Shady XLII: Eminem in 2014Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MTV
What if maturity is a myth? It’s a question that plagues a lot of people as they get older and find that, while they may change physically, their brains feel exactly the same. The accepted narrative is that maturity involves growing wiser through experience. But what if experience rewards you for being an immature asshole?
When Eminem came onto the scene 15 years ago, he constantly rapped about killing his wife and taking their infant daughter. Now that daughter has grown up and graduated from high school, and Eminem is drawing headlines for a freestyle in which he raps about a desire to punch Lana Del Rey in the face “like Ray Rice.” That line is egregious enough by itself, but when you look at the lyrics to Em’s “Shady Cxvpher” — a promotion for his label’s new compilation, Shady XV — in context, well, it’s even worse: “But I may fight for gay rights especially if they d—. It’s more of a knockout than Janay Rice. Play nice? Bitch I’ll punch Lana Del Rey right in the face twice, like Ray Rice in broad daylight in the plain sight of the elevator surveillance till her head banged on the railing, then celebrate with the Ravens.” After the tiny blowback to the Lana lyric, Eminem released another single called “Vegas,” in which he jokes about raping Iggy Azalea, which puts me in the unfortunate position of siding with Iggy Azalea, who tweeted, “im bored of the old men threatening young women as entertainment trend and much more interested in the young women getting $ trend. zzzz”
Eminem has always had a habit of singling out young women to beef with, unprovoked except by their existence. One of his earliest feuds was with Christina Aguilera, after she said that he was “cute” but that women needed to watch out for abusive men. Shady responded by rapping that he was going to “grab [Aguilera] by the hair and drag her across the Sahara.” His violently misogynistic and anti-gay lyrics traditionally have been brushed off for a number of reasons: It’s satire, meant to be sickly funny, so outrageously disturbing that it’s obviously ridiculous and absurd. Slim Shady is a totally fictional character Eminem uses to exorcise his darkest impulses, which all humans have. He doesn’t actually do any of the things he talks about, he just raps about them. Or: It’s horrorcore, you stupid bitch. Feeling offended is a choice.
But the excuse made most often was that Eminem’s rants reflected the authentic rage of an angry young man. His lyrics are tied to the carefree hate speech of teenagers who perceive no consequences to their actions because there honestly might not be any yet. In many ways, Eminem’s relevance feels to me like a nostalgia act. For some, perhaps, it’s a longing for a time when a rapper could describe a fantasy of murdering his wife and call it art. My own nostalgia for Eminem is indivisible from my nostalgia for being a teenager, when I heard his music everywhere. I imagine this is true for a lot of people. When “Drug Ballad” or “Superman” come on L.A.’s classic rap station KDAY, I always let them play through and I float into the past, like Tony Soprano listening to Journey.
Rap, like almost all popular music, is a youth culture. And youth is the excuse traditionally invoked for artists whose lyrics transgress the boundaries of taste. Tyler, The Creator receives the same kinds of complaints about his lyrical content that Eminem used to get, and as a 23-year-old he gets Eminem’s old excuse. He’s young and angry and he loves saying shit to get himself attention, even negative attention, because that stokes the idea that he’s controversial. But there is the expectation that the 23-year-old Tyler will change and become less hateful as he grows up. The reality is that 42-year-old Eminem still desires to be seen as controversial and sounds as hateful as ever.
Expecting Eminem to stop rapping about abusing women since he has a daughter is stupid. The culture tends to reward someone for a particular set of behaviors, and then tells them they are not allowed to do those things past a certain age. It’s no wonder people don’t know when to stop. Look, I have sympathy for Eminem. It’s hard, nearly impossible, to age as a rapper. Seeing Jay Z struggle to accept the fact that he’s not 22 anymore is painful to watch, let alone listen to. Late conversions to conscious rap are rarely successful, and 37-year-old Kanye West has made brilliant albums analyzing his trajectory through the reverse arc. Did we really think that Hailie growing up and becoming a human being instead of a symbolic baby would force Eminem to think about how female listeners might take his constant assertions of violent male dominance? Who said he had to change? Why did we expect that he would?
One of the reasons the punching-in-the-face stuff is so egregious, I think, and one of the reasons Eminem seems so not provocative but rather lazy, is that maybe, just maybe, there’s been some progress in the world. There has been an extended public conversation about sexual violence and assault, shining light in places that have always been dark, among celebrities and civilians alike, in elevators and frats and bedrooms. In the midst of all of this, Eminem comes off as, at best, a clueless kid. I’m sure he feels like the same angry boy from Detroit he has always been, but it’s as if he’s been frozen in amber for the last decade while the world has changed around him. In a sense, he has been; drug addiction immobilized him for almost five years. While time passed, he went from rap’s puckish jester to the out-of-touch dad.
In a 2009 post-rehab comeback profile in Complex, after Marshall Mathers proudly displays his library of porn DVDs, the interviewer informs Mathers that everyone now watches porn online for free, a development that Em somehow missed during his drug-haze years. An astonished Eminem insists that they pause the interview so the interviewer can show him exactly how to watch porn on his laptop. It was a shocking moment of a rather different sort, demonstrating Em’s sort of Encino Man status since essentially disappearing because of a very serious pill addiction. He name-drops Slipknot and Kid Rock in “Vegas,” like the 2000s never ended. His awareness of the Internet seems dated, too.
Eminem’s descent into pill addiction is a depressing fulfillment of the Elvis comparison that he’d always played with. While Elvis’s drug problems led to his death at 42, Eminem’s current age, Mathers was able to pull back from the brink of a drug problem that involved consuming between 40 and 60 Valiums a day. A 2007 methadone overdose that almost killed him got him to go to rehab, and an early checkout led to a series of relapses before he got sober for good in 2008. His album cycle about his addiction and relapse allowed him to explore and discuss the darkest period in his life and his fears that he had turned into his addict mother. But what this represented wasn’t really maturation. The levity that had always characterized his work was gone, but in its place was something else: Rather than the toxic ambition of a young man determined to get his, he has the poisoned, defensive entitlement of a man who feels like he has earned his keep and is terrified that someone is going to take it away from him.
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Eminem had always been angry, but he had also been funny, and because he was funny, we’d forgiven him time and again for making jokes whose punch lines always involved violence against women and gay people. When Eminem first came onto the scene, he was remarkable for his dexterity and virtuosity and his exceptionalism as the first white solo rap star to be anointed as truly great. As he celebrates 15 years of Shady Records with the release of the compilation Shady XV, which includes the demo version of notable career peak “Lose Yourself,” Eminem is asking us to take stock of his career. And when we do, it feels willfully ignorant to ignore that Eminem is still largely taking on women and gay people as the victims of his fictional crimes. What is offensive is not only the violent, specific lyrics and the revenge fantasies about doling out humiliations; it’s that he attacks people who have done nothing to provoke it. How can someone so intelligent also be so stupid? Or is he just a forever-troll?
Rap is not only still a youth culture, it’s still a predominantly male culture. It feeds off of the need some men have to assert their dominance and masculinity by targeting vulnerable people. The very existence of women is a threat. Anyone who challenges traditional conventions of sexuality is a threat. Poverty is emasculating, and Eminem’s obsession with asserting his masculinity feels like a possible reaction to his upbringing in a run-down section of Detroit. Bullied in school, he honed his verbal put-down skills to a blade. In his early career, it didn’t feel like he was a bully. The pokes at public figures, the jokes about ripping Pamela Lee’s tits off and smacking her around in his debut single, didn’t feel done to death at first, which is why they were written off as irreverent. He didn’t invent the idolization of pimps or the glamorization of violence against women. Like most people do, he was just participating in a system that already existed, without questioning it. As a white rapper in a traditionally black musical culture, he aligned himself against the systemic oppression of black men in America. But he failed to make the parallel connection to the systemic oppression of women of all races. Maybe this was because his deepest fear was that, like horrorcore icon Norman Bates, he would turn into his mother: dependent on drugs, neglected by the state, aging, invisible, and feminized. Oddly, Eminem reserved little of his overflowing ire for Marshall Bruce Mathers Jr., his father, who absconded to California when his son was an infant and never responded to numerous letters that the younger Marshall wrote him as a teen. Eminem chose to mostly project his rage onto those who remained around him, particularly women, including his mother, Debbie, and his on-and-off girlfriend/wife, Kim.
We thought we watched Eminem grow up, from boy-child to boy-man, about a decade ago when he made 8 Mile. Directed by Oscar winner Curtis Hanson,1 8 Mile fully legitimized Eminem as a seriously recognized artistic genius (he can act, too!), and it finally brought hip-hop to the Oscars, for better and worse. 8 Mile saw Eminem revisit the early, hungry years of his career through a fictionalized biopic. The movie’s success and the Academy Award win for “Lose Yourself” were a high point for Eminem, but they also signaled the peak. Where do you go from the top? People who ride off into the sunset often end up going over a cliff.
All of Eminem’s talent and success were not enough to free him from his inherited demons; he fell victim to the same addictive personality that made his mother’s life hell. There were times when he seemed to have become self-aware enough to address hateful songs like “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” apologizing to his mother in 2013 in a song called “Headlights,” in which he asks, “Did I take it too far?” and reaches this logical conclusion: “Why we always at each other’s throats? Especially when dad, he fucked us both. We’re in the same fucking boat.” What’s mystifying is that he’s still dumb enough to rap about punching women in the face. Is it just a bad habit, a different sort of destructive addictive pattern? He seems aware, at least, that he’s in danger of doing the same old thing. Yesterday, he released the video for “Guts Over Fear,” which describes his fear of irrelevancy.
Eminem isn’t the only middle-aged rapper to recently backtrack on seeming personal progress and return to the woman-hating wellspring that initially made him a star. Snoop Dogg was first to pick a fight with Iggy Azalea, posting unflattering memes about her on Instagram, quickly escalating into him calling her a “c—” in a video, before T.I. convinced Snoop to apologize. Snoop’s insults toward Iggy didn’t criticize her put-on accent, persona, or any of the legitimate reasons to critique her rap career. He just reposted a meme that attacked her looks. Snoop is caught in a similar bind to Eminem’s. The pressure to grow up is drowned out by cheers for “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”
The really scary thing is that many men don’t grow up. They continue to take out their insecurities on those who are more vulnerable, physically or culturally. The more the culture changes — the more we have open discussions about sexual assault and domestic violence — the more threatened some people seem to feel. And that is one of the insidious things about going after Eminem. It’s fucking scary! Every time I have mildly criticized him on Twitter, I’ve been barraged with “kill yourself, bitch” tweets, sort of proving that his fans don’t fall that far from the tree. They’re just kidding! In a verbally threatening way that implies the threat of physical violence at the hands of angry men, which women live in fear of every single day! Why u mad? If you call him out for being a bully, you’re an enemy of free speech. If you call him out for being a hateful misogynist, you’re a humorless bitch.
The sad truth about these new Eminem bars is that they are stunts that depend on a very real and dangerous fact: Men do hateful things toward women all the time. If Eminem’s freestyles were funnier, we might feel more apt to overlook or excuse them, because it is so much easier to forgive than to be mad about things like this, since they happen so fucking often. I don’t think Eminem’s aging discounts his right to be angry and rage against the dying of the light. I just think there are so many things to be righteously angry about in the world — why pick victims who have done nothing to deserve it? Why not go after all of the hateful, spiteful idiots in the universe, including the female ones? Why does talking about punching famous women in the face give Eminem power? Perhaps because punching famous women in the face has always gotten him press before, and this time it’s no different.
But when Eminem isn’t rehashing his life story, which most people know in biblical detail, or rapping about committing random acts of violence against innocent women and perceived feminine men, he tends to go back to his other well: shit and fart jokes. The problem is that without these topics, which make up his entire oeuvre, he seems lost. This is the sad truth: Eminem has become the conservative status quo that he seemingly railed against as a young man. And considering that he has always come down in favor of stomping out all things feminine, sensitive, and different, maybe he always was.