As far as music genres go, hip-hop is relatively new — it really started to emerge commercially in the early 1990s. Because of that, the past decade has been a time of watching what happens when rappers age. Rapping is a young person’s game, and as performers grow older, they face tough decisions on what to do as the twilight of their careers approaches.
Rappers could pivot to acting, an industry Ice-T and Ice Cube (no relation) have had success in. They could switch to the boards and start producing music like Dr. Dre, produce TV shows like 50 Cent or switch to business and peddle vodka like Diddy. Though likely tied to the success of his wife Beyoncé, Jay-Z has maintained some credibility as a rapper while pushing a music streaming service that few people want to use. There is one rapper who refuses to quit the game, however, and it’s hurting his legacy: Eminem.
When I was growing up, Eminem meant a lot to me. His angry music was a blend of aggressiveness and lyrical dexterity. He had great sad-boy anthems such as “Stan,” “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” and “No Love,” when he partnered with Lil Wayne to sample Haddaway’s iconic song “What is Love.”
His lyrics were provocative and often hilarious. He became known for lines like, “Damn, I think Kim Kardashian’s a man/ She stomped him, just ‘cause he asked to put his hands/ On her massive gluteus maximus again,” on “We Made You.”
I can confidently say I know 90 percent of the lyrics to The Eminem Show, one of the top rap albums of all time. Relapse, his 2009 album, is another timeless project that is violently vocal about Em’s past struggle with a prescription painkiller addiction.
Em’s work earned him the respect of the community. In a 2010 interview, The Game made it clear that Em isn’t to be messed with, which resulted in one of my favorite displays of mutual respect.
“Even when I was going at 50 and me and Dre wasn’t seeing eye to eye, man, I stayed away from the white dude,” Game said. “I’m one of the biggest [rappers] in the world. You don’t want a beef with Eminem. He shreds MCs.”
When I heard his 2013 album The Marshall Mathers LP 2, I thought it would be his last. The album was actually good, and it felt like a sensible final resting place for his rap career as a sequel to his second major-label album The Marshall Mathers LP.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere in 2017, he delivered Revival, a project that dug his career into a grave instead of reviving it. The album contained a few decent features such as Kehlani and Beyoncé, but it still felt wildly out of place for the Detroit rapper, especially when he joined forces with Ed Sheeran for “River,” a made-for-radio track that contains zero personality. His most recent album, Kamikaze, dropped this year and contains similarly dull production and exhausted storylines.
And then we have the instrumental-free freestyles. Dropping 20 days before the 2016 presidential election, “Campaign Speech” was the first. Nearly a year later came the BET Cypher,in which Eminem went after Trump while standing in a parking garage with his friends awkwardly standing in the background.
On Friday, “Kick Off” came out, prompting me to ask: who wants to hear 11 minutes of a capella freestyle rap? These songs got views and listens, but they were also relentlessly made fun of online, with no better bit than comedian Chris D’Elia’s impression.
I’m not sure what changed, but I can tell you what didn’t change: Eminem’s style. He got older, and his music slipped. Maybe kids don’t like the idea of listening to a rapper who’s the same age as their dad (he turned 46 in October).
Eminem needs to do something else soon, or people will start to permanently associate him with this 2017-18 era, instead of his heyday in the 2000s. That would do a disservice to one of the better rappers of the era.