Eminem's back to challenge white rapper Macklemore

Macklemore (left) and Eminem

SINGAPORE - It is 2013 and there's a white rapper at the top of the charts and on stage at a music awards show, receiving trophies and wolf whistles.

But he's not Eminem.

He's a 30-year-old fur coat-wearing guy called Macklemore.

Together with DJ-producer Ryan Lewis, he took his cute indie hit Thrift Shop all the way to the top of the Billboard charts, winning three Moon Men at the recent MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), including Best Hip-Hop Video.

A white rapper beating people like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole and ASAP Rocky to a hip-hop award is a surprise, unless of course its Eminem.

The original outsider of the rap scene has taken home 11 Moon Men, 13 Grammys, and, ahem, an Oscar (Best Original Song for Lose Yourself in 2003).

As it happened, on VMAs night, as Macklemore and Lewis were celebrating their rise to the top of hip-hop, Eminem, 40, was waiting in the wings to remind the world who's really boss.

Though he didn't attend the show this year, two brief ads that ran during the telecast in the US got music fans going a little crazy for Eminem's new single, aptly called Berzerk.

The first single from his upcoming album Marshall Mathers LP 2 - out Nov 5 - sounds like a throwback to the wisecracking, name-dropping "Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?" Eminem of old, before he became the moody, thoughtful man on later albums Relapse (2009) and Recovery (2010).

With Berzerk out, Eminem seems to have stopped the chatter about whether Macklemore is the new incarnation of him, reminding everyone with the four-minute song just how different the two US artists really are.

Looks like it's time for Macklemore to relinquish his brief reign on the throne.

The name

Marshall Mathers and Ben Haggerty sound like the names of cowboy hat-wearing country strummers - thus the need to take on cooler stage names to survive the hip-hop world.

It was a no-brainer for Mathers to shorten the M and M like the popular chocolate brand, and an even better choice to spell it the way it sounded.

There's a better story for how he got his "alter ego" moniker Slim Shady - he told BBC Radio 1 in 2008 that it came from a session in the can.

"I was sitting on the toilet and a lot of good material came out of that. I was kind of skinny and I thought maybe it should be something slim," he said.

"And then for some reason Slim Shady popped into my mind and I just thought of 20 things to rhyme with it."

Haggerty, on the other hand, got his stage name from a youthful tendency to wear thrift store-purchased "flamboyant plaid outfits" that earned him the nickname Professor Macklemore.

"Later, I realised that I wasn't a professor of anything but the name Macklemore followed me," he told MTV last year.

The style

If we're talking rap style, the two couldn't be more different.

Eminem got people talking about the exaggerated nasal style he showed on his first full-length album, The Slim Shady LP (1999), but is also just as well known for an aggressive snarling that he uses to great effect when spitting out lyrics about haters and the like.

In comparison, Macklemore is calm, conversational and very much a contemporary, Top 40 party boy rapper who could be cousins with Far East Movement and LMFAO, especially on his second hit Can't Hold Us (featuring US R&B singer Ray Dalton), which also borrows its muffled autotuned break from Kanye West's Love Lockdown.

When it comes to "style" style, there's a huge gap too.

Eminem is a classic hoodie-adorned rapper with baggy jeans and shirts, while Macklemore promotes the slouchy luxe look he sings about in his hit single Thrift Shop, turning up at the VMAs in an eye-catching mint green suit accented with a grey striped fur stole he threw over his shoulders.

The glory

It hasn't even been a year since Macklemore and Lewis released The Heist, the independently produced album that reached No 1 on iTunes.

Their biggest achievement to date though, is being the first unsigned act since Lisa Loeb back in 1994 (with Stay) to get a No 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 with Thrift Shop, without being on a label. Next up:

Probably a trunk load of Grammys next year - everyone loves an indie act made good, especially one with socially conscious messages like the gay rights equality Macklemore tackles in his single Same Love.

It's a crazy feat, yet no surprise, if one looks into his back catalogue.

He has been on the hot list of up-and-coming rappers for years, thanks to a solid body of work since his first EP, Open Your Eyes, in 2000.

Eminem, too, got the world sitting up with his first studio album, The Slim Shady LP, in 1999, which took home Best Rap Album and Best Rap Solo Performance for the single My Name Is at the Grammys .

He's also got two of the fastest-selling albums ever - The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) and The Eminem Show (2002) sold 1.76 million and 1.3 million copies respectively in the first week of their release.

On a larger scale though, Eminem's breakthrough in hip-hop as a white rapper has been celebrated by some and bemoaned by others as the reason why other white rappers, male and female (like Asher Roth and Iggy Azalea), have had the success they've enjoyed.

Macklemore himself referenced this in a 2005 song called White Privilege, in which he raps: "White rappers' albums really get the most spins / The face of hip-hop has changed a lot since Eminem / And if he's taking away black artists' profits, I look just like him / Claimed a culture that wasn't mine, the way of the American".

The issues

Which brings us to the biggest problem plaguing Macklemore - that he is both benefiting and suffering from the "white privilege" he's made careful note to show he's aware of.

The New York Times, dissecting his success with Thrift Shop this past February, called him an "interloper" in the rap game, whose "rapping is merely a tool to advance ideas that are not connected to hip-hop to an audience that doesn't mind receiving them under a veneer of hip-hop cool".

In sum, Macklemore's not true hip-hop, so what business does he have winning in hip-hop categories (like at the VMAs)?

He tackled the issue again in an interview with Rolling Stone last month, saying: "We made a great album... but I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like Thrift Shop was safe enough for the kids. It was like, 'This is music that my mum likes and that I can like as a teenager', and even though I'm cussing my ass off in the song, the fact that I'm a white guy, parents feel safe. They let their six-year-olds listen to it. I mean it's just, it's different. And would that success have been the same if I had been a black dude? I think the answer is no."

It's a been-there-done-that situation for Eminem, who for years had to struggle trying to make it as a white rapper in Detroit, before being skewered for being a white rapper greedily snatching up No 1s, record sales and trophies.

But his longevity in the business - and his constant hit-churning - has made the point almost moot.

What's always been a big problem for Eminem, thanks to the content of his lyrics and the ferocity with which he verbalises them, is his bad boy shenanigans - misogyny, homophobia, violence, and on a less serious note, lots of celebrity naming and shaming in his songs.

Berzerk makes reference to "the ugly Kardashian".

He got Elton John to help him fight the homophobia charges in a 2001 Grammy performance of his song Stan and has rapped about being misunderstood.

But well, like he says on The Way I Am, he's "not Mr 'N Sync... not what your friends think ... not Mr Friendly".

He's a rapper who'll probably always have to contend with being the bad guy, unlike the family-friendly Macklemore.

So any question of who's the real rapper here?

Didn't think so.

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