I was born in 1989, which makes me the perfect age to grow up idolizing Eminem. I think I first heard Slim Shady on a bootleg CD my brother brought with him when we’d roam around trying to install StarCraft on computers nobody was using at the creepy, run-down boarding school we lived at because of my mother’s teaching job. We didn’t have cable or the internet or any big music magazines or anything like that, so I had no idea what this man I was so instantly seized by actually looked like. I remember thinking for the longest time that he probably had a lot of wild, crazy hair — like the guitarist from some metal band who’d tie razor blades to the ends of his dreads. My imaginary Eminem probably looked a lot more like Marilyn Manson than Marshall Mathers.
I didn’t have nearly as shitty or impoverished a childhood as Eminem did, but I did also spend large parts of it living in the kind of half-rural, half-industrial poverty that Eminem’s music came from. My parents’ chaotic relationship took me and my brother through the bleaker parts of Connecticut and inland Maine, places not dissimilar from the landscapes now so frequently fetishized in prestige crime TV. In Maine, I remember driving by the fleshy carcasses of deer hanging off rusty basketball hoops in driveways. A lot of bad things happen to people — and to children, specifically, by extension of their unstable families and lack of welfare — in places like these simply because they’re allowed to under the cover of poverty and institutional neglect. My brother and I were abused and changed schools a lot. One time I remember the two of us having to pack everything up with our mom and move to another county after the well supplying our house ran dry and it wasn’t the kind of place with a landlord who’d do anything about it.
Eminem spoke to all of that, and what he said was powerful enough that it became undeniable. He was rapping about a lot of really terrible and hateful things, but the visions of poverty he offered were terrifyingly, oppressively real. He might have been embellishing the specifics, but just because Eminem might not have actually gotten locked in the basement by one of his parents doesn’t mean my brother and I weren’t. Eminem was the flashpoint for lots of cultural panic about violence and profanity in music, but I don’t think I took much of it very seriously for a long time, simply because I didn’t hear many of his critics validating my own lived experience in the way that he did. Love them or hate them, the stories Eminem was telling were real. You could get caught up in picking apart the antisocial lyrics and chide him for dropping too many curse words, or you could reckon with what he was describing. Tipper Gore and Lynne Cheney had a lot to say about Eminem’s music, but they never seemed to ask what kind of conditions create something like Eminem the person.
In retrospect, it seems silly that we got caught up in a moral panic over some pissed-off rapper from Detroit. But maybe Old Eminem only feels harmless because we now live in the world of New Eminem, and New Eminem is extremely bad. It’s one thing for a rapper to age poorly — after all, Kanye’s off doing shit like creative directing the Pornhub Awards and rapping “poop scoop” over and over again, and even at his best, Jay Z can seem a bit out of touch. But Eminem has spent the past decade and a half redefining the idea of a rapper’s artistic nadir. Even Mathers himself admits today that he cringes when trying to listening to large chunks of his recent catalogue, which, in a genre that prizes the now almost as much as it does unflinching self-aggrandizement, says a LOT. So what the hell happened?
When Eminem went pop, initially, he didn’t do it in a way that meaningfully dulled the sharp edge of his earliest and most nihilistic work. It’s hard to remember this now that “Lose Yourself” has been the soundtrack to car and shoe commercials for almost two decades, but rewatching 8 Mile today reminds me that it was actually a searing and deeply subversive indictment of institutional poverty and urban sprawl. The whole thing is set in a richly and empathetically realized post-industrial wasteland that’s only different from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in that the characters are pressing car bumpers instead of processing meat. The motivations of Eminem’s character Rabbit — to win a rap battle, not for riches or a record deal, but simply for respect, and doing so by verbally weaponizing his experiences of class struggle over the beat to “Shook Ones Part II” — aren’t all that dissimilar from Antonio in Bicycle Thieves trying to get his bike back so he can keep going to work. Were 8 Mile released today (probably without Eminem attached to it), people would undoubtedly praise it as an impassioned and singularly Marxist work.
I think a big part of the problem with the 8 Mile portion of Eminem’s career is that he’d become too successful for his own good. While his first two albums were weird, idiosyncratic, and gleefully horrifying, the titanic success of “Lose Yourself,” combined with the rap-mixed-with-dad-rock niche he’d begun to carve out with the Aerosmith-sampling Eminem Show single “Sing for the Moment,” seemed to show Eminem that he could reach a whole new level of mainstream appeal if he jettisoned the trappings of horrorcore hip-hop for simple, rousing power ballads. Once Eminem started recruiting Rihanna, Pink, and Skylar Grey to sing the hooks for him, his fate was sealed. He earned himself untold millions by writing bland but infectious songs about not being afraid and learning how to rehabilitate and/or stand up for yourself, but by doing so, he risked alienating those who loved the cackling, devilish Eminem. Choosing to try his very darndest to service both sides of his absolutely massive fandom, he made his albums more and more bloated — juxtaposing trollish and violent songs about serial killers and disgusting sex with “let’s all hug each other while running a marathon and crushing our bench-press records” anthems, pleasing absolutely no one in the process.
No matter how bad it got, meanwhile, Eminem’s music has persisted stubbornly at the top of the charts, invariably going Number One every time it rears its hideous little head. Through the years, he’s developed a pattern of putting out bad music and then immediately attempting to atone for releasing his bad music by releasing other, different music that’s inevitably just as disappointing. So when I was getting ready for bed one Thursday night at the end of last month and saw a flurry of posts about Eminem dropping a surprise album called Kamikaze, all I could do is groan and dig in my heels to prepare for another painful hour-plus onslaught of infernal internal rhyme-salad.
But something seems different this time, and it isn’t just the fact that Eminem somehow managed to make an album that’s less than an hour and doesn’t feature a single Pink chorus. I feel like I actually really like three or four songs on it — “The Ringer,” “Greatest,” “Lucky You,” and “Not Alike,” specifically — and there’s a solid six or so tracks that I consider to be legitimately good Eminem songs. Taste in music is so deeply subjective and subconscious that, after several dozen (several hundred?) listens, I’m still not even sure whether I think Kamikaze is a good album or not. It probably isn’t, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t give a shit. After 16 years of existentially and viscerally painful records, the fact that Eminem put out an album that’s merely bad feels like a major victory. It’s a breath of fresh air for the grumpy and resentful stans like myself who’ve built layers upon layers of protective pessimism to shield ourselves from the naked sting of disappointment that we’ve been subjected to for the better part of two decades.
Machine Gun Kelly, one of the many lesser white rappers who followed but never exceeded Eminem, dished out some withering and extremely accurate criticism of Marshall Mathers with his diss track “Rap Devil” a few days after Kamikaze dropped, saying: “fucking dweeb, all you do is read the dictionary and stay inside.” But the irony of him saying that right after Kamikaze launched is that Eminem had only just managed to prove Kelly wrong. Kamikaze sounds significantly better than the six or so Eminem albums that came before it (though, again, that’s really not saying much) because it’s the first thing that Marshall Mathers has put out in roughly 16 years that sounds like he has actually stepped out of whatever dungeon of a recording studio he’s be locked in.
Maybe he didn’t make it all the way outside. But he at least logged onto the internet. The rap beefs he ignites and reignites on Kamikaze — against Machine Gun Kelly for calling his daughter “hot” (as if Eminem didn’t do way worse shit 20 years ago), against Die Antwoord for making fun of his name (after he’d mispronounced their name), against Charlamagne tha Gawd for calling him one of the worst artists of 2017 (which was a totally fair assessment) — are laughably petty. The plus side of Eminem pulling the very Eminem move of bullying a bunch of rappers who are collectively still a fraction of his size, however, is that doing so at least allows him to ignite the competitive spirit that’s always characterized his best work.
The most meaningful and interesting beef that Eminem declares on Kamikaze is against so-called “Soundcloud Rappers.” He spells out why he dislikes their ilk so much on “Lucky You,” but the most revealing moments comes when he he trolls these straw men in true impish Eminem fashion by parodying them. He mocks the hook from Lil Pump’s viral 2017 hit “Gucci Gang” on the Kamikaze’s opening track “The Ringer” when he busts out a string of seemingly nonsensical words: “So finger bang, chicken wang, MGK, Igg’ Azae / Lil Pump, Lil Xan imitate Lil Wayne.” On “Not Alike,” a duet with his longtime partner Royce Da 5’9”, he builds a similarly reductio ad absurdum hook seemingly meant to skewer the rhymes of young rappers like Bhad Bhabie being even worse:
Brain dead, eye drops
Pain meds, cyclops
Pay less, high-tops
That’s how much we have in common (yeah!)
That’s how much we have in common (yeah!)
As a troll — which, to be clear, he has always been — Eminem has done his best work when he’s defining himself and his music as being deliberately in opposition to someone or something else. For a long time that was just “America” at large, and he pulled that off spectacularly well at the height of his career. But in acting like an angry old man, it seems like he’s finally figured out how to slow down, take a few deep breaths, and access that same confrontational impulse. He stills does plenty of deliriously fast Scribble Jam-y rapping, too, but the dizzying moments feel more like the trippy and transcendent parts of a post-rock song that have been worked up to, and thus earned, than the bursting-straight-out-of-the-gate approach he’s taken to most of his current music.
Trap music is an ironic foe for Eminem to spend so much time fighting against, however, because he doesn’t seem to realize A) how much he’s inadvertently influenced trap music and B) how much better he therefore sounds by reintroducing some of its logic into his work. It’s hard to listen to modern trap stars like Young Thug spend whole bars loudly grunting SHEESH!, for instance, without recalling the deliciously morbid way Eminem ad-libbed revving a chainsaw in the middle of “Kill You,” from The Marshall Mathers LP. He ends that verse by rapping “Blood / Guts / Guns / Cuts,” embarking on a string of antisocial free-association that’s a face tattoo away from Lil Pump.
You can relate to Eminem expression frustration at how braindead some SoundCloud rappers sound, but he could really stand to remember that he described his own creative process behind “Kill You” in the 2002 book Angry Blonde by simply saying: “The whole idea of this song was to say some of the most fucked-up shit.” Kamikaze makes me realize that a real failing of modern Eminem is that he became oppressively literal with his lyrics as he devoted himself to building ever larger and more intricate “Rap God”-style constructions. Making fun of someone else for having poorly thought-out rhymes means that Eminem finally allows himself to stop thinking so damn hard about every single word and meter.
What I still can’t tell after all these listens is how aware of all this Eminem is. All of his albums — especially the good ones — have been drenched in heavy doses of irony and self-awareness, and at certain points on Kamikaze, it really does feel like, for once, that Eminem gets it. The interstitial album skits enacting a concerned call from longtime manager Paul Rosenberg and Eminem’s stubborn replies — a gag he’s had running since The Slim Shady LP — don’t try to make any more unconvincing claims about Eminem being seen as a menace to society. Instead, they’re all about how Eminem is Extremely Old and Extremely Mad Online. By the time Em tells Paul he’s driving over to some guy’s house because he said some mean shit to him on the internet, you can practically hear the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme playing in your head. But then there’s the song “Greatest,” the beat and flow of which mimic Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 banger “HUMBLE.”
Is Eminem honoring his friend and sometimes collaborator with a rare act of humility when he belts out, “Revival didn’t go viral!” Or is he being a snotty little shit who’s not willing to accept that Kendrick has clearly surpassed him? Is calling the song “Greatest” when its transparent reference point is called “HUMBLE,” supposed to be part of the joke, an admission we’ve all been waiting for so long to hear, that Eminem finally recognized that he could really stand to learn a lot from rappers much younger than him — be challenged to fit into their sound, the way he once was by Dr. Dre? Or is he just being a bitter old dad?
Plenty of other people who are a whole lot cooler and more musically literate and sophisticated than me seem convinced that Kamikaze is just as bad as everything that came before it (if not worse). Pitchfork said that it “flies straight into [the] downward spiral” of the “exhausting feedback loop” that is Eminem’s career, while The AV Club and Esquire called it “bad” and “very bad,” respectively. Eminem has embraced the fresh wave of hate in true edgelord fashion by bragging about how much all those whiny critic types can’t stand him in a new wave of ads for Kamikaze, but maybe the detractors have a point — there’s more than enough of Eminem’s tasteless corniness on Kamikaze to convince even the most defensive Eminem stans that he’ll never be able to turn things around.
Hahahahahaha hi Marshalllll pic.twitter.com/9anQw6Kvrw— Craig Bro Dude (@CraigSJ) September 21, 2018
One beef Eminem unfortunately decides to kick back up on Kamikaze is with Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. This stems in part from a hilarious and biting review of late-stage Eminem that Earl Sweatshirt gave in a 2015 interview when he said: “If you still follow Eminem, you drink way too much Mountain Dew and probably need to, like, come home from the Army.” It’s understandable that Eminem would get pissed about being clowned so hard, particularly by a rapper who was clearly inspired by him. But the real tragedy of Eminem’s lame clap-back is that, for someone who’s smart and self-deprecating enough to learn both from his own mistakes and from other talented artists around him, he just can’t see how on point Earl Sweatshirt’s dig was. Eminem’s entire brand and aesthetic, from the giant uppercase backwards E downwards, has always been amateurish and repulsive.
I was struck by this anew before I’d even bothered to listen to Kamikaze because I’d gone to Eminem’s website in search of merch. A big part of Eminem’s explanation for releasing Kamikaze was that he’d taken a huge hit to his fanbase after making a bungled attempt to be woke with all the stridently anti-Trump parts of last year’s Revival. I wanted to at least show some sort of support for him speaking out against Trump, but I couldn’t find a single thing on his online store that didn’t make me want to die a little on the inside.
There’s the totally badass grim reaper:
And speaking of the Army:
My favorite is the throw pillow:
Who the fuck buys an *Eminem throw pillow?!?! *
Looking through Eminem’s merch leaves me feeling the same way I often do listening to his post-8 Mile work. This guy could collaborate with pretty much anyone in the world he wants to to help him make his music, just as he could find any number of competent and inspired designers to help him make his official Eminem-branded clothing. And this is what he settles on? It’s like while the rest of hip-hop and pop culture moved on, Eminem insisted on only working with the guy who designs Monster Energy drink cans. If Eminem really has been this aggressively bad for this long, why has anyone even bothered to stick around to even hazard a listen to Kamikaze? There have been countless other musical acts that peaked with their first album or two and went on to spend another few decades middling about in the dregs of mediocrity. What makes Eminem different from, like, Metallica? That’s what I really want to know, because I was too young and impressionable when I first got hooked on his music.
Looking back at the successful first part of his career, it now seems clear to me that intentionally or not, Eminem’s terrible taste worked in his benefit on The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP. Much of the power of both of those albums comes from how defiantly and compellingly Eminem revels in his own worst impulses, creating sublimely grotesque pieces of art that, in their own fucked-up way, expanded musical and cultural boundaries.
The closest thing in contemporary pop culture today I can compare Eminem’s first two albums to is Hulu’s superb new Stephen King adaptation Castle Rock. Like that show’s imagining of the Stephen King horror multiverse, the Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers LP are ornately crafted, self-contained nightmare worlds where lots of horrible things always seem to happen. Every neighborhood has at least one child slowly being murdered through reverse Munchausen syndrome, and there’s always some crazed lunatic tearing down the highway with a helpless victim hog-tied and screaming in the trunk. Eminem was like The Kid in Castle Rock, the character who kickstarted the action of the show when people discover that he’s been locked in a cage in an abandoned wing of a prison for no clear or good reason. Just like The Kid, Slim Shady was this ugly little secret the civilized world didn’t want to know about, but who possessed such terrible, awesome powers that you had to pay attention. That Bill Skarsgard is dressed up to look so creepily similar to early Eminem seems to me enough evidence that Slim Shady’s horror-movie interpretation of America is as much an influence on the show as Sam Shepard and Bryan Fuller are:
Mathers and his assorted hangers-on for the latest album have all insisted that Kamikaze is a return to the scrappiness of The Slim Shady LP, his very first, very monumental album. Producer Illadaproducer (say that five times fast), who made the beats for four of the album’s songs, told Rolling Stone that he wanted “to hear Eminem go bad” on the new album, that Revival was Eminem “doing his version” of Jay Z’s “responsible dad” schtick on 4:44, but “people wanted Slim Shady.” Even guest rapper Joyner Lucas goes to great lengths in his standout guest verse on “Lucky You” to make the real Slim Shady please stand up, invoking the same words and images as Eminem did so powerfully on The Slim Shady LP’s blistering “Rock Bottom.” But the Eminem album that Kamikaze has the most in common with by far is Encore.
Released in 2004, Encore was the pivotal moment where Eminem showed once and for all that the precarious but incredibly successful balancing act he’d maintained at his peak was never going to last. 8 Mile had taught him to start keeping a straight face, and he followed up with painfully somber but morally respectable tracks like “Toy Soldiers,” a melodramatic rap opera ballad where Eminem basically reads off his own fan Wiki page as he explains his side of his bazillion beefs. Kamikaze’s “Stepping Stones” is almost literally the same exact song, except this time he’s talking about his old rap group D12 and screams “TO MY PARTNERS, I CAN’T EXPLAIN HOW SORRY I AM.”
None of us could have known this at the time, but Encore’s barely-remembered track “Yellow Brick Road” presaged so much of New Eminem. In the song and ensuing interviews headlined with things like “The Serious Side Of Eminem”, Eminem apologized prodigiously for a recording that had surfaced in which he called someone the n-word. He also chastised himself in his lyrics and when speaking to Rolling Stone for engaging in what we’d call today “cultural appropriation” — which was totally fine and even morally respectable, but also totally fucking ridiculous because he was also still wearing do-rags in music videos:
Eminem’s many bitter and painful (for him and his fans both) failures from Encore onwards are a direct result of the countless different ways that his awful taste and frequently galling aesthetic began to come into conflict with his ability to make music that was both technically impressive and artistically insteresting. There’s a fascinating dynamic at play in the way Eminem has survived as an extremely famous and influential musician who is also embarrassing to listen to in front of other people. His image was always of a lonely, angry man harboring his resentments inside of the pair of headphones and an oversized hoodie, and that’s increasingly become the only kind of situation in which one can listening to Eminem without being openly and publicly ridiculed for doing so.
Eminem has always loved to rap about the drones of fellow degenerates he’s spawned into this world, and that’s all well and good when it’s just some dude working out his anxiety at the gym or unironically rocking out to Kamikaze alone in his car (I’ve been both of those dudes so, so many times). But it’s a lot of angry, scary shit to subject yourself to all on your own all the time. To be a responsible Eminem fan in 2018, I feel like I’ve had to face up to the many awful lessons I’ve taken from his music at different points in my own life — I need to be able to have a clear moral distance from a lot of his work, even as I’ve maintained a very close emotional one.
I like to think I’ve done that successfully. But has every Eminem fan? This guy is one of the most popular and successful musicians of all time. How many fragile male egos is he funneling his bullshit into, and how many of those men have learned to grow up enough that they know they can’t act like what Eminem raps about? On the Kamikaze track “Normal,” Eminem mentions a character named Milo, who’s supposed to be the guy his girlfriend is cheating on him with, which of course justifies him punching her. It’s impossible to hear the name “Milo” in Eminem’s trademark latchy kid whine without thinking of Milo Yiannopolous, the bleached blonde Neo-nazi Trump supporter who for a brief and terrifying moment seemed to have a direct line to the White House. Is Milo one of the fellow degenerates Eminem raps about on Kamikaze closer “Venom” when he says, “cause if I’m the music that y’all grew up on / I’m responsible”? When Yiannopoulos first inked his ill-fated book deal with Simon & Schuster, he told The Hollywood Reporter: "I met with top execs at Simon & Schuster earlier in the year and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building — but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.”
He also released this headshot when announcing his book deal:
Milo’s star might have blessedly fallen, but he certainly isn’t the only person running things in politics and culture who looks and acts like an evil caricature from a Slim Shady song.
And what about Eminem himself? We always knew that Slim Shady trying to growing up was going to be weird, but now that we’re almost two decades into Eminem announcing and re-announcing the beginning of his adult phase and he only very recently managed to start growing facial hair, I feel like I have to ask: did it ever really happen? Eminem released a four-part interview with Sway to complement Kamikaze’s release, at the very end of which he briefly noted that he doesn’t go to therapy because “my music is therapy,” meaning that, at the very least, Eminem is probably going to keep assaulting us with music about his violent, misogynistic fantasies as long as he still has complicating feelings about women in his life. He can grow up in any number of other ways, but we’re just going to keep being subjected to the same old Eminem as long as we keep listening to him.
I’ve been listening to Eminem nonstop for the better part of a month now, and the one song I keep coming back to in my head is “Rabbit Run,” one of the better but lesser-known songs off 8 Mile. Dramatizing his own writer’s block, Eminem paints a picture of himself that now sounds eerily prescient:
I’m desperate at my desk
If I can just get the rest of this shit off my chest again
Stuck in a slump, can’t think of nothin’
Fuck, I’m stumped, wait, here comes something
[crumples paper] Nope, it’s not good enough, scribble it out
New pad, crinkle it up, and throw the shit out
I’m fizzling now, thought I figured it out
Balls in my court, but I’m scared to dribble it out
The song works its way up to a climax that’s intensely striking all these years later: “I found my niche, you gon’ hear my voice / ‘Til you’re sick of it, you ain’t gonna have a choice.”
As a writer, I used to think that line was some of the most profound shit I’d ever heard — I remember posting it verbatim once in response to some asshole telling me I sucked in the comments during one of my first blogging jobs.
In 2018, it feels like some far-off warning. As if the Eminemiverse really is like Castle Rock and has multiple dimensions, and that we lost the real Slim Shady one day back in the early aughts when he stumbled through some space-time portal. But not before he tried to tell us all that we’d end up here, 16 years into being sick of Eminem and still having to hear his voice.