MEGA: How To Make Eminem Great Again

MEGA: How To Make Eminem Great Again

For an MC whose big shot came through battle rap, there’s a profound irony in Eminem’s greatest opponent now being himself. Since releasing his great but not-quite-classic fourth LP, ​​The Eminem Show, in 2002, Em’s faced off against his own worst impulses as steadily dented his legacy with awful albums.

When he arrived 25 years ago, he wielded a demented imagination, a prodigious knack for verbal kinesthetics, and the element of surprise to become the biggest musician in the whole world. Seriously, he was so universally acclaimed, they decided to give him a big budget quasi-biopic only about two years into his career. He turned third-grade jokes, lucid autobiography and some white privilege into the best-selling rap catalog of all-time. He out-rapped JAY-Z on his own song. He literally got “stan” added to the dictionary.

But, as they say, even the sun goes down, and all rap legends eventually become washed. That’s where Em’s been for over two decades now, with 2009’s Relapse being the lone exception. His tonal inflections are out of whack, his sensibilities are dated, and his subject matter feels like a much-less-interesting version of topics he discussed 15 years ago. Ostensibly, tracks like 2018’s “The Ringer” scan as defiant jabs at critics, but there’s an underlying vulnerability there: Eminem is genuinely confused about why critics don’t fuck with his music like they used to — especially since, as the #2 debut for his much-derided new single “Houdini” proves, somebody out there is still enjoying his shtick.

As a writer who started rapping and thus became a rap journalist because I saw 8 Mile 20-something years ago, I figured I’d step in and help explain. What’s criticism without constructive feedback? So here it is: MEGA: The definitive guide to Making Eminem Great Again.

1. Stop Trying To Shock Us

Somewhere between the day cynics discovered memes and the year a reality TV star became president, the irony bubble burst for good, and the world was engulfed by a permanent haze of unpredictable yet metronomic nihilism. Mass shootings happened and guns became easier to get. Kanye West went from bashing George Bush to becoming a middle-aged Hitler Youth. The Fresh Prince smacked the shit out of Chris Rock on national TV. The GOP favorite is technically a convicted criminal.

Against this backdrop, Em’s brand of shock value simply doesn’t hit the same. It doesn’t even make contact. At a time when pop culture still pretended to be righteous, Slim Shady emerged as a flurry of irreverent humor and cartoonish obscenities. While some of it didn’t age well, his barbs were especially cutting in a world where Ludacris lost a Pepsi deal for saying fuck too much. In a universe of self-serious superheroes, Em was Deadpool. “I don’t got that bad of a mouth, do I? Fuck! Shit! Ass! Bitch! Cunt! Shooby-de-doo-wop!,” he rapped on “Who Knew,” a Marshall Mathers LP cut that’s as incisive as it is dexterous. But shit’s just different now; his Megan Thee Stallion line from “Houdini” (“If I was to ask for Megan Thee Stallion if she would collab with me, would I really have a shot at a feat?”) was somehow more lame than it was offensive.

In a time and place where you’re only ever one or two clicks away from something terrifying or casually demoralizing, Em’s reliance on fart jokes feels as formulaic as it is desperate. Sick curse word, bro. It’s only 9AM, and I just saw a Waffle House fight under a retweet of a dead body. In a world like this one, nothing’s shocking anymore, so “shock value” isn’t that valuable.

2. Rap With A Purpose

Listening to Eminem rap in 2024 can be a little like watching Julian Newman dribble: a vision of flashy, but wasteful activity that’s long-since shifted from impressive to viral self-parody. Fancy crossovers are cool, but only if they make it easier for you to score. In his prime, Em’s tightly wound rhyme schemes helped him get buckets, but ever since Recovery, he’s been dribbling in place. He wants to prove he can handle the rock, but he winds up dribbling out of bounds.

The thing is, Em used to rap to say something. On tracks like “Rock Bottom,” the rhymes connect with all the precision of a well-executed argument, with each syllable careening into the next point of an expertly crafted essay: “I feel like I’m walkin’ a tightrope without a circus net/ Poppin’ Percocet, I’m a nervous wreck/ I deserve respect but I work a sweat for this worthless check/ I’m ’bout to burst this TEC at somebody to reverse this debt.”

These days, he uses superfluous language like he’s in a contest to see who can rhyme the most obscure three-syllable words, and his metaphors spill out like punchlines Iron Solomon decided weren’t good enough. “Instinctive nature to bring the anguish/ To the English language/ With this ink, you haters get rode on like a piece of paper,” he raps on “Chloraseptic.” The first bar is so unnecessarily ornate, you might think it’s Patient Zero for every joke about Em’s modern rap style. The second part is mildly clever, but that was a whole lot of setup for such a weak return.

Dilly dallying like that eschews a nigh-universal principle of great writing: saying more with less. After years of saying less with more, Em’s become a classic overdribbler, with his hesi’s and cross-tweens playing out like some shitty AND-1 mixtape caricature. If he can be more efficient with his moves, maybe he can score more points with the fans and critics he wants to impress.

3. Relax

According to the first Book of Curtis Jackson (2:06), “Sunny days wouldn’t be special, if it wasn’t for rain/ Joy wouldn’t feel so good, if it wasn’t for pain.” Similarly, shouts wouldn’t be so notable if it weren’t for whispers. In theater, or really any entertainment medium, contrast creates tension by differentiating between emotions and situations. When someone’s pensive or sad, their voice might be quiet. When they’re furious, maybe they’ll yell. For the last 22 or so years, Eminem’s done a lot of yelling. Like, a lot. Just sort through any post-Eminem Show release, and you’ll hear the type of frenzied vocal inflections that sound like night terrors. Whether he’s sad or ecstatic, Slim Shady’s usually evoked the mania of someone on an Adderall-fueled XBox Live session that should’ve ended 36 hours ago. He sounds like a 50-year-old screaming at a teen opponent who can only smirk at the spectacle. It would be cool if he recalibrated his delivery based on the tone of his songs, but he’s pretty much always intense. Cumulatively, it conjures the unpleasantness of waking up to a fire alarm — a violently shrill noise you want to shut off as soon as humanly possible.

4. Delete Skylar Grey’s Number, Leave The Pop Ballads Behind

It’s not quite codified as law, but it’s a general truism that holds steady: If you’re a washed “lyrical” rapper that’s long-since forgotten how to carry your own hooks, call Skylar Grey. It’s an understandable approach. She’s got a pleasant, inoffensive voice that fits on a lot of beats, and she’s been writing up some pop gems since the early 2000s. This isn’t to diss Skylar. She’s cool. She wrote “Love The Way You Lie.” But, in the hands of artists like Em, these are generic pop song structures major labels just hold onto until they’re ready to give them to B.O.B. or any other person they’re trying to gift a hit. It’s a rote, machine-like approach that doesn’t befit an artist of Em’s stature; they skew much closer to Backstreet Boys than the underground spitters he hoped to emulate. We need more “Superman”s and “Hailie’s Song”s, not “Monster.”

5. Tap In With The New Underground

For a supposed student of the game, Em’s list of favorite lyricists has always skewed mainstream. He’ll marvel at J. Cole, JID, Kendrick Lamar, and Joyner Lucas — all super valid spitters of varying quality (ahem, Joyner). But you won’t hear him nod as much to a Roc Marciano or a billy woods, which could speak to a disconnect about what he believes is and isn’t possible. Based on his output, Em thinks big-budget production, stadium-status hooks, and Grammy and RIAA certifications equal success. But neither Roc nor billy, nor Ka, nor Em’s fellow Detroit rhymer Boldy James, sell a whole lot of records. What they do enjoy is the freedom to write some of the most esoteric, vivid and intricate raps in the universe with no regard for commercial appeal. No cardboard cutout Skylar Grey or CeeLo Green features. No mandatory club song. Just eerie beats, troubling thoughts and the dexterity to swirl them all together.

Why can’t Em make an EP with Conductor Williams? Imagine Em spitting over a whole album of “Giant Slide”s. Beats from rap’s newish underground could help Em access more varied flow structures and subject matter besides how good he can rap. Maybe trading bars with Roc inspires him to cut the fat from his increasingly cumbersome verses. Em is so big that he could make an indie album with these collaborators and still debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. But even if he didn’t match his previous commercial success, he’d have a viable shot at getting the one thing he’s wanted from critics and new age fans alike: respect.

6. Stop Trying To Recreate The Past

“Houdini” might have debuted at #2 on the Hot 100, but make no mistake — it’s a sterile attempt at recapturing past glory, a collection of Slim Shady tropes he hoped would have the effect it’s had commercially. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to do what you used to do. Pusha T’s rapped about the same thing for 27 years now. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Eminem’s style is broken, with his jokes falling flat and his form-over-function flows making his songs simultaneously busy and empty. The last 15 years, Em’s “innovated” by adding copy-and-paste pop songs to his formula, but generally, he’s relied on doing cheap imitations of his old raps, and it comes out sounding exactly like the people who make fun of him

It’s time for Eminem to update his content. That shouldn’t be too hard; he’s got a lot to talk about. His daughter Hailie Jade’s gotten married and he’s over 15 years sober. The world’s still a shitty place, and there are plenty of deserving targets for his formidable wit and precision. He might not want to pursue it, but there’s treasure to be found in dreary beats and the somber introspection of a middle-aged man in a changing world.


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