Like most musical genres, hip-hop has seen several great white hope rappers through the years, whose lack of melanin and ability to rhyme over a beat (no matter how average the rhyming is) automatically garners them more attention, praise, and notoriety than their darker counterparts, even if the darker counterpart plainly displays a stronger rhyming aptitude than their Caucasian contemporaries. Some of these melanin challenged rappers randomly stumbled into the genre, while others were clearly processed and manufactured by record companies to make a dollar. Then there are those who came into the fold organically with a genuine passion for the artform and the talent to match. And one of these elite few deserves to be mentioned in the GOAT conversation. Eminem.
We’ve all heard how Marshall Mathers aka Eminem went from Detroit battle rap legend to getting his demo in the hand of Interscope founder, Jimmy Iovine, who would put the demo into the hand of Dr. Dre, and with the good doctor’s backing, he would become, arguably the biggest superstar in hip-hop’s storied history (if you’re not familiar with the story, check out the Netflix documentary, The Defiant Ones and hear it told directly from the mouths of Jimmy, Dre, and Em). But before Dr. Dre, the fame, the accolades and the crossover commercial success, Eminem was not only battle rapping in Detroit, but also creating and recording records. In November of 1996, he would release his debut album, Infinite.
Infinite features eleven tracks, all produced by Mr. Porter (aka Kon Artis, aka Denaun), who along with Eminem was a member of the Detroit collective, D12. The album was originally released on the small Detroit based label, Web Entertainment, and legend has it that Em was selling vinyl and cassette copies of the album out of his trunk, a la Too Short in the early eighties. Needless to say, few outside of the Detroit area were familiar with the Infinite album or even knew it existed before Em’s blow-up, including myself.
A few years ago, I found a used cd copy of Infinite, which included a bonus disc of the Slim Shady EP, which also happens to be the demo that would get into the hands of and impress Jimmy and Dre (I might discuss that one at a later date). The album cover is a thick super basic two-sided insert with the simple artwork that you see above on one side and the track listing with no credits on the other side. My copy doesn’t even have a back panel in the jewel case, which leaves me to believe I may have paid twenty bucks for a bootleg burned CD.
Now that’s shady.
Infinite – The first song of the evening features a drowsily melodic backdrop with a bloated bass line that reminds me of the instrumental for Nas’s “One On One” record from the Streetfighter Soundtrack. Speaking of Nas, you can definitely hear he and AZ’s influence on Em’s wordplay and flow, as he showcases his already polished emcee attributes with a more straight forward approach than we would grow accustomed to hearing from him: “My thesis’ll, smash a stereo to pieces, my acappella releases, classic masterpieces, through telekinesis, it eases you mentally, gently, sentimentally, instrumentally with entity, dementedly, meant to be, infinite.” The hooks is some overly wordy nonsense, but this was still a solid way to kick the evening off.
WEGO (Interlude) – This interlude takes a clip from a show on the Detroit radio station WEGO, hosted by MC Proof (rip) and DJ Head that introduces the next song. The background music is hard.
It’s Okay – Over a semi-melancholic jazzy groove, Em sounds like a man with a dream trying his damnedest to hold on to it while the trials and tribulations of life try to snatch it from his grasp: “Life is stressful inside this cesspool, tryin’ to wrestle, I almost bust a blood vessel, my little brother’s tryin’ to learn his mathematics, he’s asthmatic, runnin’ home from school away from crack addicts, kids attract static, children with automatics, takin’ target practice on teens for Starter jackets, I’m using smarter tactics to overcome this slum, I won’t become as dumb as some, and succumb to scum, it’s cumbersome, I’m tryna do well on this earth, but it’s been hell on this earth, since I fell on this earth.” Em joins the exclusive list on TimeIsIllmatic of emcees to use a word you’ll probably never hear another rapper use in his rhymes, when he breaks out “cumbersome;” and this might be the only record that Em has ever voiced his desire to be “a family man, happily married” and professes to have “found Christianity.” Em’s homeboy, Eye-Kyu adds a simple but effective hook, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying this one.
Tonite – Mr Porter builds this backdrop around a buoyant soulful loop, as our host continues to flaunt his witty wordplay and damn near effortless flow.
313 – I’m sure most of you know, but if you don’t, “313” is the Detroit area code from which our host represents, hence the song title. Em invites his buddy, Eye-Kyu to warm things up with the opening verse, and he does a solid job with the opportunity. Then Em takes care of the second verse, displaying some of the witty punchlines that made him a legendary battle rapper in the Detroit streets (i.e. “I’ll run your brain around the block to jog your fuckin’ memory,” “You could date a stick of dynamite and wouldn’t go out with a bang,” “He better come cleaner than Jeru jackin’ off when he showers,” and one of my favorites: “You couldn’t make the fans throw up their hands if they swallowed their fingers”), before ending the verse with a well plotted Jack & Jill riddle that I’ve literally chuckled at every time I’ve listened to this song in the past three weeks: “Cause you could be quick, jump the candlestick, burn your back, and fuck Jill on a hill, but you still aint jack.” Mr. Porter backs the witty wordsmanship with a subdued jazzy backdrop that some might find boring, but I found irresistible.
Maxine – Em is joined by Mr. Porter and Three on this one, as the trio each get off a verse sharing their perspective and experience with a promiscuous chick named Maxine. Em paints her as a dope fiend hooker, Mr. Porter frames her as an irresponsible club hoppin’ mother, and Three (who sounds like a less skilled mix of Fatlip and Imani from Pharcyde) knows her as a random freak he met at the club. But they all can agree that Maxine has AIDS. The song’s concept wasn’t fleshed out well (and Mr. Porter’s closing conversation with Maxine is completely asinine: He calls her and leads with “(Are) you thinking about suckin’ my dick?” then gets upset when she asks for compensation for the deed, and then he decides to bring up the fact that she has AIDS…why the hell did you call her to suck your dick knowing she has AIDS in the first place, ya big dummy?!!!!), but I enjoyed the super sedated soulful instrumental.
Open Mic – Infinite makes quite an energy shift with this track. Mr. Porter lays a slippery Curtis Mayfield guitar loop over crashing drums, while an enthusiastic Thyme (not to be confused with the herb), accompanied by a great Treach vocal snippet, boosts the energy on the hook, and our host continues to teach a clinic on wordplay and lyricisms.
Never Far – This one starts with Em and Mr. Porter trying to gather up enough change to catch the bus, before the feel good melodic instrumental drops and Em gets off two verses discussing his focus and determination to become a successful rapper. He also adds a positive hook, encouraging the listeners to chase their dreams as well. I like hearing an optimistic Eminem; and in hindsight, it’s heartwarming to hear him speak his dream into existence.
Searchin’ – This one catches Eminem sharing a rare tender moment on wax. Our host and his guest, Eye-Kyu, have both been smitten by Cupid’s arrow, as they each get off a verse professing their love for the girls of their dreams, while Angela Workman sprinkles her pretty vocals over the heartwarming instrumental. This was clearly a formulated effort to appeal to the female fanbase, but it was done tastefully, and I actually like it.
Backstabber – Em takes a comical approach to addressing backstabbers, as he plays a police sergeant looking to apprehend a green-haired mentally unstable sword yielding joker who’s escaped from the psychiatric ward: “He’ll stab you with a sword, don’t be fooled by his charm, he’s probably armed, with intent to do bodily harm, ring the alarm, look for a man with green hair, check at your girl’s house, he was last seen there, he has a mean stare, but usually cracks jokes, good luck on your mission and guard your backs, folks.” Clever concept, funky beat, and The Three Stooges inspired “Why I oughta” snippet during the hook was pretty amusing.
Jealously Woes II – Infinite wraps with an ultra-bassy backdrop that Em uses to give the reasons why his toxic relationship went sour (tapping your girl’s phone conversations through the heat vents is wild). He also sneakily uses the n-word, thanks to a clever Nas soundbite, and we also get a Tribe Degrees of Separation for this post, when he quotes one of Phife’s lines from “Butter.” Em definitely didn’t save the best for last, but it still makes for a decent record.
Infinite captures Eminem before his colorfully unhinged alter ego, Slim Shady would take over his soul and music, as we hear from an optimistic, slightly naïve Marshall, not yet jaded by the bullshit of the music industry and the world. Em takes a more poker-faced approach to rhyming on Infinite, but even without his shock jock Slim Shady antics, it’s clear from the jump that this Detroit trailer park raised emcee can rhyme his ass off. Em makes light work of Mr. Porter’s quality batch of jazz and soulful boom-bop slaps, bodying them with his incredible wordplay, witty rhymes, and overall mastery of the English language, encapsulated in his relentless flow that transcends color, race, or creed.
There are several Eminem records from the Slim Shady LP through the Encore era that I love (we’ll discuss the latter portion of his catalog on a later date), but if my memory serves me correct, none of them were phenomenal albums. Infinite has an organic, less gimmicky feel than the rest of his catalog, and pound for pound, it might be Eminem’s most entertaining album.
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Good review. I’m not a Eminem fan at all. I don’t care for none of his music and I don’t consider him in any of my lists of favorite emcees. But because of this review I would like to hear this album so I might check it out.