On Homophobia, Parody, Censorship, and Lyrical Retrospect in Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2

eminem-marshall-mathers-lp-2-tracklist

Eminem returns, or rather, Marshall Mathers, the madcap rap genius (who’s beginning “to feel a little bit like a rap god” (“Rap God”)) is back. Much about the content and soundscape has been, and will continue to be said about The Marshal Mather LP 2 (MMLP2) over the coming weeks—years even—and so I offer remarks in regards to the album’s overt and deliberate homophobia, as well as Eminem’s use of parody, and his lyrical prowess. I’ve listened to every album Eminem has put out, including the pre-Dre Infinite (1996), usually in the hopes he will be able to capture the gusto of his phantasmagorical mainstream debut, The Slim Shady LP (1999), and the even more extraordinary follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000). There is no album more influential on New Millennium Rap (2000—) than MMLP and its follow-up The Eminem Show. And there is no rapper more popular and notorious in that same period than Eminem: full stop. Like Rakim, GZA, Big Pun, The Notorious B.I.G, AZ, and Nas before him, Eminem uses polysyllable rhymes to create complex periodic sentences that delay thought for dramatic effect, thus resolving rhymes tendency towards obsolescence. The fact remains that Eminem has often done this better than his predecessors, and certainly with more shock value. Through the horrorcore persona and verbose lyricism of the Slim Shady persona on the MMLP, Eminem was able, as Stephen Thomas Erlwine writes, to “[blur] the distinction between reality and fiction, humor and horror, satire and documentary.” And yet, despite Eminem’s skill as an incredible word technician, we haven’t seen much new subject material from Eminem since The Eminem Show, as MMLP2 circles back to his common tropes, including homophobic insults.

Eminem’s indignant resolve has always been to stir the pot of controversy. As Eminem explained early on in his career, many of his songs are written from his alter ego, Slim Shady, and the cartoonish depictions of violence are “made-up tales of trailer-park stuff” (Lisa Verrico, “Bite me,” The Times). Further, Eminem has stated that his music and subject matter is entertainment, comparing his music to the horror film genre: “Why can’t people see that records can be like movies? The only difference between some of my raps and movies is that they aren’t on a screen” (“No Shame”). After all, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. contends, “censorship is to art as lynching is to justice” (The Anthology of Rap xxv). Art is (almost) always representation: there’s a difference between rap lyrics and the hate speech of the Westboro Baptist Church. While homophobic insults in Eminem’s music are used as disses (although it’s disrespectful), hip-hop verbiage remains a multifarious part of the music, imbedded within a tradition of signifying and parody, and parody is one of the most venerated forms in art. Further, Eminem’s parodies are often incredibly self-aware, as in the epic album opener “Bad Guy,” written as a revenge fantasy from the perspective of Matthew, the younger brother of the fan Stan, who calls Eminem out for his hypocritical perversions (articulated through a complex use of free discourse speech):

I also represent anyone on the receiving end of those jokes you invent
[…]
I’m the bullies you hate, that you became
With every faggot you slaughtered
Coming back on you, every woman you insult
That, with the double-standards you have when it comes to your daughters.

Does Eminem’s conscious (and self-aware) choice to use homophobic language draw attention to the problematics of such language, perhaps hinting at a deeper-rooted problem in society? Or, is Eminem just lampooning homophobic slurs in a crass attempt at shocking entertainment? What purpose might Eminem’s calculated offenses serve? Of course, misogyny and homophobia often mar the enjoyment of mainstream hip-hop music, and even though such traditions go back to toasts and The Dozens (a game common in African American communities of spoken word combat between two contestants, where participants insult each other until one gives up), these signifying strategies are hardly absolute. The vehement reactions to much of rap’s sexism, misogyny and homophobia, deny the vast existence of accepted sexist social practices that endue the male gender role, especially since such heterosexual, heteronormative, and misogynistic behaviors are often propagated by the media as acceptable.

Too often music, particularly rap music, becomes the scapegoat that diverts attention from larger issues of heterosexual masculinity—simply read the message boards on YouTube to find how prevalently “faggot,” “queer,” or “gay” are used as slurs to anomalously demonize others online. To lambast rap music, or a single artist, as the problem is to evade the larger social issues of sexism and misogyny that pervade North American culture. Further, we must remember that hip-hop has formulated its own critiques of sexism, misogyny, and violence. Despite this, Eminem is aware that his use of homophobic language—the current media topic of censure—will draw offense, which it did, overshadowing his incredibly violent tales of murder, such as his repurposing (from the song “I’m Back” off the first MMLP) of the once censured (in radio play) reference to the Columbine massacre:

So I crunch rhymes
But sometimes when you combine
Appeal with the skin color of mine
You get too big and here it comes trying to
Censor you like that one line I said
On ‘I’m Back’ from the Mathers LP
One where I tried to say I take seven kids from Columbine
Put ‘em all in a line
Add an AK-47, a revolver and a nine
See if I get away with it now. (“Rap God”)

It seems that he has gotten away with it, as a plenitude of critiques (such as from Boy George) of “Rap God” dealt with the songs bastion of homophobic slurs, more so than with Eminem’s over the top violent—albeit often anti-bully (such as on “Legacy” and “Brainless”)—depictions, which include graphic violence towards women, recalling songs like “Kill You,” “Who Knew,” “I’m Back,” and “Criminal” from the first Mathers LP: “Yeah I’m rich as a bitch, but bitches ain’t shit / I’d rather leave a bitch in a ditch” (“So Much Better”). In a kind of horrorcore homage, Eminem hyperbolically reminds his listeners of the violent parodies on the first Mathers LP, a morbid lyrical defense of free speech, as he did in “Who Knew,” back in 2000: “I’m sorry, there must be a mix-up / You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked? / [ewwww] Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts / Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up / Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor / Quit tryin to censor music, this is for your kid’s amusement / [The kids!] But don’t blame me when lil’ Eric jumps off of the terrace / You shoulda been watchin him, apparently you ain’t parents.” The role of the performed villain is echoed on MMLP2 with a heavy dose of self-aggrandizement and self-awareness:

I came to the world at a time when it was in need of a villain
An asshole, that role I think I succeed in fulfilling
[…]
If anyone ever talks to one of my little girls like this I would kill him
Guess I’m a little bit of a hypocrite
[…]
dry up your teardrops I’m here
White America’s mirror […] You shouldn’t be as shocked, because everybody knows. (“Asshole”)

There was a time when Eminem played the antihero impeccably, although 13 years later it is starting to feel that the Slim Shady alter ego has overstayed his welcome. Nonetheless, Eminem remains a textbook study in persona, as he dually denies and acknowledges his psychosis: “And no I don’t need no goddamn psychologist / Tryna diagnose why I have all these underlying problems” (“Legacy”). Eminem’s alter egos are linguistic acts of transformation, as we try to figure out where Slim Shady steps in, where Eminem returns, and where the actual Marshall Mathers might mediate between the two.

Sadly, Eminem’s public defenses of his homophobic lyrics have been rather passive, which contrasts with his open support for the LGBT community—including his Grammy performance with Elton John on “Stan”—and his recent statement to Rolling Stone that “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” (Rolling Stone). Eminem’s open support for the gay community doesn’t divert our need to continually criticize artists for their use of homophobic slurs, and it reminds us how much has changed in the 13 years since the first MMLP was released. Even if Eminem hasn’t moved away from using homophobic language on MMLP2, a larger portion of hip-hop certainly has, announced last year with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ polemical pro same-sex anthem and powerfully charged music video, “Same Love.” Even Pope Francis recently said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” (New York Times). Openly gay MCs in hip-hop’s underground (Medusa, Deep Dickollective) have hardly made it to the mainstream, but we live in a time where homophobic language—often used so uncritically by Eminem— just feels outdated.

In fact, I’ve felt that Eminem has sounded a little outdated ever since The Eminem Show, a fact of his continued juvenilia, which he jokes about on the track “So far”: “But I blew, never turned back / Turned 40 and still sag / Teenagers act more fucking mature, Jack.” Criticism aside, Eminem continues to provide some incredibly vivid illustrations and macabre tales, even though the 41-year-old Eminem (his daughter Hailie was recently crowned homecoming queen of her high school) continues to tell fart jokes, make fun of gay people, and play the villain. With an attuned self-awareness of the role he once played, and still plays for many aggrieved youths, Eminem raps about how he is trapped in his own wicked imagery, like some kind of hip-hop Dorian Gray: “Trying to recapture that lightning trapped in a bottle / Twice the magic that started it all / Tragic portrait of an artist tortured / Trapped in his own drawings” (“Bad Guy”). Sonically MMLP2 is Eminem’s strongest album since The Eminem Show. Lyrically, the album is very dense, and verbally and technically Eminem is as proficient as ever with an alchemical control of language (like Yoda, who he parodically inflects in “Rhyme or Reason”).

More so than the singles (including the somewhat boring 80s influenced “Berzerk,” or the Rihanna collab on “Monster”), there are standout tracks, and some surprises on the album as well, such as the interesting flip by Rick Rubin of The Zombies’s “Time of the Season” on “Rhyme or Reason,” the hard-hitting “Survival,” the sprawling epic “Bad Guy,” and another Rick Rubin produced track, “So Far,” which speeds up the guitar riff on Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” The biggest bombshell on the album is the open apology and plea for a united, albeit dysfunctional, union with his mother and family on “Headlights”: the same mother he once publicly tore to pieces in “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” Often MMLP2 feels quite disjointed, while at other times it feels like Eminem’s jocular material is firing on all cylinders. Unlike Relapse and Recovery, which were about Marshall Mathers fighting addiction and enjoying soberness, MMLP2 showcases Eminem rapping (faster than ever) with more incendiary and viciously vivacious lyrics than he has rhymed in ten years. It’s too bad the album is often tarnished by a salvo of homophobic language and misogyny. But without such calculated offensives—insert dramatic pause here—could it be a proper sequel to one of the most controversial and rabble-rousing albums of all time? While Eminem and his evil twin, Slim Shady, might no longer be needed, there’s something to be said about remaining headstrong in the age of censorship: “Even if it is Charles Manson who just happens to be rapping” (“Rhyme or Reason”). I disagree with much of how Eminem continues to say what he says, and despite my better nature/character, for better or worse, for the time being, I will continue to “stay tuned and keep [my] ears glued to the stereo” (“Renegade”).

images-4images-4images-4 record 1:2(3.5 spins out of 5)

Advertisements