Eminem at 40: Is the rapper still relevant as an artist?
Who would believe that the boy christened Marshall Bruce Mathers III but who will forever be known as Eminem, has turned 40?
What an impact he’s made in his life so far. The enfant terrible of the early Noughties, the first rapper to embrace and commercialise his whiteness to the full, he has become not only an unforgettable part of the hip hop narrative, but also an indelible presence in popular culture.
Let us begin with his legacy as a rapper. Eminem’s rapping style, an intense, unhappy whine, delivered in complex, rapid-fire form, places him amongst hip hop’s greats. It’s a sound grounded not only in his experience on the battle rap circuit of the Nineties (popularised in 8 Mile) but also in Marshall’s studious reverence for rap’s greats. Everyone said his first album, Infinite, sounded like AZ or Nas, and it did. Em was a great hip hop listener as a youngster and he became a great rapper once he realised that he had to tell his own story, perfect his own persona.
Yet the form in which Eminem tells his story, or Slim’s story, is rooted in irreverence. If, on the one hand, he’s never been scared to put the most painful aspects of his private life into the public sphere, then on the other, he’s never stopped at himself. His lyrics, often comic, but frequently offensive, drag presidents, celebrities, gay people and women into his imagination, where they can be mercilessly attacked, physically and verbally. As a result, controversy has followed him around for around 25 of his 40 years.
Does it tell us something about ourselves that we’ve bought and bought and bought, despite the controversy – and often because of it? Is Eminem proof that a good story shouldn’t have to please the palate, as long as it fills the stomach? In his case, success had always reflected a marriage of talent and fearlessness, shock tactics he backs up with sheer force of personality.
That personality, so outwardly weird and angry, has been behind five triple platinum albums, three of which were hip hop classics. The agonies of failed relationships, infant daughters exposed to the world, and friends lost to it, are all parts of this character. Like any great pop artist, Eminem’s story is both unique and instantly relatable.
Like many others, it is often tragedy in modern musical form. Who else has been so contorted in the public view and so universally successful? The same things which make Eminem arguably the most recognisable rapper on the planet, the Elvis of the Facebook generation, have in recent years driven him into precipitous retreat, sleeping pills and relapse. His has a more uncomfortable self-consciousness than the one Kanye West gave us, a more mysterious battle with fame than Britney’s, and like a truly twisted tabloid story, it carries on selling.
This leads me to ask: is Eminem still relevant as an artist or only as a human being? His work with super-group Slaughterhouse and long-term associate Royce da 5’9’’ certainly can’t be knocked, and he himself doesn’t seem that bothered about full retirement. Rap has become so inextricably linked to his personality that he said, “Ima rap ‘till I’m fossil fuel” in last year’s brilliant Shady 2.0 Cypher, and in August he announced that another solo album is on its way. His music is a massive influence on that rabble of punks who call themselves Odd Future, and it hangs over the head of every aspiring white rapper.
All-in-all, I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another Slim Shady LP or Marshall Mathers LP, but I think it would be wrong to write off one of this century’s most fascinating living artists.
Happy birthday Marshall.Tagged in: 8 Mile, eminem, hip hop, Kayne West, marshall mathers, Nas, Odd Future, rapper, rapping
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