It’s hard to explain Eminem’s appeal to someone who didn’t witness or experience the Detroit rapper’s golden days, that famed run between 1996 and 2000 that landed him in the pantheon of hip-hop and made him a contender for the title of greatest emcee to ever grace the mic. To the outside observer, Eminem has always represented one thing and one thing only – shockingly offensive music. This impression only solidified itself further as his capability to produce meaningful (or at least funny) songs deteriorated and gave way to even more desperate attempts at forcing the listener to pause the song in a fit of pearl-clutching horror. As the memory of Slim Shady’s glory days began to fade, his discography became more ridiculous by the album, all of a sudden songs like Fack and Superman began popping up at an alarming rate, to the point where they became the rule rather than the exception in 2009’s Relapse. It was at that point that even the most dedicated Stans began questioning the value of Eminem’s work. Marshall Mathers was becoming the butt of the joke, and by the time he realized he was in the midst of a rather violent fall from grace, he was already back at the foot of the mountain he’d climbed just years prior.
Skipping a few other middling releases, we find ourselves in the current year. Revival is Eminem’s newest project, coming on the tail end of a 4-year long hiatus. The response has been, well, not exactly encouraging, to say the least. Instead of finally listening to his fans and going back to the earlier style of hip-hop that made him popular, Eminem doubled down on the glossy, pop-inspired rap music that sounds painfully pedestrian and is all too familiar for anyone who’s ever found themselves within the vicinity of a radio station at least once over the past few years. The man who once prided himself on sticking out like a sore thumb and regularly went after the hottest pop stars of his time for being vapid and boring released an album featuring the likes of Ed Sheeran and Beyonce, with a lone rapper feature floating in the sea of generic, wishy-washy female singers like Kehlani and Skylar Grey. Eminem’s own delivery sounds as robotic as ever, the choppy flow that he’s come to be known for is on display in 15 of the 19 tracks, and to their detriment, I might add. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the majority of this album, it’s Eminem at his most inoffensive and uninteresting. He continues to backtrack and disown the words and actions of his previous self, while becoming ever more stale and blandly centrist with each pathetic attempt at attacking Trump or his supporters. But I digress – the intent of this essay isn’t to review Revival and pick it apart lyrically or sonically. I’m more concerned with the metamorphosis of Marshall Mathers and how it has affected his music.
There is, in my mind, something very profound about the anger and aggression of Eminem’s most significant and noteworthy alter ego, Slim Shady. As an angsty teenager, I always found it refreshing to hear what felt like my own thoughts blasting through the speakers, to in a way experience my most perverted, hormone-fueled fantasies in a safe environment. There was something liberating about hearing Shady going off, to see him waving his middle finger up at the sky and laugh at the ridiculousness of the world we inhabit. See, it never felt like Slim was doing what he was doing because he was mad at anyone in particular or even because he was pissed off by this event or that one; it seemed like whatever he felt, he felt towards the world at large. His seething rage was directed at existence itself, almost like a form of coping with an all-encompassing sense of nihilism that never truly let him enjoy himself. There never were any moral boundaries or rules that could stop him or make him censor his thoughts, not even his mother was safe from his bitingly cynical sense of humor. Slim Shady was a force of human nature, the voice of resentment and lower-class desperation but with an incredibly aggressive twist. It was liberating to see someone who grew up as poor and disadvantaged as Marshall break free of the oppressive reality of poverty and speak to his listeners in a very personal and intimate way without even being particularly serious about it most of the time. Sure, tracks like Rock Bottom were incredibly emotional because they showed the depressing inner workings of the man behind the mask and captured the reality that we all know in a very gritty and grimy way, but most of the time the feeling of ‘getting’ Eminem was just that, a feeling that didn’t need to be stated explicitly; it was this subconscious process of connecting not with the man but with the experience.
But Shady is very much dead now, as is the spirit that he captured. The world has moved on, and the weird transitional period of the late 90s and early 00s cannot be replicated today. The rage and frustration are still there, possibly more so than ever, but the desire for them to be manifested and acted upon is not. Eminem’s reach could never be compared to that of the internet, today websites like 4chan and reddit allow for every angsty-ridden individual to vent without having to experience the repercussions of their diatribes and actions, filling that very same niche of a ‘safe space’ for passive aggression that Shady once did. Slim Shady is dead and we have killed him might be an apt way of putting it.
And finally, what of Marshall Mathers, the shell of a once-great artist? Sadly, he himself seems unsure as to the direction he wishes to go in. His music and persona are an oddly melancholic remnant of a bygone era. The closest I can get to describing the feeling I get when thinking about Em’s career in context is through a personal anecdote; after finishing The Witcher 3, a game that is very close to my heart and is one of the greatest fictional experiences that I have ever had the pleasure to go through, I decided to take one last tour of the game world, to visit my favorite spots and possibly relive some of the moments that excited me the most throughout my playthrough. But nothing I saw felt the same as it did while I was going through the quests, the world felt hollow, stuck in time. My companions, the characters that I’d met and had come to know and appreciate, were gone, and so was the sense of purpose and urgency that had driven me during my adventure. For all intents and purpose, everything was mostly as it had been before the end of the game, but something felt off. It was as if I was out of place in a world that had seen all that could be seen, a world that had reached its prime and was now forever stationary and unchanging, a painting of the calm after the storm.