“Did you hear that!? The guy drove off a bridge. I have to hear that again!”
That was my first exposure to Eminem: a series of exclamations from my mother after hearing “Stan” on the car radio 15 years ago. Seated in the backseat during my awkward pre-teen years, nodding along, I was alarmingly oblivious to the song’s lyrical content, about a crazed fan professing his love for Eminem before committing suicide with his pregnant wife in the trunk of the car. It was a harrowing tale I couldn’t fully grasp, but my mother’s reaction told me I should probably listen harder. So I did.
Though Eminem became my favorite artist, I had vowed I would never write about him. There was something about his angst and audacity that appealed to straight-laced me, who couldn’t dream of saying or even thinking of the things he did. I didn’t want to criticize him and become one of those people he’d called out in “Sing for the Moment”: “Now these critics crucify you, journalists try to burn you, fans turn on you.”
Yet with the release of Eminem’s latest offering SHADYXV—also marking 15 years of his record company Shady Records—it’s become clear that while the rapper’s lyrical abilities and technical prowess have only grown stronger, he’s become a worse artist. One worthy of criticism.
Writers have noted this gradual decline for years. Last year’s Marshall Mathers LP 2 (while successful commercially to the tune of 792,000 copies sold in its first week) received polarizing reviews, some of which argued that Eminem had run out of things to talk about. That charge may be partly correct: Eminem’s earlier habit of mercilessly lampooning turn-of-the-millennium pop culture was refreshing at the time. The shtick has since turned stale, but even so, the continued rehashing of old topics in of itself is not what aged him. The Detroit native has always balanced the satirical serial-killer persona with insightful cultural criticism. Eminem is who he is, sometimes to a fault. He rapped about rape at age 26 the same way he does now at 42—most recently on the track “Vegas,” which was then blasted by lyrical target Iggy Azelea.
The misogynistic content on his albums has been a polarizing issue throughout Eminem’s entire career. One side points to the idea of artistic license, noting how his outlandish demeanor brought him much of his early success. But there’s something to be said for how societal progress should shape artistic endeavors. Molly Lambert of Grantland postulates that Eminem’s sheer obliviousness to the world around him comes across “as if he’s been frozen in amber for the last decade while the world has changed around him.” And she’s right: While he’s claimed in his interviews that he does not in fact have any explicit anti-gay or misogynistic agenda, his lyrics, however satirical or non-serious, can feel at odds with the evolving sensibilities of his audience. Still, while his lack of social awareness is up for debate, it’s never been a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, since controversy is such a core part of the Eminem ethos.
But on ShadyXV, longtime listeners may notice a seemingly subtler sign of how the rapper has changed for the worse: by trading in his once-harmonic and methodical rapping approach for a hectic and increasingly complex one.
The new album’s track listing, which contains both new songs and old classics, makes explicit the big difference between the Eminem of the past and present. Take the previously unreleased demo version of what would become his magnum opus “Lose Yourself.” The lyrics lack the impact of the finished version, but the track offers a rare 2014 look at Eminem in his prime. It’s a throwback to a time when his rapping cadence wasn’t rooted in double time, but when he flowed on a beat slowly and cautiously, doling out melodic barbs with his trademark charisma.
It’s as though Eminem has morphed from a free-flowing abstract painter—where his genius seemed to appear almost accidentally—to a more efficient but ultimately less appealing robot. Before, the pleasure of listening to Eminem was rooted in surface simplicity and underlying complexity, the entrancing way his words and the beat worked together. Now it takes me scouring Rap Genius, deciphering complicated word-laden sentences like an overzealous historian, before I can enjoy his songs.
To be sure, his technical skills, namely his rhyming technique and economy of words, may be better than they’ve ever been. Last year’s performance of “Rap God,” where Eminem orates at neck-breaking speeds, ranks among the most impressive moments of his career. But at times, nouveau Eminem seems like a bizarro-version of himself. Like a genius gone off the rails, muttering to himself on a street corner or a highly advanced computer program stuck in a glitch.
The shift seems to stem from Eminem’s almost obsessive need to prove himself to the critics who’ve claimed he’s lost it. His 2005 critical-flop Encore and subsequent hibernation from rap brought on a slew of naysayers, whom he addressed on “Careful What You Wish For” during a brief return. But when the Detroit rapper made his full-fledged comeback and was criticized for certain elements of his new style—in the case of 2009’s Relapse, an odd accent—he switched from the artist who “Doesn’t Give a F***” to one who clearly does, with each subsequent album being an apology of sorts for the previous output.
On 2010’s Recovery, he badmouthed Relapse, describing it as “ehh” and claiming he “wasn’t going back to that” on “Not Afraid.” Critics nonetheless slammed Eminem for Recovery’s overly poppy, self-indulgent optimistic tone. When he titled last year’s album Marshall Mathers’ LP 2, a reference back to his most critically acclaimed work 13 years earlier, it felt like a retreat as well. But the old charm wasn’t there; instead, Eminem just doubled down on his new, grating, rapid-fire method.
Of course, maybe it’s still not fair to criticize Eminem for trying to stay relevant. He’s doing a better job of it than most other rappers his age. The entire genre is going through growing pains, as its biggest artists still attempt take music for listeners 25 years their junior. Eminem’s solution is to try and make people marvel that a middle-aged guy can spit so fast. And I do marvel, initially. But then, months later, I just get sad when I realize that the newest songs by one of my favorite artists lie dormant in the basement of my iTunes library.