Vibe magazine's June/July 2009 cover features Marshall Mathers—better known as the rapper Eminem—in a black tank top. A cross dangles from his neck. Tattoos cover both arms, telling conflicting stories of love and violence.
On Eminem's right bicep is a little girl, the rapper's daughter Hallie Jade. On his left arm, we see a huge mushroom, a cracked pill and the name of his psychotic alter ego, Slim Shady. Below that, a skull is wrapped in rose petals.
Vibe portrays the rapper, who's back with his first new album in five years, as a survivor. "Vicodin. Valium. Methadone," the cover screams. "I literally almost died," Eminem says.
Over His Overdose
Indeed, in late 2007, Mathers (accidentally?) took way, way too much methadone. It was the culmination of a downward spiral in which the rapper's dependence upon prescription drugs almost took his life.
"I was taking Valium, Ambien and Vicodin," he told Vibe. "And I was taking a lot. ... Anywhere between 10 to 20 [Vicodin]. Valium, Ambien, the numbers got so high I don't even know what I was taking." The murder of his best friend, DeShaun "Proof" Holton, in April 2006 only accelerated Eminem's self-destructive habits.
Next stop: rehab. And Eminem claims he's been sober since April 2008. "Now I do every single thing that I can to stay sober," he says. "I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was disgusted with myself."
He even offers God some credit for his newfound sobriety, saying, "They tell you in recovery to pray to your higher power—God is my higher power and He always has been. I definitely pray a lot more than I used to."
Reading this testimony, it might seem to you that Marshall Mathers is a changed man. Better keep reading.
Satan, Serial Killers and Sadism
Eminem's new song "Déjà Vu" chronicles his process of past rationalization: "Maybe it's just a nice cold brew, what's a beer?/That's the devil in my ear/ ... Maybe if I just drink half, I'll be buzzed for half of the time/Who's the mastermind behind that little lie?" On "Beautiful," meanwhile, he encourages fans to reject others' criticism and embrace their God-ordained paths ("God gave you the shoes that fit you/So put 'em on and wear 'em").
So it seems that the rapper has channeled his rehab experience into a record named Relapse that, at times, offers fleeting insight into a man's struggle with addiction—the tattooed rose petals, as it were. But it's the skulls on his arm that provide a clearer clue about what kind of macabre stuff still dominates Eminem's imagination.
Because just when you're tempted to cut the guy some slack for the first time ever, Slim Shady fires up the chain saw and cuts power to the lights.
"I might just be Ted Bundy or Satan," he suggests on "Stay Wide Awake."
And with that short line, I've quite literally run out of verses to quote. More precisely, I've run out of things that can even begin to be reprinted in this column. Song after song (12 of the total 20) detail in a graphic, sociopathic manner the ways he rapes, tortures and dismembers his victims. Then he eats some of them. Targets include pregnant women and "brain dead" conjoined twins, as well as a forcibly aborted fetus and newborn triplets he talks of disintegrating with formaldehyde.
Celebrities come in for similar treatment. Slim (or is it Eminem?) contemplates capturing and skinning Britney Spears—in lyrics that prompted me to wonder if such threats might be prosecutable. Other subjects of murderous and/or obscenely sexual musings include Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey, Portia de Rossi, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Anniston, Jessica Alba, Miley Cyrus and Sarah Palin.
Spin magazine accurately describes Relapse as a "poison popsicle." Entertainment Weekly notes, "It all adds up to a level of violence, misogyny and homophobia ... as numbing as any of the prescription meds Eminem incessantly raps about consuming."
Myself? I got downright sick to my stomach while listening.
Baiting the Haters
Eminem, of course, relishes such critical reactions. "I guess it's time for you to hate me again," he raps.
One critic responded to that invitation with what Mathers must think is the ultimate put down: the assertion that Eminem has become culturally irrelevant. Time reviewer Josh Tyrangiel wrote, "Measured in the dog years that make up a rap star's career, an epoch has passed since most people have thought about Eminem, let alone been riled up by him. But one development wreaked more havoc on Eminem's hateability than all the rest: Amazingly, someone coarsened the culture without him. ... America's Most Outrageous is just not a title you keep for long or get to hold twice."
But if Relapse's sales figures are any indicator, Eminem might yet get the last laugh. Fans snapped up 608,000 copies in its first week of release, the biggest debut this year. It seems more than a few have missed the Detroit rapper's outrageous rants after all. As much as it pains me to disagree with Tyrangiel's effort to minimize this foul musician's hold on us, I find that I must. Against all odds in a "here today, gone later today" entertainment world, Eminem remains resiliently relevant. And his new CD actually digs deeper into all things obscene and harmful than virtually anything I've ever reviewed before.
And that makes me begin to wonder what has to happen to a person and a society for material like this to remain so popular. I'm unsure whether that sad reality says more about Eminem or about a culture so utterly desensitized that it happily digests the warped offerings Mathers keeps dispensing.
More Than Words
Of course, Eminem's fans (and many critics) would say I'm taking his raps far too literally, that Slim Shady's grim exploits are meant to be interpreted as hyperbolic farces, the same way we're supposed to laugh (it's argued) at the bloody goings-on in Quentin Tarantino films. "It's hard-core, it's dark comedy," argues Eminem producer Dr. Dre.
Mathers is similarly dismissive of the potential influence of his songs. "At the end of the day," he told The New York Times, "it's just words." In the Vibe interview, he claims that "it's not that I don't care about people, or that I don't feel socially responsible for other people's actions ... but I guess I just don't."
Some of Eminem's friends have even argued that Relapse represents a cathartic release for the rapper. James Larese, who co-directed the video for "3 a.m." (a rancid track about a drug-induced murderous rampage), told Entertainment Weekly, "He went through a lot of s---, and he's just now ready to deal with it. This is how it's manifesting." Harold Owens, the senior director of the MusiCares addiction program, adds, "I think it's very healthy."
Now that we've seen inside the head of a post-rehab Marshall Mathers, here's hoping he never falls off the wagon again.