Underrated/Overrated is a new hip-hop column where we examine the legacy of a rapper and try to determine once and for all: Are they overrated or underrated? Today’s debate centers around one of the most controversial rappers of all time: Eminem.
Eminem Is Overrated
Calling Eminem “overrated” is beyond controversial. It’s practically rap writer career suicide. It wasn’t always like this; there was a time before he’d solidified his rule as rap royalty when one could dare to risk the ire of his subjects. Those days are long gone. Yet, here we are. Here I am, to share with my dear readers one simple, immutable fact. The emperor is buck naked. Eminem is overrated. Sorry, but if Eminem is a “Rap God,” then consider me a rap atheist.
The genuinely frustrating part of all this is that Eminem is a technically great emcee. When he’s focused, he’s as good as anyone at relaying an idea or emotion or playing with concept raps (although I would argue still not as creative as Pharoahe Monch, as intellectual as Nas, as consistent as Black Thought, or even the best among Detroit peers such as Elzhi and Proof.) It’s just jarring how quickly he reverts to this juvenile, internet troll personality — and how often.
Eminem makes hip-hop for people who hate hip-hop. What’s wild is, this is exactly the one genre where one would expect the dog whistles not to fly as effective communication. The truth is, we have heard enough pearl-clutching panic over the so-called explicit, violent content of rap music in comparison with other genres of music — let alone movies, television, and the erratic, entitled, insecure behavior of the current occupant of the highest elected office in America — far too many times to allow outsiders to dictate terms just because their chosen avatar happens to be technically decent with a pen. That’s not to hold the artist accountable for his fans, but it’s right there in his music. “No, I’m not the first king of controversy / I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / To do black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy,” he crows on “Without Me.” He openly admits to crossing lines and revels in the fact that he gets away with it, solely because he isn’t the stereotypical-looking rapper.
No one can deny his cultural impact, but when fans start to compare him to the G.O.A.T.s, I can’t help but to scoff. He has yet to prove the longevity of a Nas or Jay, he has yet to shift the landscape of rap like Tupac or Big. No one has come out rapping like Eminem, largely because no one wants to. There’s no meaning behind so much of his music, it detracts from his technical brilliance, because he’s saying problematic things in an undressed, openly problematic way — and bragging about it. The empty, novelty raps obscure or distract from the depth. To be honest, I’d rather hear a rapper rhyme about being rich, because I know that it comes from a genuine place; it’s not rebellion for the sake of rebellion, it’s defiance of a system arrayed against them specifically to prevent them from having success, let alone celebrating it.
Em raps about drugs because he thinks it’s funny, raps about raping women because he’s angry at his mother for not living up to his expectations (the definition of white, male entitlement), and lashes out at anyone who calls him out on it. Latter day Em has been even more of a mess, vacillating wildly between wanting to grow up and move on to consistently delivering the sort of poignant introspection of a “Lose Yourself” and the passionate motivation of “Sing For The Moment,” and appealing to the interests and humor of pubescent, angry white kids from the sticks, who openly proclaim to love Eminem because he’s “not like those other rappers who only rap about bitches and bling bling.” That’s coded language, by the way, which is sort of the most ridiculous thing about how Eminem got to be so highly regarded in the first place.
The Detroit representative born Marshall Mathers has been considered one of rap’s rulers for a while, — at the very least since The Eminem Show, his last really good album and creative peak — mainly due to a gift for assonant rhymes full of imaginative, debased imagery that casts Em alternately as a lonely, bullied kid, getting the best kind of revenge through his massive success in the world of hip-hop (at his best), as a drugged-up burnout, getting high on on whatever he’s handed, and as sociopathic super troll, fantasizing about murdering his rivals, his child’s mother, his own mother, and his own mentor, Dr. Dre. This is when Em is at his absolute worst, abusing anyone who he imagines has slighted him — which is just about everyone, considering how thin-skinned he seems in this mode. However, he is given passes nearly constantly for his reprehensible subject matter, because he is really, really good at rhyming — a lot.
However, those raps are all flash, and very little substance. Eminem’s catalog is littered with couplets and quartets that display an encyclopedic gift for vocabulary, alliteration, and and bunches and bunches of jackhammer rhymes that sound cool to hear, but on examination never actually say much. He beats up Foghorn Leghorn with an acorn (seriously, what does this mean? It’s been 19 years and no one can tell me). He’s the only 30 year-old tenant at the local nursing home — which sounds ridiculous as both boast and joke. He threatens electronic producer Moby while slinging homophobic slurs — which he does this a lot. He says it’s just because it’s funny to see the offended reactions, but who else does this? Is that really company a grown man should feel proud keeping? Let’s not get started on the way he talks about women, all the while hiding behind the mealy-mouthed “well, all the other rappers have done it,” excuse. That’s just on his first three albums. He hasn’t produced much genuinely listenable material in damn near a decade, dissolving into the character of Slim Shady, which is the real shame of it all.
Eminem is at times insightful, intriguing, introspective, and genuinely interesting to listen to, but he’s been lost in the caricature of himself that he has become, leaving fans wishing the real Marshall Mathers would please, please, PLEASE stand up.
Eminem Is Underrated
Time is a funny thing. It has a singular ability to change and morph how we view people. Our memories are forever fading and hardening, altering with every passing day how we view the world. So, though there was a time when Marshall Bruce Mathers III could be considered an overrated artist, I believe that’s a dated assessment. There may have been a time, a few years back, when he was finally properly rated amongst his peers, fans and detractors. But again, that time has passed. In 2017, I think it’s fair to say that Eminem might actually be underrated. That’s right, the man that many call the GOAT is no longer getting his just desserts.
I never thought that I’d be the one to make this argument. I was a teenager in the early-to-mid aughts, and there was hardly a larger force in music than Eminem. Considering how the music business has evolved away from massive physical album sales in recent years, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever coming close to duplicating his dizzying run of commercial success between 1999 and 2002. Em first hit the national stage with his Aftermath debut The Slim Shady LP that quickly hit quadruple status certification, and then followed that up with not one, but two albums, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, that both went diamond. That’s not even mentioning his turn in the critically acclaimed film 8 Mile and his work on the No. 1 hit soundtrack that included the Academy Award-winning single “Lose Yourself.” The resume is as a padded as you can imagine.
The dude wasn’t just omnipresent, he reigned as the best-selling artist in any genre through that entire decade. He was big to the point that beefing with other rapper seemed beyond him. His target was bigger: The entire pop music establishment. He regularly dragged the likes of NYSNC, Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey. His most notable run-in with anyone in the hip-hop space was with a magazine, The Source. No one wanted to catch it from him.
But, as I mentioned, time has a funny way of changing things. Though he remains a commercial force to be reckoned with -– his last album The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was the second best-selling album of 2013 with almost four million copies sold –- his cultural currency has waned. It’s not because of his talent on the mic either which has remained nearly unmatched. It has everything to do with some of the verbiage he insists on using.
Once you reach middle age it seems, that urge to change drops off precipitously, or this seems to somewhat apply to Eminem anyway. Over the past several years, the Detroit rapper has consistently shown an inability to register that we live in a very different world than the one that existed during his heyday. Homophobic slurs, just don’t fly anymore. Take the song “Rap God” from his most recent album The Marshall Mather LP 2 which was littered with anti-gay verbiage. Em defended the content of that song in a cover story for Rolling Stone saying that he was channeling a persona and his background as a battle rapper. “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.”
But there is! There’s literally one super easy way to change people’s minds about that. Just stop using the word “f****t” in your rhymes. It’s that easy. Would anyone in 2017 think Eminem had lost one bit of his edge if he eliminated that single word from his vocabulary? Of course not. Another example, when he released his behemoth track “Campaign Speech” in the middle of last year’s election, a song designed to go after Donald Trump, how many people cared about the content? How many people had came out and said, “Oh Eminem is stating an important message, maybe this guy shouldn’t be President.” The answer isn’t zero, but it’s not far from it. More likely, the conversation began with an eye-roll followed by a discourse about how problematic some of the sections of the song are.
It’s a damn shame, because in every other respect, the dude is on the right side of history. Imagine if more people thought about a line like this before they cast their vote for President. “You say Trump don’t kiss ass like a puppet / ‘Cause he runs his campaign with his own cash for the fundin’ / And that’s what you wanted / A f**kin’ loose cannon who’s blunt with his hand on the button / Who doesn’t have to answer to no one — great idea!” This is the part where I mention that Michigan went red in 2016.
Eminem is someone that we plainly take for granted. If he came out tomorrow with an announcement that he had a new album on the way, hip-hop heads would be feverish in their eagerness to hear it, but would the fervor be the same as it’s going to be to wrap their ears around Jay-Z latest? The answer is indisputably no. On a lyrical level, and in terms of their combined impact on the game, they’re very nearly neck and neck, but Jay is on a different level of esteem than Em right now. Eminem is without question one of the greatest MCs of all-time — maybe the greatest — but in the last few year’s he’s gotten the short-shrift in the discussion, especially as a new generation rises to champion the likes of Drake or Kendrick Lamar. It may not remain that way forever, but in 2017, I think it’s fair to say that he’s underrated.