Aging Out of Music
Eminem’s latest album. The levels to aging as a rapper. And the disconnect in generational communications.
Since I first heard the nasally, sporadic streams of thought blasting through my brother’s CD player, I was in awe of the voice creating the most vivid, fascinating verses I had ever heard. The crude rapper breezed through each line, making the most incredible lyrical feats (including successfully rhyming “orange” several times) seem effortless — all the while telling a hyperbolized story of their life.
Eminem has been challenging the limits of free speech on behalf of all mainstream artists’ for decades, managing to grab the attention of a nation through his rise in the early 90s. An entire generation of youths eager for self-expression latched on to the newest voice of dissent, as parents and lawmakers singled him out as the problem with youth culture.
Thorugh all the adversity heaved at him from the public and media, he remained true to himself and stood his ground. From the lyrics, stories, personal triumphs, and skeletons addressed through the music, Em helped to guide me toward my love of music. He has always been somewhere close to the top of my greatest of all-time lists since the first album I heard.
But I haven’t listened to an Eminem album in earnest since Recovery.
So rare is the message of an artist’s music able to span past the generation they originated, and reach the subsequent ears raised on the foundations laid before it. So when a 47-year-old vet of hip hop releases an album — in a market where mid to late 20 seems like the average retirement age — I get nervous.
Eminem’s latest album Music To Be Murdered By highlights the disconnects of age that persist throughout society. The poor critical reviews and great market success. The synbiotic relationship of artist and audience communication clashes as the vet yells to a younger generation it seems he doesn’t want to lovingly embrace.
Music and Murder
The intro track entitled “Premonition” immediately addresses the elephant in the room as Em gets to work, laying his heart on his sleeve. True to form, he treats the studio like a one-man therapy session with no boundaries in sight. In the aftermath of the last album’s critical flop, which fueled rumblings that he is long past his prime, Em attempts to make another attempt to prove critics wrong, and prove something greater to himself.
The opening song alludes to LL Cool J comparisons to reconcile poor ratings of the previous album, “Rolling Stone stars, I get two and a half outta five, and I’ll laugh out loud/’Cause that’s what they gave B.A.D. back in the day.” LL’s critically mixed second studio album ended up on the Source’s 100 Best Rap Albums, despite the 2.5 stars it received in Rolling Stone — the same rating Shady’s Revival earned — making the comparison warranted given Eminem’s faith in the endurance of his legendary status.
Sprinkled throughout the album are references to Em’s struggle with his past status as the top of the rap world, juxtaposed with now having to contend with critical comments about his aging out of the profession. “All the hate, can’t tell exactly where it stems from / But it’s happening again, huh? / Y’all used to be in my corner.” While pointing to the hypocrisy that other 40 somethings still in the game don’t get the same comments, “Nobody said shit about 2 Chainz as long as he’s been here”.
A fair point. There are a handful of 40 somethings peppered within today’s hip hop hits, whom we don’t readily recognize as being as old as they are. They don’t sound so out of place when mixed with the young generation of artists. Artists such as 2 Chainz, Jay Z, DJ Khalid, Rick Ross, and Gucci Mane (turning 40 next month) are welcomed additions to most tracks and some coveted features for hopeful artists wanting to make a smash hit.
Em’s name on the critic’s retirement list is not a question of skill, as he continues to display his pristine command of lyrics and messaging. Songs such as “Unaccommodating”, alongside Young M.A., let the verbal punchlines fly from both sides showcasing old flashes of the feared lyricist. Certainly still shocking — as “Farewell” begins with the demeaning verbal abuse that we have come to expect from his album. The album is as macabre as the title suggests. Though the bias for gore comes with more maturity than the casual use of earlier albums.
The carefree, shockingly blunt emotions his verses are capable of inciting are still present. Still possessing uncanny ability to relate his twisted sense of coarse humor to the angsty teen in us all. The outro of “Darkness” decrescendos to numerous news reports of mass shootings. “Stepdad” revisits old childhood pain, telling the origin story of Marshal’s hatred for his stepdad. Still finds ways to pull his skeletons out the closet for a compelling story.
To this day his pen is powerful as ever. Yet, delivery to an audience proves to be the fatal flaw.
Business and Culture Mix
It’s called music business for a reason. Like any product on the market, an artist is not immune to the market forces. Shady’s bold, in your face disregard for reverence took a genre known for its counter culture to new heights. And the culture he helped to build takes his lessons to the next level.
It is the ability to communicate effectively with the younger hip hop culture that has faded, as the decades have introduced various evolutions to the sounds and the audiences listening.
The generation of budding music listeners today is once or twice removed from the rapper’s prime. The 90s and early 2000s were like another century to the emerging adults born then. The times were different and the culture was, even more, unrecognizable — from the clothes, the lingo, to the concerns on the collective mind of our society.
The product of an early 90s hip hop culture, Eminem was produced among a crop of artists who embodied the voice of their unique culture — save the timeless classics that slip the bounds of time. The style of their music remained custom fitted to the time. As the artists, and the medium, evolved, so did their way of delivering their message.
As a proverbial middle child still consuming “New Music Daily” playlists my ears are tuned to the frequency of my generations’ melodies, yet still retaining a fond appreciation for the classics of my childhood. Their differences are night and day. As they should be.
New music draws from aspects of its ancestors to provide a melding of influential styles with the heart of a new generation. As we grow, the old ways of communicating our cultural experiences are conditioned on change. As we take in new events, we must develop a new way to cope with them. A certain cadence, matched with a certain key, in a certain bpm. Classics of yesterday cannot always be so easily mixed with our culture today. As Vince Staples so eloquently stated during an interview on Jemele Hill is Unbothered podcast, “Can you play it after Big Ol Freak?” “Can you blend it with Act Up?” These songs serve as a litmus test of culture compatibility for the moment’s radio hit singles.
Em is not the only aging rapper still active in the rap industry today. As he pointed out, there are different responses. Gucci Mane, the soon to be 40-year-old rapper whose career spans almost two solid decades, continues as a staple in the industry. His endurance is largely due to the embracing of the sounds of the generations following him. This has inspired the culture to embrace him as their own, ensuring his relevance past several hiatuses. He not only sounds at home on the charts, he is still influencing the sound when many of his contemporaries he entered the game with have moved to other ventures.
With Eminem’s surprise album debuting at №1on Billboard 200, earning his 10th №1 debut, it is hard to deny the impact he still commands among his fan base. The sales are solid, yet the critical response has been resoundingly underwhelming for years.
As a fan of the artist who brought me countless hours of joy, I could never feel comfortable recommending a legend retire his jersey for good. But as a fan of the music, I can’t help but insist the old guard intent on waring with the generations they helped to create step aside. Not because they have become less than in their ascending age, because they should be proud of their accomplishments. They should revel in the legacy they have earned, and take pride in the music industry in which they left their timeless mark. Let the new up and coming artists, trying to make their impression on the game you bequeathed, enjoy the light without a shadow in their wake.