In 2016, Eminem is making the worst music of his career. His shtick is getting less convincing by the bar. His latest release, “Campaign Speech,” is a painfully long reminder that Eminem is not learning any new tricks – he’s just going to do the old ones with none of the flare. Since Recovery, he’s been selling a character that is not a drug-addled young man made crazy by rage and circumstance, but an enlightened, rehabilitated, sober dad. But he really only leans on this new persona just enough to get away with more or less executing a poor emulation of the days when he was making great music. Socially, his lyrics are as problematic as ever. It’s unfortunate, but years past his prime, Eminem’s attempts at provocation ring only as hollow and crass.
“Campaign Speech” follows the same unhappy trends we saw with MMLP2. The amount of rhymes per bar is fails to distract from the complete lack of lyrical content. He isn’t spitting dense non-sequiturs that are fun to listen to and rewarding to take apart. They’re the opposite. Eminem’s once venomous bite is now a bombastic bark. The homophobia/misogyny on The Eminem Show and Marshall Mathers LP was fueled by a frantic compulsion that often made you wonder if Eminem was motivated to cover something up. Now it feels like a product of laziness.
For the man who once spent entire songs mocking pop stars, the two biggest songs in the later stages of his career have been thanks to Rihanna. His sinister sound is diluted now that he’s working with some of the most recognizable producers in town: Alex da Kid, Jeff Bhasker, Jim Johnson. For Christ sake, the man’s most recent album ending with him apologizing to his mother, on a collaboration with the lead singer of Fun. Since he’s eschewed much of what made him the man he was at his peak, his unchanged lyrical content feels hollow. Why do all that and not move away from the misogyny and homophobia? Even if you weren’t offending anyone, don’t you feel bored and inauthentic?
Without the cover of youth and drugs and an audience that was in a very different place socially, Eminem’s dependence on his old bits screams inauthenticity. He’s making songs like “Not Afraid,” but other new songs that lean on elements of his old gimmick don’t bring any fresh sense of awareness or angle to the subject matter. It’s been twenty years and the trolling hasn’t advanced at all. On a matter of principle, the Christopher Reeves reference is nearly as offensive as the continued use of “faggot.” The first time he mentioned Reeves was sixteen years ago, on “Marshall Mathers.” He name-drops the now-wheelchair-bound former Superman actor in a meta-bar about Eminem’s own use of shock value. The same content reheated over and over is insulting to anyone paying attention.
Reeves never responded (why would he?) before his death in 2004. Em continued to use the name in songs because it rhymed with a lot of other words. With that logic, he’s not hard up for rhymes at all, and it should be easy to cut out this dumbass trope. In a Paul Rosenberg voicemail, many of which we’ve heard over Em’s career, Paul chastises Em for the rapper’s continued assault on a dead guy. The skit fails because it attempts to use self-awareness as an excuse for laziness. The scenario is a great example of the pattern Eminem will follow for the rest of his career: anything that was at any point titillating will get reused to the point of exhaustion, eventually losing all of it’s power. His unwavering homophobia falls under this same umbrella.
For much of Eminem’s audience, he’s been the in the zeitgeist long enough to be viewed through a certain lens. His misogynistic/homophobic content is looked at the same way people watch horror films. And while Em is still putting up great numbers, every album since his “return” has been a relative critical failure. His buzz is based off his name and his singles and getting those things into Call of Duty trailers—not off his subversive content. This is all to say, in 2016 most of Eminem’s listeners are not going to slip casually into patterns of homophobia because they’re still giving him a pass so say “faggot.” But for another portion of Eminem’s audience, his words must be validating. Every time they hear him say “fag,” it’s one more time they can get away with saying it. Just because most of his listeners hopefully know better, he’s ingraining homophobia deeper into the minds of others—especially because his audience extends far beyond that of any traditional rapper.
Eminem has always associated his career with some of our most recognizable horror figures: Jason Voorhees, Buffalo Bill, Michael Myers. At some point, Em should have recognized why people love Saw but they hate Saw 6. Sure, people wanted to see bigger and better traps, but not at the complete loss of the innovation and cleverness that made the first one so great. If all you’re doing is leaning into the most basic, easiest go-tos you have. Celebrity name-dropping and homophobia are Eminem’s traps. He got so caught up in one-upping the gore that he forgot to write good plot and characters. When unique innovation is how you staked your claim, it makes the lack thereof that much worse later on.
The evidence supporting the fact that Marshall Mathers, the real guy, is not homophobic can indeed be hard to refute. To this day, he remains good friends who Elton John, who asserts that Em is not homophobic. In The Interview, ironically more famous for its controversy than its quality, Em played a fictional version of himself and comes out as gay on a talk show. The man has self-awareness, and that makes the laziness and the tired shtick so much worse. “Campaign Speech” ends with Eminem asking, “Why am I such a dick?” Because when you’ve been a dick professionally for nearly twenty years, while acknowledging that you’re actively engaging in dickish behavior instead of trying to evolve in an interesting manner…you are a dick. And when you’ve lost your edge for innovation, you lose carte blanche, too.
The aforementioned portion of Eminem’s audience, those validated by a modern superstar’s homophobia, is not insignificant. Last Tuesday, America elected a president who ran a major portion of his campaign on hate and fear. He was was openly espoused by the KKK and his running mate has worked for years to harm the LGBT community. In America, entertainment is one of our most powerful tools for change and communication. The things we see and hear every day become ingrained in our lives, sometimes indelibly so. An otherwise talented entertainer’s heedless use of pejoratives is not only undermining the second half of his career, but helping to ingrain latent hate. More than ever we need to do the opposite. Twenty years in, it’s not funny. It’s irresponsible.
Illustration by Eddie Viramontes.