Eminem’s descent into pill addiction is a depressing fulfillment of the Elvis comparison that he’d always played with. While Elvis’s drug problems led to his death at 42, Eminem’s current age, Mathers was able to pull back from the brink of a drug problem that involved consuming between 40 and 60 Valiums a day. A 2007 methadone overdose that almost killed him got him to go to rehab, and an early checkout led to a series of relapses before he got sober for good in 2008. His album cycle about his addiction and relapse allowed him to explore and discuss the darkest period in his life and his fears that he had turned into his addict mother. But what this represented wasn’t really maturation. The levity that had always characterized his work was gone, but in its place was something else: Rather than the toxic ambition of a young man determined to get his, he has the poisoned, defensive entitlement of a man who feels like he has earned his keep and is terrified that someone is going to take it away from him.
Eminem had always been angry, but he had also been funny, and because he was funny, we’d forgiven him time and again for making jokes whose punch lines always involved violence against women and gay people. When Eminem first came onto the scene, he was remarkable for his dexterity and virtuosity and his exceptionalism as the first white solo rap star to be anointed as truly great. As he celebrates 15 years of Shady Records with the release of the compilation Shady XV, which includes the demo version of notable career peak “Lose Yourself,” Eminem is asking us to take stock of his career. And when we do, it feels willfully ignorant to ignore that Eminem is still largely taking on women and gay people as the victims of his fictional crimes. What is offensive is not only the violent, specific lyrics and the revenge fantasies about doling out humiliations; it’s that he attacks people who have done nothing to provoke it. How can someone so intelligent also be so stupid? Or is he just a forever-troll?
Rap is not only still a youth culture, it’s still a predominantly male culture. It feeds off of the need some men have to assert their dominance and masculinity by targeting vulnerable people. The very existence of women is a threat. Anyone who challenges traditional conventions of sexuality is a threat. Poverty is emasculating, and Eminem’s obsession with asserting his masculinity feels like a possible reaction to his upbringing in a run-down section of Detroit. Bullied in school, he honed his verbal put-down skills to a blade. In his early career, it didn’t feel like he was a bully. The pokes at public figures, the jokes about ripping Pamela Lee’s tits off and smacking her around in his debut single, didn’t feel done to death at first, which is why they were written off as irreverent. He didn’t invent the idolization of pimps or the glamorization of violence against women. Like most people do, he was just participating in a system that already existed, without questioning it. As a white rapper in a traditionally black musical culture, he aligned himself against the systemic oppression of black men in America. But he failed to make the parallel connection to the systemic oppression of women of all races. Maybe this was because his deepest fear was that, like horrorcore icon Norman Bates, he would turn into his mother: dependent on drugs, neglected by the state, aging, invisible, and feminized. Oddly, Eminem reserved little of his overflowing ire for Marshall Bruce Mathers Jr., his father, who absconded to California when his son was an infant and never responded to numerous letters that the younger Marshall wrote him as a teen. Eminem chose to mostly project his rage onto those who remained around him, particularly women, including his mother, Debbie, and his on-and-off girlfriend/wife, Kim.
From Molly Lambert’s “Shady XLII: Eminem in 2014” in Grantland.