Gucci Mane isn’t one to mince words. The Atlanta trap guru sparked a small bit of controversy this week after he was asked about the stature of one of the most famous rappers in the game. Eminem has a litany of platinum-selling albums, awards and undeniable success—his name is undoubtedly going to come up whenever you mention the biggest rappers in the industry. During an appearance on Rickey Smiley’s morning show, Gucci was asked if the Detroit rap superstar was the king of the game. He balked at the notion.
“You gotta come with a better name,” Gucci said. “I ain’t playing Eminem in my car. You play him in yours? You sliding around playing Eminem in your car with your old lady?!”
Gucci’s take seemed to surprise a lot of commentators, as several sites ran with the story and added commentary describing Eminem’s massive commercial success, industry awards, and cultural reach over the past two decades. There’s no denying that Eminem is a major star and undoubtedly one of the most famous rappers of all time. Since the early 2000s, no one has sold more than Slim Shady.
But Gucci’s perspective belies an interesting point. So many hip-hop fans have voiced similar thoughts on Em’s career—particularly over the past 10 years or so. Eminem’s fame and popularity may be undeniable but what they mean to hip-hop fans is absolutely debatable. And it’s impossible to have an honest conversation about what they mean without acknowledging how much Eminem being white and having a large white fan base contributes to those staggering numbers and ever-present award nominations.
Despite the fact that virtually every album he’s released since his star-making breakthrough The Slim Shady LP has reached No. 1, Em’s music hasn’t been all that culturally centered for a while; that is to say, black hip-hop fans haven’t really been all that invested, and he hasn’t been the standard-bearer for much of what’s happened in hip-hop since 2010. But it seems like, for a large swath of white people, he has to be a standard-bearer. So many people still desperately need Eminem to be “king,” as Rolling Stone crowned him in 2011.
Ever since the Beastie Boys went multiplatinum, so many commentators have been warily waiting for a racial hijacking of hip-hop—an Elvis Presley to emerge and suddenly wrest the music’s image away from black artists and fans. Hip-hop is a 40-year-old genre that’s been a global industry for almost as long, and it mostly got there by mass-marketing black faces. But we should understand that the hijacking has already happened. It just didn’t quite look the same as what happened to rock and roll after 1955.
The success of an Eminem is an indicator of an age-old truth—white audiences and white industries’ preference for white faces selling black aesthetics—but it’s also evidence of how that racial bias has shaped hip-hop commentary and canonization. Eminem is regarded as one of the most important artists in the history of the genre even though his albums haven’t been as genre-defining as so many of his peers, and his music is only tangentially influential when compared to a Rakim, 2Pac, Jay-Z or Kanye. He’s mostly important for providing white fans a credible entry point into the genre.
And we’re supposed to be OK with that. We’re not supposed to view Eminem and Elvis Presley as comparable. We’re supposed to see Em as authentic and Elvis as a vulture. But Elvis raved about black artists from Jackie Wilson to Mahalia Jackson, topped the R&B charts (and country charts) regularly, made headlines for playing to black audiences in Memphis when festivals were still racially segregated, chummed around with Ike Turner and B.B. King, and James Brown called him his “brother.” You don’t really see a divide between Elvis and black audiences until the “shine my shoes” rumor starts circulating in 1957. That’s two to three years into his career. That planted a seed that was watered by “King of Rock & Roll” chatter and led to a rift between Presley and how black folks perceived him. But that quote was always just a rumor—though it did a lot to cost Presley any semblance of respect in the black community. When it was discovered that Eminem had recorded racist freestyles as a teenager, he apologized and went right back to outselling everyone without missing a beat.
Elvis Presley as the “King of Rock & Roll” was always a distinction bestowed on him by white people. He was a vessel that connected whiteness to a world to which it had previously only been marginally aware—and white America elevated him to the top of the genre for it. The same thing happened to Eminem: he has been rewarded for being white culture’s entry point into blackness. That he was marketed as more authentic than a Vanilla Ice shouldn’t negate that—Em has admitted as much himself on numerous occasions. So did Elvis Presley.
“Presley makes no secret of his respect for the negroes, nor of their influence on his singing. Furthermore, he does not shun them, either in public or private,” it was written in Tan magazine. Presley himself told JET magazine in 1957, “A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” Just as Eminem’s 2004 single “White America” showed self-awareness in declaring, “If I was black, I woulda sold half.”
When Eminem initially became a pop superstar, his background was as widely publicized as his music. He was rarely depicted surrounded by anything but his black peers. His connection to super-producer Dr. Dre was always front and center. It was clear that those selling Eminem to the masses wanted to make sure everyone knew that he had credible black co-signs as he was storming the pop charts. If the industry had been a bit savvier in 1990, they would’ve likely done the same with Vanilla Ice. White supremacy has never required that you indicate white people invented black music in order to center them within it; calling Elvis the “King” wasn’t the same as calling him the “Father.” It didn’t have to be. White supremacy will center white maleness even while acknowledging he exists in a black space. That’s how an Eminem becomes the best-selling and most-awarded rapper of all time.
Eminem doesn’t have to be branded “the King of Rap” because things don’t have to be that obvious anymore. They didn’t have to act like the Beasties invented hip-hop—they just put them in places where black rap couldn’t go, and bought their debut album more than any other rap act of the 1980s. That’s why George Michael can win Best R&B Artist at the 1990 American Music Awards. And why Philly soul-loving Hall & Oates can sell more than The Spinners, The Blue Notes and the Manhattans combined and beat them all into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This idea of authenticity is often misleading, because people will often assign sincerity to music that resonates with them. But go beyond taste and go beyond how the music is marketed. As other fortysomething rappers are presented as legends of yesteryear or pop-culture dinosaurs, Em is treated like a still-important artist despite dwindling cultural sway. Even with no one out there bumpin’ his shit in the ride with their ol’ lady. He has a crown—but not one that we gave him. That’s how whiteness works.