Eminem's Lyrics Aren't As Deep As People Think (Except When They're Deeper)

Eminem breaks down his lyrics, revealing just how big the gap can be between what a rapper writes and what people hear.
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Eminem breaks down his lyrics, revealing just how big the gap can be between what a rapper writes and what people hear.

Eminem is hip-hop's most famous hermit, a man who almost never grants interviews and is seen offstage and in public as often as Bigfoot. That's why his recent annotations on Genius have been particularly fascinating. Not only have they revealed the occasional amazing story, taken as a whole they give us an increasingly rare look into the man, and mind, behind the Rap God.

As someone who studies rap lyrics like they're religious texts, the most interesting part of watching him annotate his lyrics has been seeing how different his original intentions with a line can be compared to how deeply they're perceived to be when dissected by fans. 

Case in point, take his "Lighters" verse: 

Had a dream I was king, I woke up, still king / Rap game’s nipple is mine for the milking

Because of the Martin Luther King quote — “had a dream” — someone thought “milking” was a play on M.L. King. It’s not. But I’ve thought that about other people’s lines. Sometimes me and Slaughterhouse will talk, and I’ll be like “Yo, you meant this?” And he’ll be like “No,” and I’m like, “You should tell people you meant that.”

I should have told that guy that’s what I meant. That “milking” thing is pretty cool.

Throughout the annotations we see other examples of the general populace ascribing layers of wordplay and complexity to Em's lyrics that just weren't originally there, sometimes in very subtle ways. For example, "Bezerk":

So baby, make just like K-Fed and let yourself go, let yourself go

Everyone thought I meant “baby make” when I really meant “baby, make.” I wish I would’ve thought of that…I’m not really that clever.

Those examples are simply people seeing lyrical smoke where there's fire, which makes sense. But there are also a number of other times when he's simply rhyming complex words with other complex words purely as an exercise, like on "Right for Me," without truly thinking about meaning. And then there are other times when he was either just completely goofing around or high out of his mind, or both, like on "My Band" and "Fack." But that hasn't stopped fans from pulling apart the words, searching for meaning like rescue workers searching through rubble. 

And of course those fans go digging, because there are also times, very real times, when Eminem actually is operating at a level of lyrical complexity that the normal human brain just can't conceive of. In a way he's trained us all to be conspiracy theorists when it comes to his lyrics, constantly paranoid that we're missing some hidden gem buried deep within the wordplay. For example, "Kings Never Die":   

So fuck what these cynics say / (It) just goes to show that when my back's against the wall / And I'm under a tack again, that I'll act as I'm 'posed ta

“Back’s against the wall…under a tack…act as if I’m poster” ?…..NOBODY is gonna get that!!!

He's right, there's no way I would have gotten that. I didn't get it. And that's the beautiful thing about hip-hop. There are just flat out wrong ways of interpreting some lines, the truth of subjectivity isn't absolute. If you think that a line like, "While juggling waffles, bacon / A fuckin' McDonalds egg and cheese sausage bagel finagled it" has any deeper meaning beyond pure rhyming, and maybe lunch, you're just imagining things.

But beyond that there's an enormous grey area of meaning that even the rapper who wrote those lyrics may not be conscious of, and living in the grey area is the fun of listening to rap. The rare times when the true meaning of a line reveals itself to you after hundreds of listens, the Matrix moment, that's the closest we'll come to pure rap joy. 

So whether it's on Genius the site or just among fellow rap nerds in real life, Genius on my friends. If rap lyrics are your Bible, then Eminem is your God. 

By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Photo Credit to Mahmoud Mughrab.