Seven solo albums, a Wikipedia page devoted solely to the awards he’s won, a movie loosely based on his life, an Oscar, the death of a close friend, and a drug addiction. All of these accolades and struggles mark the professional career of Marshall Mathers.
Whether you love or hate him, you know his music. Eminem is unquestionably one of the most important pop culture figures of the early 21st century. He attracted so much frenzied media attention for such a wide breadth of reasons: prejudiced content, violent lyrics, and simply being a white rapper. But he also pissed people off for another reason, and it’s a reason that makes his first albums resonate a decade past their releases.
Eminem used to be one of the most incisive political and social critics in popular art.
In “Role Model,”off of his first studio album The Slim Shady LP, he foresees his own role as an alleged role model for fans and criticizes himself as an unsuitable example for kids: “I been with 10 women who got HIV/Now don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me?” he yells sarcastically.
He deals more media and social criticism in his next album, The Marshall Mathers LP. On “Who Knew,” he blames parents for not raising their children right: “Don’t blame me when little Eric jumps off of the terrace/you shoulda been watchin him/apparently you ain’t parents.” It’s harsh and almost cruel, but the message is on point.
Gaming fans can attest to that. Eminem found himself in the same shit-storm the games industry finds itself in on a regular basis, but on a more personal level. And he found another target: parents who relied on entertainment to raise their kids. He had a finger pointed at him and turned it back, asking tough questions that weren’t getting asked.
I’m like, “Guidance – ain’t they got the same moms and dads
who got mad when I asked if they liked violence?”
And told me that my tape taught ’em to swear
What about the make-up you allow your 12-year-old daughter to wear?
By ruthlessly turning the mirror back on his critics, Mathers turned himself into a critic of American culture at large. He used his medium to convey a message about how hypocritical, negligent, and falsely self-righteous we can be. He could be funny, outrageous, vulgar, sincere, and brutally and uncomfortably right. Sometimes all at once. He was pretty much the George Carlin of rap.
Unfortunately, there’s none of that social criticism in his music anymore. The vocabulary, lyricism, and skill are all there, but what makes those first albums really special isn’t to be found.
Change is not inherently a bad thing; the ability to adapt to new times and revitalize yourself is an important aspect of any artist. But change should never mean stripping away essential elements of one’s art that made it so impactful in the first place. Look to Eminem’s “Rap God” for that. He left the social criticism but kept wordplay and gay bashing.
And despite these issues, he’s still good. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 contains some of his most profound growth as an artist and isn’t just a cash-grab sequel like I initially feared. He calls back to his old work to criticize himself and his fans while continuing that endless soul search that has become the only dimension of his raps.
His music now takes one form: introversion. I admire the quality–it takes more guts than most of us can fathom to be so open about one’s issues. He always put all of himself on record, warts and all, exposing his misfortunes and anxieties to the world.
Eminem’s music used to be about so many things besides him. Now it’s just about him. But I guess I’ll take an average Eminem album over most “great” albums.
Article by contributor Michael Jones.
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