Eminem: as sexual harassment rocks entertainment world, will fans welcome return of rapper and his new album Revival?
Singer’s catalogue has long been characterised by rampant homophobia and misogyny, but in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other stars, how much of more of his shock-value work are people willing to accept?
The rap icon released his last solo album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, in November 2013 – a month before Beyoncé led a feminist charge on her self-titled surprise effort; a year before Kesha filed a lawsuit against producer Dr Luke alleging sexual assault; and more than two years before Kanye West reignited a pop-culture flame war with Taylor Swift over his derogatory lyrics about her on Famous.
Fast forward to this autumn, when each new day brings another wave of sexual harassment allegations against people in power from all corners of the entertainment industry: mega producer Harvey Weinstein. Actor Kevin Spacey. Comedian Louis C.K. Meanwhile, artists continue to navigate an increasingly fraught political climate, using their platforms to combat racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism under the current US administration.
It’s certainly a questionable time for the return of Eminem, who released Beyoncé-assisted single Walk on Water earlier this month, and whose ninth studio album, “Revival”, is expected to be released on Friday.
Eminem’s catalogue has long been characterised by rampant homophobia and misogyny, prejudices that are slowly becoming less prominent in mainstream hip-hop. Under the alter ego Slim Shady, he’s rapped about slitting a cheating lover’s throat (Guilty Conscience), raping his mother (Kill You), and stabbing gay and trans people (Criminal).
Other lyrics have attacked female celebrities, describing graphic sexual violence toward Lana Del Rey, Iggy Azalea and Pamela Anderson, among others.
Whether tongue-in-cheek or literal, his hate speech doesn’t appear to be a thing of the past. Earlier this year, the 45-year-old MC came under fire for his verse on Big Sean’s No Favors, in which he describes torturing political commentator Ann Coulter.
And on Pink’s new song, Revenge, he repeatedly uses slurs such as “whore” and “slut”. The pop star, who was previously featured on Eminem’s Won’t Back Down, defends his verse as an irreverent kiss-off to an ex.
“I know that some people think he’s homophobic, misogynistic and all kinds of things, but there’s a very serious side of me that’s an activist and there’s a very silly side to me. [Revenge] is the silly side,” Pink says. “I’ve worked with Eminem a thousand times – he is not those things. He is an artist, he is a genius and he presses people’s buttons on purpose.”
“I get it. There’s a time to be serious; there’s a lot of things to fight [for right now],” she continues. “I don’t think Eminem is one of those people to fight. He’s one of those people to enjoy for what it is.”
Starting with his 1999 major-label debut The Slim Shady LP, “he’s insisted that he’s going to be as vile as he wants to be because that’s his persona”, says Spencer Kornhaber, a writer at The Atlantic who has written about Eminem.
“People right now want to think of musicians and artists as politicians, and he has always been more in the camp of: he’s going to turn his brain inside out, and whatever disgusting things come out, come out. I would be surprised if that changed now.”
But how many more of Eminem’s shock-value lyrics are people willing to accept? Long-time fans may feel the Grammy winner’s demeaning portrayals of women are out of step with the current landscape.
“For some people, this post-Harvey Weinstein moment has been a chance to wake up to [the fact] that misogyny is a real thing, and elevating artists like Eminem has real-world consequences,” Kornhaber says. “Perhaps some people who just had an awakening will no longer be able to listen to Eminem if they were able to before, but I think for the most part, he’s going to sell a lot of albums regardless.”
His most recent output also suggests that he could be modulating his material. In October, Eminem unleashed a profane freestyle denouncing US President Donald Trump at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, calling out the president’s Twitter tirades about the NFL national anthem protests, and ignorance of gun reform and hurricane victims. Walk on Water, too, trades his sexist content for an introspective look at his legacy and career.
Both songs “suggest that he’s responding in some way to this shift in national discourse, particularly around sexual violence”, says Erik Nielson, an associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, where he teaches classes on hip-hop culture and African American literature.
“It’s a little early to tell, but he seems that he’s aware of this change in tone (culturally) and seems willing to adapt.
“I’m not sure what he will do [on Revival], but I’m convinced that he’s capable of doing a lot more than he has,” Nielson continues. “That Trump freestyle got a lot of people’s attention and I would love to see him use the momentum from that to start tackling these issues of sexual misconduct, sexual violence and misogyny. I’m not sure he will, but I believe he is in a better position than most people to do it.”