Why Eminem Matters Right Now

On The Marshall Mathers LP 2, he offers what's been missing from hip hop lately: aggressive, commercially viable, virtuoso rapping.
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Eminem at Coachella in 2012. (AP / Chris Pizzello)

Thirteen years ago, Eminem offered this modest self-assessment: “Whether you like to admit it, I just shit it / better than 90 percent of you rappers.” Numbers would come to tell a different story—Eminem is the best-selling rapper of all time, by a wide margin. He’s also got 13 Grammys, an Oscar, and as of Sunday night, an “Artist of the Year” trophy from the first-ever Youtube Awards. Of course, charts and accolades don’t mean everything. But Eminem is surely one of rap’s most capable practitioners, fond of breathtaking verbal displays frequently delivered at manic speed. In his prime, his brand of gleeful vitriol seemed to have infinite reach—no one was safe

The trilogy of albums he released between 1999 and 2002, each dedicated to one of his personas (Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers, and Eminem), captured the rapper at his most unhinged and most effective. He ranted, joked, vented, and cleverly offered a vision of a silent but angry army at his back—“every single person is a Slim Shady lurking,” “there's a million of us just like me / who cuss like me, who just don't give a fuck like me / who dress like me, walk, talk and act like me.” It turned out there were a lot more than a million, and they liked to buy albums.

The man’s sound changed as he moved—he became increasingly aware of his own impact, and got more serious, more predictable, less deranged. He contributed several of the definitive songs of the early ‘00s, and they reflect this progression. “The Real Slim Shady,” released in 2000, has that exaggerated, Halloween-worthy keyboard riff, goofy asides, strange vocal quirks, cackles, sex noises, and moose jokes. By the time Eminem reached the peak of his powers, with 2002’s “Lose Yourself,” he’s the most serious guy around. The song is made for layup lines and Gatorade commercials, opening with a question—“If you had one shot… to seize everything you ever wanted… would you capture it or just let it slip?”—that a younger Eminem would have laughed off, made fun of, and sworn at.

Seizing the moment is one thing, holding on is another. Eminem has maintained his ability to make people buy his work, but the three albums he released between 2004 and 2010 are a lot less inspired. He covered the same topics as before, but with less vigor and amusement. His once sharp references fell behind the times. He also struggled with drug addiction.

A lot has changed since Eminem started tantalizing and scandalizing the world with his combination of jaw-dropping ability, humor, and belligerence that frequently veers into misogyny, gory fantasy, or homophobia. Rap’s in a strange place right now, with the long-ruling elite in disarray or disavowing the genre’s current direction. When Jay Z gave away free copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail, it seemed as though it was because the album couldn’t stand up on its own. Kanye with Yeezus made a brave, defiant break with his commercial side—and was outsold in two weeks by an uninteresting album from J. Cole. Lil’ Wayne, once reliably surprising, has settled into more conventional, less-thrilling patterns.

What about the youngsters? Drake’s had success with Nothing Was the Same, but he mixes rapping and singing, moving rap in directions purists aren’t always comfortable with. Nicki Minaj hasn’t released an album this year, and she’s also made genre gate-keepers anxious by occasionally singing and by not being a man. Kendrick Lamar has called himself the King of New York and last year released the much-lauded good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but so far he’s only had one top-20 pop hit. He talks big, but he’s not yet a superstar.

Enter Eminem, with his new album The Marshall Mathers LP 2. He always drew strength from having enemies—the more parental handwringing and public outcry he caused, the more dominant he became. After “Lose Yourself,” he wasn’t the disturbed crazy guy anymore. He was now the guy who overcame obstacles and adversity to earn fortune and fame, basically a model citizen. On two of his Marshall Mathers 2 singles, however, Eminem seems to draw energy from a new source—his anger about the current state of hip-hop. (A lot of rappers are in openly “anti” moods these days, epitomized by Pusha T’s comment to NPR: “Hip-hop to me right now is really easy listening … there's nothing abrasive about it.”) In “Berzerk,” Eminem suggests, “let's take it back to straight hip-hop and start it from scratch,” and in “Rap God,” he points out that “rappers are having a rough time period.”

So Eminem embraces a back-to-basics approach. In opener “Bad Guy,” Eminem raps meanly over a handful of squeaks. “Berzerk,” produced by Rick Rubin, features what might have been a discarded Run DMC beat, with crude percussion and cruder guitars. “Rap God” and “Evil Twin” are slightly more luxurious, involving piano and synthesizer, but the arrangements are merely functional, not compelling on their own—“Rap God,” for example, serves only as a vehicle for what Slate recently referred to as the Fastest Rap Verse You’ve Ever Heard, serving up roughly 100 words in 15 seconds.

Eminem also shines in his clever use of ‘60s samples. “Rhyme or Reason” (Rubin assisted) finds Eminem transforming the Zombies’ “Time Of The Season,” with its simple bass line and signature exhales, into a nihilistic battle. Zombies: “What’s your name?” (Exhale.) Eminem: “Marshall.” (Exhale.) Zombies: “Who’s Your Daddy?” (Exhale.) Em: “I didn’t have one / my mother reproduced like a Komoto dragon … I'm loco it's like handing a psycho a loaded handgun.” Another Rubin-produced track samples an earlier ‘60s pop tune, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders’ “Game Of Love.” Tales of dysfunctional relationships like this one have often inspired Eminem to greater lyrical heights. Here, with the help of Kendrick Lamar, Eminem sprays tight volleys of musical analogies. “Here goes that broken record cliche, it's all my fault anyway / she's turnin' the tables, I'm a beat-break / … back together but forgot today was her b-day, she cut me off on the freeway.”

Not everything on Marshall Mathers 2 works as well. In particular, Eminem’s songs tend to lose momentum during the chorus. Whether he carts in someone else to sing them or belts them himself, it often has a deflating effect. (This makes him work twice as hard during the verses of “Rap God.”) There’s song about forgiving mom (“Headlights), which rejects Eminem’s long-held anti-mother stance—see the third verse of 2002’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”—and shows how much more interesting he is when causing trouble, rather than making amends. Rubin produces four songs on the album, and his tracks are consistently the most exciting. When he isn’t involved, Eminem tends to favor piano-driven beats without much to recommend them.

But with his selling power and a handful of energetic tracks, he might be able to inject abrasion (the type Kanye and Pusha T are pulling for) into the mainstream—“Rap God” is gaining on Lorde’s “Royals” for the top singles spot. Here Eminem raps, “to be truthful the blueprint's / simply rage and youthful exuberance / everybody loves to root for a nuisance.” He’s lacking youth. But he can still play a fearsome nuisance, while selling like an American idol.

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Elias Leight writes about music and books for Paste and Popmatters.

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