With his The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem is, in many ways, reliving the past. He's harkening back to 13 years ago when he was just starting out, spitting lightning fast rhymes that awed and shocked — especially shocked. The record exhibits some striking examples of Em having grown up over the past-decade plus, but one old aspect is leaving some outlets frustrated and disappointed: Slim Shady's continued use of homophobic slurs.
"It Feels Bad To Still Be Having This Conversation."
GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard was working at the LGBT education network when The Marshall Mathers LP dropped in 2000, back when gay rights groups like GLAAD protested the record for its use of lyrics like: "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That'll stab you in the head/ Whether you're a f-- or a lez."
"It feels bad to still be having this conversation [13 years later]," Byard told MTV News about the use of words like "f--" by Em, who hit the MTV EMA stage on Sunday night where he performed and was honored with the Global Icon award.
"It's almost like he's in a time capsule," Billboard writer Reggie Ugwu points out, a statement that becomes evident when sorting through the references on MMLP2 — Bill Clinton, the Backstreet Boys, Kevin Federline — and examining the lyrics of the chart-topping "Rap God": "I'll still be able to break a mother----in' table/ Over the back of a couple of f----ts and crack it in half," among other similarly phrased assertions. Slim is still angry and violent, and he's still taking out that anger, at least in words, on the LGBT community.
As MTV News' Rob Markman points out, Em may have evolved on his last album, Recovery, but MMLP2 "finds the 41-year-old rap icon rekindling the flame he sparked back in 2000 on the original MMLP."
Granted, Em dropped the other f-bomb three times on Recovery, but what's raising the ire of critics on MMLP2 is its violent usage of the slur, like on "Rap God."
Byard also points out that the continued use of slurs and violent imagery against LGBT people is even more upsetting given Eminem's public denial of being homophobic. Last week, the rapper told Rolling Stone, "The real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I'm glad we live in a time where it's really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves."
He also denied being homophobic back in 2010 during an interview with Anderson Cooper, and before that, he befriended openly gay pop star Elton John, performing a duet with the singer at the 2001 Grammys.
"Speaking personally as a mom and an advocate, it feels like spitting in the face of people who are working very hard to make the world a better place in this respect," Byard said. "The choice to use [that word], when we know what kinds of consequences it has, feels pretty significant. I don't know if it sets us back, but it certainly is a violently provocative thing to do."
Neal Broverman, contributing editor of The Advocate, agrees: "It's just disappointing. I think a lot of people are disappointed," he told MTV News. "It's just so beneath him to go that route and to use that word or to denigrate gay people even if it's indirectly. He's a better lyricist than that. He's a better rapper than that."
"It's His Language."
In the ensuing days and weeks since "Rap God" and other songs have hit the Web and public consciousness, Eminem has been called on to justify his use of slurs. His overall reasoning is that he's not connecting the words to anything LGBT-related: "Those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin' or whatever, I never really equated those words [with being homosexual]," he told Rolling Stone. He's been using those words since he started out, and that's his MO, he's repeatedly said.
"I think it's his language," XXL Editor-in-Chief Vanessa Satten told MTV News. "I don't think he's sitting there and trying to insult anyone, per se. People can definitely get the wrong message from it and it's definitely a very sensitive word." Satten stressed that she understands why people would be upset, however.
Ugwu interprets Em's words similarly: "It would be great if no one used gay slurs, but he's said that he doesn't see what he's doing as offensive," he said.
Eminem himself has said he's not trying to specifically slam gay people with his use of these words. "[Calling someone a f--] was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or a--hole," he told RS. "So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle [rapping era], back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people."
"This Record Doesn't Help."
The world has changed, however, since Em's battle-rapping days, as Broverman points out. "I'm not excusing it, I'm just saying that a lot of people in hip-hop used those words — it was certainly more common back then in hip-hop and in the general population," he said. "It's such a different world now. ... There are figures like [Frank Ocean] now in 2013. There weren't people like Frank back in 2000. The whole world has changed. And those words aren't casually used. It's even more egregious now. It was bad then, but it's worse now."
Byard also points out that people listening to the record — teenagers especially — don't get the "benefit of the simultaneous audio commentary of what he really means or doesn't mean."
"People walk away from the record for what it is and that language is violent in a very particular way," she said. "And it's dangerous. And it has an effect on young people and we see that effect every day — it's our job to try to deal with it. And this record doesn't help."
Byard said that use of hurtful language is starting to decline in schools, but it's still a process. A recent study shows that 71.3 percent of LGBT youth reported hearing "f----t" or "d-ke" frequently or often at school, and that 81.9 percent has been verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation.
"It's harder and harder for people to ignore the actual impact of the words that they use," she said. "When you look at today versus 13 years ago, the hard thing is that 13 years ago it would be easier for me to believe that Eminem didn't realize that these words have an impact. Today, it's much harder for me to believe that."
And therein lies the rub: To what end is Eminem using gay slurs? Is he doing so just because it's what he's always done — because he can't break old — or to make some kind of point?
"Eminem is calling his album MMLP2 for a reason," Satten said. "So there is something to revive in it...Eminem is a very, very personal artist. He story-tells about his life and that's one of the things that people have connected with over time — is him being so honest about his story, no matter how twisted or weird it is."
Part of that storytelling, also, has always included an array of characters — personas he embodies in songs in the same way a fiction writer pens his characters. "I think people know my personal stance on things and the personas that I create in my music," he told Rolling Stone.
In album opener "Bad Guy," one of those personas, Matthew Mitchell — younger brother of the titular character from "Stan" — even plots revenges on Em for ignoring his brother, a rampant fan who killed himself, his girlfriend and his unborn child over the rapper's betrayal.
"Slim, this is for him and Frank Ocean, oh, hope you can swim good/ Now say you hate homos again," Mitchell/Mathers raps, calling himself "your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen."
In a way, Mitchell seems to be the embodiment of everything Em might regret saying, "every f----t you slaughtered," "every woman you insult."
Mitchell is perhaps the truest voice on the record, a "tragic portrait of an artist tortured/ Trapped in his own drawings."
"Being the 'Bad Guy' or 'A--hole' is obviously a big part of his identity," Ugwu said, referring to the song "A--hole," in which Eminem accepts his mantle as villain, and refers to himself as "White America's mirror," asserting, "So I feel awkward and weird/ You stare at me and see yourself, because you're one too."
"It's funny because he really has evolved in other ways," Ugwu adds, referring to "Headlights," in which Em apologizes to his mother for all he's said about her in the past. "So he's made strides in some ways, but he's been stagnant in others. As far as being stagnant, again, I think the concept of this album was probably an exacerbating factor."