Can Eminem still rap? At 42, are the great white rapper's unassailable skills still in tact?
Yes and yes. That's not the problem with Shady XV (Interscope **), a two volume in-time-for-the-holiday season release that celebrates 15 years of the Detroit rapper's record label with one multi-artist greatest hits disc and one of all new material.
The good news for Eminem fans is that of the 12 new songs, he's featured prominently on eight, and various other talents apppear aongside him, including rappers Danny Brown and Big Sean and singer-songwriter Sia. The bad news is that Eminem's typically dexterous hyper speed rhymes are often marked by pathetic shock tactic attempts at relevancy that range from stupid and sad to mean and evil.
But it's an Eminem record, you say? Don't we expect it to be filled with homophobia and misogyny? Yeah, we kind of do. So it's not much of a surprise when it takes less than a minute into the first track to spit out the word "faggot," or that in the hateful "Vegas" he picks out Iggy Azalea - the latest in a long line of easy target female victims that has included Pamela Anderson, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera - for a rape fantasy.
(Azalea's excellent Twitter retort has earned her many more points with pop cultural commentators than her rapping on her own "Fancy" or Ariana Grande's "Problem." The 24 year old Australian rapper tweeted: "Im bored of old men threatening young women as entertainment trend and much more interested in the young women getting $ trend zzzz")
Eminem has always engaged in eliciting outrage, and early in his career, he got away with it for a number of reasons. He was rapping in the voice of his unfiltered id Slim Shady character. He was the product of a deeply screwed up upbringing. He had the imprimatur of the deeply respected hip-hop producer Dr. Dre; he was frequently hilarious.
Also, he was an artist of intriguing complexity who appeared to be capable of both artistic and emotional growth, the guy who deflected criticism by having Elton John join him on "Stan" at the 2001 Grammys, and who disarmed his critics with the soulful 8 Mile biopic and "Lose Yourself," still his signature song, the next year. (And after 9/11 happened, the country all of a sudden had something more serious to worry about than the anti-social behaviour of a popular white rapper.)
The career arc has been far less interesting since, though he's remained a commercial force and continued to unleash formidable singles, particularly the likes of "Love The Way You Lie" and "Monster" that have paired him with stadium touring partner Rihanna.
What makes the Shady XV comp so depressing is that it's abundantly clear that musically speaking, Eminem has scarcely lost a step, and that he's still capable, on songs like "Die Alone" of pulling worthwhile art out of his twisted insides. But then he reverts to inflammatory bullying that's not only heinous in content, but also completely misreads the socio-cultural technological moment.
On a Shady XV promotional video, he rhymed: "But I may fight for gay rights, especially if the dyke is more of a knockout than Janay Rice / Play nice? Bitch I’ll punch Lana Del Rey right in the face twice, like Ray Rice in broad daylight in the plain sight of the elevator surveillance / Til her head is banging on the railing, then celebrate with the Ravens.”
Really? "Til her head is banging on the railing": It doesn't get much more repulsive than that. But besides the look-at-me desperation, there's also a shocking cluelessness. Did Eminem really think that in the era of instant social media blowback that he can get away with making rape and violence-against-women jokes at a time when a much loved comedian is accused of being a serial rapist and the Ray Rice elevator video put a renewed spotlight on domestic abuse. The most to the point response to the lyrics above came from rapper Azealia Banks, who tweeted: "But does Eminem know that I will personally punch him in his mouth?" That's the least of what he deserves.