Before we begin, a disclaimer. Eminem is one of the most technically impressive and successful rappers in the world. Nothing I write can ever take away from that, nor does writing a critique about a relevant cultural moment revolving around Eminem mean that I am “obsessed” with him, “hate” him, or even that I think about him all that much. Now that I’ve addressed the inevitable deluge of hate mail I’m bound to get — which will almost undoubtedly follow anyway — we can set all that aside and attend to the issue at hand.
Namely: No one should be surprised that the recently-leaked Eminem tracks are awkward, offensive, regressive, tone-deaf, or just plain bad. Eminem, for all his technical gifts, has long relied on offensive shock tactics, on provocation, on style over substance — he has done so for far too long, in fact. It’s just that in the modern context of marginalized voices speaking out on social media, of #MeToo and #TimesUp, of knowing better and therefore accepting a reasonable expectation of doing better, his deliberate deviance has worn thin, looking a lot less novel and a lot more like the desperate pandering for attention it’s always been.
The first leak, a joint effort with Eminem acolyte Joyner Lucas called “What If I Was Gay,” snuck onto rap forums and illicit hosting sites on Halloween. The song is a spiritual sequel to Lucas’ equally cringe-y 2017 viral hit “I’m Not Racist.” Like that single, it finds the two rappers slipping into narrative personas to address bigotry, albeit from a dumb “gotta hear both sides” that critically misses the point. Joyner plays the gay person, while Eminem takes on the role of his homophobic friend. In the song, the two trade cliches like, “But on the real, what if I told you that I was brave? / I grew up different than I was raised,” and “What if I’m a hypocrite who is afraid to just face truth / What if I told you I’m gay too?”
Rolling Stone says that releasing the song would have been a huge mistake for both artists. Not only does the final bombshell land like a wet brick instead of the explosive it clearly wants to be, it rings hollow in light of Eminem’s career spent goading the LGBTQ community. He was just lambasted by half of Rap Twitter over calling Tyler The Creator a “f*****” on his last album, an artist whose own coming out lyric from Flower Boy was met with a collective “meh” after many realized he’d been dropping hints his entire career.
The next leak, a reference track for “Things Get Worse,” leaked this past Monday, November 11. While that song was recorded during the 2009 sessions for Eminem’s album Relapse, the verse was scrapped, re-written, and re-used on B.O.B.’s 2011 “Things Get Worse” from B.O.B.’s E.P.I.C. (Every Play is Crucial) mixtape. In that leak, he name-drops Rihanna, referencing her then-recent assault by Chris Brown: “Let me add my two cents / Of course I side with Chris Brown / I’d beat a bitch down, too / If she gave my dick an itch, now.”
While he did damage control through a PR rep who pointed out the age of the verse and the fact it was re-written, the defense that Eminem and Rihanna “have a great relationship” rings as hollow in light of the fact that the “re-written” verse still contains the line, “You f*****s wanna rassle? / I shove a f*cking jar of Vaseline up inside your asshole.”
Never mind the fact that Rihanna destroyed Snapchat’s stocks after they ran an insensitive ad making light of her assault, the two artists have a “great relationship” — after Rihanna helped Eminem’s 2010 Recovery single “Love the Way You Lie” garner platinum sales and top charts worldwide to become his best-selling single. Of course Eminem wants to save that bridge after he realized how much more lucrative it’d be to save it than burn it — the same way he made “amends” with Elton John at the 2001 Grammys. He scrapped the track because he realized even in 2009 that his schtick was getting old.
That’s what makes each of these leaks so disappointing. If Em knew better in 2009, he definitely should know better in 2019. Yet, he keeps walking into the same brick wall over and over again — probably, because he knows he doesn’t have anything else. Say what you want for Kanye’s artistic reinvention this year, at least there seems to be genuine faith behind it. The only thing Eminem seems to believe when it comes to his music is that he’s the best rapper around — and that some “critics/haters” who “just don’t get it” won’t just let him have it, an idea reinforced by his army of loyal fans. The problem is that he largely “earned” that distinction by having something worth rapping about early on: His addiction, his broken relationships with his mother and the mother of his daughter, his struggles in the music industry.
Now, it’s like all he has left are dad jokes (“f*ck what you herd” will forever go down in history as the absolute worst line in his catalog), unfounded anger at the reasonable criticisms begging him, a 47-year-old man with 20 years in the rap game, to just grow up even a little bit; and a Deadpool-esque sense of gross-out humor that won’t let him fully commit to any reevaluation or evolution of his game. He’s the Joker of rap, still trying to make ’em laugh even after it’s been clear for a while his bit is tired and then trying to shock everyone into thinking he has something to say when he doesn’t. He got by on style over substance for a long time but he’ll have to find a lot more of the latter if he really wants this house of cards to remain standing.