So, before Miley was c-sectioned out of RoboCop’s teddy bear, the now-second Biggest Pop Moment of 2013 occurred two weeks ago with the release of Big Sean’s — though I hesitate to ascribe possession — “Control.” In its wake, the ATG hip-hop heads started an email thread to address a number of related issues, of which I found the most interesting to be this: is the competitive or “sport” aspect of rap still an imperative means of encouraging the medium’s highest quality art? Regardless of how you feel on that, many relevant hip-hop artists merit discussions that have to include terms like “competition,” and even “athlete.” Eminem is one of those figures.
As anyone who still has nightmares about Kim Basinger will tell you, Eminem cut his teeth as a battle rapper. The culture of battling has stayed with him his whole twenty-year career. His myriad beefs and feuds are the stuff of legend. A disproportionate percentage of his most famous rhymes are direct shots at popular musicians of the early 2000s which, in a marketing sense, were his direct competition. Of course, the whole point of Eminem is his plurality, his multitude of identities, his many sides – but the side that always got the most attention, and thus enabled the other more compelling sides, is the one that positioned itself as a player of a game. Competing. Battling. Winning.
If on Sunday you somehow managed to continue watching the MTV Video Music Awards post-Mileygate, you may have noticed a brief televised advertisement for Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2, featuring the song streaming below, “Berzerk.” Here, Eminem invokes “real hip-hop,” hearkening back to the early days of the Rick Rubin-assisted Beastie Boys with his own Rubin-produced rap-rock party starter (he even tries a falsetto Ad-Rock-esque sneer for a line or two).
It’s a throwback track in two ways: sonically, it recalls the late 80s. Lyrically, it recalls Eminem’s heyday, when his flows were lighter on their feet and packed in every celebrity dig and 6th grade-level sex joke he could muster. We all know when, and how, he peaked; so does he. For the first time in a long time, he seems interested in doing what he did back then: try to be The Best. He’s taking great pains to revisit that era during which he actually was The Best for another shot at the title. But his age is showing a little. The cultural references here range from dated (K-Fed, Kid Rock) to pre-historic (Public Enemy) and he’s not exactly going to blow up the internet with a pointed Future diss (really?). The double entendres and extended metaphors are just begging you to call them clever. Also, the “bring the Rick Rubin sound back” thing happened already. It’s called “99 Problems.”
The great tragedy of the star athlete is the Empty Tank Principle: almost every time, the great ones won’t walk away from the sport until the sport walks away from them. For every John Elway, there are 10 Brett Favres. Em is still battling, but he should be kicking back and celebrating like Jay-Z. The only truly embarrassing moments of Magna Carta Holy Grail happen when Jay tries to be hip (“back in my day, Instagram was a drug thing…*incoherent mumbling*”). He could do the conceptual/art rap thing like Andre 3000. He could go political like Killer Mike. For the first time in the genre’s history, there are options for an elder spokesman. Unfortunately, being as good as he once was is not one of them. There’s a decent shot that I’m totally wrong about competition’s place in hip-hop in 2013. But I will say this: it sure doesn’t age gracefully.
If you’re drafting Eminem in your fantasy rap crew this year, you’re taking him on as an Antonio Gates-type player. Flashes of his former brilliance are still there, but he’s just not the guy he once was. Put an Action Bronson or a Yelawolf in your WR1 (White Rapper 1) position. It’s time to move on. If you ever want to reminisce, there’s this. And that.