Eminem, in the lead-up to his new album, has released several songs, and one of them is getting the sort of media attention he enjoyed in the early 2000s.
Younger readers may not recall that, years before the dark but sanitized “Love the Way You Lie” and “Not Afraid” iteration of Eminem, the rapper was deeply controversial for violent and homophobic lyrics; he ended up performing with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards in order to quiet some of the criticism. (Not that it mollified the critics entirely; GLAAD protested outside the ceremony.)
In 2013, the nasty lyrics haven’t gone away, but the criticism, though definitely happening, is somewhat more muted. It seems unlikely anyone will take to the streets this time; it’s no longer novel to protest Eminem. Eminem’s (or his label’s) current strategy seems to be pitching different singles at different elements of his fan base. “The Monster” is a relatively tame, radio-friendly collaboration with Rihanna; “Rap God,” on the other hand, is violent and nasty. Eminem wants to break a “table over the back of a couple faggots and crack it in half.”
“You fags think it’s all a game,” he intones.
This isn’t the only time even in recent years that Eminem’s played up his homophobic side; in “Roman’s Revenge,” a 2010 collaboration with Nicki Minaj, he rapped, “All you lil’ faggots can suck it / No homo, but I’ma stick it to ‘em like refrigerator magnets.” But nothing ever quite seems to stick to Eminem; he has produced content so regularly in recent years that his reputation as a reliable hitmaker overshadows the elements of his music that people would rather ignore.
After all, Eminem’s mentality seems in many ways paused in the culture as it existed before a lengthy hiatus; he did not release an album for five years, as he dealt with substance issues between 2004 and 2009. Or perhaps his awareness of the culture stopped earlier, upon Eminem’s rise to fame and his existence within the bubble of celebrity. This is a culture where hacky and often outdated jokes (Eminem makes fun of Britney Spears’ ex-husband Kevin Federline, the musician Kid Rock, and “the ugly Kardashian” on a single song) coexist alongside lyrics threatening gays.
Not that Eminem sees his words doing this; this is precisely what comes of existing both as an integral part of pop culture and entirely removed from life as lived by real people. He gets to define what words mean, as shown by his comments to Rolling Stone on “Rap God”:
I don’t know how to say this without saying it how I’ve said it a million times. But that word, those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin’ or whatever, I never really equated those words …
To actually mean “homosexual”?
Yeah. It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole. So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people. And, not saying it’s wrong or it’s right, but at this point in my career – man, I say so much shit that’s tongue-in-cheek. I poke fun at other people, myself. But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I’m glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves. And I don’t know how else to say this, I still look at myself the same way that I did when I was battling and broke.
“Battling,” here, refers to rap battling, the one-on-one fighting whereby the rapper’s object is to utterly annihilate his opponent using whatever he can. So calling one’s opponent a “fag” is acceptable — because it has no bearing on whether or not the person actually is gay.
But, obviously, using “gay” as equivalent of “a bitch or a punk or asshole” is language that encourages nasty and stereotypical depictions of gay people. Eminem is good enough with words to recognize its effect as such, but not willing to abandon an effective device to get press or not actually as accepting of “gay, straight, transgender” as he claims.
“Rap God” feels like a relic. Its existence may excite the blood for Eminem’s core fan base who’ve been there from the beginning (the rapper’s new album is called “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” an apparent sequel to his 2000 record), but it’s entirely out of place amid mainstream rap, whose practitioners are alternately concerned with outsize consumerism, their evolving understanding of themselves as political actors, or gushy emotion. Though the song’s rollout seemed opportunistic, the Macklemore/Ryan Lewis song “Same Love,” an anthem about equality, isn’t just emblematic of where the culture is right now vis-à-vis gay people; it also pointed out where music is. Eminem’s been grandfathered in, as he’s up to the same tricks he’s been doing throughout this aging century. Younger rapper Azealia Banks’ career momentum entirely halted after her attempt to do the same rhetorical trick Eminem does, redefining “faggot” to mean a weak man.
If Eminem really were a rap god, he’d be producing music that will endure. “Rap God” doesn’t feel like the sort of document that anyone will look back on ruefully as a document of how homophobic 2013 was, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the culture right now. Once the excitement of his new material fades away, will anyone take it seriously as music? The kids who listen to it (those unembarrassed they’re listening to music fundamentally meant for their 30-something uncles who actually remember the year 2000) will likely hear the slurs as something entirely outdated. Those offended by Eminem’s latest slurs should take that outlook immediately and hasten his accelerating transit away from the center of contemporary culture.