Marshall Mathers became a megastar by partly tapping into the same disaffected white rage later mobilised by the ‘alt-right’. But the rapper has made it clear he doesn’t want to share fans with the president. With a new album out soon, can he prosper in an age of conscious protest?
October’s 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards were a big night for Cardi B, DJ Khaled and Kendrick Lamar. Between them, they more or less swept the board: Cardi B took home five gongs, Khaled and Kendrick three each. But the night’s big story, at least as far as most news outlets were concerned, was The Storm, a “cypher” freestyle filmed specially for the event by Eminem: four minutes of beatless invective aimed at Donald Trump that variously took in immigration, corruption, gun control, white supremacy and the NFL controversy, rapturously received by everyone from J Cole to Snoop Dogg.
It’s a long time since Eminem has garnered those kinds of headlines. He has never stopped shifting millions of albums – 2009’s Relapse and 2010’s Recovery are among the biggest-selling albums of the century so far – and he’s still a big enough star to pull in special guests such as Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran for his latest album, Revival, out next week. Sales aside, his position as a kind of cultural locus – an artist who, in 2002 alone, was apparently discussed 153 times in the pages of the New York Times – has long since faded, perhaps to his relief. And yet, here he was again, the night’s biggest story, being debated everywhere from Fox News to Fortune magazine.
You can see why some commentators looked askance at a white artist upstaging hip-hop’s biggest current stars, but the Eminem of The Storm sounded like a revitalised figure, as indeed he did on two other recent Trump-baiting tracks, last autumn’s Campaign Speech, and February’s No Favors. The former, a standalone freestyle, is a relentless verbal onslaught that threatens to waterboard Trump’s supporters and enact revenge on the killers of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, while deriding Trump, then just a presidential candidate, as “a fuckin’ loose cannon who’s blunt with one hand on the button, who doesn’t have to answer to no one”.
His guest verse on the latter, a track from rapper Big Sean’s album I Decided, is something else entirely: both a firework display of his technical skills and as wilfully repellent, stomach-churning and unconscionable as anything he came up with in the heyday of his alter ego Slim Shady. In it, he threatens to rape far-right commentator Ann Coulter “with a Klan poster, with a lamp post, door handle, shutter, a damn bolt cutter, a sandal, a can opener, a candle, rubber, piano, a flannel, sucker, some hand soap, butter, a banjo and a manhole cover” before murdering her. It’s unremittingly unpleasant listening, but Eminem sounds more energised than he has in some time: for all the technical wizardry on display in the lyrics of a track like 2013’s Rap God, the sense that he was going through the motions, ticking off each outrage – homophobia, misogyny, violence – was hard to miss. Whatever you make of No Favors, he doesn’t sound like that here.
It’s an intriguing development, not least because Eminem has seldom engaged with politics before, notwithstanding some vague anti-Gulf war statements and cries of “fuck Bush” on 2002’s Square Dance and 2004’s Mosh – easy to miss among the queasy gags and the venting of spleen at virtually everyone who isn’t Eminem. The question hangs heavy: why the author of Just Don’t Give a Fuck and Still Don’t Give a Fuck now suddenly cares so vociferously.
The most prosaic answer is that in Trump, he has encountered a political figure so horrifying he feels impelled to comment. A cynical voice might suggest that Eminem is simply being pragmatic. Hip-hop has changed immeasurably since the years when Eminem’s albums sold 30m copies. He arrived in an era when “jiggy” and “bling” were the genre’s watchwords and socially conscious rap was very much a minority pursuit. Perhaps he’s just cannily refurbishing his approach to fit in with a new era, in which Kendrick Lamar is hip-hop’s defining figure and To Pimp a Butterfly its epochal album, with the No Favors verse introducing the world to the unlovely mindset of a deeply improbable figure: a woke Slim Shady. Or perhaps there’s another, rather more complicated reason behind Eminem’s dexterous venting at Trump.
Revisiting the years of Eminem’s rise and commercial supremacy – from 1999 to 2004 – feels like peering at a distant era, in its own way as remote from and alien to the present as the 1970s or the early 80s seem. There was no social media, no smartphones, no streaming; broadband internet, digital downloads and reality TV were all novelties. The US charts into which Eminem’s My Name Is and The Slim Shady LP crashed in early 1999 were dominated by Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain, Celine Dion and TLC. DMX was hip-hop’s biggest name: Juvenile and Silkk the Shocker were the year’s other big new crossover successes.
But re-reading Anthony Bozza’s authoritative 2004 Eminem biography The Way I Am in 2017 is a slightly disconcerting experience – it’s hard not to be struck by the way Marshall Mathers’ success prefigures the rise of the alt-right. He wasn’t the first commercially successful white rap act, nor among the first white rappers to attain the respect of, and be treated as an artistic equal to, his black peers: that would be the Beastie Boys and MC Serch and Pete Nice of the interracial trio 3rd Bass, respectively. But he was the first white rapper to appeal to an almost exclusively white audience.
The saga of Eminem’s pre-fame days is liberally splashed with stories of him winning over sceptical black audiences at hip-hop clubs and rap battles. “Just give it to the white boy, it’s over,” yelled a crowd member after the first round of 1997’s Rap Olympics in LA. But by the time Bozza joins him at a Staten Island club show after the success of My Name Is, the audience are “predominantly white”. “Where I’m at, if I was to take you to different parts of Oakland, West Oakwood, you’re not going to hear Eminem being played, and you’re not going to hear him being played for a long time,” hip-hop scholar and activist Dave Cook tells me. “To suggest that his album is bumped left and right and people are quoting him day in and day out, at least among black folks from the hood, I don’t see that. I just don’t.”
And the more successful he got, the whiter his audience became, at least partly because that was the audience Eminem courted. A dyed-in-the-wool hip-hop fan, distraught when the era’s predominant hip-hop magazine, The Source, declined to give any of his albums their coveted “five mics” rating, he nevertheless knew on what side his bread was buttered commercially. He faced down bottle-throwing crowds who had come to see Blink-182 and Suicidal Tendencies on the 1999 Warped Vans Tour; the following year, he supported nu-metallers Limp Bizkit on the Anger Management tour. By the time he released his third album, 2002’s 31m-selling The Eminem Show, his sound had become audibly rock-based; largely produced by the rapper himself rather than his mentor Dr Dre, it eschewed syncopated beats in favour of straightforward rock rhythms and samples from Aerosmith’s 70s catalogue.
You don’t sell 31m albums without having widespread appeal, but Bozza – by no stretch of the imagination one of Eminem’s naysayers – keeps highlighting one group at the core of Eminem’s audience: “The angry white young misanthrope who feels marginalised by society and feminised by feminism and who rejoices in the freedom of his uselessness … with a sense of aggrievement that is out of proportion to reality … The new paradigm of the young American male – opinionated, untrusting of women and any authority but his own, and very, very angry.” He suggests that Eminem’s initial success came at a time of economic downturn and growing scepticism in the US about government – in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal – and authority generally, following the OJ Simpson trials. For those who, in Bozza’s words, “found nothing but lies on the evening news”, Eminem’s appeal lay partially in the fact that – at least when he was in character as Slim Shady – he represented someone not bound by the regular rules, an image bolstered by the recurring skits on his albums in which wiser heads attempt to convince him that he has gone too far and should rein himself in.
It was a state of affairs compounded by the fact that his first flush of fame was punctuated by 9/11, which changed the nation’s character further. “The violence and hate in Eminem’s music … is the soundtrack of our times,” says Bozza. “America is angry, poor, out of work, misunderstood and gunning for revenge, a country which has had it up to here and is ready to flush reason and act rashly.” Certainly, by the time of 2002’s White America, Eminem was fantasising about leading a kind of disaffected populist revolution – “like a fuckin’ army marching in back of me … so much anger aimed in no particular direction, just sprays and sprays” – against the government: “The ringleaders of this circus of worthless pawns/Sent to lead the march up to the steps of Congress and piss on the lawns of the White House.”
You don’t have to be a genius to work out the parallels between the Eminem audience Bozza describes and the kind of Pepe-touting 4chan warriors and “isolated man-boy” Gamergaters the alt-right has mobilised. Or between Slim Shady – the “monster freak who knew only how to say and do what no one was supposed to,” as Bozza writes – and Milo Yiannopoulos or even Trump. When considering the latter comparison, it’s perhaps worth noting that, for someone who delighted in giving offence while in Slim Shady character, Eminem also seemed remarkably prickly and easily hurt, given to going on the attack at the slightest criticism, filling 2000’s The Marshall Mathers Album with splenetic blame-shifting and self-justification.
It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that Eminem’s vast success in the late 90s and early 00s was predicated on tapping into precisely the kind of disaffected white rage that Trump and the alt-right later did. Indeed, some people would go further. Back in 2004, one of Eminem’s most vociferous detractors was Richard Goldstein, then executive editor of the Village Voice, a man who opined that Eminem was not an anarchic anti-authoritarian or a gleeful agent of chaos, but a reinforcer of a grim conservatism – “gay liberation and women’s liberation threaten the hierarchy of male dominance … a hierarchy that figures like Eminem stand for, which is heterosexual males, with white males at the top”. He worried about the effects of the rapper’s success, about what happened next to the people who took the Slim Shady character at face value, as a hero. “From a social perspective this is really dangerous,” he said, “because when a generation grows up under these values, they become normal.”
And perhaps that’s what’s at the root of Eminem’s politicisation and artistic renaissance. Did he merely mirror – or, with the ridiculous Slim Shady, even satirise – the rise of the angry white man, or did he help drive it? Either way, he’s the hip-hop figurehead most likely to have ardent Trump supporters and alt-right wingnuts among his audience. Maybe that’s what the verse in Big Sean’s No Favors is about: an attempt to retool the cartoon violence and misogyny that lured some of his fans to him in the first place, and use it as a weapon against the far right. With the best will in the world, this seems like a risky strategy: you can imagine conservative commentators rubbing their hands with delight at a hip-hop track that advocates horrific murder in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But if it doesn’t work, there’s always the more direct approach, as evidenced at the end of The Storm. “And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his/I’m drawing in the sand a line/You’re either for or against, and if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split on who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this: fuck you.”
Revival by Eminem is out on December 15