My Name Is is a rap song about an insecure guy who understands he’s insecure but is having trouble processing it. Also, he very much wants to tell you his name. Because it was the launch song to the unprecedented hyper-success of Eminem, which carried with it the validity of the White Rapper and the true commodification of satirical wit and self-deprecating humor in rap.
There were a couple of times when I was in Los Angeles. On one of those occasions, in December of 2014, I wandered around downtown for a bit, and I eventually ended up at the movies because I couldn’t find a taxi to take me to see where they filmed the hilltop fight scene from Blood In, Blood Out.
The theater I walked into was mostly empty—there were, maybe, fifteen to twenty other people scattered throughout. We were there to watch Top Five, a movie written and directed by Chris Rock. One thread running through the movie is that at different points different characters give their picks for the top-five rappers of all time. At the end, as Rosario Dawson’s character (the woman Rock is considering leaving his fiancée for) is walking away in tears,2 Rock calls to her. He asks, “What’s your top five?”
Now, up to that point, the theater had been relatively quiet, as theaters tend to be. But when that scene happened, a woman down at the front immediately shouted, “Eminem! Eminem!”
Of all the different top-five lineups proffered in the movie theretofore, nobody had yet listed Eminem in their grouping. Jay Z was mentioned, of course. So was Notorious. Tupac was there, and Nas, Scarface, Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, on and on.
But Eminem—the guy who sold more albums than any artist in any genre of music in the 2000s; the guy who (as of this writing) has thirteen Grammys, including an unmatched run of five Best Rap Album awards over an eleven-year period; the guy who was the first rapper ever to win an Academy Award; the guy who has the two biggest opening-week album sales numbers of any rapper in history; the guy who was picked as Rolling Stone’s “King of Hip-Hop,” Vibe’s “Best Rapper Alive,” MTV’s “Hottest MC in the Game,” and Billboard’s “Artist of the Decade” all within a two-year stretch—his name had not come up. And so I guess that woman was upset about that.
Eminem is white and that’s a thing that everyone knows, but it’s still a part of any Eminem discussion because that’s just how things are, particularly when you consider that he is the most successful artist in rap, a genre that is largely non-white. Here are three things that have to do with his whiteness:
#1. Talent: His whiteness is almost always brought up as a positive aside to his skill level as a rapper. The only other act that received a similar sort of praise was the Beastie Boys, though they were always more likably sincere than lyrically deft. But that’s why “My Name Is” proved to be critical: It established the validity of the white rapper. The clever part is, he did so without attempting to peddle immersion (“Look how many black people I know!”) or imitation (“Listen to how much I sound like a famous black rapper you already know!”), as those who’d come before him had.
#2. Authenticity: With “My Name Is,” Eminem presented a new kind of whiteness in rap by parodying the normative version of it. To wit: In the video, he very clearly shows different versions of white that have been derided by rap (trailer-park white, famous white, nerdy white, powerful white, weirdo white, etc.), then very deliberately places himself opposite them. The effect is/was startling: By doing so, he created a new faction, one that could exist within the largely non-white rap world as an ally and contemporary instead of a novelty.
#3. Threat: I’m going to reuse an Ice-T quote from the N.W.A chapter where he was talking about one of the ways gangsta rap was being viewed as a problem. “The real problem here with the one side versus the other is not that my homeboys are hearing [this music]. If only my friends were hearing these records, nobody’d care. It’s that [affluent] kids are buying more rap records than our kids. And the white kids now from suburbia are listening to N.W.A and the parents don’t know what to do about it. If only the brothers in the neighborhood listened to it, nobody’d care.” I mention it again as a supplement to this quote, which is what Carson Daly said about Eminem in 2011: “Here’s a white kid saying stuff that rappers had said for years before. But they looked at it as a problem that was happening over there. And now you’ve got this guy who looks like your son—you have suburban white American kids who are buying the records. He’s the new spokesman for a generation saying these controversial things. And I think all of a sudden it’s a problem.”
Eminem is not a gangsta rapper. But he is a philosophical extension of gangsta rap, especially with regard to the existential conundrum that white people consider white youth experiencing offensive music to be.
TRUE THINGS ABOUT “MY NAME IS”
A lot of people remember it as Eminem’s first song, but that’s not a true thing. Eminem had an entire album that came out before “My Name Is.” The album, Infinite, was not a major-label release, though, and it also wasn’t very good, so it gets either lost or disregarded during discussion, which is for the best either way.
Slim Shady is the alter ego of Eminem. The idea for an alter ego came out of the premise of D12, the rap group Eminem is a part of. Each member had to come up with one. Eminem came up with his while he was using the restroom, which probably makes a lot of sense.
“My Name Is” won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. It beat out “Gimme Some More” by Busta Rhymes, “Vivrant Thing” by Q-Tip, “Changes” by Tupac, and “Wild Wild West” by Will Smith. The album it was on, The Slim Shady LP, won the Grammy for Best Rap Album.
Eminem and Dr. Dre recorded “My Name Is” during their inaugural studio stint. It was one of a handful of songs they recorded that evening. According to them, it took somewhere near an hour. AN HOUR. It took Jean-Claude Van Damme more time to win the Kumite than it did for “My Name Is” to be made.
In addition to producing “My Name Is,” Dr. Dre also codirected the video for it. The song and the video were built solely to serve as an introduction to, and the trademarking of, Eminem. (Slim Shady is said eighteen times during the song.) Dr. Dre did the exact same thing six years earlier with Snoop Dogg on his first single. That song, which also employed name recognition, was called “Who Am I (What’s My Name).” (“Slim Shady” was said twenty-five times in it.) Dr. Dre is smart.
“My Name Is” samples a piece of “I Got the (Blues)” by a man named Labi Siffre. Siffre, an openly gay man, let them use it, but only after they’d made changes to a few of the lyrics that Siffre felt were offensive. Example: “My English teacher wanted to have sex in junior high. / The only problem was, my English teacher was a guy” became “My English teacher wanted to flunk me in junior high / Thanks a lot. Next semester, I’ll be thirty-five.”
“My Name Is” was the B side to a song called “Guilty Conscience,” where Dr. Dre and Eminem were presented with three different scenarios (a potential robbery, a potential date rape, and a potential murder) and each argued a side, Dr. Dre the good conscience and Eminem the bad. “Guilty Conscience” is masterfully done, and the third verse on it was probably the single most captivating music moment of 1999.
Women have served as Eminem’s rage source material for the entirety of his career (mom, daughter, girlfriend then wife then ex-wife then wife again then ex-wife again). It’s one of the overarching themes in his music. We get traces of that in “My Name Is.” There’s the bit about Pamela Anderson (tearing off her breast implants and then smacking her), and also…
Eminem’s mother, Debbie, took a real beating in the song. Em accused her of being a druggie, not providing for him, and being incapable of breastfeeding him because she didn’t have breasts. In response, she sued him for $10 million. She was awarded $25,000. Legal fees ate up most of it. She ended up getting $1,600. That’s .00016 percent of what she was hoping for. That’s the highest percentage of disappointment I’ve ever heard of.
To extend the point, some: Eminem’s rage, while often aimed at women, is not exclusively so. He is equally fond of lampooning celebrities, be it men, women, clowns, cripples, rappers, reality TV stars, civil rights figures, or any variation or combination of either of those. There’s a direct relationship between how funny or clever or insightful his barbs are and the dates he delivered them (they were enjoyable in 1999 and have gotten only more and more tiresome since then), and there’s also a whole infographic with examples of some of his more pointed barbs right on the next page. You should look at it.
Eminem is, on regular occasion, rated the most powerful rap tactician, and a seamless example of the intricacy and brilliance with which he stitches his rhymes together happened on the TV show 60 Minutes when they ran a segment on him in 2010. During the interview, he and Anderson Cooper were sitting in a studio talking about how Eminem bends words to get them to do what he wants. The word “orange” came up. “What rhymes with ‘orange’?” Cooper asked. “I’m trying to think of some and I can’t figure out any.” Eminem explained that nothing rhymes with “orange” exactly, but that you can mold it into a two-syllable word—oh-range—and all of a sudden, “I put my oh-range, four-inch door hinge in storage and ate porridge with George.”
I don’t even know.