Eminem, in old times
Out of all of the rap behemoths, Eminem is having the hardest time. On Monday night, he released “Rap God”, the third track to be taken from his forthcoming record. SPIN gave it a scathing review, stating that Marshall is “great at rapping, and not necessarily much else.”
But SPIN have missed the point. To understand “Rap God”, we need to understand the predicament that Eminem finds himself in.
Out of all Eminem’s alter egos – Slim Shady, Eminem and Marshall Mathers - Marshall represents the introspective, personal, and broken side of Eminem. The Marshall Mathers LP, with tracks like “Stan”, “Kim” and “The Way I Am” had less laughs, and was much more cold, direct, and personal than its predecessors or successors.
Eminem’s new record is a sequel, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. It’s easy to dismiss this as a marketing stunt, but it’s much more than that. In the thirteen years since the original, his best friend, Proof, has died, he’s overcome a drug addiction, and the music industry, the media and the internet are unrecognisably different. This is Marshall Mathers 2.0. It isn’t Slim Shady, and those expecting another “My Name Is” are getting the alter-egos confused.
“Rap God” is an exercise in extreme self awareness. Eminem’s career has been built on challenging convention. By the start of the 00s, Eminem owned the news agenda. He was sued by his mother, targeted by anti-homophobia groups, and pinpointed as perpetuating gun crime. For most artists, that would be a death knell, but Eminem was able to wield controversy like no one else. Instead of reticence, he constantly challenged his media portrayal, his family and every criticism levelled at him. When parent groups were trying to get him banned from the radio, he told kids that if they liked violence they should stick nine inch nails into each of their eyelids.
But a decade later, his challenges have become the new convention. Everyone is anti-media, and railing against controversy by creating more of it has becoming the dim churning norm of the internet. Eminem gets that. On “Rap God” he parodies the new generation of supposedly shocking, claiming their renegade masterplan contains little more than “fuck being normal”. It’s no longer a unique selling point.
Eminem is stuck in a strange place. He isn’t going to release an experimental interrobang like Yeezus, but he also isn’t going to put out another “Real Slim Shady”, because that format is no longer unique. He’s lost on his journey back to relevance. “Rap God” acknowledges this from the off – “but I’m only going to get this one chance / Something’s wrong, I can feel it” - and tackles the problematic implications of this resurrection.
In 2013, Eminem’s shock tactics are rendered useless.
“You get too big and here they come trying to censor you / Like that one line I said on "I'm Back" from the Marshall Mathers LP / One where I tried to say I take seven kids from Columbine / Put 'em all in a line, add an AK-47, a revolver and a nine”.
At the time, that line had parents picketing for Eminem’s music to be banned. But now, “he’s morphed into an immortal”, and is aware that whatever he says, even if he said that line now, he will not get the same knee jerk reaction. Gawker might do a quick story, but by teatime they’ll have another piece up about Kathy Griffin lusting over A$AP Rocky. He’s expected to shock so he doesn’t bother. People who still want that Eminem are “stuck in a time warp from 2004”.
Eminem realises he has to find a new foothold, perhaps moving back toward the rock infused rap world. In the early 00s, Eminem’s face was plastered across black hoodies with the same frequency as the Slipknot or Korn logo. Alongside Fred Durst, Eminem helped bring rap music to a new audience. It’s not a coincidence that this year he headlined Reading Festival, and weeks later, released the Beastie Boy’s homage “Bezerk”. The track was produced by Rick Rubin, and alongside its “So What Cha Want” inspired video, cemented Eminem’s intention as returning back to heavier driven rap music. If Slim Shady isn’t working any more, maybe he’s going back to another style that did.
He confirms this, tackling allegations that he’d gone pop, stating: “Oh, he’s too mainstream… It's not hip-hop, it's pop, 'cause I found a hella way to fuse it / With rock, shock rap with Doc”. But even if people aren’t down with it, he can still “throw on "Lose Yourself" and make ‘em lose it.” This in itself is a predicament. He’s a “Rap God”, and although the people from “the front to the back nod”, we will always judge Eminem by his past, and in order to be satisfied, we need to separate it from the present.
In the past few years, it’s as if Eminem, like JAY Z, is cashing in on his former success and opting to move toward a comfortable commercial audience, and perform the odd live show to top up the bank account. He has collaborated with Rihanna. He’s got the guy from FUN. on his new record. His live performances leave a lot to be desired, there’s no chainsaw masks, or theatrics. And his weird – but clearly well constructed – TV appearances, have led to a dismissal of Eminem’s love for hip-hop. People believe that all of the above are Eminem’s reach toward cash. But he isn’t struggling, he’s super rich. And on “Rap God”, he proves that he’s still lovingly rooted in rap, and on his “Pharoahe Monch” grind.
The track is littered with a bunch of subliminal references, from Busta Rhymes and Lakim Shabazz, through to The Roots, and a Big Pun skit. At one point, he takes on the flow from HotStylz “Lookin’ Boy”, another track that featured bar after bar of references. These esoteric schizophrenic ticks give light to Eminem’s inner rap genius, but the focus on direct references gives further meaning to his predicament.
In an article last week, I wrote about a power shift in hip-hop. Eminem is a product of the mid 90s golden age of hip-hop, inspired by Rakim, N.W.A and Tupac. Now, he leads “a new school of students”, and is to Rap 2.0, what Ice Cube and Eazy E were to him. On “Rap God” he states that he provided the blueprint of “rage and youthful exuberance” that most of today’s internet-born rappers have built their careers upon.
But, to Eminem, the era of shock-rap that he heralded has passed and it’s no longer necessary as an artistic tool – “you're pointless as Rapunzel with fucking cornrows” – simultaneously shooting down both shock-rap, and any want to venture back into it. He takes specific shots at Waka Flocka Flame - “you fags think it's all a game 'til I walk a flock of flames” – and Mac Miller – “Oy vey, that boy's gay, that's all they say looking boy/ You get a thumbs up, pat on the back”. He’s suggesting that the new artists aren’t up to scratch. Despite Dr Dre’s notorious perfectionist ethic, Eminem got a “Hell Yeah!” from Dre, while the rest of the rappers only get a hand signal.
Eminem is taking to task the rap scene in the same way Kendrick did. He’s got “enough rhymes to maybe to try and help get some people through tough times” but also “a few punchlines just in case you unsigned rappers are hungry looking at me like it's lunchtime”. The inclusion of the words “maybe” and a “few” should be noted, because they suggest that although Eminem is the “Rap God”, he’s still blighted by insecurity that it could all end. He’s treading new ground, and critically, spitting some of his most technically impressive material. But if he’s not doing Slim Shady, does anyone care? He’s still confident though. On his “Control” verse, Kendrick appointed himself the new King of New York. Eminem asks – “Be a king? Think not - why be a king when you can be a God?”
When indie bands get old, they put out a greatest hits record and reunite twelve years later to play at Coachella, or they delve into obscurity. Hip-hop hasn’t reached this point. The living veterans of the game, Snoop Dogg and JAY Z are still putting out records, and they’ve carved their niche. But Eminem cannot continue as Slim Shady, because he knows it doesn’t work any more, and needs to pinpoint his own future. At the introduction to “Rap God”, he interpolates the “six minutes, Slim Shady, you’re on” sample from “Remember Me”, with a stabbing instrumentation. It’s reminiscent of “Lose Yourself”, in that this is Eminem’s last chance to step up. He’s confidently rebirthed himself, with intense wordplay, coupled with heavier music, and offered up the most bare-boned side of Eminem that we’ve seen in years.
I’m excited for the Marshall Mathers LP 2. Tracks like “Stan”, “Kim”, and “The Way I Am” remain some of the darkest that Eminem has produced. If we forget about Slim, and focus on Marshall, then it’s bound to be an enthralling, introspective journey into the psyche of one of modern music’s most important figures.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBassil
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