I was listening to Eminem’s “Monster” the other day (not by choice, mind you- it’s just been on repeat on the radio since its release), and a somewhat jarring thought occurred to me: Eminem is old. The guy’s in his forties now, with a daughter who just got named homecoming queen at her high school. I don’t know how you feel about that, but to me, it’s incredibly weird. And “Monster,” which will probably disappear from the radio in 2 to 3 months, is probably the closest thing to a ubiquitous song he can release nowadays. It’s the proverbial march of time, and even someone as talented as Eminem can’t escape its inexorable grasp.
I remember when I was a teenager listening to hip-hop and I always used to think “Man, it’s weird to know that I’m going to be listening to hip-hop when I’m old.” We’re really the first generation that grew up with and will grow old with that genre of music, which is kind of awesome. Imagine being 75 years old and saying “Oh man, remember when jazz came out? Those were some crazy times!” We have the opportunity to say that about hip-hop. Of course, it’s entirely possible that hip-hop will be something completely different/shitty/watered-down by the time we’re old enough to reflect upon it, but just the fact that the possibility exists is, I think, really cool.
On the other hand, though, as we grow old with hip-hop, so will the artists with whom we associate hip-hop grow old and eventually fade away. In some respects, it’s already happened; unless you’re a big fan of the genre, you’ve either never heard of or already forgotten about most old-school rappers. I don’t mean Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg or the like, either- I’m talking about Kool Moe Dee, MC Shan, Grandmaster Flash, etc. Hip-hop is unique in that there’s really no market for “classic” rappers, and no room for nostalgia. Because it’s largely driven by youth culture, you don’t get people going “Oh shit, Rakim and Eric B. are doing a show at Madison Square Garden and charging $125 for a ticket! WE HAVE TO GO!” the way they do when Journey reunites for a quick cash-grab tour. I don’t know about you, but when I hear about old-school rappers doing a show, I just kinda go “Oh…they’re still doing that? Hmm.” Maybe it’ll change once we’re a generation or two removed from the inception of hip-hop. I don’t know.
It’s also peculiar to remember that Eminem used to be a shock value machine. Everything he did or said was endlessly covered by the media, his lyrics were dissected in a way that historically hasn’t happened and, most of all, people seemed legitimately terrified by the prospect of someone like him getting through to the youth of America. I remember the first time I heard “Kim,” and it spooked the hell out of me. He was rapping about murdering his daughter’s mother, for Christ’s sake. But if he did it today? I’d be bored. There’s a law of diminishing returns that comes with being edgy- eventually everybody else catches up or outpaces you, and they can do that because the original “shocking” artist numbed his audience to what he was saying to such a degree that what was once shocking is now mundane, and what is now shocking was once abjectly terrifying. None of this is to say that Eminem isn’t immensely talented, because he’s probably more technically proficient today than he was in the earlier years of his career. But something of a paradigm shift has occurred: we’ve stopped looking at him as a talented rapper and looking at him more as a talented rapper for his age. We’re no longer impressed by the things he does, per se, but rather by the fact that he’s been able to do these things consistently well for such a long time.
The reason I invoked Kurt Cobain in the title is because I think Eminem gives us a good idea of the kind of artist Kurt Cobain would have become had he not committed suicide. I never really subscribed to the theory that Kurt Cobain would have turned out the way Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins did (that is, like a total fucking space cadet); Cobain’s music was visceral, coming in largely short, violent bursts before it flamed out from sheer exhaustion. Conversely, Corgan’s was more cerebral and almost orchestral in its arrangement. Eminem is talented at nearly every type of hip-hop, but he’s at his best when he’s being absolutely insane, and it is in that regard that Cobain and Eminem are most closely related.
Part of the reason why people still mourn Cobain is because he brought to the mainstream consciousness a genre that would come to define a generation, and one can’t help but wonder what else he might have accomplished had he not killed himself. Would he have mellowed with age? Would he have stayed with the grunge thing until he died at age 67? Or did he have something else in him that might have molded another generation? We’ll never know. I don’t mean to imply that Eminem popularized hip-hop in the same way that Cobain popularized grunge, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to name another rapper who resonated with pop culture fanatics (i.e., whites) the way that Eminem did. He was a cultural phenomenon, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another one quite like it within hip-hop. So whether you like him or not, I would keep an eye on his career trajectory from this point forward. He might turn out like Billy Corgan, but you can’t discount the possibility that he’ll give us the hip-hop equivalent of an older, wiser Kurt Cobain. And who knows? Maybe the next generation will be downloading his 18th album on Spotify some day (and Eminem won’t be getting paid for it. OH WELL.)
Hopefully they don’t download “Monster,” though. That song kinda blows.