On a snowy day in Detroit, Eminem, bearded and dressed in a white T-shirt and gray hoodie, stands in the lounge of his cavernous studio complex, nodding at a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. “I’m halfway to a world record,” he says proudly, his high scores flickering on the screen. I notice a piece of plastic that’s been placed on top of the console. “Yeah, we gotta fix that,” he says. “I got mad at the game and punched the screen and broke it. The game cheats, you know?”
Occasional gaming outbursts aside, Eminem has lately been saving most of his ire for President Trump. He and I are talking a few days before the December 15 release of his new LP, Revival, an album that saw its run-up dominated by chatter about how much anti-Trump content it would include. And while it’s commonplace for musicians to criticize the president, it’s less common for artists of Eminem’s stature (i.e. those who risk losing red-state fans). “I’m not worried about whether people like what I say politically,” he says. “I just want to know they’re listening. As long as I have people’s ears, I have to say what I think is right.”
I was only able to listen the new album once before talking to you, and I gotta say, hearing tracks like “Untouchable” and “Like Home,” where you’re rapping about systemic racism and politics–
I know where you’re going.
Where am I going?
You want to know how I can rap about that stuff and also rap about fucking ridiculous shit.
Yeah, though maybe I’d use a different word than ridiculous. There’s some dissonance hearing you — in the space of a couple tracks — go from trying to be good-faith woke about race and politics to being rough about women. Do those poles just coexist more peacefully for you than they do for me?
They do, and how you think those things go together depends on what kind of fan of my music you are. Sometimes I’m trying to appease people who think, Man, I miss when Eminem was raw. But I’m not killing Kim on songs anymore — we’re good now, and she’s the mother of my daughter. The truth is that going from one subject to a completely different one is a balancing act and I’m trying to give something to everyone. And as far as the attitude I have about those different subjects, I feel like I did when first I started out.
Meaning I’m the same person. That’s not to say I haven’t matured — I’ve grown and sometimes I want to reflect that — but when I’m writing, a line will pop in my head that’s so fucking ridiculous that it’s funny, and depending on the punch lines I need and the rhyme schemes in the song maybe I’ll use it. Those are the things I’m thinking about with some lyrics, almost before the actual meaning. There’s a song on the new album, “Nowhere Fast,” and I say, “I must have got you / In somewhat of a debacle / Because some stuff that’s awful / Really don’t mean nothing. There’s a lot of shit I say in jest / That is tough to swallow.” You know, there’s a book called Truly Tasteless Jokes; it’s all fucked up shit; it makes me laugh — and that kind of stuff is where my brain goes. I’m not saying I’ve never gone too far, but people shouldn’t be looking to me for political correctness.
Except when you want them to, right? They involve politics more than political correctness but there are tracks on Revival where it sure seems like you’re asking people to take you seriously.
Okay, it does depend on the song. People who know my music can tell when I’m joking around and when I’m being honest about a subject.
A subject like Trump?
He makes my blood boil. I can’t even watch the news anymore because it makes me too stressed out. All jokes aside, all punch lines aside, I’m trying to get a message out there about him. I want our country to be great too, I want it to be the best it can be, but it’s not going to be that with him in charge. I remember when he was first sniffing around politics, I thought, We’ve tried everything else, why not him? Then — and I was watching it live — he had that speech where he said Mexico is sending us rapists and criminals. I got this feeling of what the fuck? From that point on, I knew it was going to be bad with him. What he’s doing putting people against each other is scary fucking shit. His election was such a disappointment to me about the state of the country.
When you were talking about Trump on the Shade 45 radio show, you sounded almost annoyed that he didn’t respond to your freestyle about him. What do you want him to hear you say?
It’s not so much about him hearing something I have to say, because there’s nothing I’m saying about him on Revival that he doesn’t already know about himself. It’s more that I want him to answer me because I got ideas for all kinds of shit to say back to him if he does.
You’ve got the tweets pre-written?
I’m not going to give any away now, but I’ve got lines ready if he says something about me. I get almost flustered thinking about him — that’s how angry he makes me. The people that support him are the people he cares about the least and they don’t even realize it. At what point do you — a working-class citizen, someone who’s trying to make shit better for you and your family — think this guy who’s never known struggle his entire fucking life, who avoided the military because of bone spurs, who says he’s a billionaire, is really looking out for you? He’s got people brainwashed.
How do you hope the Trump presidency plays out in 2018?
I hope he gets impeached. I’d be there for that.
Your music is popular in some of the same parts of the country where Trump’s support is strongest. How do you reconcile your feelings about Trump with the likelihood that a lot of your fans like him too?
How do I account for that? He’s very good at smoke screens. He’s very good at flipping narratives. I just want people to think about things: What has he really done for you in the year since he’s been in office? The tax cut is not going to help the middle class. It’s going to help Donald Trump. That people don’t see that is so discouraging. You know, there was even a time when I was mad at what was going on.
Mad that people were supporting Trump?
Yeah, Trump had me so mad with all his bullshit that I was thinking, I hope everybody who voted for him gets fucked and learns a lesson. But that was wrong. I don’t want any voters to get fucked; everyone’s trying to improve their lives. I just feel mad that Trump’s sold people a dream that’s never coming true. I want the division in this country to stop. And like I said, I most want people to take a second and think about what I’m saying.
Seventeen or eighteen years ago, when you were first breaking through in a big way, you were being held up as this scary embodiment of white-working-class alienation. People said you were tapping into the same feelings that Trump is now tapping into, and speaking for the same —
I was speaking for everybody: white, black, whatever nationality.
The way you looked probably made a difference as to who was identifying with you most strongly.
That’s fair. That’s true.
So given your position, do you feel like you have any unique insights on Trumpism?
I did have a feeling early that he could win. Pretty much everyone I knew was like, “No, he can’t get elected” and I was watching those rallies going, “Yo, man, this shit is real.” But I don’t know if that has anything to do with any parallels between me and him. I took the fact I was poor white trash and I owned it. So I could understand why people who grew up in similar situations would relate to what I was saying. But I don’t know, man, the differences between me and him are bigger than any parallels. He’s made the racists come out. He’s made it acceptable for the white man to feel oppressed. I’m just calling bullshit bullshit: I actually don’t know if I can see why people who relate to me feel like they can relate to him. This is a guy who was born rich, who says he got a small loan from his father of a million dollars. Where I come from, a small loan is five fucking bucks.
Considering the apparent overlap between your supporters and Trump’s supporters, I do think it took some courage for you to be so explicit about your political feelings — it’s easy enough to go online and see that you did alienate fans. But what about artists who aren’t willing to take that risk? I’m thinking of someone like Taylor Swift, who is so good about speaking to certain issues that seem antithetical to Trump’s worldview, but then won’t take the next step and speak out about him. Do musicians with a massive platform — and a bipartisan audience — have a moral responsibility to engage with politics?
I don’t know anything about Taylor Swift’s situation. I can only speak for me, not her. I do feel like when you have a platform, it’s important to use your voice. You can loudly call bullshit on things that not everyone can. I don’t know if anyone has a responsibility to do that. That’s something they’d have to look inside themselves and figure out. That’s what I did, and I decided I needed to speak out.
What do you think of Kid Rock’s politics?
You mean him running for Senate? Me and Bob have been friends since way back in the day, but I haven’t spoken to him in a while. The last time I did was when the thing happened to his assistant. I reached out and told him I was here for him. As far as the politics, I’m not up on what he’s doing. I couldn’t tell if he really wanted to run for senator or was just fucking around.
This interview will run after the album’s been out for a few days. In all likelihood, Revival will sell well and have a pretty mixed critical reaction.
That’s what happens every album with me.
Okay, so if we know that’s going to happen, what other signs are you looking for that will make you feel encouraged or discouraged by the album’s reception?
I don’t know, I’ve always felt in touch with the people who listen to my music. I make it for them. Anybody else, fuck ‘em. It’s fine if critics or whoever keep thinking I’m not as good as I was. So what I’m looking for — whatever the response or the sales — is things I did right or things I could’ve improved musically. I’m critical of myself and I’m always trying to figure out how to do better. I certainly have not had a perfect career. I’ve put out bad albums.
Which ones are you thinking of?
Encore was mediocre, and with Relapse — it was the best I could do at that point in time. [Relapse] was a funny album for me because I was just starting back rapping after coming out of addiction. I was so scatterbrained that the people around me thought that I might have given myself brain damage. I was in this weird fog for months. Like, literally I wasn’t making sense; it had been so long since I’d done vocals without a ton of Valium and Vicodin. I almost had to relearn how to rap.
Is that where all the weird accents on that album came from?
I recorded at least 50 to 60 songs for that album and on each one I would get a little more drastic with the accents, trying to bend the words and make them rhyme in ways they wouldn’t if you just said them regular. It was this gradual thing and I didn’t even realize how accent-heavy the album got. Paul [Rosenberg] didn’t realize it either until he went and played the music for somebody at Interscope and they were like, “Why is he doing all those accents?” So yeah, I don’t know how much replay value that album has.
What was the issue with Encore?
I’m cool with probably half that album. I recorded that towards the height of my addiction. I remember four songs leaked and I had to go to L.A. and get Dre and record new ones. I was in a room by myself writing songs in 25, 30 minutes because we had to get it done, and what came out was so goofy. That’s how I ended up making songs like “Rain Man” and “Big Weenie.” They’re pretty out there. If those other songs hadn’t leaked, Encore would’ve been a different album.
How are you feeling about Revival?
I don’t know. I feel good enough to put it out. I guess we’ll have to see what the reaction is.
One of things that was so compelling about you back in the day was how you’d take shots at pop stars, which is something you don’t really do anymore. Why not? Isn’t Ed Sheeran, who’s on the new album, exactly the kind of musician you would’ve had fun with in the early 2000s?
I don’t think so. He’s not a boy band, he’s an artist whose craft I respect. The reason that I went at pop stars back then is because people were calling me a pop rapper. What’s bugged out to me is that — I don’t know if everybody understands this — if everybody could do what I did, they’d just do it wouldn’t they? I’m not this manufactured pop thing and I never was. A way people used to dismiss me was to call me pop. I got mad about that, and I lashed out.
How has your experience of fame changed over your career?
I’ve learned to deal with it better. A lot of the problems I had with fame early on were because I was in very heavy addiction and didn’t realize it. By the time I did realize it, it was too late — I was so far gone. I had a hair-trigger temper, too, and the littlest things could trigger it. That’s definitely better now. I used to get in fights over road rage and stuff. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve settled in with myself and with fame. I’m growing, man. I’m getting more mature and I’m okay with that.
Does maturity explain the beard?
No, no. The beard spawned from looking at myself in a picture that was taken when I was 23 and I had this little patchy goatee. I saw that and wanted to see if I could grow a beard now.
I think the jury’s still out.
[Laughs] The beard is the best I can do at this point in time.
I was looking at your streaming numbers the other day and “Lose Yourself” is by far your most popular track. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about that song?
I remember I was on the set of 8 Mile. I had a day off and I was going through CDs at home. I used to have guys come in and play music with me and I’d try and come up with stuff and then record it and put on CD. Later I’d listen back and see if there was anything I could use. For some reason I popped in one of those CDs and it had the [Hums the song’s guitar riff] on it. I just kept hearing that loop in my head. I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but I made a whole song to that beat and didn’t like it. Then I revamped it and wound up with “Lose Yourself.” The other thing about that song that I remember is that I was so in-character as Jimmy Smith Jr. when I was working that on it — that’s where the desperation come from.
Why didn’t you star in another movie after 8 Mile? You must’ve gotten a bunch of offers.
I had a few.
I used to say that exact same joke. Nothing’s come my way that’s been worth putting aside the music for. For me to take a year again, like I did with 8 Mile, is not something I really want to do.
Where does Eminem fit into the rap landscape now?
I don’t know what my place is. I just try to make the best songs that I can.
But isn’t “Walk on Water” all about the insecurity you feel about your place in music?
Yeah, look, obviously everybody wants to be relevant but it’s hard to tell if you are or not. I can’t sit on the Internet all day and read comments trying to figure it out. Rick Rubin recently told me something that was profound. He said, “I don’t really consider myself smart enough to know what everyone’s going to think, so I just do what feels right to me.” That is super deep, and that’s what I try and do.
I totally get that, but I’m still eager to hear you wrestle a little more with the question: Where is the 45-year-old Eminem’s place in rap today?
As far as relevance, rap is definitely evolving — the flow patterns and beats. There’s a lot of trap beats that are half time and things like that that are new. Some of it I really like and some I don’t particularly care for but I can see why people like it. I’m probably more in tune with the state of hip-hop than a lot of people think, because listening to what’s great right now pumps me up to do my own thing. I think people look at me and believe I might be out of touch.
I don’t know exactly who’s looking at you and thinking you’re out of touch, but if that person is, say, a 17-year-old, shouldn’t they be thinking that? Isn’t that how music is supposed to work?
I get the part about not liking what your parents like, but we’re also in this weird place where 40-somethings can listen to music with their kids who might be 20-somethings and they can all like the same thing. This is making me think about Jay-Z. What I love about him is that he’s figured out a way to stay relevant without conforming. He’s so good at what he does that he makes people follow him, which is super interesting because one of the things that’s great about hip-hop is that it hasn’t been around so long that we know what a full career is supposed to look like.
There are plenty of models for what middle-aged rock stardom looks like, but not so much for rap.
Yeah, rap is still very youth driven, and it has this rebellious edge.
It’s hard to be rebellious when you’re 45.
I think it’s more about passion for me now than rebellion. Passion is what you need to still do music. It’s cool that a younger generation can look to me and Jay and say, “Holy shit, a career doesn’t have to be a five-year run.” I know I look at Jay to see what he’s passionate about. I’m right there when he puts out something new. I want to see where he’s at, then I use it to see where I’m at.
What’d you take away from 4:44?
For me, it’s super nerdy because I just look for the funny punch lines — Jay’s always got those — and the feel of the beats he’s rapping over. His music also let me know that it’s okay to talk about the doubts you have about yourself and your material. That’s really what “Walk on Water” is about.
Can you talk more about the nerdy aspect of rapping? The way you rap, which is so much about technical proficiency, is not what’s currently in style. Does that affect how you think about what you do? You have to know that your music is hitting the ears of younger listeners differently than it’s hitting your own.
It’s something I think about, and on the album I move in and out of flows to show that not everything I do is about being technical. But on a technical level, I’ve been rapping for so long that — I’m not going to say it’s easy — but I can just think of more shit to rhyme with other shit. One of my regrets on the last album was putting out verses that were too long because I couldn’t get the rhymes to stop. I kept thinking of rhymes that kept the scheme going. That ability is something that makes a difference for me, and it’s why on a technical level I’m doing intricate stuff. It’s just easier for me to rhyme than when I first started.
Which younger rappers have technical skills that you admire?
Joyner Lucas, Kendrick, J. Cole, Big Sean — they’re super complex but also digestible. One of the things that’s so interesting to me about Kendrick is the way he approaches a beat and the pockets he chooses. Tech N9ne is great at that too. They’ll both hit these weird fucking pockets.
Do you find it hard to balance technique and content?
Yeah, that’s difficult. That’s how I ended up throwing out a lot of songs I recorded for this album. Sometimes I’ll realize when a song is done that it’s just words, it’s not saying anything. There’s no message, no concept. I’ll record a song and play it in the car and be like, “This ain’t about nothing.” That obviously means it’s not good enough.
Looking back at your career as a celebrity — not as a musician — is there a moment that stands out being especially weird or surreal?
As far as what?
Where you’re like, “I can’t believe that was a thing?”
That’s a hard question. “I can’t believe that was a thing?” Let me think.
How about having a feud with a puppet dog?
Yeah, the fight with Triumph the insult dog was definitely a weird one. At that point in my career I still wasn’t that far removed from the way I grew up, and the way I grew up was that it’s not cool for somebody to put their hand in your face. So in that moment I didn’t look at it like, This is a puppet. I looked at it as, A grown man is putting his hand in my face and being annoying. So that’s why I flipped out.
When you’re not making music, what do you do for fun?
Aside from writing? Mostly I love writing, especially when it’s not pressure-writing for a release date or something. Yeah, writing is something I really enjoy. I’ll just start to think of rhymes and get lost doing that.
I think writing lyrics counts as making music. Tell me something else.
I used to watch the news, before it made me crazy. I don’t know, I see movies.
What’d you see lately that you liked?
The Tupac movie. I saw it twice.
No one bothers you at the theater?
I rent out the theater.
Oh, of course.
I’ve tried to go like normal and it hasn’t worked out too well.
What about TV and books?
I don’t know about books — I can’t process things I read except for my own writing. I have to go back and read the same pages over again all the time. As far as TV shows, Power is one of my favorites. Westworld. Breaking Bad. Sons of Anarchy. Godless. Have you seen that? Fucking incredible.
Do you date?
It’s tough. Since my divorce I’ve had a few dates and nothing’s panned out in a way that I wanted to make it public. Dating’s just not where I’m at lately.
When you were dating, how’d you meet people? Tinder?
I mean, yeah.
Are you being serious?
[Laughs] And Grindr. I also used to go to strip clubs.
I think a lot of long-term relationships start in strip clubs.
What can I say? Going to strip clubs is how I was meeting some chicks. It was an interesting time for me.
Is fame lonely for you?
Am I lonely? No, I’m good. Thanks for asking though.
When you were watching the news, what news were you watching?
A lot of CNN and a little bit of Fox, but that shit was making me want to jump through the TV and choke somebody. The way they’d talk about NFL protests: “These athletes are making how much money?” You fucking idiot! The Fox right-wing guys criticize Black Lives Matter for not being peaceful and then when a football player peacefully takes a knee they criticize that too. They say this shit about, “We just want football. We don’t want to hear about your political problems.” To me, what they’re really saying is, “Shut up, N-word.” It’s bullshit.
From where you’re sitting, does the country seem any further along on race than when you started rapping?
Well, one of the greatest things that I get to do is play shows. And when I look out in the crowd and it’s a sea of different kinds of people — that’s one of the most gratifying feelings I get. Nothing brings people together like music and if we — white fans and black fans — can realize we all like the same things, we should be able to realize we’re not so different. That belief is always encouraging for me. The discouraging thing — I remember when I was a kid, I didn’t really believe that cops could be planting evidence or shooting unarmed black people, then to see all the evidence of it from the past few years has been sickening. The Michael Brown shooting — disgusting. Walter Scott, where the video looks like Michael Slager is trying to place the Taser beside his body — you look at that shit and it’s a gut punch. I thought we were farther along than we are.
I know this is a clunky segue, but you’ve always been careful not to offend on the subject of race. Yet on the subjects of women or gay people — there’s the Ken Kaniff character you used to have on your albums — you clearly weren’t concerned at all about being offensive. How do you calibrate who you’re okay with risking offending?
I’ve always said that what I do was created by black people. I understand that everyone listens to rap, but I consider it to be black music and I respect that. The other shit you’re talking about got so blown out of proportion. The first time I got a taste of being called anti-gay was on “My Name Is” when I said, “My English teacher wanted to have sex in junior high / The only problem was my English teacher was a guy.” All I was saying was I don’t swing that way. So when I started getting flack for it, I thought, Alright, you people think I’m homophobic? Watch this. Hence the Ken Kaniff character and all that stuff. I was trying to push the buttons of people who were calling me something that I wasn’t. The honest-to-God truth is that none of that matters to me: I have no issue with someone’s sexuality, religion, race, none of that. Anyone who’s followed my music knows I’m against bullies — that’s why I hate that fucking bully Trump — and I hate the idea that a kid who’s gay might get shit for it.
Is the criticism of your music as misogynistic off base, too?
I think it is, because I’ve had my share of experiences with women where I’ve felt a certain way and been mad enough to make songs about those feelings. All the bullshit around that — I’m not making an excuse, but the mentality that I’ve had since I was rapping at open mics was that you better have shit that’s going to get a reaction or you will not be accepted when you’re on the mic. Your first, second, third, and fourth line better grab attention or you’re done. That attitude morphed into my music. A lot of times I’m saying stuff just to get that reaction. Maybe I took it too far sometimes.
I’ve heard comedians talk about the “mouth full of blood” laugh, which is when you make a joke and the audience laughs for the wrong reasons. Have you ever been concerned about your fans misunderstanding your material like that?
Yeah, I’m sure people have misunderstood what I was doing. Again, I’m not a perfect human being and I’m sure that I’ve said things that went a little too hard, but I think my actual life shows — I mean, meeting Elton John and being as good friends with him as I am, that’s not me saying, “Hey, I’ve got a gay friend.” It’s me saying Elton John has my back. He’ll stick up for me.
Speaking of Elton, I just read something where he said you gave him diamond-encrusted cock rings as a wedding present. Just out of curiosity, where does one get diamond-encrusted cock rings?
I don’t know, I put people on it and they made it happen. Actually, I had some diamond-encrusted cock rings, too. Right in my bedroom.
You could’ve saved some money and sent him those.
And just left a note: “Please wash off before using.”
Have your feelings about making music changed over time? The conventional critical wisdom about your stuff is that it’s gotten emotionally and sonically harder and heavier at the expense of lightness and playfulness. Does that ring true?
It’s interesting you say that because one of the common themes I’ve noticed over the past few years is people saying they miss the old Eminem. So I’ll see something like that and I’ll give them the old Eminem. Then when I do, they say, “He’s too old to be rapping about that kind of shit. He needs to mature with his content.” Then I’ll mature with my content and they go, “Oh, man, I miss the old Eminem.” So what do you do? In the context of Revival, I tried to make something for people on both sides of that argument.
Just to go back to the question, though: Are the emotions you feel making music different than they were 20 years ago?
They’re the same. The passion is the same, and when that changes — and eventually it will — is probably when it’s time to call it quits. I’m still at the place where I want to lock myself in the house for two days straight and just write. I don’t know when that’ll change. I remember I had a conversation with Busta Rhymes when he came to Detroit and we did “Calm Down” together. He and I were talking about what you do when you get to a certain age — which maybe people never expected you to get to — and you still feel like you’ve got it. What do you do? I think you just keep going.
How close to the peak of your capabilities do you think you are right now? I think I remember reading something Bob Dylan said about how in the mid-’60s the music flowed from him in a way it never really did after. He could still find inspiration, but not quite like in those days. I know this is a corny way of putting it, but do you feel like you’re as close to the fire as you’ve always been?
In some ways yes and in some ways no. I will say this: I am forever chasing The Marshall Mathers LP. That was the height of what I could do. I just don’t have the rage I did back then. If I did, the music would be the same, and I hope it’s changed. And if I still had that rage it would mean I wouldn’t have grown as an artist or a human being. Technically I feel like I’m better at rhyming than I’ve ever been. I have more shit in my arsenal. I’ll go back and listen to old songs and be like, “I could have kept that rhyme scheme going for another 62 bars.” I don’t know, man. I’m not the person I was at 28. The passion is still there but the rage mostly isn’t.
Unless we’re talking about Trump.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Annotations by Matt Stieb.