Shady's back - but will Eminem's recovery take any risks?

Eminem finally plays Slane Castle next weekend. Has Marshall Mathers avoided becoming just another heritage hip-hop act?


In a summer of competing festivals and superstar shows, one imminent visitor is conspicuous by his absence from the promo palaver, the ads and the constant badgering every time you turn on your radio to buy tickets. His is one show that is sure to sell.

Eminem visits Ireland next weekend to play Slane Castle. This is the venue he cancelled back in 2005, after which his name (s) became familiar to the denizens of the High Court, as the promoter slugged it out with a couple of insurance companies.

The rapper has been back to Ireland since that cancellation – he played an Oxegen headline slot in 2010 (when the festival still attracted the hordes) and a Vital festival slot in Belfast the following summer – but still, Eminem at Slane has a certain frisson to it. In a summer in which the event gigs have been largely for older music fans, Eminem is probably the liveliest proposition and thousands will surely flock for a day out with the Detroit rapper.

It is remarkable that he is still box-office gold when you consider how things could have gone – or look at his peers. Even with a plethora of other rappers on the rise, and even though his past few albums didn’t quite capture the zeitgeist in the way ol’ Slim Shady did a decade ago, Eminem still has an edge and draws thousands to his shows.

In many ways, Em is bigger than hip-hop. Very few rappers could go toe to toe with him at this level despite the critical acclaim and commercial cash they attract. Jigga and Yeezy? Perhaps they could bring those cubes outdoors and fill a small field, though it’s worth remembering that even their much acclaimed Watch the Throne tour last year was hard pushed to sell both nights in the O2. They’d have Bon Jovi-like trouble filling Lord Henry Mountcharles’s field.

Fiddy? Oh, please. You’re comparing apples and oranges there, a player from La Liga versus someone hoofing and panting around Fairview Park on a Sunday morning. The man from Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile movie versus the man from Jim Sheridan’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. It would be a different matter if we were talking about flogging vitamin water and sneakers. Being hip-hop’s Hector Grey is 50’s most lucrative talent these days.

And then there’s the field. All those newbies and wannabes, the could-have-beens and will-never-bes: none has come or will come close to snatching the crown. From the ones who tip the cap to Slim Shady, such as Tyler, the Creator, to the creative right-on favourites such as Kendrick Lamar, very few have the across-the-board appeal needed to get to Eminem’s level.

Of course, as with the heritage rock bands who still pull crowds today, Em owes much of this longevity to the fact that he had it good in a time of plenty. He was one of the last crossover acts through the gap, one of the last global superstars to benefit from the old record industry’s successful hegemony when it came to making and breaking acts. He gamed the levers of power and influence like a pro. You can probably even remember seeing the videos on your telly as part of that old-school takeover. They don’t do that anymore. Well, unless someone dies.

Yet it would be wrong to tag him just as hip-hop’s most successful heritage act, as there’s an eighth album due in the coming weeks. The thing is, we haven’t a clue what it will be like. Just what does Eminem have to say in 2013? We’re not alone in wondering about this. Every time there’s a sniff of news, there’s an online rush to talk about it. Not a word, not a note, not a battered sausage so far, yet people are keen to hear it because of who he is and what he has done. Anyone feel like talking about The Game? Hell, does anyone even remember The Game?

It’s worth recalling, too, that when he first emerged, few expected Eminem to be the one who lasted the course. Back then, he was an oddity, a white rapper from Detroit – not, to paraphrase Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, a hip-hop stronghold – who went on to set the pop charts alight with help from Dre’s sweet-as production. He was the rapper who became more than a rapper and who eagerly and hungrily made the most of that.

But Eminem became a cartoon figure to many along the way because of his rush to become what everyone thought Eminem should be. The violence and dysfunction that informed his best songs was exaggerated beyond bursting point and it was hard to separate the man from the persona. Small wonder he turned to self-medication in a desperate effort to work out who he was and keep the beasts at bay.

Small wonder too that so many of his mid-career albums are so forgettable, or that he struggled to reach the high watermarks of The Eminem Show or 8 Mile from back in the day. Can anyone, for instance, recall anything about Encore without hitting up Wikipedia? What about Relapse? Does that ring any bells?

Em himself cut right to the chase about these clangers from his past on Talkin’ 2 Myself, the standout track on his last album, Recovery: “last two albums didn’t count/Encore I was on drugs/Relapse I was flushing them out”. Not exactly a great advertisement for catalogue sales of either.

So what comes next? Does Eminem simply continue on after Recovery with an album by a post-rehab rapper basically slinging the same stuff as before? Or will it mark a new chapter in his life?

The easy money says the former. Recovery was a decent album, and interest in it was piqued by the question of what a clean, unchemically enhanced rapper would have to say to us. But there was little new in the riggings for long-time Em watchers. You had the pop culture references (though they did seem a little tired) and the usual dense beats in the under-carriage (Em was never a thrill-seeker in this department).

On the plus side, his wonderfully nimble, adroit vocal torrent of rapid, complex rhymes remained intact. It was just a pity that there was so little for him to work with.

The idea of the new album marking a new chapter in his life is an interesting one. However, judging by how other hip-hop acts have approached growing older, you wouldn’t want to be holding your breath. Hip-hop was never intended to be middle-aged and few who’ve reached their 40s such as Em have come up with a fresh gameplan. It’s usually a case of “as you were”.

Case in point: Magna Carta Holy Grail. It wasn’t just the hyphen that went AWOL on Jay Z’s latest work. It was, you know, alright, a three-out-of-five album at a push. But it’s fecking Jigga and “ you know, alright, a three-out -of-five album at a push” just doesn’t – and shouldn’t – cut it. It was slack, lazy and full of dull brags about business and branding. Yeah, he made decent money from saddling Samsung with a million copies of the album but his business nous, rather than the music, is what it will be remembered for.

It would be quite something if Eminem was energised and motivated enough to come storming back with a piece of work significantly different to all that’s gone before. We’re not even talking about shipping in a new set of producers to work the desk. Just an album that digs beneath the surface and captures his state of mind as the man who fought the pop culture wars, won and came out the other side. The true thoughts and observations of Marshall Mathers at 40 years of age in a work which re-evaluates what he’s all about.

But that would require taking risks and risks are anathema to a multi-million selling artist selling thousands of tickets for every show. Your audience want the Em they first fell in love with years ago and you’re unlikely at this stage of the game to bring a new set of fans to your side. So you don’t take risks, you go through the motions, you repeat yourself.

We could be as wrong about this as we’ve been about the hurling this summer. We can only wait and see. The first clues may come at Slane Castle. Whatever happens, all eyes are on him. Same as it ever was.

yyy Eminem plays Slane Castle on Saturday August 17th

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