Wrestling Over Eminem’s Place In The Modern Hip-Hop Landscape

and 09.12.18 7 months ago 14 Comments

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Every time Eminem comes out with something new, I race to see what my friend, Uproxx hip-hop editor Aaron Williams has to say about it. My workday doesn’t leave time for zoning out to a whole record, so I’ve typically digested Aaron’s reviews by the time I get to turn my attention to whatever Em actually put out. Since Uproxx’s chief hip-hop head and I differ greatly on what we think about the self-proclaimed rap god, my first listen is usually spent formulating counter-arguments to drop on Aaron in Slack.

When Kamikaze came out, I was quick on the draw — listening to the album right after it launched and subtweeting Aaron before his review had landed on our site. The next day, when I read it… we actually agreed, finding the album to be a masterful example of frivolous art. Or “much ado about nothing” as another famous poet once said.

Still, the two of us have enough to spar over and Em has thrust himself deep enough into the cultural conversation that a little back and forth seemed warranted. What follows are three rounds of word-boxing between two hip-hop lovers who find themselves deeply divided on the subject of the genre’s most polarizing rapper.–Steve Bramucci

STEVE: Are we doing this? We’re doing this! And I’m charging out the gate swinging because for a person who I like so much, you are deeply anti-Em — I think even more deeply anti-Em than maybe you realize — and I want to wrap my head around that. Maybe you’ll convince me this time around.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to convince you. Not that Em matters as an artist in 2018, because I think he’s given that up, if you understand art as “processing my demons, forcing myself to be emotionally honest, etc.” But that Em was a truly transformational artist who is still very much an important voice in music (even if only because by dropping a whole album based on petty beefs and perceived slights he’s become deeply relevant to a whole new generation of listeners who will absolutely show up to listen to that drama). Because, while I do agree with you that his music is mostly devoid of meaning for our current cultural moment, I think it’s often plenty of fun. Wes Anderson movies and Ice Cube’s Big 3 League are entertainments that fail to stir deep thoughts too, but they’re fun and sometimes that’s enough.

What Eminem is doing is bringing his considerable reservoirs of skill to bear, crafting verses that push deep into the frontier of what it means to be an exceptional MC on a rhyme scheme level. He studies words, breaks down syllables, twirls them on his finger, and recombines them in surprising ways — that has to count for something.

I’m not saying he’s the best rapper out. Not at all. But if my life depended on me picking a rapper to write a single verse that showed verbal-gymnastics, a complexity of rhyme and the ability to be razor-clever without ever losing the thread of the verse’s central thesis, I would pick Eminem. Because the cordwood syllable stacking that you’re not a fan of is absolutely exquisite on songs like “No Love” from Recovery (which you didn’t like).

It’s an adrenaline rush to feel the bass thump
From the place all the way to the parking lot, fellow
Set fire to the mic and ignite the crowd
You can see the sparks from hot metal
Cold-hearted, from the day I Bogarted
The game, my soul started to rot, fellow
When I’m not even in my harshest
You can still get roasted, ‘cause Marsh is not mellow

And it’s still in evidence now, like when Em fired at Machine Gun Kelly to start their current beef:

But next time you don’t gotta use Tech N9ne
If you wanna come at me with a sub, Machine Gun
And I’m talkin’ to you, but you already know who the fuck you are, Kelly

That line is so incredibly deft — the “sub” being a subliminal diss, the “sub” of a substitute to fight battles, and “sub” linked to “Machine Gun” — that it’s almost a complete destruction in three words. So come at me and tell me doesn’t Eminem get your love just for being able to make his sword slice in so many directions at once? Isn’t it a cool thing to marvel at?

AARON: “Okay, so we’re doing this” — Aaron Burr in Hamilton.

Stephen, I appreciate that Eminem’s music likely speaks to you in a way that it doesn’t for me. With that being said, I feel like I need to put the brakes on all this “anti-Eminem” discussion. I am not now, nor have I ever been “anti-Eminem.” I speak out against the wasted potential of Eminem solely because I believe with every molecule of my physical body that Eminem is capable of much, much greater. I say this as someone who staunchly defends his oft-overlooked 1996 independent debut album Infinite as his most underrated and listenable work. I say this as someone who ran back “Any Man” and “We Shine” and The Slim Shady EP endlessly over the years of my pre-graduation youth, rewinding over and over to catch the hilarious punchlines and pop culture references that boggled my young mind and induced extreme lemon-faced fist kissing at the wit and wordplay on display in his verses. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’ll ever touch his “Scary Movie” verse again in his career. I have never been anti-Eminem. I’m anti-wack shit, and what Eminem has been putting out of late is just that: Wack shit.

I find it telling that the defenses arrayed against my point of view stem primarily from this idea of Eminem’s “mastery” of wielding words like blades in the hands of a seasoned hibachi restaurant vet. In truth, like those blades, spinning and whirling and clanking and dazzling, it’s all for show; a true master can get much more done with less flailing. A true master is efficient, deft, reserved, yet still draws appreciation from true aficionados, but in the end, what matters most is the product. How does the food taste? Is it an experience worth having? Does it stick to your ribs, as the elders would say?

No, instead, the mealy morsels Eminem’s prepared on Kamikaze are bitter, sour, undercooked, derivative, unseasoned, and in some cases, burnt to a crisp with ingredients aged far beyond their expiration dates. D12 is not relevant. No one was clamoring for an explanation for the group’s disappearance. The MGK diss you refer to was a response to a half-serious tweet from over six years ago, accompanied by a Shady property-wide ban on MGK’s music that slowed up the bag for a young, up-and-coming talent who grew up idolizing Eminem, only to have his hero bitterly blockade his progress over a goof after Eminem himself has said much worse to, well, practically everyone in entertainment.

But to counter the point of his mastery, it’s easy to believe that Eminem is breaking new ground doing what he does because the music industry at large has invested entirely unwholesome sums into feeding that narrative, directly and indirectly. Let us banish the torpid idea that his race worked against him at any point in his rise to prominence; two or three of the most successful acts in hip-hop shared that with him and in turn, were held up as the objective standard for creativity in a genre wherein they were at best welcome guests (Beastie Boys, Everlast) and at worst, cultural tourists using their whiteness as a gimmick to shortcut the fact that they had little if anything of substance to offer the genre, but came with a built-in fan base of fellow awkward dorks who sought the same shortcut to Black-adjacent cool (Vanilla Ice).

Meanwhile, Eminem himself undercuts his own value in the lyric you reference: Tech N9ne was doing what Em is doing now in the mid-90s, has maintained consistency over that time, and yet, has received half the acclaim and attention. Gift Of Gab, of the Bay Area duo Blackalicious, put out his “Alphabet Aerobics,” a master class in lyrical technique and theme, in 1998, a full year before Eminem’s “My Name Is” captured America’s attention. Its cultural ubiquity among a certain set of hip-hop fans is such that Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, provided a sunny slice of viral cheesecake when his appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and recited the convoluted bars word-for-word.

Yet, Gift of Gab is hardly a name you’ll see in common parlance. Busdriver, Myka 9, Aceyalone, Twista, Psychodrama, Lupe Fiasco, Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, and many, many others have long created the sort of intricate, elaborate lyrical soundscapes that have garnered Em critical praise, many for a longer span of time than Em himself. Yet, where are the ticker tape parades for them? Upon hearing the infamous BET Awards freestyle that kicked off the hype cycle for Revival, progressive Long Beach rapper Vince Staples said that if Eminem were Redman, no one would care. It’s telling that Em himself admits as much, “If I were Black, I would have sold half.”

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