Max Bell consulted Devon Sawa before composing this piece.
On the 25th of January 2013, it will be fourteen years since the release of “My Name Is,” fourteen years since Marshall Mathers, the best selling-artist (period) of the 2000s, broke into the rap game, the TRL countdown, and the homes of every impressionable white child in America. It will be fourteen years since Eminem changed rap, since he changed music forever.
Now that Eminem has announced plans to release what will be his eighth solo album next year, in 2013, I’ve decided to take stock of Eminem’s career as a rapper—a rapper and nothing else—to look at how he’s changed and where he might be headed. Let the stanning begin:
First, I’m not going to go all the way back (this is going to be long enough already). Infinite and The Slim Shady LP have their place in Eminem’s catalogue. They are the albums on which he cut his teeth. And for the sake of brevity, let’s move past The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show too. We know their merits and revisit them every year, whenever we’re looking for powerful lyricism. Maybe that’s just me.
Let’s step into late 2002, post-The Eminem Show. The king of controversy was on top of the charts, both Pop (three times on the Billboard Top 200 Singles that year) and Hip-Hop/R&B. All was well and good in Detroit. Then jump forward to 2004, to Eminem’s next solo effort, the spotty and somewhat vapid Encore. It had its moments, I think. “Like Toy Soldiers” is still a great political rap record. And “Ass Like That” is/was hilarious.
But when Encore dropped, I ultimately found myself forgiving Eminem more than anything else. That’s not to say he needed my absolution, or anyone else’s for that matter. Just that I, as an avid stan, had realized where Eminem was at that point in his career. In four years, he’d released two classic albums, two D12 albums, and the soundtrack to that rappity-rap movie. I believe it was called I Would Walk 500 Miles.. The man was exhausted, or at least he should’ve been. In other words, a few missteps, like Encore and that second D12 album I skipped through once, were more than warranted.
And so, a hiatus was both in order and well deserved. Though that didn’t happen, at least not right away. Em headlined the Anger Management Tour in 2005 and executive produced/rapped on the tolerable, albeit forgettable Eminem Presents: The Re-Up (2006). Unfortunately, it was that same year that Em’s best friend, Proof, was shot and killed. Rightfully, apart from a few features probably recorded prior to the shooting, Eminem stepped away from the mic.
There’s no need to go into the three years that followed, the three years myself and everyone whose name is not Eminem will never truly know anything about. But, for the sake of contextualizing things, shit got rough for Shady. He lost his best friend, gained some serious weight, and descended into a depression that resulted in prescription pill perdition. Fuck, he damn near died.
Then, in mid-2009, seemingly out of nowhere, he returned. He’d slimmed down and cleaned up. At first, it seemed like a pre-Encore Eminem was back. While Relapse wasn’t the most cohesive record, it was a return to form, or close enough. The lyricism was there. The controversial tracks like the psychotic serial killer anthem “3AM” and the venomous “Must Be the Ganja,” were balanced by radio singles like the [ed note. abysmal] “Crack a Bottle” and “We Made You.” (Some of you might remember this formula from every successful Eminem record prior to this point. Records like “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady,” and “Without Me” come to mind). And in what was, for me, the capper to Relapse, and Shady’s return, he announced his next proper solo release. This stan was on cloud nine.
Unfortunately, as everyone and their mom knows (literally), Recovery happened. And when I say it happened, you know what I mean. The man who once rapped about being pigeonholed into a pop star had undoubtedly become one, knowingly or not. What was the result? The art suffered. Pop songs that once began with trailer park girls going round the outside now started with half-talented pop stars studio-polished vocals. And instead of aiming shots at pop stars, Em had features from Pink, Rihanna, and a post-Rebirth/pre-I Am Not a Human Being Weezy. (Granted, everyone has a Wayne feature. I’m saving up for mine now).
So, what am I saying? This was not a comeback record, the return of a pre-Encore Mathers. Shit it wasn’t even the man who, on “Medicine Ball” (Recovery), said he would pee on Rihanna. Whether Rihanna has a shred of self-respect is neither here nor there (maybe she’s just very forgiving).
Aside from poorly chosen features, Em’a beat selection had gone in the tank too (see “Seduction” or “Cinderella Man”). Instead of waiting for Dre (he only has one production credit on Recovery), Shady took beats from every over-paid producer in the game. Though the lyrics weren’t unbearable, Eminem had done the one thing I never thought he’d do. He finally made a pop record, and, for that matter, a pop album. “Love the Way you Lie” will forever be mislabeled as a rap song. The singing, if you can call it that, on “You’re Never Over” is Eminem at his most grating. It is, at least for me, one of his weakest moment as an artist. The track feels like a parody, the audible equivalent of everything he once rallied against. And, as far as pop standards go, “Space Man” is anything but “Rocket Man” (word to Sir Elton Hercules John).
After seemingly everyone in America ensured that Hailie and her children’s children would never have work (Recovery moved near 10 mil worldwide), it was 2011. Eminem had become what he hated. I know, on some level, he felt it more than ever, the acceptance by people he never needed acceptance from. He wasn’t dismissed anymore by non-rap fans. Pop radio had welcomed its blue-eyed post-rehab bastard child home with open arms. Thus, Bad Meets Evil’s (Em & Royce da 5’9”) long overdue album, Hell: The Sequel, seemed like the only logical move.
Em was back in the studio with a fellow wordsmith. He dropped the pop act and returned to form once again, or almost. Many of the tracks worked well, and the back and forth lyrical penis-measuring contest was entertaining. But he still had Bruno Mars on that record for some reason. I think we all thought Eminem would’ve been in Tyler, the Creator’s camp on that one (especially since Em fathered Tyler and all that).
The worst looked like it was over. I was able to stomach Recovery and delete it from my hard drive (enough weed and maybe it will be erased from my mind). The Bad Meets Evil record was worth the hard drive space. But I was wrong. It was only the calm before the shitstorm .
And so, I give you 2012:
As Eminem predicted, 20 million other white rappers have emerged (Asher Roth, Mac Miller, MGK, Yelawolf, Riff Raff, etc, etc.). In addition, the number of talented and idiosyncratic MCs making their way onto the blogs and our radar seems to grow by one or two every month. So, what did/does this mean to the rapper who once stood out like “a green hat with an orange bill” in a rap game/music industry without blog buzz?
Apparently, very little. 2012 has been a year of missteps for Shady, another year of more pop music and sub-par “rap” records. He blessed the ‘real name no gimmick’ Obie Trice with “Richard,” on which Em offered a juvenile, albeit chuckle-worthy hook and a lukewarm verse, making it the only tolerable track on Bottoms Up. And, if you’ve been following the long and winding yellow brick road of all things Slim, you already know it’s downhill from there. There were the two features on the circle jerk of pseudo-lyricism that was Slaughterhouse’s Welcome to: Our House (Em also executive produced), the thirty second abortion on Pink’s “Here Comes the Weekend,” and then the ill-fitting ejaculation on Rhianna’s “Numb,” complete with shifting vocal pitches and one of the worst onomatopoeias in rap music this year (“Rear, Rear, Rear”). He owed them favors, sure. But why not send them another artist in the Shady camp? Joe Budden, perhaps? He pumped things up on pop radio once, right?
As of late 2012, we have Em’s track with 50 and The Voice judge Adam Levine, on which he admits that he almost wishes he “never made Recovery” (see what I mean), and his cut with Skylar Grey. Neither tracks are as bad as those 2012 records mentioned prior, and the Skylar Grey record is kind of funny (at least the first time you watch the lyric video). But, at least for me, while the rap game once felt so empty without Eminem, 2012 has been empty with him. The largest lingering question seems to be this: What is the future of Eminem’s career as a lyricist, as a rapper, as an artist?
Life isn’t as hard as it once was for Shady. And the list of compelling things to rap about is dwindling. He’s not broke. He’s drug free (or so he claims). He’s exhausted the mom and dad issues. The pressures of fame as a narrative device are dead and boring (see every Drake record). What’s left for Em? The style of lyricism on “Role Model” is passé (though I listen to it every week). He can’t make another “The Way I Am” or “Cleaning Out My Closet.”
So, has Em’s consummate candor barred him from the fantastical, from the wholly fictional? If ex-corrections officer Rick Rawse can continue to have ghostwriters pen Mafioso/drug kingpin raps, if the portly chef-turned-rapper Bronson can rap about doing gymnastics out of the whip, and if Roc Marci can bring the 90’s to 2012, then what’s stopping Eminem from changing shit up?
What I mean to say is, what’s stopping Eminem from writing a thousand un-autobiographical and lyrically dense narratives? It must be because, on some level, Eminem knows that part of his appeal has always been his unabashed honesty, the 2Pac-level passion in his raps. With branching out, diversifying his bonds if you will, there’s a chance that those things may dissipate. Should he adapt the tales from the Brother’s Grimm for a rap record, the fire might not burn as bright. Thus, perhaps the best way to look at where Eminem might go from here, now that he’s announced an album for 2013, is to look at one of his peers, and, undoubtedly, one of his influences—Nas.
Was Life is Good as monumental as Illmatic? No. It won’t be as influential either. It won’t be anything that Illmatic is, except for a rap album by Nas. But it was as good a record as we could hope for from a thirty-nine year-old, post-divorce, Nas twenty years deep in the rap game. And, for now, it was the perfect record to cement his place in rap history.
This is what I want from Eminem. No. This is what I want for him. Recovery was not his comeback record. It was his second post-rehab record. And hopefully, with his 2012 performance, or lack thereof, he’s had some time to sort things out, to figure out where he wants to fit in. He owes it to himself and to the rap game he avowedly loves. Should he lose the comedy? No. Should he abandon all things pop? Apart from the one commercial record he seems to put on every great album, yes.
He should get back to what he does best. Kill the features and kill the pop stars. Get back in the studio with Dre, or someone who has an ear for his brand of bars. Shady has proven time and again that he can put the cross on his back and carry an album by himself. 2013 is that time, the time for a resurrection, for the return of the real Slim Shady. Stan disciples will be waiting outside of the cave, or probably just at home, down in the basement, sitting behind the computer with Em posters papering the walls and that “underground shit [he] did with Skam” on repeat.
Watch (A Brief Video History):