This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Complex: On the album cover, you seem a little disappointed in the country. Is that an accurate portrayal?
Eminem: I would say that's probably an accurate portrayal, but I do feel like we live in the greatest country in the world, but I know that we've got a lot of shit to work on.
What are some things that, in general, bother you about America right now?
Obviously Trump. I'm not sure how to answer. This is what happens when I start talking about Trump: I get too flustered in my head and the shit that I want to say; there's too many things I want to say at once, so sometimes I start talking and I'm not able to convey the message the right way, because I just get flustered and frustrated with all the things I want to say. I actually had to turn the news off a couple of weeks ago, because I always start coming to the studio and start talking to people about it and be like, "Oh, shit. I just wasted two hours. I gotta get shit done." There are just too many things, man.
The songs that you created about Trump and about race relations in this country; are you concerned with how they're received by the public?
In a sense I am. I definitely want to reach people and hopefully be able to make people think. I feel like between the song by Joyner Lucas and the “Untouchable” song, maybe we could get some ears and get people's attention and make them think—the ones who are not woke yet, I guess, to what the fuck is going on.
There are two sides in this country that are very polarized and they …
We can talk about the division that [Trump’s] got our country in. Part of me feels like it's almost single-handedly what he's done and to the extent that he knows he's doing it. He obviously sees the division that he's got our country in. You're on one side or you're on the other side. His side is growing smaller and smaller, I feel like by the day, because I do believe people are waking up to what the fuck is going on, which is basically that he's done nothing… Damn, I forgot what the hell I was saying. What the fuck was I just saying?
If you are listening to [Trump] and you're not willing to read or fact check, you might just tend to just believe what he says, because he's living in an alternate reality and he bends it to whatever suits him the best.
That people are waking up to what Trump's done…
Yeah, his core is shrinking and it's interesting. I'll probably [lose my train of thought] 10 times if we're talking about Trump, because there's too much I want to say, but it's almost like... It's so bizarre watching him play to his base that thinks that he cares about them and it's actually the people that he cares about the fucking least. If you're talking about his core being a majority white middle class people, what I don't understand is how in the fuck do you feel like you relate to a billionaire who has never known struggle his entire fucking life? Who dodged the draft because he had bone spurs in his fucking foot? You feel like this is the guy that's gonna fight for you? He's already proven with the tax break that he's not. That's not benefiting the middle class. I will say this, he talks a good one.
There's part of me that understands he's somehow still got them, because he's brainwashing them into thinking that something great is gonna happen. Nothing is happening. If you are listening to him and you're not willing to read or fact check, you might just tend to just believe what he says, because he's living in an alternate reality and he bends it to whatever suits him the best.
Let's talk about “Walk on Water.” One of the things that stood out to me when I heard the song was the way your voice sounded when you recorded it. It sounded very intimate and very clear. Could you speak about how you recorded it?
Well, I think one of the things that makes the vocals come out so clear is it's a pretty bare track. It's just piano, really, and Skylar [Grey] sent me that and I thought it was like... The chorus, as soon as I heard it, I felt like this is exactly what I'm feeling right now, so that was one of the things about it that struck me. We had debated on should we put a beat in there? Should we put drums in there? After I recorded it, I played it for Rick [Rubin] and then we had discussed it. We were both like, “Nah, we should just leave it like this so you can understand, hear everything and maybe hopefully get it the first time you hear it.”
Also on that record, you're talking about grappling with the criticism that gets levied your way both from fans and peers. Where do you get most of the criticism? How do you receive it? On Twitter? On YouTube?
I see things. I don't have time to sit on Twitter all day, or read everything, but I do see things and I see enough. I'm probably a lot more in tune than people actually might want to think I am, but I see enough. I don't know, that song was more about just self-doubt, insecurities, that kind of shit. I've never really seen myself as, how can I say… The way I've seen some fans act towards me. Even to this day, I've been in this game a long time and it's still weird to me, because I just rap and I certainly haven't had a perfect career. I've put out some not-so-great albums and I realize that. Part of me feels like, I've felt this way since I did it, but part of me feels like I'm forever chasing The Marshall Mathers LP, because I do feel like probably the majority of people who listen to my music probably feel like that's my best album.
I recognize it and when I say my best album, I don't know if I had even made my best songs yet, because “Lose Yourself” came later and some other things. As a body of work, I feel like [The Marshall Mathers LP] may be because of the time period and it captured a moment. Maybe it was like a snapshot of that time period, but I also had a lot of rage issues back then, but there's a constant tug of war with me inside my head that [grapples with] how am I supposed to be?
I certainly haven't had a perfect career. I've put out some not-so-great albums and I realize that... Part of me feels like I'm forever chasing The Marshall Mathers LP, because I do feel like the majority of people who listen to my music probably feel like that's my best album.
When I hear people say they miss the old Eminem and then I do the old Eminem, people go, "Oh, man, he's too old to do that. He needs to mature his content. He's growing up as a man. He's in his 40s and he's supposed to be this way or that way." You know what I'm saying? "He needs to mature." Then when I do that, then people go back to, "I miss old Eminem." I'm in this constant struggle, this constant tug of war in my head. There's really no way to please everybody, there's just not, so I just kind of go with my gut, I guess, and what I feel.
Is it strange to get criticism from rappers publicly; like Vince Staples for example…
The reason I don't trip off that is because I feel like regardless of whether you rap or you don't, or you're in the game or you're not, I feel like everybody's entitled to their opinion. I don't really trip off people critiquing what I do. In some cases, I feel like there are peers that don't really listen to my music anyways and they're not fans, so I'm not making my music for them. I'm making my music for me first, obviously, so I can be happy with something. At the same time, try to give the people that do appreciate my music, give them something to listen to basically and try to meet whatever expectations are placed. I figured it out a long time ago. It doesn't matter what I do, what I say, what album I come with, it just doesn't matter because…
At what point did you figure that out?
Daily, I've come to that realization, pretty much, right? I figured it out a long time ago. It's not that it doesn't bother me, because sometimes it's like, really? Really? I hear somebody critique something that I do, that probably doesn't understand what I do. It would have to be a certain song, I'd have to give you an example, but I think that there's still a lot of people that don't understand compound syllable rhyming and being able to take entire sentences and make them rhyme and stuff like that. They might not hear that, so they're not gonna be able to appreciate that, because they hear what they hear and then, "Ah, man. That shit is wack." Okay, but maybe you don't understand what I'm doing.
I feel like one of the things that's happened to me over the years is rapping getting harder, but rhyming gets easier, if that makes any sense. One of my drawbacks I feel like that I did on the last album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, was long verses, because I couldn't get the rhyme to end. In other words, when I think of a couple phrases or whatever it is, I think of so much shit that rhymes with it and connecting the syllables and doing all that, but by the time it's all said and done, is this different than anything I've done before? I've done a song like this, so now I don't like it because it may not be talking about anything. It may be just connecting words together and just to get a reaction, but it's not really that good. I don't know.
One of the things I feel like this generation of rappers established and rappers that are coming up—one of the things I think that it's important that they take from people like me [and] Jay Z, is that they should look to that and think in the mindframe of, I could not just have… like hip-hop when it first started out, it was almost like you were lucky to get a five-year run. You were really lucky to get a 10-year run. It's been around for a long time, but I don't know if it's been around long enough to see how long someone can actually go for.
I look to Jay for a lot of shit. I look to Jay for where he's at in life and I look for 4:44, the punchlines. I'm listening to music in a way that most people probably aren't. I'm looking, just like they might be looking for a different thing. They might be looking for a feel, or whatever it is, I'm looking for the sharpness and I'm looking for the punchlines. He's got a lot of funny punchlines on that shit. To me it's like, Jay is a good guy because he's a guide for... It's almost like he can see what's going on in hip-hop. He's very in tune with the times and then he does something his own way, and then other people follow it. That's amazing to me, so I've always looked up to Jay for that.
There's no time limit on this thing now. I think that we still don't know how long somebody can actually go for. I feel like as long as I'm passionate about it... I had this conversation with Busta Rhymes where I was like, "What do you do when you get to a certain age, but you feel like you haven't lost it?"
I feel like one of the things I'm very aware of and I think pretty in tune with, is I know that with me, the rage isn't there. I don't have the rage I did when I first came up. I was just coming out of my situation in life, so I was salty about a lot of shit and had a lot of rage and just said whatever was on my mind, but I don't know if I was as able to be as technical as I am now. I don't know if that's better or worse, I just know that rhyming gets easier because I think of more shit to rhyme with shit and I could keep it going probably, almost would seem like infinitely, just because…
Well, it's a skill you've been honing for decades upon decades.
Yeah, I've been doing this for a long time, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the songs are better.
What is success to you?
To me, success is getting the ear of people, and to me success is when I'm able to perform a show, perform at a show and look in the crowd and you see pretty much every ethnicity there is. That to me is super-powerful, because I'm not the only one who can do that. Music, I feel like it brings people together. I don't know if there's anything that brings people together like music and sports.
Do you ever see yourself going beyond rap, being more of a public figure and speaking about the issues that you rap about on songs?
I don't know if I would go that far. One of the reasons being, I feel like even in interviews and everything, I don't word shit always the right way. I feel like, but when I do, hopefully people know that if that came out wrong and I said that wrong, my heart is still in the right place. I'm just not able to articulate it. Sometimes, I need to put it in a rhyme form and that's how I'm able to articulate it better. Sometimes, like I said, I get flustered with the shit that's going on with the Trump shit. I get too wrapped up in it. I don't know if I've ever been this kind of wrapped up in it. This is probably the most I've been this wrapped up in it, you know? I know that following the last election with Obama and watching how we went from that, that's where we ended up during the Obama era, felt like, man, I feel like we're taking strides forward. This is fucking incredible.
Then we get this guy in office and it's literally like watching our country take as many steps we took forward, we're taking them right backwards. That's the thing that gets me frustrated so much, because I mean... I don't know. Anything that I say about Trump on this album I don't think is anything that he doesn't already know about himself, but hopefully, maybe I can get the attention of people that may be on the fence. Like I said, it seems like his base is growing smaller and smaller every day, which he is only the President of, is his base, because it's what he cares about. It's the only thing that he cares about, but he actually doesn't care about them, so it's this weird fucking dynamic because he really doesn't give a shit.
Does that make it harder to write these songs? The fact that you're so wrapped up in it?
Not necessarily, because writing a rhyme, I would watch TV for 15 minutes while I eat lunch or some shit, and think of fucking 20 to 30 ideas or punchlines or whatever. I don't know, for some reason I'm able to, like I said, articulate that better when it's in a rhyme form.
Are you hopeful?
Hopeful, but doubtful. If that makes any sense.
The BET Hip-Hop Awards freestyle started a conversation between two groups of people who don’t want to have a conversation. Some black people were like, "Oh, this is great. Finally, a fairly very popular white artist has said what we've been asking them to say for a long time,” and then there are white people in the country who were like, "This is bullshit."
I will say this, I don't want little Johnny in fucking Alabama or wherever, bumping my shit in his fucking Klan hood. You know what I'm saying? I think that that's where I'm trying to make myself clear, is in that sense.
That’s very clear.
It's disgusting that our country has so much potential and, like I said, I feel like it's the best country in the world, but we got shit we need to work on and we can't fucking try to turn a blind eye when someone's trying to tell you something. Like, Yo, this shit is going on and nobody's saying anything. Like the NFL protests, the anthem. When you've got players that are saying—the black players in particular—saying, "We don't mean any disrespect to the military. We love our country. We just want you to hear our voice and hear what's going on in some of the neighborhoods that we came from. We want you to hear this." Then people start going, "Oh it's sports, it's sports. We don't want politics mixed with sports." Fuck off. First of all, politics have always been mixed with sports. Shit's always been intertwined, but the fact that when someone's trying to tell you something they're not trying to be disrespectful. "With all due respect, please hear our voice when we're trying to tell you this."
Then you got the people who think, "You made it. You got money. You got money, so you should turn your fucking back." What is that? That's when you're supposed to stand up the most is when you have your platform. Most of these guys who are protesting are pillars in their communities and donating money, you know what I'm saying? Always trying to do good. All we're asking you to do is listen. Point being, this motherfucker, Trump, keeps trying to change the narrative. It's also what nobody understands. It's like, this is a fucking smokescreen so that you look over here and you don't pay attention to what I'm not doing. There were good people on both sides in Charlottesville? So the people with the fucking tiki torches were fine people, but the NFL players are sons of bitches?
I don't know, man. I can't fit it all into my brain what I want to say. I know that if he answers me back, I have ideas. I know that much. There's a lot of punchlines and a lot of things I have, I'm just waiting for him to fucking say something, because that'll be fun for me.
VIDEO: Production: Hardware Agency / Director of Photography: Brandon Riley / Gaffer: Brian Dailey / Movi/Drone Op: Marcel Morin / DIT: Jim Petersen / Sound: Chris Parker / Locations: Kevin McGrail and Tom Lounsbury / Music Composer: Greg Borodulin / PHOTO: Photography: Timothy Saccenti / Styling: Dawn Boonyachlito / Stylist Assistant: Angela McBride / Grooming: Michelle / Clothing: Jacket by Saint Laurent, T-Shirt by GoodLife, Jeans by All Saints, Belt by Burberry, Shoes by Nike x Off White, Audemares Piquet Watch