‘The Death of Slim Shady’ or Not, You Can’t Kill Eminem. Not Really.

His hit single, “Houdini,” is the latest example of Eminem, for more than a decade now, successfully defying every aging critic and each disillusioned fan imploring him to grow up

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This past month in hip-hop, in the immediate aftermath of Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar, there has been a minor surge of disagreeable releases met with widespread mockery. You had Drake once again employing his signature patois to spoof “Hey There Delilah,” of all songs, with “Wah Gwan Delilah,” a confoundingly goofy ode to Toronto from local parody rapper Snowd4y. You also had J. Cole launching into a characteristically mortifying series of sex raps, e.g., She gon’ chew on this stick like it’s Wrigley’s, in his guest verse on “Grippy” by Cash Cobain.

And then you had “Houdini,” the lead single from Eminem’s forthcoming album, The Death of Slim Shady (Coup de Grâce). “Houdini” is a song with plenty of controversial elements—from its pointedly retro beat to its mildly provocative punchline about Megan Thee Stallion—drawing all sorts of ridicule of Eminem on podcasts and TikTok. But now it’s the no. 2 song in the country. So what do those people know, really?

Eminem has long been a figure proudly out of step with the general direction of hip-hop. He’s a self-contained and self-sustaining musical continuity, and “Houdini” is a self-conscious throwback to his 2000s heyday. The song and its music video both extensively evoke “Without Me,” the biggest single from the biggest album of his career, The Eminem Show. The music video stages a generational clash of two versions of Eminem. There’s the supposedly washed-up Marshall Mathers, a bearded brunette who’s a bit too old to still be running around in superhero spandex, as “Rap Boy.” And then there’s the classic Eminem, the trailer park heartthrob with a bleached blond buzz cut wrapped in a bandana, wearing his signature white tee with baggy sweatpants, emerging dumbstruck (and rather impressively de-aged) from “a portal from 2002.” This Eminem is irritated by the sight of so many yuppies immersed in smartphones and VR. He doesn’t get emojis. He flips off his own daughters on FaceTime. He says he’ll “hit an 8-year-old in the face with a participation trophy,” and so he does. Slim Shady must, but ultimately can’t, be stopped! Guess who’s back—back again—once more proving the latest reports of his irrelevance to be greatly exaggerated.

Disagreements about the musical worthiness of post-peak Eminem have in recent years become so heated, loaded, and polarizing that it’s now a minor culture-war conflict. Eminem’s the ultimate white rapper, with all the good grief that’s always entailed; there’s some sense that he’s perennially overrated by white fans who, on some level, see him as more accessible or relatable than Black rappers of a similar caliber—or higher. (I don’t agree—I think he’s properly rated as one of the most tremendously talented and rightly influential rappers of his generation—but that’s the argument you’ll hear.) His late-career success story is a peculiar one. Hip-hop is still a relatively young musical tradition, and many of its elder statesmen—Jay-Z, Kanye West, André 3000—become conspicuously more bougie and tasteful (in the scariest of scare quotes, especially as far as Kanye is concerned) in middle age. Eminem is the glaring counterexample: Here you have an artist who’s won great acclaim and amassed an even greater fortune in the course of a quarter century yet still specializes in low-brow punchlines and put-downs over no-frills production. Honestly—cards on the table—I relate to his detractors more, yet, on the merits, I’d say his stalwarts have the stronger argument here: Eminem sounds quaint to some because Eminem, shamelessly and so rather admirably, does something that no one else is really doing at this level, at this point, with this sort of consistency and self-assurance. He’s rapping for the love of the game, for fans who aren’t necessarily scrambling to keep up with the trap zeitgeist or the innovations of younger rappers.

Strangely, though, Eminem has been marketing The Death of Slim Shady, with its overwrought title, as the turning of a page. He ran a mock obituary for his alter ego in his hometown newspaper, the Detroit Free Press: “His complex and tortured existence has come to a close.” I’m inclined to view this setup as yet another one of his characteristically carnivalesque and ultimately meaningless gimmicks, because otherwise, it’s not immediately obvious to me what the “death” of Slim Shady is even meant to evoke on a metaphorical or metanarrative level. Classically, Slim Shady represented the bleakest thoughts and rudest impulses of Marshall Mathers, tormented by his alter ego as he struggled to become a good and sober father. Slim was a somewhat goofy caricature, sure, but nonetheless a powerful construct; Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers, together, formed a multifaceted persona who could prove at once trashy and poignant on earlier albums. Late-career Eminem is hardly so anguished. Ever since “Rap God”—the tongue-twisting, spitfire single released in 2013—and The Marshall Mathers LP 2, he’s seemed mostly concerned with preserving his chops and proving he still belongs in the pantheon, on the merits of his technique, after all these years. His skill as a lyricist now came with only a fraction of the rage and a mere echo of the old torments. You’d be forgiven for assuming that Slim Shady had already been killed off of this particular sitcom years ago.

Eminem, Slim Shady, Marshall—whatever you want to call him—for more than a decade now he’s successfully defied every aging critic and each disillusioned fan imploring him to grow up, to adapt to both the prevailing morality and popular drum patterns of contemporary hip-hop. “Houdini,” with its many anachronisms, is the strongest rap debut on the Hot 100 since “Not Like Us” and, if you can believe it, Eminem’s strongest single since 2013’s “The Monster”—a song featuring Rihanna with more than 1 billion streams on Spotify. Even his creative lulls would be other rappers’ commercial peaks. Revival, Kamikaze, Music to Be Murdered By—these are each chart-topping albums whose low-key success suggests some underrated wisdom in the rapper’s arrested development, even if the marketing for The Death of Slim Shady also suggests a need for some sort of reset at this stage. Clearly something is working here. Still, I’d love to see Eminem outdo not only his critics but also himself on his new album—to somehow emerge from the pocket dimension in which he’s flourished for more than a decade and reintegrate into the hip-hop zeitgeist, somehow, if only briefly, on his own terms. “Houdini” doesn’t give me much hope, but its success does give him the best opening he’s had in years. Either way, kill Slim Shady or don’t; you’re never killing Eminem.

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