You never were supposed to trust Eminem. He was always honest, but rarely truthful. Slim Shady was the perfectly executed attempt to obscure everything. A song like “Rock Bottom” co-existed alongside “As the World Turns” and both felt bounded within the same white-teed realm. Somewhere around the time he realized that nobody wanted to see Marshall no more, he gave the people what they didn’t know they wanted: Marshall. We primarily remember the The Marshall Mathers LP for the Grammy-hugging hits: “The Real Slim Shady,” “The Way I Am,” and “Stan.” They were funny and sad and raw — not in the production sense, but in the way that it felt like Eminem had figured out the way to bypass normal lines of communication and speak directly to roiling adolescent minds. This was a half-decade before the Internet really karate-chopped our throats and few rappers actually felt like they were speaking specifically to you, rather than telegraphing semiotics from way up on the mountain (or issuing esoteric lyrical miracle spiritual threats).
Marshall Mathers LP was the first time that Eminem experimented with his “DAD STOP SCREAMING AT ME” flow. Initially, it was a tactic to convey his alienated abraded psyche, but once he hooked up with 50, it became his go-to tough guy voice. It proved what many of us already know: that Eminem is the least accurate judge of Eminem. Go back and read interviews where he lambastes his elastic goofball ’97 Slim Shady EP flow. It was the only time it felt like he didn’t give a fuck. He was bumbling into the lairs of obese overly perfumed women watching gay porn. He was accidentally giving too many mushrooms to nurse’s aides with shaved heads who just wanted to get laid. He didn’t take himself seriously. The musical approach matched the lyrics. He even got Dre to crack a smile, which hasn’t been seen since outside of a weight room.
I don’t need to recap the rest of the last decade. Like R. Wiggum, you all know the score. There was the drug problem that dovetailed with Encore, an album that he doesn’t even remember making. There was Relapse, which is arguably the best-rapped hardest-listening album ever. Setting that horrible Arabian bazaar accent aside, the rapping on Relapse is technically flawless. As Disco Vietnam has pointed out: no one has ever figured out how to rap better. And if you want to disagree, point your ire at Tyler the Creator, Earl or Kendrick.
In classic Marshall Mathers fashion, Eminem almost instantly repudiated Relapse and proceeded to link up with Skyler Gray, Rihanna, and Pink for some 12-step pop rap that essentially sterilized the fist half of his catalogue. If you were a long-time Shady fan, you might have written him off. This seemed like the most reasonable approach. After all, you signed up for the subversive trickster popping the bubble of late 90s buffoonery. A decade later, you got a sober and pious 40-year old unafraid to wail about how he will hold the hand of all seekers. I was happy that Eminem found some sort of inner peace. I was disappointed because Eminem was always about making fun of people who pretended to offer inner peace. Salutations, Moby.
So here we are in 2013. Rap is temporarily past its most extreme pop phase. Even Drake, the avatar for rap’s Velveteen rabbit era, is near the top of the charts with “Started from the Bottom,” which is about as hard-core as a Canadian can get. Eminem is about to turn 41–once ancient in hip-hop terms –until Jay-Z showed everyone that swag dracula blood transfusions will allow you to rap until the end of time. Or when he rocks “Beach Chair” from a rocking beach chair. To his credit, Eminem seems uninterested in chasing current trends. He could’ve copped a Mike Will beat, kicked his dazzling stationary bike raps and made you feel like you’d gone on a ride when you hadn’t moved a foot. Instead, he’s opted to do what most 41-year olds do — wax nostalgic for the little room where they first drew inspiration.
I can’t knock the “Berzerk” video. There is a side to it that’s become rote. It’s an Eminem video filled with corny dated US Weekly jokes stretching from Kevin Federline to Khloe Kardashian.There are cameos from Kid Rock, the first white boy rap semi-star of Detroit, whose Jive Records album with Too Short never quite took off. There’s the boombox bigger than LL Cool J’s wildest dreams. There are kangol hats and Rick Rubin, whose eyes like look dark tunnels, transporting you to some primeval pre-vegan rap dawn. The Kendrick and Alchemist cameos are funny. The “So Whatcha Want” fish-eye lens and kodachrome tints are a nice touch and will probably appeal to the 90s babies too young to remember the better half of the 90s. And the Billy Squier sample works in a campy cape-rock way.
The video fulfills the most essential function of a video: it makes me like the song more. But Eminem buries another lie in between his Lamar Odom gags. The bar is never set low and he knows it. It’s the same reason why Andre 3000 prefers shaving to the studio (at least publicly). When you are one of the greatest of all-time, you’re held to a different standard. It’s impossible to weigh in accurately when you know that he once revolutionized rap. Kendrick pushing him aside isn’t just a clever gag, it’s a tangible reality. This is objectively the best lead Eminem single since “Without Me.” I respect it, but I don’t quite enjoy it. One of Eminem’s greatest extra-musical gifts was that he seemed unnaturally attuned to the zeitgeist. He was a rebel who kept throwing out causes until one of them stuck. No one ever really blamed him for Columbine, but he made sure to insert himself in the conversation and defend himself from criticism — real or imagined. Even “Mosh” attempted to turn rap into a political wedge issue.
“Berzerk” is the sound of someone who no longer has any interest in keeping up with pop culture. That awkward Michigan-Notre Dame cameo can tell you all you need to know. He’s being forced to make the rounds to promote a record, but he wants nothing more than to return to his 85,000 square foot cave. This is nostalgia for his own sport. It’s not an attempt to engage the state of hip-hop, but a reflection of his “desire to take it back to straight hip-hop.” His “pen needs a pad because his rhymes are on the rag.” It’s a form of purism, nostalgia de la boom-bap. Slaughterhouse cameos galore. He’s still rapping in that aggrieved hysterical cadence, that numbs the punchlines and power of his once-nasal voice. He’s no longer one of us or against them. He’s retreated into his own memory. This is Marshall before we knew Em. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see the old Shady again. But he’s also more than earned the right to let this tape play out.