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Eminem has lost his superpower In 'Houdini', his jabs at outrage feel like feints

Slim Shady is dead. Long live Slim Shady. (Houdini)

Slim Shady is dead. Long live Slim Shady. (Houdini)

June 7, 2024   7 mins

Slim Shady is dead. Back in April, the rapper Eminem teased his new album — called The Death of Slim Shady (Coup de Grace) — with a trailer for a fake true-crime documentary about his peroxide-headed, foul-mouthed, sociopathic alter-ego’s murder. A couple of weeks later, the Detroit Free Press (Eminem’s hometown paper) ran an obituary for the fictional character. And now we’ve got the new single, “Houdini”, with a video where Eminem plays himself and Slim battling for control of his career.

In other words, killing Slim Shady looks a lot like bringing him back. But Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers) has never been able to retire Slim for very long, however conflicted he’s sometimes seemed to be about his own creation. It’s Slim who made him famous, and Slim who made him hated; it’s Slim who defines the paper-thin line between performer and performance, and Slim whose rage and nihilism gave voice to the underbelly of America.

Before Slim, he was in danger of being nobody: Eminem’s first hit, after an underwhelming apprenticeship in underground rap, was “My Name Is”, in which he introduced himself as Slim Shady with a riot of outrageous rhymes. In just the first verse, he riffs about self-harm, suicide, assaulting Pamela Anderson and taking three different kinds of drugs, before rounding things out with some light blasphemy: “I don’t give a fuck, God sent me to piss the world off.”

That last line was altered in the radio edit to leave Christianity out of it: “I don’t give a damn, Dre sent me to tick the world off.” (Dre is his producer, Dr Dre.) It’s a mark of how conservative American culture was at the turn of the century, but it’s also a good illustration of Eminem’s talent for compounding the offence and being incredibly funny at the same time: in the process of bowdlerising himself, he promotes his producer to the level of a deity.

True to his word, he did indeed piss the world off. Labi Siffre, the British musician whose track “I Got the…” provided “My Name Is” with its beat, initially refused to licence the sample because he was so disgusted by the homophobia and misogyny of the lyrics. “Dissing the victims of bigotry — women as bitches, homosexuals as faggots — is lazy writing. Diss the bigots not their victims,” Siffre told New Humanist in 2012. He only gave the OK after being supplied with a clean version that he assumed (wrongly) would be the only one released.

Before most people even knew what trolling was, Eminem had elevated it to an art. As far as he was concerned, he only became offensive because people were so determined to be offended. Asked about his relentless gay jokes in a 2017 interview, he explained: “when I started getting flack for it, I thought, Alright, you people think I’m homophobic? Watch this […] I was trying to push the buttons of people who were calling me something that I wasn’t.”

Pop music is always at war with good taste, whatever that happens to be. In the late Nineties, artists and labels were still dusting themselves off from the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center (headed by Tipper Gore) to impose censorship on music. Being shocking was a cause in its own right, and Slim Shady was its ideal avatar. Eminem didn’t care about niceties like “punching down”. Like a rap version of the stand-up Jerry Sadowitz, he was an equal-opportunities hate criminal.

For a while, he was a one-man moral panic. “What is the artistic value here?” wailed a New York Times column that called Eminem “both inane and obscene”. The problem with this line of criticism was that Eminem was, clearly, a wildly talented MC as well as whatever else you wanted to call him, delivering high-speed wordplay and intricate rhymes that never failed to hit their target. Writer Bob Herbert went on to accuse rap as a genre of having “thoroughly broken faith with the surpassingly great, centuries-long tradition of black music in America”.

This was hysterically pompous, even if you didn’t like Eminem (and for the record, I do), not least because it set up a white guy as the exemplar of “black music”. Before Eminem, white rap meant the embarrassing novelty of Vanilla Ice, or the Beastie Boys — more credible by the Nineties, but fundamentally a bunch of nice Jewish boys. Eminem joked gleefully about his race (“I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/ To do black music so selfishly/ And use it to get myself wealthy,” he said on 2002’s “Without Me”), but he paid his dues on the gangsta rap scene.

And he really did belong to the streets: the Detroit from which he emerged was a world of trailer parks, opioid abuse and dead-end jobs, dramatised in his great semi-autobiographical movie Eight Mile. Under the gross-out wit, he represented a class that had a lot to be angry about. Slim Shady wasn’t just an individual: he was a whole demographic, as he laid out on “The Real Slim Shady” in 2000. “And there’s a million of us just like me/ Who cuss like me, who just don’t give a fuck like me/ Who dress like me, walk, talk and act like me.” If gangsta rap led to alarmism about the character of black youth, Eminem carried the alarming threat that the white kids might be just as bad.

Shady was the American id before Trump came along to do that job (although Eminem is on the record as an avowed anti-Trumpist): “I’m like a head trip to listen to ’cause I’m only givin’ you/ Things you joke about with your friends inside your livin’ room.” The most objectionable thing about the character, by this light, was that he wasn’t a hypocrite.

“Shady was the American id before Trump came along to do that job.”

Didn’t everybody (well, every man) get mad and fantasise about revenge, the same way Eminem fantasised about killing his wife Kim on record? (The couple divorced in 2001, and later married and divorced again.) It didn’t mean he was going to do anything. This was catharsis, not premeditation. But there’s a fine line between identification and incitement. The criticism of violent art has always been that it doesn’t merely expose brutish impulses, but that it encourages them.

However much Eminem had always mocked the idea of being seen as a role model, there were people who now aspired to be like him. People like the character Stan in the eponymous song from 2000, whose name eventually became a synonym for an obsessive, stalkerish fan. Every successful artist or product or political position has its own stan culture now.

“Stan” is structured as a series of letters from Stan to Eminem, who he addressed as “Slim”. These start innocent albeit overinvolved, but escalate to a putative tape recording dictated by Stan as he drives his car off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend tied up in the boot (a reference to Eminem’s femicidal fantasy on the track “Kim”). In the last verse, Eminem raps in a low-key way that tells you he’s not playing Shady here. His response to Stan is supportive and concerned — “I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit” — before at the last gasp he realises he’s already heard about Stan’s “crazy shit” on the news.

This is great storytelling. It’s also a tiny bit cake-and-eat-it: in this song, Eminem gets to play out Slim Shady-style violence and position himself as the author (rather than the character) in opposition to it. But it’s also incredibly sharp about the kind of fame an artist like Eminem had to navigate in the voracious celebrity culture of the noughties. Shady was a device that let him play out the most grotesque parts of his personality; but to at least some of his fans, Shady was Eminem.

And because Shady-as-Eminem rapped about things that happened to Eminem-as-Marshall, the boundary was always fragile. Both Kim and Eminem’s mother sued him over his lyrics, with Kim alleging the infliction of emotional distress and his mother alleging defamation; he settled out of court with both of them.

Kim has never alleged that Eminem was violent to her in real life, but violence against women is endemic in hip-hop, including among Eminem’s collaborators. In 2015, Dr Dre — by then an executive with Apple — issued an apology “to all the women I’ve hurt” over allegations of abuse and assault against women. Where does that leave Eminem and the Slim Shady character who traded barbs with Dre about smacking bitches? The vibe had shifted away from the anarchism of the Noughties. People were starting to ask things like: “Why are Eminem’s violent lyrics still OK?”

Nearly 10 years later, it feels pop culture has reached the end of its censorious swing. The industrial centres of wokescolding — Gawker, Vice, pre-Elon Twitter — have all been kneecapped. Performers are tired of feeling stifled. In a recent interview, Charli XCX — a pop star who definitely does not come across as Right-coded, and is thoroughly embraced by queer culture — expressed nostalgia for “the Paris Hilton days. Everybody is so worried about everything right now, how they’re perceived, if this art they’ve created is going to offend anyone.”

The conceit of “Houdini” is that Shady’s back because he’s needed, but if anything, the Shady comeback is slightly too late. “If I think that shit, I’ma say that shit/ Cancel me what?” Eminem raps. But this isn’t 2016 or 2020. Cancellation feels like a much more remote threat, if it ever was a threat for someone with Eminem’s fan base and stature. As strong as the track is, the jabs at outrage feel like feints this time. Nicki Minaj has already done stronger stuff about Megan thee Stallion being shot; David Chappelle was joking about R Kelly’s abuses 20 years ago. It’s harder for Shady to shock the breath out of listeners the way he used to. 

But however tired the Shady character becomes, he can’t die. That’s partly because the forces that made him still exist: the angry, alienated boys he appealed to in the noughties have grown into angry, alienated men. At 52, you could say Eminem is too old for this kind of crass rebellion. But the average capitol rioter was middle aged. The soup throwers of Extinction Rebellion are mostly grey haired. Rage doesn’t appear to have an age limit. And the white underclass of America that Eminem came from abides, neglected equally by Republicans and Democrats more attracted to culture wars than economics. As ever, Eminem is only giving the discourse what it’s asked for. 

There’s another reason Shady will probably always be with us, though. When Eminem first put on the character, it was a mask that allowed him to cover up his vulnerabilities: under the aggression and gore, he’s also been the bullied kid, the opioid addict (now recovered), the father striving to make a living for his daughter’s sake. But the character made him famous, and fame, in John Updike’s phrase, is the mask that eats the face. “I’ve created a monster/ ’Cause nobody wants to see Marshall no more, they want Shady, I’m chopped liver/ Well, if you want Shady, this is what I’ll give ya,” he announced on “Without Me” in 2002. There’s menace in that line, but a kind of tragedy too: you can’t destroy your double without destroying yourself.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

He no longer only melts in your mouth but also in your hand?

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

Just a jumped-up Smartie.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 month ago

Great article.