Predictably, people lost their minds when they heard Eminem's new lyrics over the weekend. In a promotional video released in support of Shady Records’ forthcoming compilation record Shady XV, the multi-platinum rap star shows off with a rapid-fire freestyle. It might sound tossed off, but there was nothing off-the-cuff about it. No one releases a beautifully filmed, 18-minute marketing/swagger vehicle like this without being certain that every second of it will benefit the talent involved. When Marshall Mathers freestyles, "Bitch, I’ll punch Lana Del Rey right in the face twice/like Ray Rice/in broad daylight in the plain sight of the elevator surveillance/'Til her head is banging on the railing/Then celebrate with the Ravens," he does so with open arms, embracing the Internet outrage like dollar bills, because it's proof that, even approaching middle age, he's still got it.
Extraordinary spitting talents aside, Eminem made his millions — and his reputation — almost solely from his ability to shock and offend anyone who isn't an angry, rejected young man. Rapping about brutally murdering the mother of his child and having that child help him dispose of the body won him headlines before most people had email addresses. He's laid down a slew of gay-bashing barbs dating back to 2001 at least, when he was nearly banned from Australia for his homophobia. In other words, Em knew the value of hate-reads before clickbait was even a thing.
And, of course, as most music publications have pointed out with a cornucopia of articles over the past few years, he's always been fond of starting beef with mostly white, mostly young female pop stars. From Britney and Mariah to Miley and Gaga, an Eminem diss is almost like a twisted, misogynistic rite of passage. You know you’ve made it when…
Eminem’s violent threat against Lana Del Rey — while simultaneously praising a multimillionaire athlete who savagely beat his wife, a real efficient move — is surely being taken as an opportunity by all involved, if an unfortunate, disgusting one: Del Rey gets our vehement defense. Eminem gets headlines he seems to desperately crave, and despite the fact that his last album has sold over 2.2 million copies, he definitely doesn't need it. Even Azealia Banks got in on the action — less than a week after her long-awaited album dropped — by tweeting (and then deleting) her support for Del Rey. ("@LanaDelRey but does eminem know that I will personally punch him in his mouth?!" and "@LanaDelRey tell him to go back to his trailer park and eat his microwave hotpocket dinner and suck on his sisters tiddies.")
Of course, that doesn't mean people shouldn't be surprised. We should — in a world that makes sense, anyway. Eminem is 42 years old, he’s a dad, and, as he raps in the cypher, he has multimillion-dollar fortune. Shouldn’t he have moved on from the misogyny by now? It's bizarre to hear him picking on a female pop star 13 years his junior, because he doesn't have to.
Still, he certainly seems to feel like he does. Over the past decade or so, Em has made several minor efforts here and there to sand down the edges of his jagged, hateful image — or at least prove that he's a human being capable of emotion beyond the realm of psychopathy. Yet a freestyle like this just sounds like masculine anxiety. It always has, of course — every time he's laid into a famous woman on a track, it's been a vehement, if unconscious, effort to hammer a hate-wedge between himself and anything that might endanger his macho edge. After 15 years, it’s no longer a coincidence when you consider that he rarely, if ever, goes after other (male) rappers. (Here’s a complete list for the doubters — Nick Cannon, Ja Rule, mega-mogul Diddy, and collaborator Dre.)
Del Rey has told the press that she "fucking loves Eminem." It’s hard to believe he didn't know that, which makes this verse a clear, vicious line in the sand: To acknowledge her with any less than bile would give her some of his cred. To do this at 42 is to overshadow any mild attempts at public humanity. Instead, he can’t help himself from becoming that irredeemable Gran Torino-style old bigot who holds out against time and wisdom and grace because it threatens his long-inflated self-esteem — and ends up handing us his own irrelevance on a spittle-covered silver platter.
Which is why, while labelmates Yelawolf and the Slaughterhouse crew are laying down clever lines about Star Wars, Ferguson, their dying family members, and having "nightmares about [their] mama getting beat up in the yard" (yes, even Yelawolf), Em is still rapping about the size of his dick and "[plowing his] Coupe DeVille into some children" and "fingering [Gloria Steinem] like a witness" and knocking out cold a woman more interesting and relevant than he's been in years. It's not like it'll change anything — the thousands of angry white boys who still find him charming would have continued to hate women and glorify rape culture regardless of a few seconds in an elaborate promo video. But, at least now it's become perfectly clear: Eminem, consummate antihero, still knows how to make headlines, sure, but so does any celebrity getting into a meaningless social-media feud.
In reality, it was incredibly difficult to find those aforementioned fan tweets cheering Em on; the Internet has been flooded instead by the bloodthirsty or dismissive digital shouts from new Stans — those pledging their allegiance to Lana Del Rey and Azealia Banks. (This kind of tweet was a lot easier to find.) Marshall Mathers might have invented the Stan, but his stale '90s brand of verbal garbage is losing its disciples. Now it falls somewhere between Gamergate and Old Man Yells at Cloud, and it doesn't matter which pop diva du jour he tries to bully with an over-the-top, button-pushing lyric. Now, it's just pathetic.