With Eminem set to return later this year to headline Reading and Leeds festivals, Getintothis’ Luke Chandley questions whether he can ever get back to his best.
Eminem’s debut album, the underwhelming and commercially poor Infinite, started a change in the rapper. His lyrics and general demeanour, less like it is today and at the height of his fame, was calmer, possibly lyrically more intricate and never hinted at the aggression that we would later see from him and his alter-ego, Slim Shady. The first change of direction in his career was coming, something the world would begin to see in The Slim Shady LP, and The Marshall Mathers LP afterwards.
Eminem’s lyrics have always caught attention. There are a couple of schools of thought about them, with the first being that they’re just straight up offensive. It’s pretty hard to disagree, regardless of your opinion on the guy himself. The second is that his lyrics and character of Slim Shady act as a vehicle for an alternate voice; something that allowed Eminem to speak freely, but not from his own opinion as such. The truth may be somewhere in between.
Coming through as a new rapper, Eminem found his voice within a type of fiction. This type of fiction in his music was an astronomical success. But the things he says can’t merely be discarded as entirely detached and forgiven as easily, either.
Whereas an actor playing a part can star in a role so contrasted to their normal self, their role will usually change per film, show or part. Eminem’s success, however, came directly from this fictional character and was amplified by his enthusiasm to break boundaries of acceptability through Slim.
A lot of his work was disagreeable by opinion. Bad language and crudeness are littered across his musical landscape. Most of it was coated in humour, and this music I liked. Like, actively liked. It was funny, lighthearted and most of all, genuinely poetic. He’s quite frankly the greatest poet and rapper of my generation. He manipulates his words incredibly and can tell a story about anything. This Eminem is truly the only name in music today that will be remembered for years. The only true superstar of the 21st Century.
The part of his work that is questioned can’t be ignored. This is the homophobia and sexism plaguing his music. The latter in particular is woven through his lyrics on a regular basis. It’s hard to ignore and more than a little tough to hear. The character Slim Shady is not supposed to be good – he’s an alter ego – but the art that he’s releasing goes further than the standard ‘there’s lots of sexism in all hip-hop’ – and that doesn’t excuse the biggest rap artist of all time for going down this road.
Eminem’s career has been not been easy. Coming up as a white artist in predominantly black music meant a couple of things. He could arguably have only succeeded if he was to be one of the greatest artists ever, which he was. But he also needed the shock factor back in his early days. If Infinite taught us anything, it was that standard Eminem had the skill but that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough for him to poke his head up through the floorboards of rap, nevermind smash the boundaries of pop. He needed borderline offensive behavior to sell albums, whether you agree with it or not.
Yet as he grew older and the topics for his lyrics grew tiresome, his records began to waver and arguably flop. Where his music was nailing 5* reviews during his early days, Encore and Relapse planted themselves well and truly in the ‘could do better’ column, a C- compared to The Eminem Show, which still stands up as the A+ of rap excellence. These records still had controversy, but it looked more forced than teased. The master of rap had fallen into student territory once more, but this time the world was watching. And it wasn’t a pleasant watch.
The death of fellow rapper and best friend Proof was well documented, and the following years of reclusiveness and shelter were seen as a retirement of sorts, before coming back lighter with Recovery. An album that was a removal from what Eminem was to the world. A tamer, lighter, more laid-back rap star. Although the album was critically solid, the LP itself felt like another artist, not the evolution of an aging genius.
Eminem’s face has changed so much since Infinite. He’s always been seen as the shitty little upstart with the world spinning on his middle finger. But his poorer albums have been down to, in my belief, a serious lack of things to talk about. There’s only so much you can talk about hating your mum before people take less notice. Will anything change?
The last album Eminem released was the return to form that was The Marshall Mathers LP 2, a sequel that channeled the old Eminem’s aggression and added a mature, clever twist of self-awareness. The more you age, the more aware you become of how you’re aging. It’s what you do with that awareness that is key, especially in music. TMMLP2 is arguably the cleverest record the rapper has released. The music is original and catchy and his lyrics are incredible. The wordplay owes much to a return of the fire in his belly and of Eminem’s lyrical ego. A genius remembering he’s a genius forced him to aim higher.
So what is next? Rumour has it that Eminem is due to release new music this summer. Taking on Reading and Leeds this year is a hint that is too hard to ignore. But what does he do in the record, musically? He’s taken four years to work on the new material, and if he’s realised that his vocal aggression is his biggest weapon – as he seemed to in TMMLP2 – then we could be in for his most monumental record to date. He’s often taken to politics, and with the current US climate, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear him unleash on Donald Trump. White America and Mosh are two of his most emotionally charged, socially aware songs. And two of his best. The jokes may have gone, but the satire doesn’t need to.
The change that we see next will no doubt forge his legacy. Two solid records in a row would lead him to superstar status once more, and while he may never hit the heights he once saw, pop music in general, is in need of heavier bite, something a little more gritty than Ed Sheeran or Justin Beiber. We need an Eminem that throws punches. Swagger and ego.
From a personal point of view, I hope that his new music reflects his attitude from the moody Southpaw soundtrack Kings Never Die. An inspiring, clever wrecking-ball tune this reflected Eminem at his best. I would love it if his best way yet to come, and to prove once and for all that kings never die.