Bad Guy: Why Eminem's Trademark Hatred Is Indispensable to Hip-Hop

Bad Guy: Why Eminem's Trademark Hatred Is Indispensable to Hip-HopImage by Simon Jones.

Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is attracting criticism from all corners.

Written by Justin Charity (@BrotherNumpsa)

The first thirty seconds of the original Marshall Mathers LP are a public service announcement. Just in case you were wondering: “Slim Shady does not give a fuck what you think.” And really, that’s all the warning we might have ever needed to hear for us to know that Eminem, whether relapsed or recovering, would be rattling epithets and cruelty as fast as lungs would allow. That’s the Eminem we all know and love—or loathe.

When Em sat down with Sway earlier this week in a town hall interview on Shade 45 to discuss his new Marshall Mathers LP 2, we caught a rare (as of late) glimpse of the artist as an uncharacteristically polite and playful subject, at one point even mimicking the nasal clench of his adolescent flow. At this late stage in his career, there’s no doubt that Em has grown—both as an artist and as an adult—since his 1999 major label debut. But MMLP2 confirms that after all these years, the Slim Shady persona raps intact.

As always, Slim Shady’s persistence is troubling to many critics who regard Em’s music as vile, wanton hatred fit only for bullies. In its review of the "Rap God" single from MMLP2, The Huffington Post wondered, obtusely, “So is this the real Slim Shady?” Writing for the The Week, entertainment critic Scott Meslow distills the latest wave of critical backlash to the stubborn frequency of Em’s homophobic slurs:

“Since [The Marshall Mathers LP’s winning a Grammy in 2001], the entire culture of hip-hop has changed—but if […] ’Rap God’ is any indication, Eminem is every bit the same lazy, offensive bile-spewer he was back then.” 

Slim Shady is, in fact, one of the most carefully, stressfully constructed personas in rap history.

The conflation of offensive and lazy here is, itself, as lazy as it is inaccurate. Offensive, yes. But Eminem is as technically dextrous as ever; and Slim Shady is, in fact, one of the most carefully, stressfully constructed personas in rap history. If not quite a villain, Slim Shady is your antihero. A precise brand of offense, a certain ire that riles hype and angst and confrontational nerve that’s as much about us as it is about Marshall Mathers.

“I've been doing this shit for, what, 14 years now?” said Em in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “I think people know my personal stance on things and the personas that I create in my music. And if someone doesn't understand that by now, I don't think there's anything I can do to change their mind about it.”

When parsing pretty much any medium or genre other than rap—whether we’re talking about literature, comedy, punk rock, FX, etc.—it seems there’s never so much angst concerning whether our favorite stars are people, or whether their art is dutifully progressive. For sure, Drake and J. Cole and Macklemore seem friendly enough. Appealing to mainstream tastes and sensibilities is, indisputably, their artistic license. But hatred, alienation, despair—these are all legitimate artistic perspectives, whether you’re inclined to buy them or not. Same went for N.W.A and The Diplomats. Same goes for Odd Future and Kanye West.

There’s a paradoxical whimsy in wishing that our favorite artists would just, you know, radically revise the gist of their art. If only for the sake of defensibility, we’re in some sense wishing away their essential allure. In a broader sense, such evolution makes sense. Over the years, we’ve heard many veteran emcees as well as new junior talents curb the homophobia (if not the misogyny) from their verses. But in contrast to Jay’s graceful aging or Drake’s pop ambitions, what’s an Eminem album without severe bullying, homicidal voicemails, and threats of domestic abuse? Not that we mean to condone these actions as actual recourse, but as storytelling?  Sure, why not?

What’s most legitimately distressing about hip-hop’s reactionary elements is the genre’s lack of counterbalancing perspectives. Regionally, sure the field’s opened wide beyond the erstwhile dominance of New York’s five boroughs. And Macklemore exists. But women emcees are still a minority tribe in a genre that’s ever sprawling. Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, Iggy Azalea, Jean Grae, Kreayshawn, Angel Haze—all together, an admirably disparate array of female talent, but so far shy of the major label guidance and/or fan-backed momentum that cast Nicki into the mainstream. And as for counterbalance to the hetero thirst of countless club bangers—well, again, we’ve got Macklemore.

A nagging assumption that rap has some unstated obligation to serve as either sighs of the oppressed or else gentrified dance singles.

It’s this lack of diversity, perhaps, that anoints rap as the eternal scapegoat for pretty much any given regression of music culture. To some extent, the dissatisfaction is understandable. But too often these critiques read as alien condescension. A nagging assumption that rap has some unstated obligation to serve as either sighs of the oppressed or else gentrified dance singles. We’re meant to understand "Rap God" as a lamentable regression of the genre, when really Em is but one of many American artists who’ve chosen their themes, honed their crafts, and spit what’s on their mind. Some minds being more delightedly juvenile than others.

We, the fans, grow up. That much is inevitable. After a certain stage of maturity, the Slim Shady brand of scatology and psychopathy perhaps yield diminishing returns. But Eminem can rap, and MMLP2’s songwriting shows an artist in rare form. If you’re sick of Slim Shady, there’s any number of conscious rappers or dust blunt bards or strip club maestros to whom you might turn your ears instead. But from Ice-T, to Eazy-E, to Treach, to Cam’ron, to Kanye West, to Eminem, sometimes we root for the bad guy—and that’s okay.

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