A tragically lost prophet

I have never been a “fan” of Eminem, but I have maintained a healthy respect for what he does. Sounds crazy? Let me explain a bit.

Without a doubt, Eminem changed the face of American Rap music. His style and lyrical insanity pushed the boundaries in a genre that had fallen into trite expressions about women and killing. This isn’t to say others haven’t helped shape the rap game, simply that I don’t think anyone has had the impact Eminem has. I’m not a music expert, so take my opinion for what it is. But to put it in perspective: my 50 year old mother knows who Eminem is. I can’t say the same for any other rapper. And that’s because he impacted more than just rap; Eminem changed the way we listen to pop music in general. His volatile lyrics reflected a struggle that was going on in the consciences of Americans everywhere. This is not that same as saying, “I feel like I know where he’s been.” If anything, I think his success is the opposite; few of us know the kind of rage that he spews in his songs, and as a result, his hatred assuages our guilt. “If he feels that way, maybe I’m not as bad as I think.” That’s a crushing indictment, but I think it’s the right one.

Over the years, I think Eminem sensed this as well (or something akin to it), and he began to transition from a reflection of our culture to a prophet speaking to it. That is a big shift. And I think the damage has been great, both to Mr. Mathers and to the people who absorb his lyrics. It’s hard to pinpoint how this shift happened, but there are some clear markers in his music along the way. “Lose Yourself,” “The Way I Am” and “Sing for the Moment” are just a couple examples. These are not passive songs, merely describing his own situation (like, say “Stan” or “The Real Slim Shady”), but these songs actually try to steer the direction of interaction. In many ways, these are a form of worship music, although I think many would be uncomfortable with the idea that people worship Eminem. Still, I think the argument stands. Music is emotionally charged, and has an effect on its listeners. Some of his albums have more of this than others, but what has always been prophetic about it is the tension Mathers details between his position of “responsibility” and how the fame destroys him.

I would say that the prophetic element of his music came to a head with “Love the Way You Lie.” This is probably the ultimate expression of what I mean when I call Mathers a “modern-day prophet.” Here is a man outright identifying the sins of the culture in which he is a part, and not letting anyone off the hook for it. Why do people hate his music? Well, a number of reasons, but I think the main reason is that he does not describe people as they want to be; he describes people as they are, in all their sin and muck and self-destruction. The problem is this: Eminem does not call people to repentance because he does not understand the problem. He can identify the problem, but he has no clue how to fix it.

This is evident in his newest album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. It’s an interesting title in my opinion, because it is a regression from the prophetic stance that has characterized his music for so long. This album is a return to basics: it is a passive, descriptive attempt to wrestle with the life Mathers finds himself in. In “Rap God,” he declares how awesome he is, peppering the verses with references to “helping people” with his music, and feeling as if he is superhuman because of the power his music wields. But as with all who revel in power, he lacks authority, and as such this illusion of grandiosity comes tumbling down in songs like “The Monster.” He is still saying he hopes he helps people, but now he is the one crying out for help as well. Songs like this demonstrate the one incontrovertible fact that has dogged Mathers for so long: he is not a savior. He’s known this all along, and reminded people of it frequently (again, see “Stan). Yet somewhere along the way, the lines between prophet and savior became blurred, and Eminem lost his way.

So what do we have? A prophet, who is lost as to what he is supposed to do with his gift, firing off his mouth as fast as he can as if speed will somehow mask the futility of his efforts. Just bear this in mind: if he is indeed a prophet (even a false one), he is a mirror image of the culture he damns. Pray for Mr. Mathers. I think he needs it more than people might think.

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