On Eminem, Who Is No Longer A Good Rapper
Recently, sporting events on TV have occasionally been running ads for Sing 2, an animated movie that appears to be a musical where anthropomorphic animals sing popular songs from the human world. I was not familiar with this concept; I was entirely unaware, in fact, that there was a Sing 1. (No, I do not have children; that’s crazy, how did you guess?)
Normally, I would find these ads entirely unremarkable. I’ve been content to remain out-of-touch enough to let entire media franchises slightly outside my everyday purview pass me by; I remember being mildly shocked going to a theater and seeing the trailer for Hotel Transylvania 3, which assumed I was familiar enough with the lore of its universe to hang its plot hooks on breaking its own established, goofy conventions. I was supposed to be surprised by “wait, Dracula can fall in LOVE?”; instead, I sat there wondering how two entire movies had been released, presumably garnered an audience of millions of people who speak my native language, and managed to register nary a blip on my personal cultural radar. I had to have seen a trailer, or a poster, or a 3D vampire smiling at me from a supermarket endcap on Halloween or something — right? Right?
I probably had! Statistically speaking, at least, this was the likely outcome. I suspect, however, that I simply had not paid attention, because these were movies for kids, whose marketing was designed to catch the attention of kids — maybe parents — but, crucially, not random young adults whose sphere of influence did not happen to intersect with that of any children. I doubt that I could go back, watch a trailer for Hotel Transylvania 1, and say “yes, this is designed to directly appeal to me, an unaffiliated, twentysomething-year-old viewer; this is my trailer! It was meant for me! DRR DRR DRR.”
This brings me to Sing 2, whose trailer caught my eye because it contains a scene where ducklings sing a passage from Eminem’s “My Name Is.”
The logical implications of this are somewhat staggering. I can’t imagine many current-day kids, in the age range to which this movie primarily appeals, are familiar with this song. Conversely, this made me realize that — being a person who does know “My Name Is” — the reason I have been caught in the crosshairs of this marketing is that there are a significant (and growing) number of parents who absolutely are familiar with this song, to which my reaction is: ignore ignore I’m not old why would you say that please stop. The actual startling insinuation, however, is that these ducklings are — in a family-friendly movie! — about to perform “My Name Is.”
There is, of course, no way that this happens; I guarantee, without looking, that this scene does not progress past a performance of the chorus. Let me back up a little, and contextualize: when I say I know “My Name Is,” I mean that I have actually memorized the lyrics to this song, by heart, and can recite them impromptu. (I am well aware that this makes me super white, but that’s beside the point.) These lyrics are, as with many early Eminem songs, infamously rooted in shock value. There are multiple different re-recordings of this song where Eminem, for one reason or another, has been made to rework certain passages for being too offensive; some revisions happened before the song was even released, as the beat’s original artist, Labi Siffre, refused to clear the sample until several homophobic lyrics were removed. This always struck me as somewhat of a pearl-clutching move, which is not to say that Siffre was wrong — these lyrics (which still exist on some non-album released versions of the song) are absolutely homophobic and offensive. However: the entire song is offensive! There is almost no part of this song that isn’t offensive. If you are unfamiliar, I present you with a SparkNotes play-by-play of the events of the original version of “My Name Is”:
Chorus. Eminem talks to children about self-mutilation; Eminem talks to children about doing drugs; Eminem wants to have sex with the Spice Girls; Eminem is on drugs, and drunk; Eminem committed suicide; Eminem assaults Pamela Anderson; Eminem does drugs; Eminem propositions another man’s girlfriend; chorus. Eminem got sexually assaulted by a male teacher, evading the assault by mutilating his assailant’s scrotum; Eminem exposes himself at a strip club; Eminem murders bystanders and rapes lesbians; Eminem and his mom do drugs; Eminem wants to memorialize his mom’s drug use by making a song about it; Eminem realizes that he is a famous rapper; Eminem signs an autograph with a personalized insult for a fan (editor’s note: these last two are easily the tamest part of the song, and let’s be real, the fan definitely appreciated that autograph); chorus. Eminem suggests that he should be institutionalized and/or forcibly sentenced to death; Eminem is drunk, and wants to drive drunk; Eminem is a chronic masturbator; Eminem is a sex addict; Eminem reveals that, growing up, he could not breastfeed; Eminem talks about committing suicide; Eminem, in a dream, murders his dad; chorus.
And now, hopefully, you are aware why there is a zero percent chance that any of this song made it into Sing 2. Nearly every line would have necessitated a rework, and while I would have been fascinated to see what sort of Ship of Theseus Kidz-Bop-ified redressed abomination could fly in a kids’ movie, that seems like it would’ve required effort above the bar of originality present in a work where the main concept is “animals sing glorified pop music karaoke.” However, what’s interesting about all this is the following: consider, in the abstract, the situation I have outlined so far. An incredibly offensive song from 1998 is enough of a cultural touchstone to appear, 23 years after its release, in a trailer for a kids’ movie. Why?
Well, for starters, it’s still catchy, but also — most importantly — it was original, and well-written (for what it was). The pop-culture drive-bys are very dated, and it’s a reasonable too-long-for-this-post debate as to the inherit merits of shock-value content itself, but as far as rhyme scheme, assonance, lyrical construction, and other things that you would only explicitly talk about if you were trying to be pretentious and write about music on the Internet — it holds up! Multisyllabic patterns snake through the written lines — not simple A/B/A/B, more like A/B/A/A/B/C/C/A/B/C, spinning off indefinitely. Nothing takes you out of the experience of listening to the song; it constructs imagery, uses narrative voice, and paints an effective picture of what Eminem wants you to envision, which happens to be a bunch of juvenile garbage. In 1998, Eminem was a technically gifted writer who made songs that stood the test of time, despite their subject matter suggesting that they had no business doing so, which brings me to the main point of this post:
In 2022, Eminem is a technically gifted writer who makes unlistenable trash.
“Whoa, now, back up,” you say. “That’s a little harsh. Music is subjective, and ‘unlistenable trash’ is a particularly negative descriptor. You’re just overreacting for the sake of generating content!” — to which I, having bestowed you with these counterarguments that are more reasonable than those afforded to your average strawman, look down and whisper, “no.” It is, in fact, that bad. In the last several years, I have been repeatedly suckered into the following process: I see an Eminem song (or a feature). I listen, because for the better part of two decades, Eminem was a rapper’s rapper, delivering memorable, complex, scene-stealing verses even on underground songs by no-names; for nearly all of my formative years, “feat. Eminem” might as well have been the Rapper Seal of Quality. I reach Eminem’s part, and lo and behold, the song is immediately ruined. It’s not the writing, or the performance; the technical patterns in his rhymes still exist, and while his flow is definitely different than that of his younger self, it’s debatable as to whether that’s a change for the worse. Instead, the cardinal sin is his content, which has been replaced by maybe the only thing worse than violently offensive provocation: triteness.
There is not enough space in this blog post to cover how often Eminem’s current-day lyrics do not pass the bar of originality; nearly every song released within the last five or six years fails. Here is a popular YouTube music critic reading cringeworthy Eminem lyrics for four minutes straight. Here is the opening to his 2017 BET Freestyle, which has wormed its way so far into my head that I cannot make my morning coffee without lamenting my inability to attack Donald Trump with the liquid-bearing vessel in my hands. You could argue that this is a pastiche of bad freestyle lines, a device Eminem employed at the beginning of his 2011 BET Freestyle, sending up the “lyrical miracle” rapper before launching into his actual verse; it’s unclear whether this is the case, considering the 2017 line is followed by baby’s first political rap song, whose actual making-a-point metaphors are no better integrated than the inclusion of a coffee pot out of nowhere. (What better way to say Donald Trump is a racist than to reference The Thing from Fantastic Four? That’s relevant to racism, right?) I do not give him the benefit of the doubt, because his actual lines — the ones where, yes, this is the thing Eminem, as a Lyrical Rapper, wrote down and wishes to say in this song — are this atrocious.
I can continue! Consider, for example, the song “The Adventures of Moon Man and Slim Shady,” a collaboration with Kid Cudi that felt dated immediately upon its release. Eminem spends most of his verse on this song talking about how good he is at rapping. Technically, he is good at rapping — that rhyme scheme tho, 100 emoji — but the lyrics themselves are an incoherent mess. Eminem insults Drew Brees, a sentiment that was relevant for roughly the two week period around the time this song was released (Drew Brees had recently said something stupid), and no further (Drew Brees apologized, and everyone moved on with life). Admittedly subjectively, this current-event line already feels more dated than a 1998 celebrity callout; Pamela Anderson was in the collective pop culture consciousness for much longer than two weeks! Concepts in this song are forced: Eminem is so inhuman (because of his rapping ability) that, in order not to reveal his alien nature, he, uhh, has to use a bathroom, and vacuum, because those are things that humans do, but — more relevantly — because those are things that happen to rhyme with the “hum” part of “human.” There are COVID references; there are mentions of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. The intent of these is to show that Eminem is a good rapper who can rap intelligently about Relevant Issues; he does so with the narrative and emotional depth of a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a spinning roulette wheel full of Relevant Issues. Eight bars about COVID, capped with a “casket/coughing” double meaning — do you get it? because, like, coughing? coffin? — is enough to move on: we did it, we rapped about the disease. Time to tackle racial injustice!
Aside from these forced patterns at the meta-concept and rhyme levels, the structure of Eminem’s lines themselves is strained — not in the good, PaRappa “u rappin’ COOL” way, but in the ear-grating way where it’s obviously done to check a box (in this case, fit a rhyme scheme). This is a cardinal sin usually committed by bad rappers, who obsess over multisyllabic rhymes as the be-all end-all of rapping ability (spoiler: they are not!). If this is a little confusing, let me explain: good rappers usually say things in ways that people normally express them, rather than twisting recognizable phrases into near-nonsense simply to fit the patterns of their songs. Modern-day Eminem, conversely, does not do this. It’s quite hard to describe in the abstract what falls below this smell-test bar of “a normal linguistic pattern that doesn’t immediately make you cringe at its inherent shoehorning,” so here are some examples:
From “Moon Man and Slim Shady”: “You wish you could score like this/Not even at half court, I’d miss/I’m mouthwash, ’cause if I was on the floor, I’d swish.” The first line is fine; the third line is a forced metaphor (fluoride/swish/mouthwash), which sounds good until you realize there is zero depth to it — sure, I guess you’re mouthwash, that’s definitely a boast one would make in the absence of the rest of this painfully conjunctive wordplay. The second line, though, is the culprit: “Not even at half court, I’d miss.” That is not how you say that! These words are jarringly out of order in a blatant attempt to continue a particular rhyme pattern; there is no artistic purpose to their mis-ordering, other than Eminem being unable to find a naturally expressed concept that fit within this scheme. This is bad, and lazy, writing. The fact that this is done in service of a stupid punchline (again: mouthwash!) tilts me off the face of the planet, but I soldier on:
From “The Storm,” the aforementioned 2017 BET freestyle: “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.” The expression is “a line in the sand.” If I Google “in the sand a line” the only results I get are for this lyric. Why? Because nobody says “in the sand a line!” It is clever to take the existing expression “a line in the sand” and rhyme it with things; “supply and demand”, “I understand”, etc, etc. It is apathetic to have two existing phrases that you wish to logically connect and Frankenstein-reconstruct a third phrase because you fail to come up with anything that fits in between. I’m drawing a line in the sand: Don’t do this! If you do, I can’t believe your mind is that bland; if I’m in command, your hide will be tanned.
I haven’t even covered the thing that inspired me to make this post in the first place, which was the release of “Gospel,” an Eminem-featuring track off the Grand Theft Auto V DLC released in December. Eminem’s verse on this song is thankfully relatively light on the aforementioned strained syntax, but unfortunately heavy on the also-aforementioned simplistic wordplay. Eminem claims he and Dr. Dre are “like dog hair” because they’re “in [their] lab coats like retrievers,” which is certainly a simile with a double meaning. Unfortunately, the object of comparison is nonsensical — I don’t know about you, but when I want to describe how great I am, I talk about all the ways I can be likened to dog hair. Continuing this trend, Eminem is “badder than cake mix,” which seems like a low bar, as far as menacing objects go, but definitely also has a second meaning, qualifying it for Lyrical Rapper Wordplay. There’s also a “serial kill/Kellogg’s” punchline; I went as a “cereal killer” for Halloween in third grade, making this quite literally elementary school-tier inventiveness. Speaking of “tier,” Eminem also states in this song that he is “on another tier like a tear duct’s upper echelon,” which is, in fact, a location that would positionally differentiate tears; additionally, just for clarification, “tear” is indeed a word that is a homophone of “tier.” I want to tier my eardrums out.
If I had to put my finger on it, though, I suppose I’m most bothered not necessarily by the fact that these songs (and lyrics) exist, but rather by their reception. In a way, I don’t really fault Eminem; creativity is hard. Imagine the world asking you to be inventive for nearly 30 years running; you’d probably also run out of things to say (or tire of putting forth full effort in saying them), and hope that you could Jedi-mind-trick your way to having people believe your fallback substitutions for relevant content were acceptable. Ideally, you would get called out on this immediately, and do some soul-searching before jumping back into your creative field — either “darn, they got me, guess I actually have to try,” or “nah, I’m good, guess I really don’t have anything to say now.” Instead, somehow, this replacement of good writing with surface-level metaphors and played-out similes has actually worked. Comment sections on these tracks, on Reddit and YouTube, talk about Eminem in reverent tones: “GOAT,” “legendary,” etc. The songs are “dope” or “fire.”
I submit that: these songs are not fire! They are a dumpster fire. Eminem’s modern-day lyrical content is not interestingly or uniquely bad in a way that provides inspiration, other than for writing long blog posts dunking on it; it is hackneyed, surface-level tripe. He continues to produce it because we continue to support it, collectively allowing it to exist; please don’t! My opinions here are not altogether unpopular, but the fact that many listeners clearly feel otherwise is worrisome; if these songs weren’t published under a brand name with the credence of multiple decades’ worth of inventive, clever writing under its belt, they would gain no traction. I say these things not as a hater, but as a fan, who even has the underground shit that he did with Skam; I know he is capable of doing better. None of these songs have enough merit to bait the kids of 20 years from now into Googling the duckling song from the movie with the funny singing animals; we should hold him to a higher standard. In this spirit of Eminem’s own content, it’s fitting to bring this post full circle to animated movies: like returning to a cartoon, he should go back to the drawing board.