The former host of the Man Show is on the main stage at Coachella, via canned video, to defend Eminem against an Internet that he doesn’t understand. About three minutes ago, Eminem announced to 100,000 people no longer dressed like him that he’s finally taken control of his Twitter. You probably didn’t notice.
“I’m not very good at it yet,” he shrugs. His last four tweets include two ironic off-focus selfies, an ad for a pop-up shop “across from the Do-Lab stage” to purchase #MOMSPAGHETTI, and an Eminem augmented reality app, which he definitely understands and can explain to you.
Now, he and his hype-man, Mr. Porter, are reading a list of “the many awful things that people have tweeted about Eminem.”
“Fact: no one’s been paying attention to you since 2003.”
The crowd groans and boos, siding with the man who was pop culture’s center of gravity from 1999 to 2003. Eminem deadpans, “I’m not mad at that. He’s kinda got a point.” They mumble something about being hacked. Eminem breaks the fourth wall.
“Can I take you back to a time when I was actually motherfucking good?”
May he have your attention please? The question was once redundant, but this is 2018. Consider the cast of characters of “The Real Slim Shady,” the millennium time machine that Eminem plays to remind us of the time when the “world was crazy over that whole Y2K thing.” Tom Green is doing stand-up at Harrah’s; his last role was as “Cuphead” in an animated Cartoon Network show about a rabbit vampire. Will Smith is a rumored Scientologist who parodies his son’s Instagram. Britney Spears is dating a 24-year old Dothraki and remains in a conservatorship run by her father. Christina Aguilera judges a TV singing competition. The highpoint of Carson Daly’s millennium was signing Roc Marciano. Fred Durst slings slushes at the Sonic drive-through in Pensacola, Florida. Dr. Dre is no longer locked in Eminem’s basement.
Eminem outlasted them all. Sort of. Last December’s Revival became his eighth consecutive #1 album to top the Billboard charts, but elicited largely negative reviews and lacked a single that stuck. Yet among rappers who emerged from the late 90s, Eminem is the only one to retain the star wattage to headline a major American festival two full decades later. It’s Sunday night, senses are dulled, fatigue is debilitating, but should you study the grassy sprawl, it’s wall-to-wall columns of the faithful rapping album cuts from before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.
It’s difficult to reassess Eminem because our capacity for shock has been deadened. If Slim Shady once terrified the grape-nut brains of conservative hypocrites championing good ol’ fashioned American family values, the President is a thrice-married congenital liar who (allegedly) went raw on a porn star in a $2,000 a night hotel room, and most likely used campaign money to buy her secrecy. Monica Lewinsky seems quaint by contrast.
In civic and online discourse, the exaggerated half-serious irony that Eminem once deployed to rile up “the moral majority” has become the conventional mode of communication. Eminem was trolling before the word became codified, consciously provocative, purposely irresponsible, and occasionally profoundly unfunny. But there was simmering contempt towards conventional mores, scarcely concealed racism, and total phoniness that allowed him to connect with adolescents like a rap Holden Caulfield. It’s what teenagers do intuitively.
As a natural instinct and commercial weapon, Eminem brilliantly understood how to slip underneath his enemies' skin and force them into awkward and shrill attacks. It recalls Sartre’s critique on anti-Semites: “they know their remarks are frivolous and open to challenge…But they are amusing themselves…They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.” These are the same tactics currently spat out by the modern alt-right. But with Eminem, there was a sense of righteousness that balanced out what was obviously repugnant.
About ten minutes into his nearly two-hour career-spanning set, Eminem started rapping about raping his mother. Our modern gag reflex kicks in to condemn. The language feels thankfully dated at best, sinister at worst. But in the next bar of “Kill You,” Eminem doubles back with dazzling athletic speed to assume the persona of a scolding critic: “Oh, now he’s raping his own mother, abusing a whore, snorting coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover.”
In 2018, it’s contemptible. In 2000, a comparatively halcyon era, it punctured conservative sanctimony with cartoonish glee. Today, it’s particularly hard to grapple with considering a staggering portion of rap’s rising stars are tarnished by accusations of rape, sexual assault, and battery against women. It still makes us feel uncomfortable, but in a different way. Our priorities have shifted from lampooning frauds clamoring for a return to an imagined Eisenhower-era cocoon, to the king snake in the White House, nihilism infecting the body politic, and a much-needed reckoning for centuries of sexual abuses. It’s hard to listen to Eminem because we can’t help consider the question: but at what cost?
“White America” booms over the speakers at skull-cracking amplification. There’s an American flag backdrop like a doomed Jasper Johns. One of Eminem’s principal gifts was self-awareness and sense of responsibility to the culture that had accepted him on their terms. To be white in the world of hip-hop is to reconcile the fact that no matter how down you are, no matter how much you have learned, this is black culture and you are a permanent guest. Sometimes you’re welcome, sometimes you’re Lil Dicky showing up at the party with a shutter shades, a Karaoke machine, and a Whoopee cushion. For him, it’s a joke. For Eminem, it was life.
I hadn’t listened to “White America” in this decade, but it in a re-configured context it seems beholden to similar but slightly different centrifugal forces. If racial problems have been a gaping rent in the American dream since the country’s inception, things ostensibly seemed to be improving for much of the last decade.
Eminem’s subversion was anything but subtle, which is what made it that much more impactful. He wasn’t merely engaging with the rap world, but as a hip-hop Trojan Horse aimed at suburbia, the TRL hordes with only boy bands, Britney, and Em in their Case Logics, with an American government that seemed intent on swatting him away like a bleached blonde fly.
Erica loves my shit
I go to T-R-L, look how many hugs I get”
TRL has since been killed, rebooted, and promptly ignored. The music video perished and regenerated for the smallest of screens. But the basic premise of his hook remains the same. White rappers have never been bigger than in 2018, but none have topped Eminem’s skill set, his ability to quell cultural appropriation critiques, or fluency in both cultures. Eminem was a bridge, one that seems to have been subsequently washed out by a decade of brutal idiot winds. It’s a point repeatedly drilled in by the mythology of 8 Mile, which doubled as a rap Rocky and also a penance for past sins.
Before a largely white and well-heeled audience in Queensbridge jerseys and Native American headdresses (still), Eminem rapped about how if he was black, he would’ve sold half. He exploited the structural racism that allowed him to become the world’s biggest rapper, then immediately flipped the barrel on those same forces that allowed him to flourish. This wasn’t cynical calculation, but rather a series of strokes of good fortune that brought him under the aegis of Dr. Dre, affording him a bulletproof invulnerability that he would’ve otherwise fought ceaselessly to earn.
The Slim Shady of “Just Don’t Give A Fuck” heralded Eminem’s original breakthrough. Roughly half the audience hadn’t been born when it was first released on his 1997 pre-Dre EP. The other half seemed to know all the worlds. Brain dead like Jim Brady. Cursing at people like Kansas City Chiefs football coaches. Doing acid, crack, smack, coke, and smoking dope, dissing every white rapper, screaming “fuck the world like 2Pac.” At Coachella, he didn’t shout out The Outsidaz on the outro, but I’d like to believe it was tacitly inferred.
If the Beastie Boys stormed in as the archetypal wild hip-hop white boys, they always existed in both worlds. They were NYC art kids with a hardcore past and a penchant for prank-calling Carvel. 3rd Bass couldn’t help but leave you with the feeling that they were desperately trying to come off as the rare “good ones.” With Eminem, it was natural: no other artistic medium possessed the soul or capacity to articulate his caustic wit and unalloyed rage. He was hip-hop because he couldn’t be anything else. He wore a durag to the Grammys and no one said shit.
Of course, he performed the other songs that we don’t need to dwell on. The strained late period pop crossovers that the Internet has used for kindling for over a decade. He sang them with Skylar Grey. You can see the setlist here. People sprinted from the bathrooms to hear “Love the Way You Lie.” There was one night in 2010 that I spent riding around in an old white stretch limousine drinking Jack Daniels with an aspiring pop star who called herself Meg Ryan. She lip-synced two handbag house ballads in front of green-haired and leather-draped post-adolescents at a rotting Hollywood department store that had been converted into an ersatz 80s Wild Style hideaway. There was a bunny rabbit constantly running loose.
I somehow wound up at a Swedish Summer Solstice party in Beachwood Canyon, where I passed out on one of beds. I woke up at 6:30 AM, fully clothed, and they’d been playing “Love the Way You Lie” on loop for the previous three hours. Cocaine was everywhere. Soon after, one of the Swedish girls left the country, got sober, and became a yoga instructor in a tiny country town in the northern fringe of Scandinavia. Last I heard she couldn’t get tickets to the Israeli Burning Man. I have no evidence, but I’m reasonably certain she loves “Not Afraid” too. The thing is, I’m not sure if Eminem does.
Over the last decade, Eminem seems to be tilting towards an old model that no longer exists. He could rap over old Black Moon loops and his core audience would rapaciously consume it. Instead, he chases the ghost of TRL past with acrid pop cavities that he once held with contempt. It’s fine. He has done enough to deserve a dignity and respect that we often forget in the rush to excoriate present day failings for social media bonus points. At his best, he still retains the stunning technical brilliance that reminds you that there’s still a chance. All he really has to do is turn back to the DJ booth and tell Alchemist the words that he should’ve said a decade ago: let’s make an album.
None of this mattered on Sunday night. It was neither coronation nor confirmation, but a reminder of a better time that seems alien and imperceptible in the current dystopia. There was 50 Cent rapping “Patiently Waiting” and “I Get Money” and “In Da Club.” He seemed winded and hoarse, but there was a palpable joy. These have become wedding and Bar Mitzvah anthems. There was bench press Hippocrates, Dr. Dre, trotted out to perform “Still D.R.E.,” “Forgot About Dre,” “Nuthin But a G Thing,” and “California Love.”
These are now the ancient West Coast spirituals, spells that once seemed weird but have become as familiar as the palm trees. The encore was “Lose Yourself,” which augured a split between old and new. His mythology never evolved from there, which in its own way lends the bible material a singular frozen-in-amber charm. Dated but somehow timeless. Eminem has become part of the tradition, an anachronistic vestige of a simpler time. It’s unfortunate that we absorbed the wrong lessons.
Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.