“Behold the final chapter in the saga”-Eminem on “Bad Guy”
On September 29th 2013 over 10 million people at home( and millions of others illegally in anonymous comfort of the internet) watched Breaking Bad’s season finale. After five (real time) years and roughly two (in show) years of watching the morally debased transformation of a middle aged Chemistry teacher named Walter White into a meth dealing genius megalomaniac named Heisenberg. The precision of the meth cooking scenes were so precise that some learned from it. The plight of his cause (paired with early seasons of a wide-eyed Walter White) were so tragic we related to and empathized.
But, Walter White had to die, because Heisenberg would not let him live.
Eminem has wanted to kill Eminem a few times over the past decade. On “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” from his 2002 classic album The Eminem Show he said:
It’s like the boy in the bubble who never could adapt/ I’m trapped If I could go back, I never wouldve rapped/ I sold my soul to the Devil I’ll never get it back.
Seven years, a few rehab stints and brushes with death later and Eminem released “My Darling” as a bonus track on his 2009 comeback album Relapse. The song takes the “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” lyric of selling his soul to the devil and turned it into a storytelling song where Eminem faces the devil himself who reveals that he has been with Eminem since he sold his soul to get signed by Dr. Dre. The song ends with Eminem shooting himself in an attempt to relinquish the grip of the demon and kill it at the same time, but the demon lives and explains to him how his addiction, Proof dying and all of his misfortunes are a result of him striking a deal with the devil for fame.
While listening to The Marshall Mathers LP 2 with these past lyrics in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to not view it as a long suicide note for Eminem (not Marshall Mathers). An album with a vast array of allusions to this being the “final chapter”, not being afraid to die finally and other themes that permeate the album, is one that forces you to analyze the artist within the context of the world he’s created.
Here are three common symptoms of suicidal behavior:
No, it’s hopeless, I’m the denial that you’re hopelessly in
When they say all of this is approaching its end-Eminem on “Bad Guy”
A common motif of the album (and a few post-comeback Eminem songs) is captivity, both self-imposed and involuntary. Whether it’s an almost innate trait of being a creature of habit (“So Far”) and feeling compelled to rap or the expectations placed on him, Eminem makes it abundantly clear that his actions are not all of his own control. On “The Monster”, Em explains that the same vivid imagination he said was “the only way to escape” his adolescent bullying (“Brainless”) has progressively become more warped the deeper into it he delves to draw out those cartoonish murder lyrics fans praised him for for over 10 years.
Save me from myself and all this conflict/
Cause the very thing that I love is killing me and I can’t conquer it-Eminem on “The Monster”
The idea of his past thoughts haunting him is littered throughout The Marshall Mathers LP 2 with subtle homages to past Eminem lyrics. This theme is best illustrated on the album intro, “Bad Guy” where Eminem has a
dream nightmare about the younger brother of the fictional superfan Stan. Stan’s brother, Matthew Mithcell even changes his murder plot in the middle of the kidnapping based on Eminem lyrics. To drive home this point of self-inflicted destruction, Eminem psychoanalyzes his own dream:
‘Cause Marshall Mathers the rapper’s persona’s half a facade
And Matthew and Stan’s just symbolic
Of you not knowing what you had until it’s gone
“You trying to save me, don’t hold your breath/
you think I’m crazy..well that’s not fair”-Chorus of “The Monster”
From 1999 until Spring of 2008 the only thing that calmed down Em’s maniacal ferocity were his daughters and his nearly unlimited source of drugs. Five years later and the constant stream of venomous slurs, pop culture satires and youthful rage has subsided considerably and he has even squashed a few of his biggest feuds. None more important and shocking than his reconciliation attempt with his mother on “Headlights”. For the first time in his entire career, Eminem tells the woman who he’s described as a pill-popping psychopath on numerous songs, “I love you, Debbie Mathers.”
This sudden change of behavior could be construed as an MC once drunk on resentment and unbridled anger pleading to reconcile with his mother in order to start fresh after cheating death in 2008. However, “Headlights” never gives that feeling of being entirely the extending of an olive branch as he still says he’ll love his mother from afar and the cryptic ending hook sounds more like a man waiting to die than a man trying to start anew:
Never say goodbye cruel world
Just know that I’m alright, I am not afraid to die
For me it would have been career suicide. I felt [...] I should make a song just dissing everybody who’s hot now.-Eminem in 2010 interview with Big Boy
F*ck top 5, b*tch, I’m top 4/
And that includes Biggie and Pac, wh*re
And I got an evil twin, so who do you think that’s 3rd and that 4th spot’s for?-Eminem on “Evil Twin”
It’s impossible to physically harm a persona and legacy short of murdering the artist, so self-destructive behavior for Eminem would be him going all Rambo into the rap field. Eminem has flipped and flopped on where he views himself in the pantheon of Hip Hop greats. One year he’s #9 on the Top 10 (“Till I Collapse”), another year he’s “cool beside Jay Z” (“Never Enough”) or “down at the bottom right after AZ” (“We’re Back”). But, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 contains his most arrogant lyrics of his career and a few subliminal shots at Hip Hop’s elite. Em has mentioned his competition by name before, on the unreleased 2009 song “Get Money” song as he rapped:
They keep on saying the same rappers are the best /
Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Maybe they’re just trying to distract you from the fact that I’m coming back /
Or maybe it’s cause I ain’t black /
Maybe it’s because of that /
Maybe it’s because I’m the highest selling artist in rap.
As his labelmate and protege 50 Cent will tell him(or should), attacking any and everybody on record can lead to you becoming an unwelcomed target. If Em ever directly dissed a Jay Z, Drake, Lil Wayne or any other artist whose fanbases 1. are diehard loyal and 2. are a considerable portion of the overall Hip Hop listening audience, Eminem would have a hard time staying relevant and beloved.
And that seems like exactly what he wants.
Here’s the dilemma that faces Mr. Mathers: The only way to kill a persona as widely known and inextricable to his life as Eminem is to become irrelevant. Given how even Eminem’s most lukeworm of songs (“Berzerk”) will still go platinum quicker than a tourette’s eye blink, it would seem the only way to achieve irrelevance is to completely quit rapping. However, to quit rapping would be to remove a habit that 1. he has been doing for most of his life and 2. is the only thing he thinks he’s good at doing.
The finale of Breaking Bad was a masterwork of balancing fan expectation with artistic closure and in so demonstrated the acknowledgement of one immutable truth: the life of a piece of art is never in the hands of the artist. By the end of the Breaking Bad series, Walter White went from being overly controlling to simply a spectator of the desecration of his name and his legacy. He built a machine gun contraption to murder every one of the Nazi’s in the room with him and presumably allow a random bullet to strike him and end his misery. Walter White’s genius eventually killed him. Eminem is hoping for a similar death for Eminem. One where he gets so lost in his own genius that he disregards all other factors (sales, fan expectations, etc) until he falls into the comfort of oblivion.
But there is one thing he will fight for until his fictional (and literal) dying day:
As long as I’m on the clock, punching this time card/
Hip Hop ain’t dying on my watch.-Eminem on “Rhyme or Reason”