If ever there was a perfect target for the seething rage of Eminem it would certainly be Donald Trump. The U.S. President is the embodiment of the garish early 2000s pop culture that the rapper parodied so brutally well on records like The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, and his base is largely comprised of the pearl-clutching populace who Em lambasted on White America, now older and even more retrograde in their attitudes. And yet, when all eyes were on him during last month’s BET Hip Hop Awards, his Trump-targeting freestyle The Storm was met with praise from other artists and celebrities, but also masses of media folk feeling the need to remind us of how we should all care about it simply because it’s Eminem.
This is undeniably true; Eminem still has a massive platform and, even in 2017, ears prick up for him that don’t for other MCs. But it isn’t a great sign for a once incendiary artist that they need to be buoyed by legacy media. Vince Staples made some good-natured jokes about the freestyle on Twitter, whilst SPIN’s Jeremy Gordon pointed out that while well-intentioned and potentially-positive, there were elements of unoriginality – “If good rap is rated as such on a rubric of originality, flow, subject, and emotion, Eminem won points only for passion and factual accuracy” he said, whilst also rightly singling out the freestyle’s “awfully hot coffee pot” line as a straight-up atrocity.
Once one of hip-hop’s most incisive, controversial, and boundary-busting voices, it’s hard to see exactly where Marshall Mathers fits into the rap landscape, and with a new album, Revival, on the horizon it seems like we’re gearing up for yet another Eminem-centric press cycle that seems to exist several standard deviations removed from what’s going on in the rest of rap. Eminem has done so much for the genre both in obvious ways and subtler ones, so while it’s hard to call one of the highest-selling artists ever a victim of their own success, it’s fair to wonder whether Eminem’s impact on broader rap culture and his commitment to his own insular world has muted his potential impact with his upcoming LP.
He made rap darker, weirder, and more violent, but the culture has kept developing without him.
When Eminem emerged in 1999, he immediately found himself embroiled in an unending sea of controversy for his often misogynistic, homophobic, and violent lyrics. Eager to pin society’s issues on a well-known target, Mathers became a central figure in the U.S. Congress’ crusade against violence in media.
And to be fair, much of what he said on tracks like Kim, Stan, and even more recent cuts like Vegas is pretty abhorrent. Hip-hop has never had a great reputation for its treatment of women, and there was misogyny and violence in rap long before Mathers emerged. Still, Eminem’s gleeful, grizzly imagery forced people, specifically white middle-America, to reckon with not only vulgar, often hateful lyrics far worse than anything they were used to hearing, but also the fact that they were coming from a white artist. Though abhorrent, they did seem to be in service of a greater artistic intention.
It’s been discussed heavily, but white rappers were largely novelty acts before Eminem’s rise. His success set the stage for a handful of white MCs like Mac Miller and Macklemore to achieve mainstream success. And today, enough lanes in hip-hop exist where merely being a white rapper is no longer noteworthy or a career choice that says anything political on its own. Just look at an artist like Post Malone, who has had some of the classic criticisms of white rappers thrown at him half-heartedly but has largely been left in his own lane to make his own weird brand of hybrid hip-hop.
There’s also Em’s use of gay slurs, which he’s repeatedly claimed doesn’t reflect his personal beliefs and is more of a reflexive habit left over from his battle rap days. Again, that may well be true, but it’s still massively at odds with the contemporary culture of rap. Even someone like Tyler, the Creator, who used to use homophobic language early in his career, has matured and moved on, and while rap still has a long ways to go, as New York Magazine’s Craig Jenkins notes, overtly homophobic language is less a part of rap culture, making Em seem like even more of a dinosaur on tracks like Rap God or Brainless.
But nowadays nobody’s really afraid of rappers for what they say on record, and the kind of shock value commentary Em achieved isn’t really possible. The “dangerous” artists of previous decades have had their edges smoothed and became household names, while when a modern artist like Kendrick talks about violence in a way that could be seen as glorification on a track like XXX. we (for the most part) are smart enough to understand the more detailed message he’s trying to send.
We’ve also grown better and more decisive as a culture about labeling artists as problematic or vile for their behaviour, not necessarily their artistic persona. Take a rapper like XXXTentacion, whose lo-fi, distorted sound, howling delivery and graphic, unfiltered lyrics earned him a massive fan base of people who may well have flocked to Eminem had they come of age in the late ‘90s. X’s raps about depression, drug abuse, and his fraught relationships have struck a chord with young audiences, but allegations of horrific domestic abuse have led many to boycott his music. The conversation nowadays is much more measured and sober than it was when Eminem was at his apex and rap was still cementing its place in mainstream culture. Now, critics and fans are better at both parsing the messages and storylines of rap, and knowing that “separating the art from an artist” is a thorny subject that comes with significant responsibility.
By bringing a certain amount of shock value to rap in the early 2000s, Eminem helped to push that cultural conversation, but at this point we’re all so familiar with who he is both as an individual and an artist that his ability to provoke a harsh reaction from an informed listener in 2017 is blunted. It’s why when he says things like “Bitch, I got you, Robin Williams hangin’ / Bitch, don’t hang in the lobby unless you came to slob me,” – it’s uncomfortable but no longer in service of pushing forward the cultural conversation beyond the consensus that it’s Eminem being problematic like he’s been for 20 years.
After trying to make amends with Recovery, Em went back to his old ways on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, and those tracks didn’t land with nearly the same gut-wrenching impact as his earlier work. To his credit, Mathers seems less concerned with that on the records that have preceded Revival, and perhaps an album that is purely politically-minded (if handled correctly) could be the narrative shift that he needs since he can’t be the same old provocateur.
Eminem has a place in 2017’s protest landscape, but it’s not what it used to be.
Revival reportedly continues the trend of his BET freestyle and 2016 track Campaign Speech by taking aim at Trump. That’s hardly surprising, and there’s definitely value in an artist like Eminem taking on the President given that he reaches parts of the country that aren’t permeated as much by other rappers (a fact born out by the New York Times’ YouTube streaming fan maps from this summer). Many in the media, including the Times’ Bari Weiss (in a separate article) have praised the power of Em to enact political change in a way other rappers could not, albeit in a way that seems to underestimate just how visible other rap stars are nowadays. “When Kendrick Lamar blasts Mr. Trump, he is preaching to the choir. When Eminem does it, there’s a good chance Trump voters are actually listening”, she wrote. He’s offered very pointed, unique criticism of the government on tracks like Square Dance, and while these recent tracks offer opposition that’s a bit more general we’ll have to wait and see whether he takes advantage of his unique platform over the course of an entire record. (See the track’s first single, the Beyonce-featuring Walk On Water as an introspective fine example).
Still, as a 45-year-old straight, white male, Mathers isn’t exactly part of a group that Trump’s agenda is harming (beyond the obvious ways that it’s harming the entire human race). Sure, artists like Kendrick or YG may be “preaching to the choir,” but it would be far more beneficial if Eminem were offering those pockets of people he reaches some unique political critique from his perspective the way he did on White America or his anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War track Mosh.
There’s plenty of anger behind The Storm” and Campaign Speech, and references to Colin Kaepernick, George Zimmerman and Dylan Roof, but there’s no novel insight, and on the latter track an extended metaphor about getting literally fucked by the government feels pretty staid compared to some of his fierier lyrics from earlier in his career.
Take a song like Square Dance off The Eminem Show – on that track he’s speaking to those disaffected young people who flock to his music and are in prime position to be taken advantage of by their government. He raps, “All this terror, America demands action / Next thing you know you’ve got Uncle Sam’s ass askin’ / To join the army or what you’ll do for their Navy / You just a baby gettin’ recruited at 18 / You’re on a plane now, eatin’ their food and their baked beans / I’m 28, they gonna take you ‘fore they take me.” That’s a message that works brilliantly specifically because it is delivered by Eminem to an Eminem fan.
He still has a platform and ability to speak to those people on that level, and may well do so on Revival, but the blanket opposition he’s posed to Donald Trump, while well-intentioned, has a more diluted impact. As The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber points out, Eminem still has a unique place in protest music, but to applaud him like he’s doing something completely original short changes a number of other MCs who’ve taken stands and frankly dilutes his intended message as well.
Em’s loner tendencies feel more isolating than ever.
As Eminem has aged he’s embraced some of the tedious lyrical-miracle-spiritual tendencies that tend to happen to rappers as they age. Campaign Speech is particularly exhausting, a nearly eight-minute marathon of knotty internal rhymes that is undeniably impressive but also pretty tiring. There’s a difference between the kind of muscular rapping that Kendrick displays on DAMN. and what Em is doing which feels heavily indebted to his early days as a battle rapper in a way that his more colorful tracks during his apex never really did.
Eminem’s impressions and manipulation of his voice remains one of his biggest contributions to rap stylistically, and it’s something that’s been developed by artists like Kendrick, who frequently pitch shifts his vocals, as well as Nicki Minaj and Tyler, the Creator, who shift their voice in accordance with their alter egos (another concept that Em certainly brought to the mainstream with the Slim Shady persona). There’s interesting drama for Em to mine from the conflict between those two personas, particularly in the context of wanting to be a political voice versus falling back into his old, violent ways, but recently when he’s played with his delivery it’s been to do things like impersonate Yoda on Rhyme or Reason.
Getting back to exploring his different deliveries may be worthwhile for Em, because he doesn’t exactly have a particularly exciting recent track record when it comes to collaborations.
Guests haven’t been revealed for Em’s new record, but he’s reached a stage in his career, somewhat akin to actors like Tom Cruise and Will Smith, where they seem to have trouble playing with others or fitting into any kind of project not explicitly built around themselves and their own mythos.
Marshall Mathers LP 2 included the Kendrick-featuring Love Game, and he’s popped up occasionally in the last five years on tracks with younger artists like Big Sean, Dej Loaf, and Anderson .Paak. But for the most part his recent collaborators have been either similar legacy acts or misguided attempts at pop crossovers. That’s not to say that Eminem should go out and fill an album with guest verses from 19-year-old MCs— although the recent emo rap explosion and heavier soundscape might be fertile ground for him— but Em has never really played well with peers outside of the Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit family, and as he’s aged that quality has only made his music feel more out of touch with contemporary rap. Recent collaborations with Rihanna, Sia, X Ambassadors, Pink and Gwen Stefani clearly show that he’s transitioned into a pretty blatant pop crossover phase in which he cedes hook duties and spits about his continued relevance over a guitar riff built for Alt Nation.
According to Billboard, 2 Chainz and Wale are rumored to appear on Revival, and each would push Em in a new direction that’s worth hearing. Other guests are unknown, but given his track record over the past few years it seems safe to assume that Em will be working with artists largely in his A-list wheelhouse. But wouldn’t it be pretty thrilling to see him collaborate with Lil Uzi Vert, whose candor about relationship drama and punk flare would make him a great foil to Em, let alone rising MCs like Wifisfuneral, Pouya or $uicideboy$, whose rapid-fire flows could bring out the competitive side of Marshall?
To a degree, Eminem really is a victim of his own myth-building. He’s not just an artist who made a handful of iconic, enduring albums (The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show remain technically impressive, provocative, and cohesive decades later), but someone who built an entire world for himself that kept him at a distance from the rest of hip-hop even when he was its biggest star.
Take Stan, one of Eminem’s signature tracks that is still a harrowing listen today. Though as Noisey’s Emma Garland notes, the song’s misogyny is portrayed as “incidental,” and not examined in any meaningful way, the message about idol worship still feels relevant, especially as our relationship with our favorite musicians has changed with technology and social media.
And yet, his sequel to the story, Bad Guy which opens The Marshall Mathers LP 2, is a continuation of the same narrative now starring Stan’s younger brother, Matthew, who wants revenge on Eminem. What made Stan powerful was the deterioration of its titular protagonist, but in Bad Guy we enter on the plot already in motion, the stakes already escalated to the highest possible point. The song doesn’t offer any novel commentary in the way that Stan did, it purely exists to close the storyline opened 13 years earlier.
Few rappers have accomplished enough and sold enough recordss to merit their own cinematic universe like Eminem, but lately he’s sounded more trapped by it than anything else. Hopefully Revival, with its purported external focus, allows Eminem to escape the constant cycle of relapse and recovery to actually re-enter the rap ecosystem and offer some truly new insight.
Words by Grant Rindner. You can follow Grant on Twitter, here.