October 15, 2013

Jonah Bromwich has a laptop in his front pocket.

Eminem’s suffered from various problems for most of the last decade. Most importantly, he ran out of things to talk about after he exhausted the whining about his family and fame, and the more-nimble-than-funny pop culture jabs that kept seventh graders (me included) snickering and everyone else rolling their eyes. There’s also his late-period problem with flow variance — where Eminem has sounded like a berserker with lockjaw every time he’s picked up a microphone. It doesn’t matter how clever or inspired your bars are: if each and every word is delivered through clenched teeth with Fred-Durst-faux-anger than no one wants to hear that shit.

His new single “Rap God,” still finds Em struggling with both of these problems. But it sounds, particularly in its livewire first half, as if Eminem has begun to understand and wants to deal with his issues. On the first verse we get “Renegade” Em, ready to engage his critics, defending himself as a kind of supercomputer rap robot and, as goes without saying, rapping his out of his damn mind. His flow is all over the place, keeping things interesting, and alleviating the inherent lameness of the fact that he’s making references as if we’re still trapped in the early aughts (which is something that he acknowledges explicitly.)

This is the kind of autobiographical insight that elevated songs like “The Way I Am” and “Criminal”—explanations of a worldview bent, broken and reshuffled into sets of perfectly rhymed bars. The beginning of what you might term the second verse is particularly impressive, as he chalks up his early performances (including a nice pun regarding his “Renegade” verse) to “simple rage and youthful exuberance,” a modest explanation as to what’s missing these days. And the fact is, this is the angriest Eminem has sounded at himself in a very long time, calling himself an alcoholic and saying that he has no chance of keeping up with his younger self. Those who are dismissing the song as another rap clinic are missing the point—this is open self-excoriation, the kind of engagement that always brought the best out of Eminem.

What’s more, there’s some interesting confluence between Em’s flow and his defense of his own style. About midway through the song he convinces himself that what he’s doing is worthwhile, making music to help “maybe try to help get some people through tough times,” and launches into his latter-day flow, defending his radio ability and crowning himself a pioneer. Of course, it’s at the same moment that your average listener will stop paying attention, because that flow just isn’t worth listening to over the span of several minutes.

“Rap God” then, though deeply flawed, is the most interesting, honest song that Eminem has made in a very long time. It’s a six minute dialectic in which he desperately tries to pump himself up, to convince himself that he’s still worthwhile. When the pep talk succeeds, the song fails, with an explanation of a beef between Ray-J and Fabolous that no one cares about and a cop-out defense of Em’s misogyny. But before that, we’re left with a contemplative Marshall, understanding and grappling with the fact that something’s not quite right, and even trying to justify it to himself, a self-aware and startlingly harsh critique that many of us thought Em wasn’t capable of anymore.