"Let’s take it back to straight hip-hop and start it from scratch."
Eminem’s new Rick Rubin-produced single, "Berzerk," sounds like what one would expect from such a collaboration. It is almost difficult to even register it as a song; if you’re being cynical, it is easy to see it as two brands colliding. You can watch it, like a commercial: a graying Rick Rubin, iconic ZZ Top beard worn like a mane down his expansive chest, barefoot, lounging on a couch. He's laced some towering drums, accenting them with jagged, fuzzing guitars for electric momentum, stripping the sound to its authentic ’80s essence. (We know exactly what to expect because "99 Problems" did more or less the same a decade ago.)
Enter Eminem: boyish blonde humor given over to straight-laced brunette sincerity, the "problematic" du-rags tossed for leather jackets and Air Max 90s—but wait: He's dyed his hair blonde again, rocking baggy khakis and spitting like a hyperkinetic Beastie Boy with an Adderall addiction. And there he is, singing a hook melody faintly reminiscient of Sean Paul's "Get Busy."
Eminem’s appeal, over the years, seems to have been hammered into a shape that is defined by his "skill," the detailed, OCD focus on the perfection of his wordplay and intricacy. But there are reasons to suspect—or, at the very least, hope—that Rubin’s influence will be more than letting Eminem exercise his prodigal complexity over the ’80s hip-hop beats.
My job is to be a professional version of the outside world—a listener who is not attached to any of it, who doesn’t know the story of how it was written, who doesn’t know how it works, who doesn’t know why this is important to you."
It's easy to caricature Rubin, who is executive-producing Marshall Mathers LP 2, as a simplistic bearded rock-rap guru. But, as he explained in an interview with the Daily Beast shortly after Yeezus was released, he does more than lay on couches: "You’re so close to something when you write it that it’s hard to have any perspective on how it hits someone else. My job is to be a professional version of the outside world—a listener who is not attached to any of it, who doesn’t know the story of how it was written, who doesn’t know how it works, who doesn’t know why this is important to you."
What he's offering, essentially, is a critical ear. Rubin is the anti-Yes-man, the producer whose opinion on what he likes (and what he doesn't like) actually matters to some of the most driven and successful people on earth—to the guy whose indomitable will told him that he was more than a piece of the Roc-A-Fella production machine, to the guy who knew he could go from "Hawaiian Sophie" to being the King of New York, and now, to the rapper whose perfectionist vision lifted him from the trailer park to international fame.
The single-minded pursuit of success means letting the critics' arrows bounce off of you. There's a reason racehorses wear blinders; when the goal is victory at all costs, looking to the side can cost you. In hip-hop, where the best rappers must always balance craft, personality, and confidence, this kind of relentless vision is difficult to maintain.
Eminem definitely had it. And while he's insulated, to a degree, from criticism thanks to his consistent success, he definitely lost his handle on the pop zeitgeist.
It’s tough to understate how big of an impact Eminem had when he first hit hip-hop—and high schools—in 1999.
With "My Name Is" and his various guest spots—especially "Forgot About Dre," released just four days after—he jumped to the forefront, up with Jay, Redman, and DMX. From 1999 through the 8 Mile soundtrack that closed out 2002—and maybe even a little beyond that, to a few of the tracks on Encore, although "Just Lose It" was definitely a shark-jumping moment—Eminem was central to everything.
And much as it had been with Tupac—the last hip-hop artist to capture the attention of the mainstream press the way Eminem did—what concerned the media about Em seemed pretty irrelevant to why his music appealed to us. Even as a teenager, I knew about the implications of Elvis, and how his whiteness benefitted his standing in music. But the value of Eminem's music seemed so self-evident and certainly transcended any kind of identification I might have had with his skin tone. Not to understate the impact of race on his success, but Em was doing something no one else was doing. I mean, just listen to it.
The way his words twisted around each other—intricate, careful, precise—was key, but it was still only means to an end. That end was outrageous, dangerous, rebellious, hilarious, and musically unforgettable.
The way his words twisted around each other—intricate, careful, precise—was key, but it was still only means to an end. That end was outrageous, dangerous, rebellious, hilarious, and musically unforgettable. You wanted to emulate him, but figuring out the logic of those densely packed lyrics was something you had to rehearse. Half of my high school had to have his words memorized within days of hearing them on the radio. Just reciting them was like being able to juggle or yo-yo or create a dope tag. Style was really what Em was all about, making something difficult and complex look easy, effortless.
There was some underlying anger, which felt like a tonal match for the time, a whole generation of guys who found their id represented by Slim Shady and his gleeful bum-rush of pop culture. He was a kid from the trailer parks going up against the fake world of showbiz with only his wit and talent as his weapons. The fact that he was placed alongside boy bands and one-dimensional bro-rockers like Limp Bizkit on Total Request Live seemed an insult to his ability.
By 2002, the world had shifted slightly on its axis, and suddenly hip-hop’s center of gravity split to 50 Cent, and soon towards Atlanta. Its sound shifted, too. TRL—the fantasy playground on which Em had self-aware battles with Christina Aguilera and Fred Durst—lost its centrality. The Internet started cutting away at the tendons that connected stars to the industry. And Em was dealing with drug addiction.
In the mid-2000s, he was essentially off the radar—at least for me. He continued selling heaps of records. His technical skill never truly faltered—if anything, his detail-oriented OCD perfectionism is the single most "Eminem" thing about his recent output. But a lot of his other qualities seemed to disintegrate. He seemed angrier, even perpetually aggrieved. And he seemed to be moving further and further afield from hip-hop, relying on hooks from pop chanteuse Skylar Grey and grand melodramatic anthems. There was a seriousness to everything.
At one point, a friend linked me to a Facebook group called "Like if you loved eminem before not afraid/love the way you lie." It was only then that I realized how much more there was to Eminem, and that for many listeners, the era I considered his "peak" was simply a prologue.
Listening to Eminem now, and you'll hear someone whose love of the craft is apparent. You'll also hear someone who may have misidentified where his talents really lie, or who focused on only one or two of those talents, when there was a full package that made his earlier work so exciting. Rather than trying to make his verses seem effortless, it’s almost as if he’s now drawing attention to how much effort he’s putting into them.
There are a few ways to interpret "Berzerk." It is definitely a left-field choice in the context of current rap radio; from a stylistic POV, the return of the blonde hair and the pop culture references suggest he's going back to the basics of his own career. Sonically, the retro obsession is odd; beyond being Caucasian, and a known Beastie Boys fan, there isn't really a link between Em and the sounds of the early '80s. It's certainly an unexpected maneuver; if we're being optimistic, he's resetting the conversation to year zero.
And this is a particular strength of Rubin's. One of his recent projects was Black Sabbath's comeback 13, which ended up debuting at No. 1 on Billboard "Back in the day," Rubin told the Daily Beast, "Black Sabbath was essentially a jam band. That's how they wrote. And they had gotten away from that." Rubin's approach had been to bring the group back to the creative engine of their early success—not the literal sound, per se, but the mechanism that made them a band in the first place: jamming.
To Rubin, the artist's time spent as part of industry machinery creates its own problems. Rubin's role isn't to literally turn the artist into a retro act, but to locate the essence of what made their best work. "Slowly, over time, the creative process gets eroded, and it becomes something that’s just a window in the schedule instead of the most important thing that drives the whole train."
When the Daily Beast asked Rubin about working with Johnny Cash, his perspective was enlightening. The producer saw it as a challenge, almost as if he were trying to rescue an artist who had been painted into a corner. "In his mind," says Rubin, "His best work was 25 years before. He'd really given up on himself as a recording artist."
"People who’ve made a lot of records tend not to make records as good as the ones they made when they’re younger," Rubin continued. "When you’re young and you get to make your first record, or your second record, it’s the most important thing in your life."
Eminem finds himself in a similar predicament. Although he never gave up on his recording career, and commercial success seems inevitable, he faces the challenge of creative reinvention.
Will Rick Rubin be the anti-Yes-man Eminem needs?