Why should I wash my filthy mouth out
You think that’s bad you should hear the rest of my album
—Eminem, "We Made You"
A while back, Nas declared hip-hop dead. Anyone who has dived into Eminem's comeback release, Relapse, should be convinced that this is true. Music forms have to mutate, adapting and changing with the times lest they become fossilized. In many ways, rap has become a caricature of itself, particularly its darker, more nihilistic side.
Eminem, for all his prodigious talents, seems as stuck as the genre itself. Yes, yes, we know, his sociopathic Slim Shady is an alter ego; it's all farce, dark comedy, yada yada yada. Pathology is his schtick, from his drama with his mama to his repeated baby-mama drama to his blood-soaked fantasies. It's the role of art to be provocative, etc., etc., etc. We get this. He let us in on the joke years ago, announcing on Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP:
I don't do white music
I don't do black music
I make fight music
for high school kids . . .
Get a sense of humor
we're trying to sell some music
Quit tryin to censor music, this is for your kid's amusement*
I'll save the musings about his Oedipal fixations for the shrink's couch. He's got other issues: Namely, his refusal to grow up—artistically speaking. With Relapse, where he recounts his descent into prescription pill addiction in visceral, often gory detail, the nine-time Grammy Award winner is still rapping the same old tune: Murder, abducting women serial-killer style, name-checking celebrities he'd like to schtup (Sarah Palin, Eminem? Really?), flying severed body parts, dissing Mariah Carey and the evil that his mother's done did to him. (Now he's blaming her for his pill habit, claiming that she fed him Valium as a kid.)
I wish I could say that I cared.
Eminem seems stuck in an endless loop, playing out the same old themes without coming up with any new consensus or ideas. Shock for shock's sake is a bore. It takes a brave man to let it all out, the vulnerabilities, the anxieties, the crazy paranoia. And yes, Eminem puts it all out there, his struggles with addiction, trying to walk the 12 Steps. But it takes an even braver man to move beyond the past, stretch past one's artistic comfort zone and grow. Especially when you've taken a three-year leave of absence to get clean and sober.
If, 10 years ago, he was rapping about making music for high schoolers, whom is he creating for, now that those kids have graduated college and are out in the real world? Eminem seems content to be typecast in the role of the court jester, the Id run amok, bragging in Bagpipes From Baghdad, "I'm the miracle whip the tricksta." Playing the provocateur is one thing; but can you get some new material? "My mom, my mom," he raps in—get ready for it—"My Mom": "I know you're probably tired of hearing about my mom." Yup, pretty much.
Not that Eminem is alone in his stagnation. Hip-hop stopped being interesting a long time ago. Common's making movies, The Roots felt compelled to get a day job (jamming for Jimmy Fallon), and Lil' Wayne crossed over to rock.
Which is a shame. Rap was once the source of unfettered creativity; folks had something to say, and they said it. Their energy and drive created both a movement and a billion-dollar industry with global impact. But along the way, cynicism replaced creativity.
So is Eminem's latest endeavor a cynical play for record sales? Or is he just stuck, so much so that even his long-time mentor/producer, Dr. Dre, can't help him rise from the muck? It's hard to say; only he knows his motivations. But this much is true: Talent is a terrible thing to waste. Say what you will about Eminem's lyrical mix of mayhem and misogyny—and let's face it, he's made millions off of nihilism—you have to give him this: He is a super-sized talent. To see him perform is to be dazzled by his tongue-twisting dexterity, his command of the stage, his prodigious flow. Now it's time for the 35-year-old to forgive his mother, get rid of his homophobia and work on his attitude toward women.
Apologizing to Mariah Carey would be a start.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior culture writer.
*This lyric has been corrected since this article was first published.