Eminem: The Reluctant Rap God
Marshall Mathers has compiled one of Hip Hop's most exalted careers. So why is he still wary of saying he's the greatest?
Eminem sports one of Hip Hop’s most accomplished careers, and he’s just “beginning to feel like a Rap God?”
Over 100 million albums sold, at least three exalted LPs (Slim Shady LP, Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show. Possibly four depending on how you feel about Recovery), unquestionable reverence from fellow rappers, a generation of stylistic Stans flooding the internet spitting Shady aspirations—scores of emcees have adorned themselves GOATs and Gods with a fraction of the Wiki entry. Yet, after 14 years of challenging Rap the noun and the verb, the hook to possibly his most emphatic totem of lyrical godliness dances in intentional doubt? Marshall is beginning to feel like a Rap God? Word?
“So I mean, do I want to feel like that? Maybe sometimes. Again, it goes back to everybody who competitive raps and does this for just purely the sport of it wants to be the best… If you don't want to be the best, then why are you rapping?”
Slim’s cadence and catalog spill the confidence exuded in a quintessential b-boy stance. But there’s something lurking behind his reluctance to raucously overthrow the throne. “Till I Collapse” off his stellar third offering, The Eminem Show for example, resonates over a decade later because of its ferocity and relentless self-awareness. But the song is perhaps most memorable because Em kicks his personal GOAT list—then curiously places himself ninth.
Rap’s Elvis Presley revisits the barbershop fodder again on “Evil Twin” off this week’s Marshall Mathers LP 2. He moves himself higher in the rankings, sure, but still stops short of outright crowning himself King. “Fuck Top 5, bitch / I’m Top 4,” he raps. “And that includes Biggie and Pac, whore / And I got an evil twin so who the fuck you think that third and that fourth spot’s for?”
Here’s what’s dope: Those three “Evil Twin” bars seamlessly link back to his “Till I Collapse” list where “Tupac and Biggie” are named third and fourth, which would mean Em (or Slim) finally claims all-time GOAT-status—a first in his eight-album career.
And Stans world wide web wide rejoice…
Here’s what’s also dope: The allusion works too well in reverse to be haphazard. Heads of a certain era already did the math, but Marshall’s far from gen pop obvious. By ending on a question, the conversation is left open for interpretation. Arguably he’s listing himself after Biggie and Pac. He’s offering an asterisk. He’s intentionally showing restraint.
Since when does Slim Shady show restraint?
There are certain consistencies within any Eminem interview. Regardless of whatever self-inflicted whirlwind shrouds his latest release—since Shady and the other Barcode Gods only leave the chateau when it’s time to sell something—there will always be a section where Slim downshifts in to Supreme Rap Nerd mode.
The truth and the legend are synonymous in this sense. Eminem the crafty battle rapper never left Detroit. He never left the cypher, the Shelter. He’s still uber competitive and constantly thinking of new ways to flip words. He’s developed his own Rap terminology like “internal rhyme schemes” and “compound syllables sound combined” and rattles them off as if he just wrapped a master class in lyricism.
Sweat The Technique: Eminem’s Fascination With Technical Rhyming
In Ice-T’s Art Of Rap, Em explains that what he loves about Rap is “that it feels like puzzles.
“I’m real into the craft, the emceeing,” Mathers continues. “I always think, ‘How can I figure this puzzle out?’ How can I take words and put them at the end of the sentence and put them in between and maybe make some words rhyme between that [rhyme]? Sandwich those words and try to make them rhyme inside of the phrase and then come back outside and try to rhyme with the word that I ended on the snare. I’m kind of real into the technical part of it.”
During Encore’s press run in 2005, Slim Shady coyly pinpoints to XXL that every word on “Toy Soldiers” is "hitting the drumbeat.“ During The Eminem Show press run in 2002, “Rain Man” reveals toVibe his frustrations with his first two LPs:
“On the last album, I hadn’t completely mastered it yet, to sink into the beat. That’s what I don’t like about the [Marshall Mathers LP]—I’d listen, and I’d be like, ‘Why am I so far behind the beat?’ The [Slim Shady LP] was TERRIBLE—like, I was playing catch-up with the beat constantly.”
The same compulsion shows again in the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview. While discussing his approach to MMLP2’s “Legacy,” Mathers states, “That’s one of the things I do to challenge myself. I wanted to try to make a whole song where the rhyming words never changed.”
Shady never runs out of ways to talk about the technical side of emceeing, so it makes sense that he’s yet to stylistically dumb-down for the audience. The mini-games are still too important, there are too many lyrical levels left to unlock. As a result, every new album always seems to come complete with a fresh batch of margin-mauling styles. That’s Eminem’s most resolute “Rap God” quality.
Addiction Cycles: The Marshall Mathers Method
“But my respect is overdue / I’m showing you the flow no one do / Cause I don’t own no diploma from school / I quit / So there’s nothing for me to fall back on / I know no other trade…” – Eminem, “Survival”
Hova The God used to show up with new styles. Now he shows up with new watches.
God’s Son never had that many styles to begin with. Fortunately he spent the bulk of his second decade dabbling in kinda-concept albums.
For better and worse, life moves in that manner. Aspirations change like nickels and quarters. Suddenly Jameson is the old Macallan and your favorite rapper is more inspired by side ventures than emceeing.
“I don’t think he wants to be that kind of businessman,” Slim’s long time manager Paul Rosenberg said to Billboard in 2010. “I think he’s really focused on the creative side. He’s never been someone who’s set out to have a bunch of different companies out there, sort of playing the system. He’s just not that kind of guy.”
8 Mile and a fringe clothing line aside, Eminem’s sights are still maniacally set on lyricism. It’s way past obsession at this point and much more indicative of Marshall Mathers’ most discussed demon: Addiction.
An interesting exchange occurs during Eminem’s 2009 interview on The Jonathan Ross Show. Ross, in his typical flamboyance enquires about rumors that Em “ballooned up” while outside of the spotlight. Mathers—who was one year sober at the time—confirms the rumors and says that the weight gain happened because he was taking pills he “had no business taking.” He then details how he was able to shed pounds:
“I run a lot. I run quite a bit. I get up in the morning [and run]. I was running twice a day for a little while. There was one point where I was running—it was a little too much. It was a little extreme. It was a total of 17 miles [a day]. You kind of go from one addiction to the next and I’m an addict. I’m an extremist—one extreme to the next.”
So here we have an artist who’s possibly the prodigal emcee, revels in extreme lyricism, relentlessly studies the culture while notching more accolades than arguably anyone in the history of the medium.
One who never changed clothes, never stopped rocking stereotypical Rap gear. The fit may have tightened a bit, but it’s still primarily jeans and T-Shirts, just as it was the day we met him.
One who openly admits to being an addict and speaks on his craft in the same manic way he speaks on his other addictions.
Shady’s earned the opportunity to bask in his Rap Godliness; earned the right to two-step on the throne just as every other super emcee in the world’s most competitive genre. He understands this, yet still shows restraint. “Maybe sometimes” he feels like a Rap God?
To paraphrase Em in Rolling Stone: If you’re not ready to own being the best, why even allude to it?
Eminem’s Approach To Being A Cultural Outsider
“I know there was a time where once I / Was the king of the underground but I still rap like I’m on my Pharoahe Monch grind.” – Eminem, “Rap God”
I haven’t seen the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. But I remember watching the Blair Underwood version, Soul Of The Game on HBO when I was 15 years old. There’s a scene in the film where Brooklyn Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey cautions Robinson of the tidal waves of racism awaiting the first player to break baseball’s color barrier.
“Don’t you want someone who’s strong enough to fight back?” Robinson asked, questioning whether he’s the right choice. “I want someone who’s strong enough not to,” Rickey replied, reinforcing the decorum necessary for the success of the historic signing.
Hustling through underground Hip Hop in the Golden Era was cutthroat. Since the Internet wasn’t yet THE INTERNET, aspiring-rappers had to actually go outside to build a fan base, which immediately tested gall, integrity and financial stability. Pay-for-play showcases and expensive studio time and perpetual transportation costs weren’t options. They were the requirement, along with weathering hostile crowds. The culture exploded through pre-Reverse White Flight metropolitan areas where economically and competitively the stakes were higher. Anyone jutting out for the wrong reasons became a target or outcast. It’s a scenario parallel to being the only moreno kid in class in the 1990s: You may never feel quite White or Black enough, but you’re constantly conscious of decorum.
Marshall Mathers handles the N-word and F-word interrogations in completely opposing fashions. Before and after his beef with Benzino, Em’s remained consistent in explaining his refusal to use the words “nigger” and “nigga,” just as he consistently defends his use of the word “faggot.”
Speaking on the comparison in 2004 for example, Slim details the difference between the two derogatory phrases. “If you’re using the word faggot in the way of [name calling], that’s different than a racial slur to me,” he said. “Some people may feel different. Some White kids feel comfortable throwing [nigga] around all day. I don’t. I’m not saying I’ve never used the word in my entire life. But now, I just don’t say it in casual conversation. It doesn’t feel right to come out of my mouth.”
Gay may be the new Black, but in Hip Hop the F-word and the N-word are not interchangeable. One potentially offends; the other is ground for removal. The "Product of Lakim Shabazz" knows the difference because he’s of the difference. Em doesn't dance on "Glee." He dances in Black urban music. He's felt what it’s like to be the pale face gripping the mic. He’s been Mr. Sandman’d off stage, harnessed that outsider’s rage—killed Kim a couple times, cleaned out his closet—and unleashed a music career rarely, if ever, rivaled. And even with all that, restraint on this one point remains. He’s still intentionally pulling the ultimate punchline.
Maybe in Marshall's mind, Hip Hop still isn’t ready for a White Rap God.
“But sometimes / When you combine / Appeal with the skin color of mine / You get too big and hear they come trying / To censor you…See if I get away with it now that I ain’t as big as I once was. But I’m / Morphing into an immortal.” – Eminem, “Rap God”
Justin "The Company Man" Hunte is the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX. He was the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has covered music, politics, and culture for numerous publications. He is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @TheCompanyMan.