Why "Berzerk" will be a success, whether you hate it or love it.
Written by Ernest Baker (@ernestbaker_)
America has been talking about Miley Cyrus for the past 72 hours, and no matter which side of the debate you stand on, whatever she did on Sunday has undoubtedly become A Moment. However, by this point, the conversation feels a bit exhausted, and it's time to take a closer look at something else massive that happened in music this week: Eminem released a new song.
The first single from Marshall Mathers LP 2, "Berzerk," has already racked up several million views and downloads, impressive stats, but also the standard for an artist of Eminem's stature. This is a rapper who's sold well over a million albums in his first week of release multiple times, come very close to doing it several other times, gone diamond, and had singles debut at No. 1 over and over. His success isn't exactly measured by statistics anymore. It's comparable to how we know LeBron James will score a lot of points every game, but only consider him truly victorious if he wins the championship.
The "championship" for Eminem is a return to peak relevance in the music conversation, a once de facto position for him. Much of this was previously achieved by not only how good his music was, but also by his tendency to offend, a trait present all over his earlier albums, and always a noted factor in his first singles, which have followed a formula of pop culture riffing and current events commentary for most of his career.
Offending people isn't Eminem's trump card anymore. That used to be a large part of the excitement surrounding Eminem's work, but that time's passed. His new record has to be analyzed in the context of what it means within the spectrum of music's contemporary landscape, something Rap Twitter's knee jerk reaction always fails to consider.
As we've seen this week, music consumption and criticism is a different ball game in 2013. What's most subversive aren't Eminem's jabs at celebrities, but a 20-year-old's raunchy stage performance. So what does that mean for Eminem's relevance, and will "Berzerk" have the hold on culture that's been commonplace for so many of his first singles?
First, we must examine what it is that we should expect from Eminem at this point. He's a 40-year-old man, and he's already shocked America so much, but those prior accomplishments set up him to impact in a way that can't be ignored just because his music sounds different now. The retro approach of "Berzerk" marks a clear departure from the formula he was once committed to. Offending people isn't Eminem's trump card anymore. That used to be a large part of the excitement surrounding Eminem's work, but that time's passed. His new record has to be analyzed in the context of what it means within the spectrum of music's contemporary landscape, something Rap Twitter's knee jerk reaction always fails to consider.
"Berzerk" is understandably difficult to grasp. Popular music has been so inundated with EDM and trap sounds that the single's aggressive homage to 1980s hip-hop is in complete contrast to the sound of today's music. The production, courtesy of Rick Rubin, the man responsible for the sound of much of 1980s hip-hop, is unapologetically vintage, but when Jay Z did this on "99 Problems," also produced by Rubin, 10 years ago, he still offered flows that fit in with the times. On "Berzerk," Eminem goes full nostalgic, employing a rhyming style reminiscent of the Beastie Boys, and 30 years after the Beastie Boys' debut single, that may be tougher to digest.
But Eminem’s singles were always tough to digest. "My Name Is" was not congruent with the Swizz-led sound of Jay Z and DMX. Neither was "The Real Slim Shady" or "Without Me" in line with Irv and Jeff. But in an era before social media and instantaneous, communal reaction to big events, Em's natch for attacking celebs for things they did months ago was titilating, intriguing, and relatively timely. His first singles used to be like a News Feed in song form, and he benefited greatly from it. The work he put in then to establish himself as a top tier artist, and the 100 million-plus records sold as a result, is why his new music matters now. After 15 years of dominance, the mere existence of a new Eminem song is an event, and no amount of backlash against how it sounds can deter that.
So why will "Berzerk" be successful in spite of any sonic criticism? For one, it's Eminem, but as stated earlier, calling Eminem successful for selling a lot of records is like giving Tom Brady a pat on the back for throwing one touchdown. It's cool, but more is required by virtue of the standard he's set for himself. The thing is, "Berzerk" meets that standard, and if anything, the one part of the song no so directly inspired by the ‘80s—its distinctly Slim Shadian chorus—will be right at home on radio. The familiarity of Eminem’s voice has credibility and leverage in the pop realm that’s hard to compete with.
The sing-song "all night long" chorus of “Berzerk” will bury itself into eardrums, and for a Z100 audience, that's all that matters. The people who determine if Eminem's still relevant weren't necessarily impressed by the lyrical gymnastics on "The Way I Am" so much as they were sucked in by the catchy Rakim interpolation in its chorus (not knowing the homage to Rakim, of course). There's also a simplicity in the record’s verses that a mainstream audience can latch onto. Kendrick Lamar's verse on "Control" captivated because it mentioned the name of competitors, but for all its wizardry, it’s not relatable to the masses as much as it is to rap nerds. Eminem’s nod to rap nerds on “Berzerk” gives it value in that space, but it also has structure that fits in with the mainstream. This is not to say that mainstream gratification is the end-all, but the inevitable success of "Berzerk" in that arena is why Eminem will remain relevant to the greater conversation. And like all the other Eminem albums preceded by singles that made conservative rap fans grimace, the long player will deliver elite, undeniable bars. So, yes, he’s back.
In the build-up to Marshall Mathers LP 2, "Berzerk" will be inescapable because that’s just the nature of the Eminem machine. Compounded by the fact that the record has enough appeal to work in a Hot 100 sort of way, and promises a memorable video, “Berzerk” is going to be a thing, whether you like it or not. The fact that he's boldly positioning it as the lead from the sequel to his greatest album makes it even more significant. Perhaps Miley Cyrus has assumed the role of cultural provocateur that Eminem once held, but like his mentor Dr. Dre (a provocateur extraordinaire, by any measure), Em's been there and done that. Though all he has left is the music, at this point, that's all Eminem, and his fans, need.