Is Eminem finally safe enough to grab biggest Grammy prize?


— Remember the days when Eminem was considered an outlaw? Remember when
a foul-mouthed, equal-opportunity offender sold gazillions of records
while the industry that profited from his booby-trap rhymes squirmed?

The industry liked Eminem’s sales numbers, alright,
but it didn’t care much for his style, and so kept him at arm’s length
when passing out its biggest year-end prizes at the Grammy Awards.

Those days appear to be ending. Eminem is poised to
finally win the one major award that has eluded him in a career that
has produced more than 80 million album sales: The Grammy for album of
the year.

The 53rd annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles
is shaping up as a coronation for one of the industry’s erstwhile bad
boys. The onetime master of outrage finds himself with 10 nominations
and is considered the front runner for the music industry’s most
coveted honor. His 2010 album, “Recovery,” marked a return to
commercial favor and critical relevance for an artist who had been
struggling for several years with drug dependency. Now he’s back, and
selling like it’s still 2001 when he was the biggest pop star on the
planet and the music business was still swimming in profit.

If Eminem walks off with a boatload of Grammys,
consider it a thank you from an industry desperate for a shot of
vitality. While album sales fell 9.5 percent in 2010, continuing a
decade-long decline, “Recovery” trended upward. It racked up more than
3.4 million sales, nearly a half-million more than any other
full-length release last year. It didn’t hurt that “Recovery” showcased
a more introspective — if emotionally frayed — Eminem than ever before.
A huge single, with Rihanna singing an inescapable hook on “Love the
Way You Lie,” allowed Eminem to dominate the old-fashioned way: by
creating a ubiquitous commercial-radio hit that transcended formats.

In that respect, he defines an old-school music
industry pro, the type of star who benefits from the distribution and
marketing muscle of a major multinational corporation (Eminem’s
Interscope label is a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group,
which claims 31 percent of the U.S. market). He is a reminder of how
the industry worked in the pre-digital 20th century, a machine that
rivaled Hollywood in its ability to maximize profit for a select few superstars.

Unfortunately, all this has very little to do with
Eminem as a still-vital creative force. No one should mistake
“Recovery” for the rapper’s best work. In the past, the pitbull MC born Marshall Mathers III excelled at creating divisive,
lyrically eviscerating music that could be cathartic, hateful,
disgusting and comical — sometimes all at once.

“Recovery” has few of those qualities. It presents
him as a more thoughtful and humble artist than ever before, one
acceptable enough for grown-ups. He even owns up to his mistakes — the
type of “maturity” that the Grammys often reward. But the album lacks
inventive production, brims with apologies for past lousy albums, and
makes countless dated cultural references and jokes. Outside of a few
singles, it lacks the depth that defines a classic.

The Grammys have spent most of the last half-century
playing a waiting game. Rather than embracing artists as they shake up
the mainstream, they hold off till they’ve been fully assimilated. Such
acceptance all too often coincides with comfort or compromise,
attributes that have come to define “artistic excellence” at the

Eminem knows the game first-hand. He was the album-of-the-year favorite in 2001, only to have his “The Marshall Mathers LP” topped by Steely Dan’s mediocre “Two Against Nature.” At the time, members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
(the industry professionals who vote on the Grammys) said Eminem’s
homophobic and misogynistic language cost him big time, so they fell
back on an older band that hadn’t been given its due while in its
prime. It was a stance that smacked of hypocrisy (cut to smoke-filled
room at recording academy): “We’ll put up with that crass little punk
as long as he’s selling records. We’ll even invite him to our big
year-end awards ceremony and let him mingle with the tuxedos. But when
it comes time to hand out the big prizes, we’ll give them to someone we
should’ve paid attention to 20 years ago before we let that potty mouth
strut around like he owns the place.”

Afterward, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker joked about finally winning a Grammy after ’70s releases such as
“Pretzel Logic” and “Aja” were overlooked. “I never saw a room of more
disappointed people in my life,” Fagen cracked of walking into the
post-Grammy media conference.

Now it appears to be Eminem’s turn to join the
parade of formidable artists who won Grammys for less-than-stellar
albums, including Herbie Hancock (“River: The Joni Letters” in 2008), Ray Charles (“Genius Loves Company” in 2005) and Tony Bennett (“MTV Unplugged” in 1995).

His victory seems assured because his competition doesn’t fit the usual parameters of the Grammys’ most prestigious prize: Katy Perry’s promiscuous bubblegum and Lady Antebellum’s catchy country pop are too
lightweight; the provocative Lady Gaga’s EP-length recording (“The Fame
Monster”) is too skimpy; and the deserving Arcade Fire has never won a
Grammy and is likely still too unfamiliar to most of the academy’s

What’s lacking in that group? The kind of
long-in-the-tooth career artist that the Grammys usually like to anoint
when the pop upstarts who have been nominated aren’t quite cutting it.
Remarkably, this year it’s Eminem who is playing the role of elder
statesman at age 38, the maverick star who won 11 previous Grammys but
never took home the big prize.

An Eminem win would be a fitting year-end capstone
for an industry struggling to remain relevant. Even pariahs who hang
around long enough selling records become acceptable, especially in an
industry that can no longer afford to be choosy about which
best-sellers to wrap its withered arms around.


(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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