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

Getty / Uproxx

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.”

STEVE: Whoa. You came hard. For a few minutes there, I was like Papa Doc at the end of 8 Mile — the gears had seized up and I was gonna just walk off stage. But then I thought of your hibachi chef analogy. That might be your downfall: A hip-hop editor bringing food metaphors to his battle with a food writer. Because Em isn’t a hibachi chef. The spatula clanking and shrimp flipping aren’t empty. The man started his career by diving deep into his personal, private trauma. His mom, his girl, his struggles with drugs and celebrity — he went after them and picked them over. I’m sure you have someone else you can reference who did this first, but that level of self-investigation was certainly a revelation for plenty of rap fans (white and black).

I would argue to you that Eminem makes his highwire complexity seem simple or routine and that’s the joy of liking him. We don’t have to watch him locked away in a mansion with a dictionary, as MGK riffed. We just get the end product, these intricate little morsels. Warning: Lyrically, they’re some haute cuisine shit and to enjoy them, you may need some unpacking. I admit that. He’s a rapper made for the Rap Genius era. He lives way out in the wild territory of syllabic coupling, deep in the farthest reaches of metaphor and simile — twisting, spiraling, cavorting with words in a way that few can. I get that you believe that the list of people who can do the same thing is larger than I do, and I agree that my whiteness probably made it easier for 18-year-old me to appreciate Eminem doing it way back when and not learn enough history to realize who else was out there practicing the same thing, but do you definitely feel like all those names you listed consistently deliver extended metaphors, layered rhymes, and stories that ladder up to some theme the way Em has over the past 20 years?

Don’t get me wrong, those are rappers I love. Especially Black Thought. But as my beloved Lupe Fiasco once said:

“I can’t fuck with Eminem but I got everybody else covered.”

Look, here are three very valid strikes against Em, in my book: First, the slurs and misogyny haven’t aged well (same goes for Jay, Nas, Pac, et. al.). The Tyler joke on Kamikaze tried to riff on this by omitting a slur but still landed like a lead balloon. I hate Em’s shock rap stuff and wrote about it extensively in the book Eminem: Rap, Poetry, And Race (Foreword Talib Kweli). Second, his whiteness served him incredibly well and let him leapfrog a lot of folks who’d already proven themselves (the fact that Dre took him on as a mentee — at least partly because of his whiteness — benefitted Em immeasurably and buckets into this same point). Third, his current shit is mostly unimportant tripe.

And those points hold water. But still, there must be some absolute value of “amazing” just lyrically speaking and I think Eminem approaches that often, even in his current work. Fine, Kamikaze didn’t add up to much. It wasn’t “Stan” or “Cleaning Out My Closet,” but it demanded the attention of young people, which is a hell of a ploy for a dude who makes most of his money on the festival circuit.

At the end of the day, I still listen to Em (despite his content) because the old lyrical dexterity is still there and, as a writer, it pushes me. In Kamikaze, the backflip flow (as my actual favorite rapper once said) was on display often. The tiny haute cuisine bites that annoy you so were served with a smile:

Somebody tell Budden before I snap, he better fasten it
Or have his body bag get zipped
The closest thing he’s had to hits is smackin’ bitches
And don’t make me have to give it back to Akademiks
Say this shit is trash again, I’ll have you twisted
Like you had it when you thought you had me slippin’ at the telly
Even when I’m gettin’ brain, you’ll never catch me with a thot

I love that destruction of Joe Budden because I love words. And you think Em is irrelevant or his time has passed? He just came out with a whole album that was created precisely to make other people irrelevant, he succeeded in that, and I’m here for it. Yes, it’s a trifle but trifles can be tasty as hell.

Watching MKG, Budden, Akademiks, and a brace of others get lit up? Waiting for them to come back? Waiting for Em to go back at them for going back at him? What greater joy is there in hip-hop in a month where Chance has no new music coming out and Kendrick is in the lab? I don’t know that Em is an artist anymore. I don’t know that he’s a chef at the highest level or that his food still has all the X-factors you need to be deeply fulfilled. But everyone loves beef, Aaron, an Em’s got that a5 Wagyu. Isn’t that enough to clear the “wack shit” threshold?

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AARON: The truth is, Eminem can parse bars with the best of them, but many of the classics never needed the elaborate bells and whistles rap to get their point across, yet they land like gut checks. On “Today Was A Good Day,” no one would argue that Ice Cube is a lyrical mastermind, yet each bar evokes a genuine emotional response, despite the dated pop culture references (“The Lakers beat the Supersonics”) and over the top hyperbole (“Messed around and got a triple-double”) because you can feel what he’s saying. He elicits a genuine sense of understanding of the situation; everybody’s had a day where it feels like everything went their way, whether they shoot craps with the homies on the block or not.

Likewise, Jay-Z, who many fans rightly regard as one of the greatest of all time in rap, was never “murdered on his own shit” as Nas once toasted. He held his own against Eminem on “Renegade,” displaying his own gift for using unexpected and surprising pockets in the beat. He is a wordplay master who doesn’t need a ton of filler or forced, slant rhyme schemes to make build up elaborate punchlines. Take his bars from Lupe Fiasco’s “Pressure”:

So the pen is mightier than the sword, my lord
My first picture was a line-up, now I’m on the Forbes
And I still remain the artiste through these all
If you force my hand I’ll be forced to “draw”
If the war calls for Warhols
Hope you got enough space on your hall’s walls

The simplicity of the scheme belies the complexity of the bars. He’s able to get his point across using pop art references that tap into the modern zeitgeist but are unlikely to send students running for an almanac or yearbook in order to understand the context. That’s my bar for lyrical proficiency. You can rhyme 100 million times per 16 bars, but if no one gets it, or can’t understand what you’re trying to say, or you’re not getting the point across, do you even have a point? I don’t think so.

In fact, one of my favorite Jay-Z bars to this day remains one of his simplest, yet it’s an understated triple entendre that takes a minute to get your head around: “What you eat don’t make me shit,” he raps on The Blueprint standout “Heart Of The City.” He’s telling you plainly, you eat shit, you won’t eat him, what you do can’t affect him. It’s the perfect bar in the perfect place on the perfect song. It’ll last forever. Can Em say the same?

[Steve’s essay, “The Farther Reaches Of Human Proficiency,” in the textbook Eminem: Rap, Poetry, And Race is drawn from freely (and sometimes quoted without self-attribution) in his arguments.]