Last week, Jewish hip-hop icon Drake announced to a Detroit audience that he was about to bring out the “greatest rapper to ever get on the…microphone.” Imagine the crowd’s shock when it was Eminem who rose out of the floor of Joe Louis arena—not that a Motor City crowd would rather see Gift of Gab or Big Boi or a Tupac hologram than one of their city’s biggest musical exports, mind you. And when the two performed their 2009 song “Forever,” the crowd went nuts.
Eminem is not the greatest rapper of all time. But he is the author of one of the greatest Jewish rap songs of all time. I am of course referring to 1999’s “My Name Is,” his sublime first single and one of the most full-throated celebrations of neuroticism ever to hit the airwaves.
I challenge you to name a single existential anxiety that this song does not cover. Here’s a sampling:
— Fear of the future, and of one’s own aimless and unquenchable urges: My brain’s dead weight / I can’t get my head straight / I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I want to impregnate
— Fear of the unknown, of the vast cosmic void that threatens to envelop us, of the possibility that peace and friendship and love are a lie: Extraterrestrials, running over pedestrians / from their space-ship screaming “let’s just be friends!”
— The disorienting pendulum-swing of alienation and attachment at the core of familial relationships: I promised [my mom] I’d grow up to be a famous rapper / Make an album about doing drugs and name it after her.
— The fear of death, and that uncanny simultaneous feeling of its closeness and its incomprehensibility: I don’t want to leave, it’s too scary to die…am I coming or going? I can barely decide.
— The fear that acceptance and intimacy are impossible: I haven’t had a woman in years…
— …And the fear of this fear’s traditional cure: …and my palms are too hairy to hide
— The Oedipal impulse: …how you gonna breast-feed me mom? / you ain’t got no tits
It would be reductive to identify these as exclusively or even characteristically Jewish neuroses. These are human neuroses; Jews, being a group of humans that have existed for most of recorded history, have just had more of an opportunity to incorporate them into a shared culture. We can trace Jewish neuroticism all the way back to the great darkness that descended upon Abraham in Chapter 15 of Genesis. Indeed, Jewish neuroses had had centuries to fester by the time we even get to the Dueteronomic obsession with ritual purity. That’s a hell of a head start.
What is characteristically Jewish (or at least more characteristically Jewish) about “My Name Is” is the way it echoes the willingness or the urge—and at certain points in the year, the religious obligation—to share these neuroses in wrenching and cathartic detail. Repentance on Yom Kippur has to be public and communal. The Yom Kippur service can feel like a numbingly repetitive cycle of al chets; by the time the holiday ends you’re likely to have every possible human sin committed to memory. The Torah, which we read in its entirety every single year, is a chronicle of communal and individual faults; no national epic is quite as hard on its own people, who were, and perhaps remain, a total pain in the ass. Great works of American Jewish culture have that same confessional quality, and that sense that even when Jews actively suppress their neuroses, they’re suppressed in front of everyone, in a way that beckons attention and scrutiny: Think of the solipsism of a Seinfeld, the autobiographical self-reckoning of a Nick Kroll, or the complaint of one Alexander Portnoy.
And this is what makes “My Name Is” one of the great Jewish rap songs. It lays it all out there. It’s encyclopedic in its psychological scope, bracing in its honesty, and about as public as it gets. The hurt and confusion it encapsulates are all too real. This song is only kind of an act—Eminem’s mom even sued him for slander over its lyrics. Eminem might not be the greatest rapper to rock a microphone, but in his ability to face down an entire Gehenna’s worth of psychic demons in full view of the entire world, he was, for four minutes at least, an honorary member of the tribe.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.