Eminem’s Takedown of Trump in the Age of Angry White Men

This week, the forty-four-year-old rapper Eminem delivered the video for “The Storm,” a four-and-a-half-minute freestyle, at the BET Hip Hop Awards. In the clip, he wears a hoodie and scruff, pacing about theatrically in a parking lot and surrounded by an entourage of black men. Cyphers, in which opponents stand in a circle and trade verses, are usually peacocking competitions; here, Eminem’s adversary is not physically present. The rapper stalls for a bit, wondering how he should start. “That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not. But that’s all I got ’til I come up with a solid plot.” Then he tumbles down what seems to be a stream of consciousness involving Trump’s recent scandals: “Instead of talking Puerto Rico or gun reform for Nevada / All these horrible tragedies and he’s bored and would rather / cause a Twitter storm with the Packers.” He alights on Trump’s habitual bigotry, calling a him “ninety-four-year-old racist grandpa” and mocking his proposed ban on immigrants. Before “The Storm” fades to black, Eminem declares, “We love our military and we love our country, but we fucking hate Trump.”

The freestyle was manufactured to go viral, and it did. Colin Kaepernick, whom Eminem defends in the freestyle for his campaign against police brutality, thanked him, as did LeBron James, J. Cole, T. Pain, and a host of other prominent black celebrities. “After 27 years of doubts about rap I am now a fan,” the white commentator Keith Olbermann wrote on Twitter, punctuating the tweet with five clapping-hands emoji. “Best political writing of the year period.” This praise, amplified thousands of times online, was overblown. Even for Eminem, whose talent for conceptual density and accretive wordplay tends to come at the expense of musicianship, the structure of the freestyle was scattered. He repeated truths rather than inventing arrangements with which to communicate them. Were one to question Eminem about his recent contribution to protest music, I suspect he would acknowledge that his was neither the first nor the best takedown of Trump. Yet Eminem’s parachuting in had its own strange momentum, in which the spectrum of the white male ego was on full display and rap, a form born in opposition to white supremacy, was used to challenge it.

The moment was touched with a distorted déjà vu. Nearly a generation ago, the rapper was the general of a raging culture war; in the Bush era, he competed with the Dixie Chicks to be Public Enemy No. 1 among pop artists. His act was so convincing that, in 2002, during a day of rehearsals for his Anger Management Tour, Zadie Smith was surprised to find that the rapper was quite timid. “Sweet. Lovely. Shy,” she wrote for a cover story in Vibe, echoing the observations of one of the rapper’s female associates. It is not that Smith expected Slim Shady, Eminem’s heretical, juvenile alter ego, with lyrics about ripping out Hillary Clinton’s “fucking tonsils” and gleefully dragging “a bitch by her hair,” to be real. Nor did his calm demeanor negate the artist’s essential darkness. Instead, it was the distance between the performer and the man, the freak and the father, the shit-stirrer and the consummate professional, that struck the novelist. “He’s like the Zen master who tells his disciple that enlightenment can be found in a pile of dog dung, and then shakes his head in dismay as the young man gets his hands dirty,” she wrote.

At the time, four albums in, Eminem, born Marshall Mathers III, was carrying the mantle of premier hazardous artist. American parents and Congress were particularly concerned about his lyrics. In 2000, at a congressional hearing on the effects of violence in the media on the country’s children, Lynne Cheney accused Eminem of promoting violence against women. Music critics also pondered his vicious conceptual extravagance: what, exactly, was sophisticated about the video for “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” in which he is shown digging a deep grave, presumably for his mother? Little evaded Eminem’s roving, acid censure. He continued to target women—including the mother of his daughter, Kimberly Anne Scott, the subject of the gruesome “Kim,” and Tipper Gore—as well as MTV, the Cheneys, gay men, and general politesse. “Stomp, push, shove, mush / fuck George Bush!” he spat, on “Mosh,” about the wars the President had started domestically and abroad.

But Eminem also unsettled deeper fault lines. The son of a white single mother, he grew up in Detroit during the period when Reagan was launching his “welfare queen” campaign against single black women. Eminem’s mother, the rapper later said, had forced pills he did not need down his throat. (As he told Smith, “My experience with women has not been great, man.”) As the white middle class was squeezed by changing economic circumstances, the rapper’s family remained poor, left behind in the shadow of disappearing industry. His immersion in black Detroit, and, as he grew increasingly famous, his association with black men—Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, and the group he mentored, D12—dredged traditional fears to the surface. He was a vicious interlocutor, a disruptor of modern whiteness—as Hilton Als wrote in his critical essay “White Noise,” a “white boy not a white boy.”

The knowledge that Eminem came up without power or privilege endeared him to angry young men. The same powerlessness may also have led him to position himself at the helm of an alternative insurgent campaign. In 2004, at the Shady National Convention, an MTV performance dressed in mock-Presidential-campaign regalia, he wore a “Shady ’04” button while 50 Cent and Dr. Dre, his Cabinet members, grinned beside him. Donald Trump gave a speech at that performance, endorsing him: “And Donald Trump is telling you right now, Slim Shady is a winner.” Eminem’s weird patriotism was deeply linked to his obvious narcissism; his songs about America involved grand talk about remaking it in his image. “White America, little Eric looks just like this / White America, Erica loves my shit,” he taunted on “White America,” from the album “The Eminem Show.” Eminem could have been, as he said, “one of your kids.” The entirely animated video for “Mosh” featured citizens storming the White House guided by an intrepid Eminem; a cartoon Cheney suffers a heart attack at its end.

For Eminem, there was a justice in omnipresence. In 2000, at MTV’s Video Music Awards, he marched with hundreds of clones, their hair militantly bleached like his, into Radio City Music Hall. The man who loathed pop as much as he hated the government had become America’s biggest pop star. He tried to cling to his outsider status, forming a kinship with Marilyn Manson on the track “The Way I Am.” (Manson had also been accused of infecting America’s youth, after it was revealed that the Columbine shooters were fans of his music.) But lyrical cruelty to the contemporary teen queens Christina Aguilera (“You, little bitch, put me on blast on MTV”) and Britney Spears (“What’s this bitch, retarded?”) could not obscure the fact that Eminem benefitted from the same ecosystem as they did.

During the Obama era, with its celebrity-attended balls and dinners, Eminem mostly dropped out of the pop-culture conversation, but he is still the best-selling rap artist of all time. His legacy remains a popular topic for arbiters of rap and pop culture who argue that his music hasn’t aged well, that there’s a clichéd streak in his later efforts, that he may never have made good music after all. But, last year, his anger seemed suddenly relevant again. On the day of the third Presidential debate, Eminem released a seven-minute freestyle, “Campaign Speech,” that seemed to liken Slim Shady to Trump. “If I was President, gettin’ off is the first order of business,” he said. The sentiment barely shocked anyone; even Lin-Manuel Miranda, who based the rapping style of the title character in “Hamilton” partly on Eminem, tweeted at the President that he’s “going straight to hell.” The President speaks just as lewdly.

“The Storm” is freighted with the artist’s ambivalence about his own influence and admirers; as he says at the end, “And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his / I’m drawing in the sand a line you’re either for or against.” There’s a whiff of political correctness to that language; the Eminem of fifteen years ago hated litmus tests and enjoyed blurring the line between his fantasies and reality. Back then, Zadie Smith and Eminem and the most serious, ambitious believers in pop culture were in agreement that it was not the duty of the popular artist to set the moral tone for the public. Now, as performance has become government, “The Storm” furiously conveys a shift. The culture war is coming from inside the White House.

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