Around ten years ago, around the beginning of my junior year of high school, I challenged myself to find hip-hop music that I would enjoy. Up until that point, my knowledge of the genre was relegated to what I heard on mainstream radio, music television channels, and the occasional word from a peer about what so-and-so was up to, and while I didn’t care for most of it, I imagined that there was a whole lot of good stuff that I would enjoy if I actively searched for it. My challenge cost me a lot of time and money—I basically became a hermit during my first two years of college because I spent so much time catching up on the most important benchmarks of the genre—but I can easily say that it was worth it. In doing so, I noticed that there were certain creative peaks in the genre that were tied to specific years (I know of more than one person who can’t listen to hip-hop released after 1996), but trying to call hip-hop’s next creative peak, while admittedly fun, is ultimately fruitless given that such a thing can only be called in retrospect. That being said, I would be fine with calling 2013 a peak year for hip-hop. I was all set to call 2012 a peak year, but I can think of at least two albums that are either on par or better than good kid, m.A.A.d city (my favorite album of that year), and there are a multitude of albums that aren’t far behind in artistic merit. We still have at least one monumental release on the horizon in Armand Hammer’s Race Music, which comes out next week, and December will see the release of .L.W.H.’s Aero-World, so it isn’t as though we don’t still have albums to look forward to. With this new golden age of hip-hop upon us, the irrationally positive reception towards Eminem’s new singles is especially maddening and discouraging.
“Rap God” dropped earlier this week, and of the three singles from the forthcoming The Marshall Mathers LP 2, it is the one with the fewest issues. It at least contains a great vocal performance from Eminem, who has long been considered one of the best rappers from a technical perspective, but like most of his music, the backing material was rather weak and what he said amounted to a hill of beans, especially considering that 2013 has seen the release of two albums dedicated to taking apart the meaning of “god as self” imagery in hip-hop: Kanye West’s Yeezus and YC the Cynic’s GNK (review forthcoming, but you’re going to want to buy it yesterday). “Survival”, meanwhile, is a thinly-veiled promotional tool for a video game series whose last title’s ad campaign saw a convicted traitor try to hawk the game, and a review of that would basically amount to me saying that everyone who bought “Survival” hates America. That leaves “Berzerk”, the one that isn’t tied to everything that is wrong with one medium but represents almost everything I despise about another (modern video games and hip-hop, respectively). It is a joyless thing that is incompetently executed from any angle, and people love it. Here are two comments that were submitted not long after the video was put up:
“This is awesome. Nice to see the “Going Back to Cali” reference, and Kid Rock showing up, in addition to all the samples. Love it!”
“What took you so long Eminem? you had us listening to gay rap from fake rappers.”
I realize that not everyone who likes this song thinks this way, but these two comments seem to represent the views of most of the song’s supporters, and that is a depressing notion. In essence, folks like “Berzerk” because it has references to things they are aware of, as well as a backing beat and words that are rapped by a rapper. They like it because it exists, and if you don’t like it, that’s because you need the jokes explained to you.
You see, the beat and presentation are a throwback to the initial sound of the Beastie Boys! Well, okay, not the group’s initial sound (the Boys started as a hardcore punk-rock act), but who cares about going back that far? No, this is the sound they popularized with License to Ill and its biggest single, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)!”, which the group later disowned because they were trying to mock the entire style rather than celebrate it but their audience was too stupid to catch on, a notion they proved with the follow-up, Paul’s Boutique, widely considered to be the trio’s best album as well as one of the best and most important hip-hop albums of all time but sold poorly on initial release. Oh, but Rick Rubin produced the track! You’ve heard of Rick Rubin, right? Well, he helped meld hip-hop’s sound when it was in its infancy and has spent the last few years barely pretending to give a fuck about the quality of his work. He has a producer’s credit, though, so that means the song is automatically great!
Okay, the beat itself isn’t completely terrible. It is an effective piece that leans a bit hard on hip-hop touchstones without expanding on them to create new context, but I’ve heard better songs made using weaker foundations. Eminem’s performance, however, is so ill-advised and unfitting that I have to wonder how primitive the song’s initial draft was. “Berzerk”’s beat calls for a vocalist that can make it seem so much bigger than it is (something the Beastie Boys were quite adapt at doing), and Eminem’s rat-tat-tat-tat approach only works to expose flaws in the structure, and what’s worse is that, with the exception of the chorus, he doesn’t sound like he is riding the beat. He is riding a beat, but Eminem and Rick Rubin sound like they are making completely different songs.
And then there is what Eminem has to say. I’ve been trumpeting for a while that “wordplay” is not synonymous with “good wordplay” and that references are not inherently funny, and “Berzerk” is the most convincing argument of both of my statements. Ahem: “I’m about to bloody this track up, everybody get back / That’s why my pen needs a pad cause my rhymes on the ra-haaaag”. You know, like a woman on her period. You see, a not-uncommon adage for a rapper performing well over a certain piece of music is “murdering the beat”. Murdering someone can involve spilling blood. Part of the menstrual cycle (the part commonly referred to as “the period”) involves blood. As such, Eminem is saying that he is on his period and is spilling blood all over the beat, but he sets it up by twisting an adage around. This is inherently funny. Get it? Laugh.
The second verse is even worse. First line: “Guess it’s just the way that I’m dressed, ain’t it?” What year are we in? The color and ethnicity of a rapper has never mattered less than it does now. I’m a white dude who has lived in suburbs of New England for most of my life, and nobody bats an eye anymore when I profess my love for the Wu-Tang Clan. Eminem is still trying to posit himself as an outcast and outsider on the basis of his skin color and clothing style despite being one of the most commercially successful artists of the new millennium and flaunting that he is performing over a beat made by one of the most important figures in the history of hip-hop to promote the “sequel” to one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums of all time. That’s not even getting into the multiple lines that end with him trying to imitate his voice being cut up, though I’d hope that lines like “Dumb it down, I don’t know how, huh-huh, how-how”, whose “how-how” is supposed to rhyme with “towel”, speak for themselves.
When initially discussing this song, one Earbuddy writer who shall remain nameless commended the Khloe Kardashian diss in the third verse. This is the song’s most earnest attempt at riling folks up and is one of the most quoted bits of the song (while “But I done did enough codeine to knock Future into tomorrow” sits there with its thumb up its ass). So what’s the diss? Ahem: “All I know is I fell asleep and woke up in that Monte Carlo / With the ugly Kardashian / Lamar, oh sorry yo, we done both set the bar low”. Now, Eminem made much of his name by disrespecting and mocking celebrities, but he did so by either offering up alternate perspectives of their character or plunging head-first into a well of bastard humor, which is why “Who Knew”’s “Sonny Bono, skis, horses, and hitting some trees” is still funny. The joke here, though, is supposed to involve the temerity of Eminem disrespecting Khloe Kardashian, an ugly person with few redeeming qualities outside of her last name. This is supposed to be a joke, right? Like, with a setup and punchline? Well, where’s the fucking punchline? Are there that many people who think that Khloe Kardashian is not ugly? Fuck, he didn’t even phrase his insult all that well, and if a kid on a schoolyard can tell a half-decent joke that starts with “yo momma so ugly”, what is Eminem’s excuse for botching this insult? Are people just applauding to be polite? Did stating basic facts become fashionable or something? If that’s the case, I’ve got two doozies for you: the sky is blue and water is wet. Thank you, I’ll be here all week.
“Berzerk” is disorganized, ineffective, painfully at odds with itself, and boring outside of the bile fascination that comes with a respected artist falling on their face, yet most people seem to enjoy it for seemingly all of the reasons that I hate it. I understand what it is going for, but that it made me question, even for a moment, the merits of the early sound of the Beastie Boys might be its most telling failing. To Eminem’s credit, he has taught his legions of fans to be aggressively vicious towards critics (critics being “anyone who doesn’t consider Eminem to be the greatest rapper of all time”), so I doubt that most Eminem devotees will read this and respond with anything besides vitriol. If you claim to be invested in hip-hop and wonder what could possibly be better than what Eminem has put out, though, here me out. Pusha T’s My Name is My Name isn’t perfect, but its best moments find a midpoint between alternative hip-hop and a streetwise sensibility that I thought would have been impossible to achieve. Danny Brown’s Old blows XXX out of the water and might be the closest thing to a hip-hop Slaughterhouse-Five we’ll ever get. Black Milk’s No Poison No Paradise might be the most forward-thinking and mature outing from the rapper/producer, and given his past achievements, that is no small feat. Armand Hammer’s Race Music, which comes out next week, sees Bill Woods and Elucid team up to take on some of the biggest beats of the year. And those are just the October releases! Illogic and Blockhead’s Capture the Sun is easily the both effort from both men in years; Serengeti’s Kenny Dennis LP is one of the best hip-hop albums with comedic leanings I’ve heard in a long time; YC the Cynic’s GNK and Run the Jewels’s self-titled are two of the best hip-hop albums I have ever heard; even Cassie’s RockaByeBaby mixtape is pretty damn good. I’m throwing out a lot of names, but trust that I’m leaving out even more. That’s how stacked this year is. I’ll review MMLP2 and judge it on its own merits when it comes out, but if it sucks (which is a very likely possibility given that the singles have failed to get me excited for it), I still have a few dozen hip-hop albums to whet my appetite. I don’t need Eminem. You don’t need Eminem. In this golden age of hip-hop, why settle for Eminem’s brand of copper?
I’m still taking requests. Put them in the comment box.
Read past editions of Own It or Disown It