The year is 2000, and Britain is still yawning its way into the new millennium. The closest thing we have to a fascist is Anne Robinson and people are so bored they're sending Big Brother's "Nasty" Nick Bateman death threats. The world hasn’t ended, the Dome is a flop, the most exciting thing on your phone is Snake and Westlife are making your mum cry again. It’s into these tranquil waters that Eminem’s third album The Marshall Mathers LP arrives like a screaming police car on fire, to the delight of pre-pubescent boys who hate their sisters across the land. One of my most enduring memories of that summer is my ten-year-old classmates jumping up on to the benches in the school playground, thrusting their hips and singing “So you can suck my dick if you don't like / My shit” in tribute to their new hero.
When he came to mainstream prominence around the turn of the century, Eminem was mired in controversy due both to his whiteness and the nature of his music, which was full of slurs, violence, misogyny and homophobia. He was immediately adored by suburban schoolboys who relished how much he wound up their parents, and the media who explained away his hateful lyrics with praise. Faced with The Marshall Mathers LP, the LA Times explained that, “Eminem is simply exercising his creative impulses – putting on disc all the forbidden thoughts and scandalous scenarios that accompany adolescence and just watching the fallout.” Newsweek in turn praised him for “pick[ing] on himself almost as much as he does the people on his enemies list. By flipping his razor-sharp lyrics on himself, Eminem subverts the smirking superiority that plagues mainstream rap, a wily underdog move that lets him get away with more than he could otherwise.”
In anyone's terms, Eminem is still huge today – it was just announced that his latest release, January's Music to Be Murdered By, is only the second album to this year to be certified gold – but it's difficult to overstate just how colossal Eminem was in those early years of fame. The lauded white face of a black art form, he was compared favourably to Elvis Presley, played himself in the 2002 quasi-biopic 8 Mile, provoked street protests before a Grammys duet with Elton John and along with his protege 50 Cent was ubiquitous across cable music TV channels, where he bridged the gap between America’s two imperial musical exports of the time: rap and nu-metal. In the years when internet use was prevalent among Western teens but before social media arrived to dominate attention spans, Mathers was basically a multi-millionaire Twitter troll taking potshots at everyone from Michael Jackson to Christina Aguilera to Moby to Pee-wee Herman, with no discernible logic connecting his targets other than they were recognisable figures who were there to be pissed on.
Unfortunately for Mathers, time and success have made him part of the same, smirking establishment he spent his early years making fart noises at, and in this era of constant, churning online outrage there has never been any less of a need for his brand of rap. There is no denying that Eminem is (was) a talented rapper: his first couple of albums are legitimately good, even if some of the lyrics and content matter make me shudder as an adult (I absolutely cannot listen to “Kim” now without feeling like I’m going to have a panic attack). The problem is that these days Eminem is an adult too, yet appears to have been frozen in time by the people he perceives his audience to be. “I don’t make black music / I don’t make white music / I make fight music for high school kids,” he rapped on "Who Knew" back in 2000.
The tragedy of Slim Shady is that he is still writing fight music for high school kids, except now he’s nearly 50 years old, yelling at clouds in a world that has moved on without him. His attempts at stoking controversy in 2020 – including lyrics about the Ariana Grande Manchester bombing and a track written from the perspective of the 2017 Las Vegas shooter – have not been picked apart because they are offensive, but because they’re embarrassing. There is simply nothing subversive about a middle-aged man with two grown children rapping about how much he hates his step-dad for “sticking his dick in my mom”.
There’s no denying Eminem changed popular culture – for better or for worse is up to you – but the world has changed immeasurably since he first shocked it with his misanthrope anthems. This is not to say his DNA has left rap’s gene pool. There have been plenty of other artists since Eminem who’ve explicitly cited him as an influence, including Odd Future, who came out with their own iteration of parent-baiting shock-rap in 2011. But their members have all since grown quite visibly, both as people and artists, fleshing out the characters they inhabit and stories they tell with vulnerability and nuance. Meanwhile, Eminem’s 2018 surprise album Kamikaze opened with a five-and-a-half-minute intro in which he sent for an array of wearyingly familiar and predictable targets, including journalists and critics, the entire entertainment industry and the rise of mumble-rappers with ‘Lil’ prefixes. It also features a track in which he calls Tyler, the Creator a 'fa**ot'.
This persecution complex would maybe make sense if Eminem had at any point stopped being successful, but it’s especially weird when you realise he is one of the best-selling artists of all time, boasting ten straight-to-number-one albums. His fans also seem to share this confusing, in-built sense of inferiority. Many of them have left comments on the clip of him performing “Lose Yourself” at this year's Oscars, celebrating their hero "finally" being recognised by the establishment and Hollywood elite – despite the fact the song was the first hip-hop track to ever win an Oscar, 18 years ago. Is this really what outsider art looks like?
Music to Be Murdered By arrives at a point when Eminem seems to have become the Ricky Gervais of rap: rich, successful and yet somehow convinced that he is being oppressed and silenced. He is the patron saint of white people who feel like they are the real beleaguered minority – on "Leaving Heaven" he recounts being beaten up by some kids and robbed for his tricycle, his takeaway from the situation being that: “I don’t know if I would call that white privilege / But I get it / How it feels to be judged by pigment”. If it weren’t for the awkward half-rhyme, it’s a line that could have come straight from the mouth of David Brent.
Instead of growing old gracefully, Eminem has become a rapper with a contradictory, boomer-like sense of entitlement. As well as the customary support from white suburban teens who bathe in Monster and want to kill their mums for making them eat broccoli once a week, he seems to have become a voice for middle-aged weirdos who like to reminisce about how homophobic slurs were allowed “back in my day”.
He’s only 47 – a Gen Xer by chronology – but these days, Eminem is Clarkson, Hopkins and Brexit, a spiteful cultural force busy persuading deeply conservative and boring people that they are, in fact, radicals. Whether deliberately or not, Eminem has come to embody the defining boomer traits, a man who’s enjoyed vast success and found his decisions validated by all of society, yet now sees himself as an ostracised pariah, spurned by a new cohort of ‘snowflake’ millennials who are ruining popular culture by not laughing at rape jokes. He reacts to this belief that no one is paying attention to him by metaphorically shitting his pants, while screaming "ARE YOU OFFENDED YET?!" Yet no one is offended. They’ve just moved on.
Recently, in the absence of having anything interesting to say, Eminem has fallen back on the last resort of unimaginative rappers everywhere, attempting to prove his prowess and relevance by rapping about the same stuff, just more quickly. He broke the world record for fastest rap with “Rap God” and has subsequently broken his own record on “Godzilla”, where he raps 229 words in 30 seconds. No one seems to have told him that rapping super-fast is now the preserve of kooky girls on YouTube, or that his relevance in popular culture mostly resides in his ubiquity as a meme. What else does Eminem think he’s owed by the world? Is he still smarting from being pipped to Christmas #1 by Bob the Builder back in 2000? And how can a man who, by any metric, has enjoyed astonishing success still be painting himself as an outsider? Whatever the source of his angst, it’s time for the real Slim Shady to please, for the love of God, sit down – something he should've been doing ever since this guy rinsed him back in 2018.