The way I feel about Eminem is probably the way a lot of people my age feel about him. He was the first rapper I ever really listened to. I saw 8 Mile when I was in 6th grade and the rap battle scenes blew my mind. The Eminem Show was the first Rap album I loved and I wore out my walkman playing it over and over. He combined the suburban nihilism of The Ramones with the racial iconoclasm of Elvis Presley, only he had the technical skills to justify all the attention. He was a performer, creating the role of Slim Shady to hold a mirror up to White America and confronting it with its own preconceived notions about Hip Hop, right when the genre was still in the shadow of Biggie and 2Pac’s ghosts. His evolution is one of the most iconic in all of pop culture; from cartoon to controversy to underdog hero to pop star. It culminated with “Lose Yourself” and his academy award. But the most powerful attribute of Marshall Mathers was his connection to the Freudian id, his ability to tap into his own primal emotions and create some of the most scarily raw music ever made. No wonder teenagers (like me) worshipped at his pale feet.
It’s hard to watch someone like that grow old. It’s why we deify our music martyrs. We’ll never have to see a Kurt Cobain solo album in Starbucks and we’ll never watch Biggie team up with Miley Cyrus (although people still try). You may not lose your talent, but you lose your artistry. Slim Shady has stumbled in post retirement. Relapse was just plain ugly; it’s one thing to talk about rape and murder when you’re the bleached personification of the zeitgeist but another thing entirely when you’re a grown man. Recovery was ok in some places but it felt like Marshall had been neutered. The Eminem I fell in love with would have made fun of the type of pop star that he had become.
Here’s where Em’s new single comes in. “Berzerk” is the first single from The Marshall Mathers LP 2 coming out later this year and part of his new super duper lyrical style. After traditional rap fans thought Recovery was too pop, he counteracted by making his brand all about lyricism. revamping his Shady 2.0 Records and signing Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf. But both of those acts bombed critically, selling out both their styles for an awkward pop mesh.
“Berzerk” is another “look at how good I am at rapping song” but it’s combined with another more problematic element: nostalgia. Let’s look at the good parts first. The beat is tremendous. Rick Rubin, architect of the old rock-rap of the 80’s pioneered by Run DMC and LL Cool J, creates a throwback track, complete with loud drums, record scratching, and Beastie Boys samples. It’s great to see Eminem rapping over a good beat that’s not his own or a cheesy radio grab. And Eminem does rap well…kind of. From a strictly lyrical sense it’s well orchestrated, but it’s as if the man has forgotten all of his own songwriting instincts. His voice sounds terrible, a high pitch whine that grates against the sparseness of the beat. While sometimes impressive, his flow is all over the place and gives the song no consistency. In laymans terms, it doesn’t sound good! The lyrics are peppered with old man sentiments, ranging from pretentious grandpa (let’s take it back it real hip hop) to goofy out of touch dad (I woke up with a Kardashian). Nostalgia like this, even when it has to do with classic technique, can often be lazier than the modern hip hop that gets demonized by these purists.
Right when the song was released, editor at Spin Magazine Chris Weingarten tweeted “Rap is fucking back. Hope you all had fun pretending Curren$y was interesting.” Well that’s rude. Curren$y is the hardest working rapper out there and probably the most unappreciated. After putting in work in No Limit and then Young Money, the New Orleans rapper left for solo at the beginning of the decade and has put together one of the most consistent discographies in recent memory. Why call him out? In many ways, Curren$y is the opposite of this “Berzerk” track. All of Curren$y’s music is smooth, beats rippling through jazz or funk influences, mining different source materials but never losing the vibe. “Berzerk” is all abrasive and loud, losing your mind over keeping it cool. Where Eminem’s strength lies in his articulation, how he pronounces every word perfectly and always have it fit the beat, Curren$y’s southern drawl allows his words to float on top of the beat, letting only the key thoughts and words linger.
I realize I’m setting up a false dichotomy between these two artists. Curren$y and Eminem shouldn’t be compared in any way, but all of a sudden a world exists where Eminem’s nostalgia bait is “good hip hop” and Curren$y’s laid back stoner raps are “bad hip hop.” Don’t be fooled. Curren$y is a terrific rapper, who has been improving with every project. His sonic identity is stronger than 95% of the rap game and his hustle is off the charts. Just this year, he’s released an african jazz inspired EP with Wiz Khalifa, a posse mixtape for his label Jet Life (under a deal with Bit Torrent), and a joint project with protegee Young Roddy. But his best has been New Jet City, a free tape released at the beginning of the year, which took his major label connections down to the deep south and features some of his catchiest stuff to date. It’s one of my favorite tapes of year, and every song is more listenable than Eminem’s screeching.
I’m still going to listen to the MMLP2, but if it’s filled with this old-school strictness I’m not interested. There’s nothing wrong with being going back to the past, but there’s a difference between inspiration and escape. Curren$y has a great respect for the past, and he’s revived several 90’s rap stars from all over the country. NY Bad Boy Styles P, L.A. gangsta Daz Dillinger, and New Orleans Cash Money millionaire Juvenile all sound at home with Curren$y, creating some of their best work in years. “Berzerk” is a one way time capsule, a portal that doesn’t come back to the present, no matter how many lame contemporary celebrity jokes can be stuffed in. Lyricism isn’t the only part of hip hop and all of the old school rap artists that Eminem tributes in the song focused way more on hooks and attitude than stuffing as many words as they could. “Berzerk” doesn’t have any of the fun that made Run DMC or the Beasties such icons. But I wasn’t alive in the 80’s so what do I know.