I Got a Story to Tell: Narrative Techniques in Hip-Hop and Rap Music Part Two
In the first part of this mini-series, I examined the narrative landscape of Immortal Technique’s “Dance With the Devil,” a Faustian tale of greed and violence. Continuing this theme, I want to examine a piece that is contemporaneous with “Dance With the Devil,” but occupies the opposite end of the hip-hop success spectrum. Where most outside the underground hip-hop scene haven’t been acquainted with Immortal Technique’s work, it’s hard to find someone alive in the U.S. (and indeed, much of the world) who hasn’t at least heard of Eminem. He’s the best-selling artist of the 2000’s, has won fifteen Grammy Awards, and is a mainstay in current popular culture. So, as is often is the question with print books, can material with mass appeal also be literary?
I’ll explore this idea through the third single from Eminem’s 2000 album The Marshall Mathers LP, “Stan.” Look at the lyrics HERE. And the audio/video HERE.
The plot of “Stan,” is less explicitly detailed than “Dance With the Devil,” and lacks a narrator. Instead, the story arrives in the form of letters between “Slim Shady,” (Eminem’s alter ego) and a superfan of his, named Stan. This epistolary structure is reminiscent of classic novels like Dracula and The Color Purple (among others) and allows for characterization to come in the first person, directly from Stan and Slim Shady themselves. As with Walker’s The Color Purple, the vernacular of the narration reveals Stan’s and Slim’s speaking style, as well as gradually revealing Stan’s character arc. In each subsequent letter, Stan’s narration grows more aggressive and obsessive, his voice rising and getting more frantic, showing the gradual deterioration of his mental state. Stan makes frequent references to other Eminem songs, taking the meanings as literal, though Slim says he “says that shit just clowning.” Here Eminem shows the way songs, like other texts, can be misinterpreted—it’s reminiscent of the misinterpreted poem lines that give The Catcher in the Rye its title, and added thematic resonance (And really, aren’t Stan’s problems just Holden Caulfield-y whining gone too far?) The setting is left mostly obscured, though Stan mentions Denver. There are also sounds in the background of rain, and Stan mentions “blistering cold” and in the first letter says “back in autumn,” implying a bleak, winter landscape. Winter, being the traditional season of death, foreshadows Stan’s eventual demise. By the end of the song, we know Stan’s fate, but still listen to Slim eventually try to reply, slowly figuring out who Stan is. This is a clear use of dramatic irony—a frequent staple in Greek tragedies and highlights the cautionary nature of the tale.