Slim Shady is back. And, sadly, he hasn’t changed much.
It’s a question that’s been raised ever since Eminem’s game-changing major-label debut The Slim Shady LP was released in 1999, and it’s, depressingly, being raised again following the release of his new track, “Rap God”: Is Eminem’s new song homophobic?
We ask the question seemingly after every new Eminem album. We’re tired of it at this point, right?
The song, six minutes of braggadocio set to a bass beat, is the lead single off of his upcoming album The Marshall Mathers LP 2. And let’s not raise the question this time. Instead, let's declare it definitively: it's homophobic. Sample lyrics below:
Little gay-looking boy / So gay I can barely say it with a straight face-looking boy / You witnessing massacre like you watching a church gathering taking place-looking boy / 'Oy vey, that boy's gay,' that's all they say looking-boy / You take a thumbs up, pat on the back, the way you go from your label every day-looking boy.
The lyrics of the song aren’t jarring when taken in the context of Eminem’s oeuvre. Take the rapper’s crowning achievement in commercialized hate speech, 2000’s “Criminal”:
My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge
That’ll stab you in the head, whether you’re a fag or lez
Or the homosex, hermpah or trans-a-vest
Pants or dress, hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes’
Homphobic? Nah, you’re just heterophobic
Singling out “Criminal,” however, may seem almost arbitrary, as lyrics that could be construed as homophobic litter dozens of Eminem’s tracks, from “Criminal” to 2009’s “Elevator,” which takes aim at out celebrities Lance Bass, Adam Lambert, and Clay Aiken: “Sorry, Lance, Mr. Lambert and Aiken ain’t gonna make it. They get so upset when I call them both faggots.” So sensitive, those guys.
The pendulum swing in the debate over whether Eminem is homophobic or anti-gay, at this point, is dizzying. He responded to GLAAD’s outrage over “Criminal” as “hate filled” and the group’s protest outside the Staples Center at that year’s Grammy Awards by performing a "legendary" duet with Elton John during the ceremony. At the end, the two embraced and Eminem flicked off the crowd, a middle-finger mea culpa.
When Moby called Eminem a “homophobe” in 2001, the rapper responded by calling him a “36-year-old, bald-headed fag” and vowing to beat him up at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. But don’t misinterpret such threats as homophoic. “I think some people are a little too uptight, and take things a little bit too seriously,” Eminem told MTV News after his Moby comments made national news.
But as the controversy over his so-called homophobia continued to haunt him years later, Eminem sat down with Anderson Cooper, who was not yet out but still an advocate against anti-gay hate speech, in 2010 to explain himself, insisting that he doesn’t hate the gay community. “I don’t have any problem with nobody, you know what I mean?” he said. “Like, I’m just whatever."
If he’s “just whatever,” then why repeatedly use a word that an entire group of people had been extremely vocal about how hurtful, hateful, and dangerous they find it, and who had pleaded with him to stop? This is where Eminem pulls a Paula Deen before Paula Deen even knew she’d have to pull a Paula Deen—it’s not his fault he says hateful things, it’s how he was raised:
“That word was thrown around so much, you know? Faggot was, like, it was thrown around constantly, to each other, like in battling, you know what I mean?”
He went on to claim that he’s the one who’s been victimized by the controversy. “I felt like I was being attacked,” he said. “I was being singled out. And I felt like, is this because of the color skin? Is it because that, you’re paying more attention? Is it because there’s certain rappers that do and say the same things that I’m saying? And I don’t hear no one saying anything about that. I didn’t just invent saying offensive things.”
You didn’t invent saying offensive things. But you say them. And they’re offensive. And people are offended.
And people are still offended. But more than, they’re confused.
Sure, we’ve come to expect Eminem to rap homophobic lyrics, no matter what meaningless actions or non-apology apologies or empty gestures he’s used over the years to prove that he’s not purposefully disparaging anyone. But even if we expect those lyrics, by this point, we should be done giving him a free pass. The “word was thrown around constantly” argument or the “I didn’t mean anything by it” rationale is no longer valid, with over a decade of people enlightening him on the necessity of not using such hate speech.
But the hip-hop scene is also one now that shouldn’t—and, really, doesn’t—tolerate these themes. Frank Ocean, who is openly bisexual, has been embraced as one of the industry’s most talented young stars. Macklemore’s gay-rights anthem, a musical lesson on acceptance and tolerance, became a massive mainstream hit. Jay-Z ripped the gay-rights movement as “discrimination” and 50 Cent, who once said “being gay isn’t cool,” has done a complete 180, saying, “Anyone who hates Frank Ocean is an idiot…Obama is for same-sex marriage. If the president is saying that, then who am I to go the other way?”
You could almost, then, call Eminem’s retread into homophobia a calculating ploy to stir up controversy—Slim Shady loves himself a good hullaballoo, after all—were it not for the fact that the industry seems to be wholly ignoring it.
Reviews for “Rap God” ignore its incendiary lyrics, glossing over them on the way to effusive praise for the new track. In its headline, TIME called the track “divine,” predicting that it’s the first of what will be an “immortal recording.” Rolling Stone’s survey of the song’s influences skips over, you know, “bigotry.” MTV News praises its “expertly laid verses.”
In other words, after all these years and after all these lessons supposedly learned—in 2010 Eminem said he supported same-sex marriage—Eminem is still getting a free pass on homophobia. It’s a lifetime pass, it seems, which is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate, first of all, because hateful lyrics in popular songs perpetuate hateful treatment of people and it’s necessary to call out anyone guilty of keeping hurtful phrases in the mainstream, regardless of whether they claim no intentional prejudice by them.
But second of all, and perhaps even more importantly, “Rap God” is a brilliant track. It’s a return to form for a rapper who was once the most exciting talent in the game. It would be brilliant without the offensive lyrics, making the controversy drummed up a frivolous distraction. The song doesn’t need the words to be provocative, or to carry the same bravado. They take away from those attributes.