The first rule of relevance is: you don’t talk about relevance. And you certainly don’t release a single talking about how relevant you are (especially if its immediate predecessor sounded like it was made in 1988). Oh, Eminem — how did it come to this? 2013 is the year of the hip-hop midlife crisis, but even so, there’s something particularly unedifying about “Rap God,” Eminem’s new single, wherein he spends six minutes and a lot of words talking about the fact that he is still, yes, a rap god.
Sure, Eminem can still rap, but then, was that ever in doubt? His verses on “Rap God” are impressively tongue-twisting, and at times jaw-droppingly dextrous — the bit at about 4:25 when he unleashes a crazy, apparently breathless, stream of lyrics is the sort of thing that makes you stop and rewind a few times to work out what on earth he’s on about. But this show of virtuosity is like watching Yngwie Malmsteen or Steve Vai letting rip with an intimidatingly complex guitar solo. Very few others can rap like this, or play like that. But if technical skill equated to cultural relevance, Jeff Beck would have been a superstar.
The thing is that there’s something of the perpetual adolescent about Eminem, which is why his schtick is increasingly incongruous as the years go by. There’s already been plenty of debate about his liberal use of the word “faggot” in this song, and really, if Tyler, the Creator should know better, then there’s really no excuse for a man who’s just turned 40 to be carrying on like Beavis and/or Butt-Head, “ironically” or otherwise.
But then, it’s kinda unclear who Eminem thinks he’s appealing to these days, anyway. “You don’t really wanna get into a pissing match with this rappidy rap,” he spits during the song’s first verse. But really, who is even interested in a pissing contest with Eminem in 2013? People who think it’s, like, totally fine to call people “faggots” are listening to Odd Future, anyway; they were in diapers the last time Eminem represented the pop cultural expression of adolescent rage, and it’s not like they’re gonna suddenly rush out and buy “Rap God.”
Meanwhile, Eminem’s contemporaries have largely left the “controversial” antics of their youth behind. 2013 seems to be the year wherein cashed-up aging rappers attempt to ascend to godhood — cf. Kanye West’s “I Am a God” and Jay-Z’s “You’re in the presence of a god” declaration on the hilariously awful “Crown” — but at least they wear it reasonably well. Jay-Z has been inhabiting the role of regal hip-hop overlord for nearly a decade now, a position that’s drawn some measure of attention away from his decline as a creative force. West, meanwhile, remains a genuinely visionary producer and cultural touchstone.
Eminem is neither of these things, which is perhaps why “Rap God” feels so… so dated, really. If anything, its lyrics sound like no time has passed at all from its creator’s days as hip hop’s enfant terrible — there are name-checks for Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, for Columbine and the glory days of the Marshall Mathers LP. In the spirit of dwelling on the past, Eminem cites his own influences — “Rakim, Lakim Shabazz, 2Pac, N.W.A, Cube, Doc, Ren, Yella, Eazy” — and talks wistfully about how he got to induct Run-DMC into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This is all well and good, but what about the here and now? In the same verse, Eminem describes himself as the “leader of a new school full of students,” which feels like wishful thinking — today’s luminaries have certainly cited him as an influence, but only one amongst many. Contemporary references, meanwhile, are few and far between, and feel forced — there’s a halfhearted diss for Waka Flocka Flame, of all people, set amongst a sort of general invitation for the youth of today to get off the Mathers lawn: “You fags think it’s all a game ’til I walk a flock of flames/ Off of planking, tell me what in the fuck are you thinking?”
This song’s defenders have suggested that’s beside the point, and sure, no one expects Eminem to be any more in touch with the underground and/or the man on the street than, say, Madonna or Jay-Z or any other “millionaire recluse.” But hey, if this is meant to be the return of the king, or a god, it falls short. Apart from the lyrics, there’s the production, which feels like an awkward bid for fitting into what the kidz are listening to these days, what with its insistent Skrillex-esque mosquito-farty synth and all. To say the beat’s lackluster would be rather kind. But then, it rather exemplifies the spirit of the whole thing: a “rap god” alone in his lonely Olympus, shouting at the void.
At the start of the second verse, Eminem proclaims, “Everybody want the key and the secret to rap immortality like I have got/ Well, to be truthful, the blueprint’s simply rage and youthful exuberance.” Sadly, it’s not really that simple. Every artist — and especially musicians, since popular music is an artform that venerates youth more than any other — gets to a point in their career where they confront the fact that the rage and youthful exuberance that once sustained them isn’t enough anymore, where being shocking and controversial and all that seems more undignified than it does confrontational. This song is the sound of a man raging against the dying of that particular light, and it’s an unedifying spectacle for all concerned.