For many rap listeners, the news that MGK had recorded — and released! — a diss track responding to Eminem’s snipes on “Not Alike” from his surprise album Kamikaze, the collective reaction was one of disbelief. After all, Eminem has long been considered one of the preeminent battle rappers on the scene for over two decades. Considering many of the foes that previously got on his bad side have more or less disappeared from the spotlight in the years since, poking that particular bear would seem to be an unhealthy career move from the younger rapper.
Then again, maybe not. Yes, Eminem is one of the most technically precise and skilled rappers to come along since the late ’90s advent of underground rap, but the matchup isn’t quite as lopsided as it may seem. Although he’s got a seemingly undefeated record and the benefit of popularity on his side, MGK is no slouch and has proved through his opening salvo on “Rap Devil” that he’s plenty clever, lyrically capable, and perhaps most importantly, has no fear. In fact, when the details of Em’s victories and the current matchup are examined more closely, Machine Gun Kelly stands a better chance in a battle with Eminem than you might think.
First of all, rap battles can often be fun and dramatic, with great imagined stakes for their participants in the minds of fans, but one thing no rap battle has ever actually done is ended a career. While some skeptics and more enthusiastic fans would undoubtedly dredge up dozens of counterexamples to try to prove this incorrect, it’s important to remember to find conclusions that fit the facts and not twist the facts to fit conclusions we want to believe. In this case, the fact is that career slides attributed to rap battles deny Father Time his due; in all of human history, he’s the only one to remain undefeated.
Fans shouldn’t forget that any of the rappers whose careers were seemingly “ended” by a rap beef coincided with the emergence of a younger, fitter rival in a genre that values youth over experience. LL Cool J was the new kid on the block when he dispatched Kool Moe Dee, appealing to a newer generation of rap fans with his flashier, more direct style. Similarly, when Eminem is credited with “ending” Ja Rule’s career after being drawn into the infamous feud between Ja and 50 Cent, it often discounts Ja Rule simply hitting the same career slump that countless rappers before him had.
Ja’s fifth studio album, Blood In My Eye, suffered from inadequate singles born of his need to appear tough in the face of adversity, but still sold enough to peak at No.1 on Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop chart and No.6 on the 200 albums chart. Its follow-up, R.U.L.E., was nearly as successful. By any metric, the assault from Eminem had little to no effect on Ja’s commercial or critical success — at least, not as much as Ja’s own musical shifts and the later actions of federal agents who shut down Ja’s label, Murder Inc., in 2005 over supposed drug connections.
Eminem now finds himself on the other end of that age equation, with declining sales and critical support, potentially facing an opponent with everything to gain from a victory and little to lose from a loss. MGK’s last album, Bloom, received praise from sources like XXL and HipHopDX, publications that handed Revival lukewarm ratings when it released, while other platforms have been less than kind to Kamikaze, the corrective companion to Eminem’s previous project.
MGK also has the benefit of being more adept at the other tools of the trade: Social media, Youtube, and streaming services. “Rap Devil” was up less than two days after Kamikaze, with a video on the third day. Eminem, obsessively crafty as he is, probably wouldn’t accept spending less than two days just writing the first verse, which makes him look ungainly and slow to today’s younger rap audiences accustomed to overnight releases.
The other big feud fans point to as evidence of Eminem’s battle rap dominance is his back-and-forth with Benzino, the rap impresario best known for using his street clout to help fund and influence coverage at The Source to try to better promote his struggling rap crews The Almighty RSO and Made Men. Here’s the thing: Made Men only released one, underperforming album and Benzino was never truly taken seriously as a rapper at any point in his career. Eminem didn’t need to end his career or even respond to him; in fact, the act of doing so probably granted him more infamy than he would have garnered on his own.
Well, now Eminem is facing an opponent who doesn’t need mainstream validation or a centralized fan base for support. For better or worse, MGK has built his grassroots movement, like many of his generation, from the ground up, organically. While Eminem has legacy fans to support him, many are miffed at his herky-jerky musical switch-ups. There’s discontent in the ranks, which could smell a lot like blood in the water for MGK. And while there’s certainly a gap in craftsmanship, a rap battle isn’t really about who can rhyme the most words the fastest — it’s about songwriting and popularity. Eminem’s popularity is with an older crowd, one that barely checks for new music in the first place. Should MGK “lose,” he’ll be fine, with a fan base to support his music regardless. Should he “win,” his popularity can only grow.
Even without the mystique of his undefeated record, however, many would still place their chips on Eminem to win an extended battle with Machine Gun Kelly. Simply put, he’s one of the biggest rappers ever and MGK, comparatively, is a nobody. Their relative footprints in the rap game and sales wise are like the difference between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua. However, there was a similar gap in reach for a recent pair of feuding rappers which ended in one waving the white flag after a furious salvo from his lesser-known rival. Drake had the popularity advantage in their battle (though some older fans likely loathe to admit it), yet ended up punch-drunk after Pusha T’s “Story Of Adidon” caught him — and their respective fan bases — by surprise.
Judging from some of the bars on “Rap Devil,” wherein MGK intimates behind-the-scenes impropriety and outright sabotage from Em, fans can’t discount the possibility he has some dirt of his own. Even if he doesn’t, just the fact that he made himself the aggressor might be enough to set Eminem on the defensive without the benefit of Hollywood writers to reverse any potential setbacks. It’s been a literal decade since Eminem actually had to defend his crown; who’s to say he’s stayed in fighting shape this whole time, especially when so much of the evidence suggests that he kinda hasn’t?
So, don’t write off Machine Gun Kelly too quickly. In these situations, there’s always the potential for a surprise or two. David beats Goliath, Rocky beats Drago, the Little Giants beat the Cowboys. There’s nothing like a good underdog story and in this case, both competitors stand to gain something. Eminem can earn back a little of the respect he’s clearly craved through his last two album cycles and MGK will certainly benefit from the increased attention. It’s a win-win, no matter who wins. One thing is for certain though: The battle between the Rap God and the Rap Devil will be entertaining as all hell.