Music Therapy and I wonder how she might use this music to release tension for the relapsed? Or wouldn’t it work? Both Em and Ree keep on holding back. Em didn’t use squeeze and then release but squeeze and then squeeze harder. He is a messianic loner in a hoody, a brooding antisocial superstar. Eminem is what I say he is.
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