Does the new Eminem album offer more than more homophobia, poop jokes?
Guess who’s back, back again? Earlier this month, Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP2, his eighth studio album, and it offers more of what fans have come to know him for: gay slurs, poop jokes, and misogyny that once upon a time made him America’s Public Enemy No. 1.
Or does it? It’s never been so simple when it comes to Eminem. A white rapper from Detroit with bleach-blonde hair who goes by three different aliases, Eminem is a clinic in post-modernism, with the artist known as Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers reflexively constructing, tearing down, sampling and remixing his own image and mythology over the course of his career. The whole point, seemingly, to remind us this is art. This wall of artifice has allowed him to be almost disturbingly personal, and because of this Em has been hard to pin down. On “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”, he brought his baby daughter in the studio to coo on a track about the two of them murdering his real life on-again, off-again ex-wife, Kim.
Naming his new album The Marshall Mathers LP2 and declaring it a sequel to a 13 year-old album isn’t a completely unprecedented move for Em (his discography already has two pairs: 2002’s The Eminem Show and 2004’s Encore, and 2009’s Relapse and 2010’s Recovery) but that should be the first signal that we’re in for a weird, twisted ride. Opening track “Bad Guy” seemingly starts off with more of the same Kim-bashing that has been a creepy staple of Eminem’s career, already the target of much of Eminem’s lyrical venom. “You left our family in shambles,” he raps as his character drives to his victim’s house. “You expect me to just get over him, pretend he never existed?” Seems like a pretty one-dimensional misogynistic fantasy, right?
Except midway through the track, the tone changes, and you become acutely aware that Something Artistic Is Happening. Em’s voice becomes shrill, terrified-sounding, unhinged – and suddenly you realize our narrator is not Eminem after all; it’s the little brother of “Stan”, the crazed fan from The Marshall Mathers LP hit single whose unrequited obsession with Em lead him to kill himself and his wife. Little brother is here to avenge Stan by murdering Eminem, but there may be more to his agenda, too – before driving kidnapped Em off a bridge he calls him a “chauvinist pig” and taunts, “now, say you hate homos again.” Why would Em fantasize about his own murder? SPIN called it “a seven-minute Charlie Kaufman movie that Rap Genius should have a heck of a time untangling,” and truer words may have never been spoken.
Is this just another attempt by the always uncannily-media-saavy Eminem to seemingly exonerate himself from his art? In 2001, at the height of the accusations of homophobia, he performed “Stan” with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy’s. The gesture, as well as Em and Elton telling the press that they since developed a close friendship, is often cited by supporters that Eminem is no homophobe, merely playing a character on his records.
But is that enough? It’s never clear where mild mannered Marshall Mathers ends and Slim Shady the character begins. The rest of the album is littered with more gay slurs: “cocksucker”, “faggot”, and a particularly scathing “L-LESBIAN!” are liberally hurled as insults throughout the album’s remaining tracks. It begs the question: does your average Eminem fan appreciate the music for the post-modern ambiguity? Or is it because they still think the saying “faggot” is funny?
Does the average listener know or even care what the real Eminem thinks?
In truth, the gay slurs sound as dated as the reference Em makes to the “batteries in my Walkman” (hell, even the diss aimed at longtime rivals Insane Clown Posse’s 2010 track “Miracles” sounds dated here). The hip hop landscape of 2013 is dominated by LGBT-friendly acts like Frank Ocean (who is curiously named-checked on “Bad Guy” right before Em is murdered) and Macklemore. It seems like being pro-gay is the new cool thing in hip hop, and we should be glad. But despite trying to lead us to believe otherwise, at the end of the day The Marshall Mathers LP2 continues to perpetuate casual homophobia.
There are other awkward moments. Only the second track and Eminem’s already rapping in a goofy Yoda voice over The Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” The album ends with a poop joke that would probably still be immature even for a middle schooler. That said, there is still a lot to admire here. On “Rap God” Eminem spits a stream of rhymes so fast it seems defy the fabric of space and time. But at 41, Em knows his time is almost over: track “So Far…” (with it’s earnest Motor City cheerleading and guitar riff) sounds a bit like a Kid Rock reject, but it features a few hilarious self-deprecating observations of aging, like “Fuck I gotta do to hear this new song from Luda? Be an expert at computers?” or even better: “Got friends on Facebook/All over the world/Not sure what that means/They tell me it’s good.” It even playfully teases a sample of “The Real Slim Shady,” a hit that is 13 years old at this point.
If the despicable character thing is all just an act, this all might be more forgivable if the final product was more stylish (like, say, The Weeknd) or perhaps simultaneously MORE serious and MORE ridiculous (for example, Kanye’s Yeezus). As it stands, Eminem is still reveling in that blurred line between his constructed persona and his true self. Twenty-plus years into his career and we’re still asking: Won’t the real Slim Shady please stand up?