By Nathan Smith
I know, I know. Making “Rap God” your track of the week is like giving Man of the Year to Hitler- but sometimes the villain deserves the award. I’ve never liked Eminem; in fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t out-right despise him. I understand that in a certain time and a certain place in my childhood he had some value in the greater cultural consciousness, and he probably still does, but I’d be completely fine if we could just forget him. Alright, I know. He probably did a few good things. 8 Mile? Maybe a masterpiece, or at least better than Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The Spartacus-like MTV video awards performance with the Million Slim Shady March? Legendary. I’ve tried again and again to give Eminem a chance, but I just can’t do it, especially after his most recent album, last year’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
Upon its announcement, I laughed off The Marshall Mathers LP 2. The title and cover art served as a sure sign that one of the last decade’s former wonder boys wanted to grab hold of his former glory, while its lead single, “Berzerk,” sounded like the groans of a dad as he struggled to fit into his old South Pole gear. But only upon the release of the album’s third single, “Rap God,” did I begin to pay attention- and not in a good way. I didn’t want to listen to the song, but I did, because for a brief period in October of 2013, “Rap God” dominated the hip-hop conversation, but for different reasons than I expected. To me, the song felt genuinely awful, with a bland and monotonous beat and out-of-breath hook. But to others, the song was a revelation, more evidence to add to Eminem’s book of arguments for himself. I tried listening to it over and over again, but the more I listened, the more I detested the song. What to others seemed like a brilliant flow sounded to me no different than “Pale Kid Raps Fast.” It felt more like Eminem compensating for something than genuinely proving his worth as an artist.
The song, which stands at 6 minutes and 4 seconds (only a small fragment of an unnecessarily long album that clocks in at 1 hour and 42 minutes), is masturbatory to the fullest extent of the word. Like, you wouldn’t believe how much self-restraint I’m demonstrating right now but not making a “Fap God” pun. It’s probably not a coincidence that one of album’s previous singles used a sample from Billy Squier’s “The Stroke.” Eminem makes outdated references, name-drops his favorite rappers, and throws out a bevy of stupid jokes. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the divinity in a song which contains the lyric “But if I can’t batter the women / How the fuck am I supposed to make them a cake then?” He may deliver his lyrics without tripping over the syllables, but technical ability a great rapper does not necessarily make.
Plus, the icons Eminem draws from in “Rap God,” among them N.W.A., Run-DMC, J.J. Fad, are hopelessly out-dated, no matter their influence. You see, one of the greatest sins of “Rap God” is not the over-length, not the gibberish, not even the homophobia, but the idea that, in the quarter-century since Ice Cube shot straight outta Compton and was heard round the world, nothing in rap, neither culturally nor musically, had worth until an angry white boy from Detroit vomited his mom’s spaghetti onto a track and called it art. It’s more fuel for kids who’ve already injected themselves with one too many “real rap”-isms. And I mean, seriously? J.J. Fad? No, anonymous RapGenius user, Eminem did not just “out-god Nas, Jay Z, and Kanye.” And no, Eminem, not everyone wants to root for a nuisance.
Unfortunately, the problem with Eminem is that he wants to be the villain. As I learned in Sunday school, a man is naught without his haters, so no matter how many times he shrugs them off, Eminem’s critics are actually his closest allies. I can spit fire as much as I want, but it only makes the flames grow higher. Yet it seems that as much as I acknowledge the incendiary nature of my words, I can’t stop. It’s not merely that I want to hate Eminem, it’s that I have to hate Eminem. Like so many cultural villians, my intense analysis of Eminem only leads me to find a little bit more of myself in him, and that projection draws out my worst self-loathing. Mr. Mathers is like the kid in your middle school class who assumes that everyone’s out to get him just because he isn’t the best at stepping outside of himself and making a few friends. How do I know this? Because I was that kid. Not to say that I wasn’t nice or high-achieving, but I felt shafted by the rest of the world because of my own insecurities. For whatever reason, Eminem seems to have always struggled to reach out to people through his music, even if there are those who have been emotionally affected by it, so he builds a wall of vitriol and childishness to fend off the rest of the world. He slings blame generously, but somehow it lands on everyone but himself. He thinks that the rest of the world hates him when in reality they probably couldn’t care less.
Beyond its weaknesses as an actual song, its lyrical stupidity, and how damn masturbatory it feels, I think I might actually dislike “Rap God” most because it traffics so heavily in blame. Since high school, when I became aware of how ridiculous and unnecessary the anger I carried in middle school was, I’ve tried to break those cycles of self-pity, even if I can’t do it successfully. Because of my struggle for self-improvement, I’ve become extremely averse to blame, and even if I do blame myself more than anyone else, I try to let go of that blame whenever I can. Blame is a burden, and “Rap God” carries so much of it that it’s an awfully heavy yoke for the listener to bear. But if Eminem needs us to shoulder that load with him, maybe we should. I didn’t mean to sound so snarky and scornful at the beginning of this piece; those are two mediums I can work in very well but try hard to avoid. They are the remnants of an earlier, more hateful time in my life, when the Eminem in me was alive and well, and they probably did nothing but turn off a good number of readers who could have benefited from this last bit. The walls that I constructed around myself at that time in my life- and that Eminem still builds to this day- didn’t make me more despised by the ones I thought were out to get me, and even if they did, that despise didn’t make me feel cooler or more secure in my personhood. It just made me hate myself more. As one of the greatest men in American letters, Roger Ebert, once wrote, “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.” The cosmos have not united to destroy you, Eminem. They probably don’t even know you exist. So maybe Eminem’s not a god. Maybe he’s just a man who’s out to get himself.