I was about fifteen when I started to get into Eminem. My best mate – who naturally I was sort of in love with – was a huge fan and would play his songs on loop while we sat around drinking cider in the park. After a camping trip with him and his family, I went out and bought The Eminem Show on CD, having heard nothing but Eminem for days. I listened to it a lot, mostly because it reminded me of my mate, but also because it was packed with really, really good songs.
Fast forward to last week and I was bemused to hear an excited Radio 1 DJ announce that Eminem is set to headline this year’s Reading and Leeds festivals. Having not thought much about Eminem for quite a while, I was surprised to find that he was still considered relevant, given that in my head he belongs firmly in the past, an era when casual homophobia and misogyny were basically, you know, fine.
But things are different now. It’s not OK to threaten to punch Lana Del Rey in the face. Ignorance isn’t an excuse to still be throwing around the word ‘faggot’. And cracking jokes about raping women just isn’t on. I mean, obviously. And all of these examples are from the last few years – so why are continuing to laud this guy as some sort of rap saviour?
Back in the mid noughties, Eminem’s brand of brash, cartoonish rap was fresh and exciting, at least in the mainstream. Many of his biggest hits, from ‘Without Me’ to ‘The Real Slim Shady’ played on a wacky, unhinged persona, poking fun at popular culture through quirky, juvenile tracks rapped in his instantly recognisable voice, both urgent and ferocious. But like all novelties, Eminem’s shtick went out of date. Listening to some of his most recent output, from ‘Berzerk’ to ‘Rap God’, you can’t help but be left with the feeling that you’ve heard all this before, several years ago, when Eminem was still interesting.
Rap and hip hop have evolved since Eminem’s heyday. In an age of Kanye, Drake, Chance, Future and Kendrick, there just isn’t much room for a surly forty-four year old white guy rapping about his mom. It seems incongruous that while so many of Eminem’s contemporaries are rapping about important social issues, Eminem is still wrapped up in a cult of his own personality. His music remains, as it always has been, narcissistic and inwards looking, largely oblivious to the world outside of himself except for the occasional reference to pop culture. Whereas this was once edgy, now it just feels forced.
In this day and age, it’s inexcusable to be a white rapper who raps only about his own greatness. As a musician who has built his career on the back of black music, Eminem’s silence as black culture is attacked is deafening. While Kanye and Kendrick are drawing attention to police brutality, Eminem is still indulging himself in rhymes about his own importance, still living in a time when these rhymes were true, in a long gone era when Eminem really was the greatest rapper in the world.
So why did the Reading and Leeds organisers opt for Eminem over a more current, and more interesting, rapper? Why did they choose the white guy when they could have picked from a multitude of black rappers who are more relevant? Likely, the organisers are targeting the nostalgia market. Reading and Leeds is known for being swarmed with students fresh from taking their A levels, so choosing a headliner who most eighteen year olds will have grown up with is a pretty safe choice. But with Eminem’s long history of misogyny and homophobia, it’s not an excusable one, and the question still stands – why, in 2017, do we give a shit about Eminem?