Even for rappers, Twitter can be a curse as much as a gift. Vince Staples found that out on Saturday when he shared his opinion on Eminem’s buzz-worthy, much-discussed BET Hip-Hop Awards, anti-Donald Trump freestyle: It sucked.
He was quickly deluged by responses from angry fans who tried to defend Em’s screed while also denouncing Vince himself as nowhere near Eminem’s level, both commercially (true) and lyrically (debatable). Vince Staples is, however, a tad bit more social media savvy than many of his contemporaries, and engaged with the Eminem defenders (and race trolls) who accosted him with his usual laidback, sardonic demeanor and surprisingly insightful witticisms.
I won’t rehash the “white privilege” discussion, because I’ve already done that, nor do I want to focus on how Vince deftly pointed to the many, many, many protest songs that had to be overlooked to assign all the hyperbolic praise Eminem received to that verse, because I hit that one too. Instead, I noticed one of Vince’s points not only perfectly summed up his argument, but also touched on a larger issue in hip-hop as well.
In response to his own supporter who tweeted that “If Eminem was black he wouldn’t be regarded anywhere near the top 10 all time,” Vince pointed out that “If Eminem was black he would be Redman. I love them both very much.”
My jaw hit the floor; he was dead right. But more than that, his statement begs the questions: Why is Eminem considered one of the greats, while Redman — and others — are consistently overlooked when it comes to that discussion, and why has Eminem been allowed the longevity — without stylistic evolution — that so many other rappers have been denied?
Eminem enjoys a certain level of privilege that affords him a larger, more visible platform than Black rappers who’ve employed the same, anti-Trump rhetoric over the past twelve months. There’s nothing wrong with that; it could be argued that it’s human nature to want to find something of yourself reflected in both art and artist, and Eminem provides both for his angsty, white, male fans (as well as the needed element of aspiration — in this case, to have an “in” with Black coolness, as Eminem clearly has with his Dr. Dre and 50 Cent co-signs). Vince even points out as much with this signature wit, tweeting that, “they don’t really listen to him, they champion him because he’s white. He’s also said that on record.”
But an interesting, overlooked aspect of that privilege is that it also affords Eminem the leeway to grow older in a genre nearly obsessed with youth, without having to evolve musically or substantially change his image, unlike countless Black rappers who have come to be viewed as washed-up, old school, or corny.
Take Redman, who was specifically mentioned in Vince’s interrogation of Em’s longevity. Vince was right; Em is almost a direct descendant of the style first fathered by Redman with 1992’s What? Thee Album. Red flung out punchlines like a dealer at a Texas Hold ‘Em table, dishing out silly homonyms at a clip that would eventually go on to inform Eminem’s flow and solidify his 10-year run as one of the most reliable lyrical gunslingers in rap. Eminem wasn’t the first to take inspiration from Red either; rappers from Mad Skillz to Jadakiss to Ludacris embraced the style and made punchline rap a legitimate sub-genre from like 1998 to at least 2004.
Right in the middle of that era, 2001, Ludacris was considered flat-out one of the most creative, clever, and recognizable personalities in rap. His reputation was built on a dextrous, rubbery flow that could transmute and elongate itself to fill spaces and cadences very few of us had ever heard before. Word Of Mouf was everywhere, with joints like “Move, B*tch,” featuring Mystikal and “Area Codes” with crooner Nate Dogg. Luda’s punchlines were considered second to none, but it was his boisterous delivery that drew fans in and allowed him the leeway to experiment with flows and sounds that almost no one else could at the time.
Well, almost anyone. There was Eminem, with those Redman-influenced rhyme mechanics that made nearly every verse into an archaeological dig. You had to pause, stop, rewind, and replay damn near every song on The Marshall Mathers LP to excavate each and every double entendre.
Despite the unfortunate downturn that derailed the careers of his contemporaries, Eminem continued to embrace the shock jock, joke raps and multi-syllabic rhyme schemes that caused fans to grow bored of them… and continued to accumulate gangbusters sales, despite lukewarm critical reception and a changing social climate with the advent of Twitter.
Soon, “wokeness” would be its own currency, but that wouldn’t stop Eminem from slinging outrageous horror core threats at celebrities as he’d always done. He remained offensive but technically stupendous, and so he maintained his status as one of the most popular rappers in the world, in the face of a genre that rapidly discards all but the most persistent, adaptable artists.
Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and even Eminem’s own contemporary and employee, 50 Cent, remain as technically proficient as they sounded in their prime (when they occasionally crop up with guest verses on some backpack rapper’s underground mixtape), but most of the next generation can barely identify them or differentiate between the two outside of just calling them “old school rappers.”
Meanwhile, recent albums from Jay-Z, Nas, and Kanye West — the only rappers who’ve really had anything remotely approaching the same level of relevance over time that Eminem has (and Nas’ status here is pretty iffy, considering the way Lonzo Ball’s comments reveal how younger listeners feel about his standing) — have all been lauded as departures from prior material, garnering critical acclaim for tackling “grown man” topics such as fatherhood, marriage, fiscal responsibility, and legacy. They’ve had to; anything less is considered stagnancy for most rappers, but somehow, Eminem is still making rape jokes and threatening celebrities and being hailed as “the best rapper of all time.”
Maybe it’s because hip-hop is a youthful genre, and while kids of every generation have their own preoccupations, interests, and advancements in technologies, thirteen-year-old boys are always going to laugh at fart jokes and homophobia, which Em still serves up like it’s 1998 and nobody has yet heard of his stylistic progeny, Tyler The Creator (or what Tyler’s recent possible coming out might imply about Em himself were anyone interested in diving down that particular rabbit hole).
It feels like the fans who spent their Saturday evening railing against Vince Staples on Twitter were just the latest wave of those angry teens, lashing out because being young in America is hard no matter who you are and sometimes punching down just feels easier and better than climbing up, or the even harder task of taking a long look at yourself in the mirror.
Maybe Eminem’s BET verse will help them. He is a role model; whether rappers have traditionally accepted the role or not, their impressionable young fans do look up to them and imitate their thoughts and behaviors. Perhaps they — and their voting age counterpoints who grew up on Eminem — will do some introspection about their support of Trump, but, honestly? I don’t know if it’s worth the continued homophobia, misogyny, and immature attacks on pop stars and actors.
The problem is, Eminem himself is not a thirteen-year-old boy, he’s a forty-year-old man with a twenty-year-old daughter who has to go out into a world full of pissed off misogynists and homophobes he helped create. Hip-hop is starting to grow up. It’s time for the most visible character in the culture to do the same.