Nearly 15 years ago Eminem’s “My Name Is” set a new rap standard when the skinny white MC found fame by filtering his generally abasing wordplay through an obnoxious Labi Siffre sample. While the single’s music video mocked both celebrity and lowest common denominator Ameri-slob entertainment, the track stood out as much for its shock value (or at least anti-PC value) as it did for Marshall Mathers’ talented self-deprecating storytelling. Once shine began to wear thin there, the life-cycle of 1999′s The Slim Shady LP was extended with “Guilty Conscience,” a track that found the rapper continuing to infuriate, casting his lyrical devil (justifying a robbery, date-rape, and murder) opposite Dr. Dre’s voice of reason. The single went platinum. Twice.
This divisive M.O. carried through to The Marshall Mathers LP which followed in 2000, an album which has since been championed as one of the best hip hop LPs ever despite its violent, misogynistic, and homophobic lyrics (which is OK because it’s not real life, it’s art). Marshall Mathers has since struggled with addiction and fame along the way to becoming one of the biggest selling recording artists of all time, and with minimal googling you can find a more comprehensive history written by someone far more adept at relating that story. The point here isn’t to rehash or play up history, but to recognize how much has changed in approaching why Eminem flashing a few familiar fingers in 2013 — as he did last month with his Instagram debut — has come to mean so much.
In recent weeks Eminem has released a song in connection with a hugely popular video game series, announced that The Marshall Mathers LP 2 will drop in November, and unveiled a new music video, appearing on screen as a reborn version of the white-tee wearing, bleach-blonde-rocking agitator who closed out the ’90s by making fun of deflated celebrities. Much of why the globally recognized Eminem™ brand matters now boils down to its worth as a commodity though. Putting the track’s obvious market gains (“Berzerk” will see one million digital downloads before long) to the side, Eminem simply making news helps almost everyone related to the music business eat.
The media bubble is obvious: Good or bad, Eminem doing anything gives every interested outlet an angle to generate highly-clickable content. Talking heads and media farms use this avenue to spew re-contextualized histories (not unlike that which started this article) with the editorial payoff remaining huge: minimal research yields major returns. This is why we collectively need people like Miley Cyrus to do things like what Miley Cyrus is doing: not only to exploit her behavior now, but to resurrect her VMA performance’s cold, limp corpse and prop it up as a somehow relevant event when she returns in her 30s with Bangerz 2.
The driving force behind The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is going well beyond the bare-minimum however, conveniently pre-packaging a story for anyone willing to slap together even the most basic of blog posts. Beyond simply co-opting the original album’s pre-established greatness, the “old school” branding and marketing behind the release offers pageview-hungry publishers too many points of entry to fail. “Let’s take it back to straight hip-hop” riffs Em early on in “Berzerk,” and immediately we’re off to the races…
Music blogs got away with casually “Shady’s back”-ing it, while the bigs went on about how “Berzerk” is “a total banger” that’s “one for the purists,” its video ripe with “plenty of throwback imagery” along the lines of “[a] boombox bigger than LL Cool J’s wildest dreams.” This isn’t even to mention Rick Rubin mean-mugging it for the camera or the “So Whatcha Want” visual-scraping: It’s an editorial Christmas come early. “Berzerk” also allowed newsy news-type outlets to follow the younger MCs are hungrier than Eminem, so he should watch out path, because… whatever. None of these articles are to be outdone, however, by the slew of bloggers who simply embedded the track and asked for readers to “Take a peek below and let us know what you think in the comments,” if they even bothered to bait the hook at all. The Ghost of Jay Z Past lurks right out in the open, “Rap mags try and use my black ass / So advertisers can give ‘em more cash for ads.”
Until the pageview economy completely dries up, we’ll continue to see everyone with a basic grasp of the web utilize this sort of thing to their benefit. In that sense, taking issue with the whatever it takes to round out a slideshow approach is useless. What’s more, arguing that extensive Eminem coverage is somehow unwarranted at this point would seem entirely oblivious to the nature of the media landscape in which we all participate. The importance here comes not with quantity of news impressions, but with how the media’s message has primarily promoted and advanced the manufactured “old school” storyline to the benefit of the deception that Eminem is somehow actually sincere now. Marshall Mathers wants us to believe that K-Fed and Khloe Kardashian disses are just lazy lyrical references, and not a calculated marketing move. Marshall Mathers wants us to believe that his line asking “are you bozos smart enough to feel stupid” is about the dumbing down of Eminem, and not victory for commercial misdirection. Marshall Mathers wants us to believe that “Berzerk” exists for reasons having nothing to do with commerce. And it’s working.
There’s a difference between sounding old school and just sounding old. Yet saying that “Berzerk” sounds old here isn’t an insult, it’s just what it is: Beastie Boys and Billy Squier samples aren’t exactly Next Level Shit in 2013. But what they are is safe, and safe still sells: for the next three months “Berzerk” will be the theme-song to Saturday Night Football. That’s right, the same guy who rapped “You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked? / Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts / Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up” on The Marshall Mathers LP will now present the seasonal college football soundtrack for a Disney-owned property with MMLP2‘s lead single.
Eminem isn’t “bish”-biting and having Kendrick push him out of the way in the “Berzerk” music video because he recognizes the changing of the guard, it’s because doing so is a selling point of the song (media baiting) while also taking a sly jab at those who aren’t catching onto Eminem’s “stupid” character: The old man doesn’t even get it! The same thing goes for Mathers’ appearance on ESPN, where the story should have been less about how a historically insecure human acted awkward on live television and more about how Mathers sold us on the idea that he doesn’t care about marketing despite hawking his Beats By Dre jingle on one of the world’s biggest television channels. Compton’s new king might win the cred game, but until Kendrick can move Chryslers that argument is moot. (Though… you don’t think four-wheeling with Robin Thicke and 2 Chains could be commercial grooming, do you? Let’s not forget who the executive producer behind good kid, m.A.A.d city was.)
Do you really think that there’s no connection here? That Dr. Dre serving as executive producer for The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is just a rekindled connection between old friends? Dr. Dre is the co-majority shareholder of Beats Electronics, the nation’s largest headphone and audio equipment manufacturers (to the tune of $1 billion in annual sales). Eminem fits nicely as a spokesperson for Beats Audio, and “Berzerk” conveniently conforms to the brand’s ongoing aesthetic, serving nicely as a promotional soundtrack. (The fact that Beats Electronics closes the circle by also providing premium audio systems for Chrysler is amusing despite being secondary here.) This isn’t Illuminati-talk, this is Eminem proving that he’s winning where younger MCs still can’t even begin to compete.
What’s to be done when no one’s buying records? How about reintroducing an artist to a ripe market with an ample expendable income, like, let’s say, video game buyers, and piggybacking momentum by promoting their new album in connection with a franchise that has sales figures in the billions. And this is just the start… The current push behind The Marshall Mathers LP 2 has ensured that current media saturation will lend authority to whatever sponsorship opportunities present themselves once the album is actually released. (Eminem is so hot right now!) In the process, Marshall Mathers is showing us all how it’s still possible to make a tremendous amount of money from music (without the nuisance of touring) in an era where very few are actually able to do so: By playing a scripted “stupid” card to stimulate media and consumer interest (you’ve read this far, haven’t you?), using a conveniently amplified throwback persona to groom the appearance of authenticity, and maximizing strategic corporate branding opportunities to ensure that the major label system remains afloat for at least one more quarter. From that standpoint alone, Eminem might matter now more than ever.