I watched a very interesting program the other day about the former prodigy turned fully-fledged (and fully-formed) superstar of the violin world, Vanessa Mae. I know that you’re already thinking this to be one of my ropier random connections, but stay with me. She has sold a similar amount of albums to Eminem (we’re talking high multi-millions) before her thirtieth birthday, had problems with her estranged mother (who, when dumped as her daughter’s manager, buggered off) and took a long time, by her own admission, to emotionally mature. The whole point of the documentary was that Vanessa Mae had been labeled a wunderkind her entire life, and wanted to know whether her undoubted brilliance on the violin was down to nature or nurture.
Nature or nurture. Eminem released only a thousand copies of his very first album, “Infinite.” It was, almost exclusively, for his local Detroit area, where he got unceremoniously labeled a “Stan” – see what I did there? – of Nas (not so much) and AZ (yeah, alright). It was a short eleven-track offering with the mid-90’s hip hop sound (which actually sounds better than I thought it would – future DJ Premier hook up, anyone?) with a youngish Marshall Mathers spitting for his life.
I’m going to cut to the chase here – he isn’t very good. Seriously. He isn’t wack, and of course he was heavily influenced by his (then) heroes – which is fine at this kind of level. But the album should really have been placed on ice for a couple of years – there is little real emotion, his off-kilter flow is nowhere near maturity, and he sounds like (bring it on) a battle rapper trying to make a decent album. Tracks like “It’s OK” and “Never 2 Far” are nice enough, and the lyrics are well put-together – but it feels like an extended demo.
So, to the crux of the matter: nature or nurture? Was Eminem born a brilliant rapper, or did his eventual tutelage by Dr. Dre change and elevate his entire style forever? The step up to his next album was immense – they might as well be different artists. Whether Em would have made it or not is really a moot point, because either you do or you don’t – that is frequently down to the whim of the Gods of Hip Hop (especially as far as a white rapper was concerned in the mid-90’s). The point is that if your flow is amazing on a tiny local album, it should be amazing on your major label debut.
There is another point to consider – the two year time gap between “Infinite” and when the Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine caught wind of Eminem from his performance in the 1997 Rap Olympics, thus handing a tape to Dr. Dre. Now, dear Reader, it is almost impossible to state just how important a couple of years can be in the development of an MC, especially before the age of 26. The whole lyrical flow can change, as can the implementation of the voice – not to mention overall confidence just spitting. It seems more likely that he released “Infinite” and got criticized, thus focusing his talent and spurring him on to improve. By the time 1997 came round, he had made the jump up sufficiently enough to get noticed by the people in the right place. Plus him being white was already a Unique Selling Point (in the eyes of the record labels).
There isn’t actually much to go on when trying to settle the nature/nurture debate if you listen to “Infinite” – it shows an Eminem still in the Research & Development stage of his rap career, which usually doesn’t get heard by the general public. Whatever happened, he blossomed into one of the greatest emcees of all time – few can doubt that now. If he comes back in the next few months, as predicted, let us pray that he is over his myriad of problems and is focused on the MUSIC side of things that got him that spot at the top of the tree. Oh, and let Dr. Dre and Primo produce the whole thing – that would be wicked. Nevertheless “Infinite” is an interesting enough look into the mind of a young Eminem – just treat it like the demo it was and don’t expect to learn too much.