The 2010 Jonah Hill/Russell Brand buddy comedy Get Him to the Greek is not particularly memorable, but there is one element that managed to achieve some semblance of cultural penetration. That would be the song “African Child,” performed by Brand’s character, the perpetually dazed rockstar Aldous Snow, which serves as a pitch-perfect parody of famous musicians who make some sort of attempt to “get political,” only to come across as clueless and disrespectful. That song’s music video features Brand doing everything a dumbass white musician making a music video about Africa shouldn’t do, including but not limited to: showing footage of child soldiers, scatting in gibberish over bongo drums, and giving birth to an African child.
I started thinking about “African Child” last week, because Eminem actually went and made a serious version of it. On Thursday, Detroit’s fastest-rapping son released a music video for a song called “Darkness,” intended as a commentary on our nation’s gun laws and a call for solidarity with victims of gun violence. This is a noble sentiment, especially since the video ends by directing viewers to register to vote and/or go to this page on Eminem’s website, which lists various organizations that those concerned about gun violence can assist by donating their money or time to. It’s not the full weight of his celebrity — he could tweet how his fans should call their representatives and urge them to pass gun legislation, or even show up at a rally and perform a nice, non-offensive song like “Lose Yourself” — but tilting toward activism is a great way to inspire some goodwill, regardless of how bad his music is these days.
But Eminem does much more before that simple reminder about how you can help. He raps the entire song from the perspective of Stephen Paddock, the perpetrator of the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. However bad an idea this sounds on paper, it plays out even worse in execution: Eminem starts the song off rapping about doing drugs because he’s nervous and mentions a stage in Las Vegas, so you’re like, “OK cool, Eminem, you are rapping about how you get scared before you rap your raps in Las Vegas.” At this point in the music video, we see shots of Em rapping in a room interlaced shots of a guy in a grey hoodie, pacing around a hotel room, leading us to think that this man is Eminem himself.
But THEN, Eminem raps, “Alcohol on my breath as I reach for the scope,” as the hand of hotel-room guy (still probably Eminem) gestures towards a bottle of mouthwash, only to swing away and guess what, it’s a rifle scope and hotel-room guy isn’t Eminem at all, but instead an actor playing Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock.
Things only go downhill from here. Em narrates the rest of the song with a level of painstaking detail that implies he watched at least two TV documentaries on the subject, and makes the unfortunate decision to attempt to explain the psychology of Paddock, inadvertently casting a literal mass murderer as a Joker-ish antihero (“I’m so much like my father, you would think that I knew him”) before inserting realistic gun sounds and screams into the crescendo of a song that is, again, an inside-the-mind-of-the-killer retelling of one of the most destructive and traumatizing acts of domestic terrorism in the past decade. The song then ends with 90 seconds of news clips about various mass shootings, as the music video fades out to text that reads “When will this end? When enough people care.” A day later, Eminem followed “Darkness” by releasing an album called Music to Be Murdered By which, Alfred Hitchcock reference or not, comes across as contradictory.
Like many facets of our current moment, Eminem’s inelegant moralism finds its roots in one specific influence: cable TV “I can’t even watch the news anymore because it makes me too stressed out,” he told New York Magazine in a 2017 interview, later adding that Fox News “[makes] me want to jump through the TV and choke somebody.” Cable news has a way of making us feel helpless, narrowing the scope of some problems until their obvious solutions get squeezed out of the frame, while overexplaining others to the point of obfuscation. It’s no wonder that Eminem attacks Donald Trump with the exact same performatively insulting battle-raps he once used to take down Canibus; he’s plugged into a medium that conflates attention with action.
For better or worse, “Political Eminem” is not a new phenomenon. The second verse of “Square Dance,” from The Eminem Show back in 2002, correctly predicted that the Bush administration would find some sort of pretext to expand its military presence in the Middle East, and directly implored his young listeners not to sign up for the Army. That was a prescient message, one that ran against mainstream narratives at a time when the media and politicians from both parties were agitating for war in Iraq.
But the banality of “Darkness” lies in its lack of specificity. In his prime, Eminem became a beloved rapper, not just a beloved celebrity, for his detail-oriented songwriting; he could craft a whole person by stacking up the facets of their life and psyche, as he memorably did in 2000’s “Stan,” maybe the best song ever written about being an insane fan. Meanwhile, in rapping about an actual person, with his understanding taken largely from existing coverage, he comes off incredibly shallow: “Darkness” reads like it was gleaned from police reports, with even a couple of exculpatory bars at the end that admit he can’t dig far beyond the surface (“You'll never find a motive, truth is I have no idea / I am just as stumped, no signs of mental illness”).
Eminem used to be able to get away with being offensive because, despite his pop ubiquity, his music that complicated cultural narratives, poked holes in moral inconsistencies, and made a genuine case that, for all his hateful speech, Eminem loathed himself more for his flaws — his whiteness in a black industry, his failure as a son and partner and father — than he could possibly hate anyone else. But at this point in his career, engorged on celebrity and acclaim, Eminem has drifted away from his capacity to jam engrossing contradictions into every bar; instead, his persona has simplified, and he either makes songs that are rude and horrifying for the sake of being so, or songs that are meant to be “mature” and “responsible” and end up as subtle as a neon sign reading “We live in a society” in all caps. Gun violence is a scourge, and Eminem is right to feel motivated, but there are many, many ways — not to understate it — to better spend that energy.