13 years ago, I accompanied my mom after school to Barnes & Noble to help her find a new book. I wasn’t a die-hard music fan at that time, and so when I came across the vast collection of CDs in the back part of the store, nothing, in particular, piqued my interest. Yet, I was a 13-year-old kid who didn’t love music and that felt odd to me, so I searched for something to listen to.
At that age, when it came to hip-hop, I knew very little. When I was younger, I had the unfortunate habit of listening to the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, and once I grew up to understand how shitty of a life choice that was, I fell into a sort of a no-man’s land musically. I never hated rap music but remained disinterested in it nonetheless. I knew the choruses to the biggest songs and could usually recognize faces and names but never sought out a higher understanding of the genre.
After looking for awhile, I came across The Eminem Show and I decided it was time. I knew Eminem fairly well at that point compared to most rappers. Kids at school would chant “I’m Slim Shady, yes I’m the real Shady…” on the buses and in the hallways, and I chanted along with them having no real context as to what I was saying. I knew virtually nothing about The Eminem Show other than it had the song with “I’m sorry mama...” in the chorus, and that was enough for me. I got the edited version.
For most of my elementary and junior high experience, I was bullied. A lot. I came from a home with a working mother and a partially disabled father who had a stroke when I was seven. I was an only child, an introvert, and a class clown on purpose to keep any attention on me as positive as possible. There were self-esteem, resentment and anger issues below the surface and it wasn’t until that album that I found something that made me feel better.
The Eminem Show had been out for two years at this point, so my experience with it was once again on my own. It’s a dark record and clearly Eminem’s most mature product to date. Songs like “White America” and “Square Dance” were presciently political songs for their time that found Eminem aiming his rifle at the Bush Administration. Others, like “Without Me,” “Business" and “Superman,” were of the typical Slim Shady mold, with Em rapping about everything from Chandra Levy and Dick Cheney to assault on women and murder. It wasn’t the typical “I don’t give a fuck” Eminem this time around, though. Instead, most of The Eminem Show plays like a giant “fuck you” to everyone, and that’s exactly what I needed to hear.
The concepts of the songs didn’t matter to me at that age, nor did his choices in production, sequencing or the blatant outbursts of violence. It was Em’s persona that I gravitated towards. He was offensive but seemingly self-aware of his own deviancy. He was mean and spiteful, but in what felt like a very natural way considering his subject matter about his home life and politics. His writing ability only heightened the experience as well. In short, Eminem was a much-needed voice at that point in my life, one that made it feel like it was okay to be pissed off.
I didn’t listen to The Marshall Mathers LP or Slim Shady LP until much later, and by that point, Eminem had become my favorite artist across all genres. As I grew up, his music was enough to guide me in other directions of rap, as I found Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay Z, Kanye West and many others, but the experience of listening to Eminem was like no other. I would listen to “Remember Me?” and “Amityville” when I felt enraged, “Sing For The Moment” in preparation for basketball games, and “My Name Is” when I needed a laugh. The lyrics, wordplay, voices and storytelling felt like everything I had ever wanted from a musician.
As he—and I—got older, something changed. At first, I thought it was just his music, which it undoubtedly was. Recovery was a terribly uninteresting album, Relapse was almost too vulgar to listen to, and I still pretend to this day that Encore never happened. There was something within me that also changed, though; a sense of uneasiness about the parts of his music I had chosen to neglect and an emptiness to the parts I had once loved. For the parts I used to love, that connection seemed staticky now, and for the parts I hated, that I had ignored all those years, suddenly felt more apparent and impactful. I wasn’t listening to the edited version anymore.
I think about the song “Guilty Conscience” from The Slim Shady LP a lot these days. Rather, I think about the two voices inside the characters heads, voiced by Em and Dr. Dre, and the moral duality posed in that song. It’s almost unlistenable playing it now, with Eminem’s particular voice advocating for such things as rape of an unconscious woman and multiple murders. Yet, the concept of those dueling voices encapsulates what it’s like to be a fan; a never-ending struggle between morality and enjoyment. Being an Eminem fan, as I’ve come to find, means living with that uncomfortable duality. It’s an everyday struggle between condemnation of an artist’s music and that special connection that you have to them.
As a rapper, Eminem will go down as one of the best ever, objectively speaking. No one has mastered the art of the rhyme, and the way it fits into a single sentence as well as the larger narrative, quite like Marshall Mathers. At his best, Eminem was poignant, colorful and dominant all at once, channeling an energy of rage, self-awareness, and humor in a way with which most rappers never had the skill. When Eminem was on, there was no experience quite like it.
Yet, it’s easier as a young and bitter adolescent to only focus on the positives of his music while conveniently neglecting his worst habits. Eminem was like having the older high school friend who used to sneak out of school, smoke weed, cuss at his parents and not give a fuck who knew about it. He made it clear in his music on several occasions that he was never meant to be a role model, yet I couldn’t help but look up to him in a way. I admired the honesty and passion, and whenever his material steered towards something obscene and abhorrent, I never gave it any weight. I edited it out.
Listening to Eminem now, though, is much like seeing that older high school friend at your 10-year reunion and seeing that they haven’t changed even in the slightest, and having that “emperor has no clothes” moment to yourself. In his case, I find myself going back to older songs and hearing moments of the magic I once admired so heavily, only to find them stuck between rape lyrics and homophobic slurs. I’ve always scoffed at those who claimed to not be racist by using the phrase “I have friends of color” while never reflecting on the fact that I used that circular reasoning to ignore Eminem’s homophobia by thinking, 'Well, he performed with Elton John. How could he be homophobic?' It’s sickening to think about now.
This is the daily moral quandary many a fan of Eminem's music has found themselves in. Can you completely condemn an artist for suspect lyrics and messages in their music in a genre that has always had its problems with women and people of different sexual orientations? How do I play gatekeeper to that, and where do I decide to make the cut-off? If I denounce Eminem’s music and his contributions to rap in the face of extremely vulgar lyrics towards women and homosexuals, must I also do the same for a large population of other rappers I love? The line is hazy, complicated and troublesome, and placing the positives of Em’s music with the negatives feels hard to stand on with any sort of confidence.
On the other hand, what exactly is my alternative as a person who remains morally obligated to stand against those lyrics? How can I knowingly choose to remain a fan of someone who, for the better part of two decades, has channeled a very specific type of violence in his music that makes me more uneasy with each growing year? When Em first started, that violence in his music felt like it was commenting on something bigger, and, in turn, I felt like a small piece of that conversation in his songs about how we channel our problems when we don’t deal with them. 13 years later, Eminem feels like a false prophet in that sense, and I feel as conflicted as ever. If that a referendum on him? Is it actually a referendum on me that I’m even conflicted at all?
13 years ago, I felt like I needed Eminem as a way of contextualizing my own angst. Today, it’s hard to tell if I feel worse that I watched one of my idols bury himself in the same subject matter for almost 20 years, or that I even thought to consider him an idol at all.
I will always have a special connection to Eminem’s music but with that feeling will come resentment of self, which, ironically, is why I started listening to his music in the first place.