Eminem performs at the MTV EMAs 2017. The rapper's ninth studio album Revival is out now.
Eminem has been called many things; brilliant, controversial, shocking. Throughout his double-decade career, he's been criticized as much as he's been celebrated. But one thing that's not up for discussion: He is the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time, with 15 Grammys, two certified diamond-selling albums and an Academy Award to his name.
It's been more than 18 years since Em's first Top 40 hit, "The Real Slim Shady," catapulted the young Detroit MC to mainstream success. On the new Revival, his first album in four years, the 45-year-old artist focuses in on a few things a grown man like him might have on his mind. With pop-leaning guest appearances from the Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran, Revival album finds Em taking a more politic stand than he ever has before in his music, touching on politics, racial disparity and his own mortality.
Eminem spoke with NPR's Michel Martin from Detroit about why the writing process for Revival took him two years, his feelings about President Trump and where he feel he fits into hip-hop's canon. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.
Michel Martin: The last time you talked with us in 2010, you had just released Recovery, and you were actually in recovery: You'd come to terms with an addiction problem and gotten through an overdose. And so the first and most important thing is, how is your health?
Eminem: I hope it's good. I wish I had a better answer than that. I exercise regularly, I run, I try to lift weights as much as I can and eat the right things. So, yeah, I think I'm good.
There's a lot on Revival that I want to talk about, but let's start with the cover art: It's a kind of translucent American flag with what appears to be a man holding his head in his hand, kind of like a posture of grief. Why this image for the album cover, and why the title?
Well, the title just kind of made sense with everything that the album was about, and as the songs started coming together, it started making more and more sense to call it that. The cover is me with my head down, because as much as I love our country, we got s*** that we gotta work on. We got s*** that we gotta get better at. It's kinda like, I love our country, I'm upset with it right now.
Was this an epiphany moment for you, or is this something that's been building for a while?
It's something that's been building for a while. Watching the Trump thing has been ... frustrating.
What part of it has been frustrating?
All of it! What part's not been frustrating? I think I made it pretty clear on the album how I feel about him, so I don't want to go off on a tangent because I'll never stop. But I think that, just watching how this unfolds and watching what happened with Obama and watching all the steps we took forward ... it feels like we've taken just as many steps backwards as we had forward and we're right back to where the f*** we were.
You know, in the very beginning, I kind of felt like, "You know what, why not? He seems like a smart businessman. Maybe he can help with the deficit or whatever." And then I start hearing him talk. And the more he talks, the more his true colors are showing. I was watching the thing live when he was saying, when Mexico sends their people, they don't send their best, they're sending rapists and murderers. And looking at it like, "Yo ... is he? He can't say that."
In case anyone isn't sure of how you feel, before the new record came out you performed a freestyle on the BET Hip Hop Awards aimed at the president, which got a lot of attention. Was that something you had planned?
Well, we had been in talks with some people at BET. The original plan was to go there and perform it live, as it was happening — [but] the question was brought up about people in the crowds with cell phones, would it leak out before anything was in its proper context or whatever. I kinda knew what I wanted to say, but then the plan got switched around once everyone was worried about that, so we filmed here in Detroit. The whole concept of the video, the way it was shot, was kind of a take on Public Enemy's "You're Gonna Get Yours," the single cover. But to me, that was one element of what I have to say about him. It was more to get his attention, to see if he would say something back, and then I got some ideas.
Did it feel risky to you? I ask that because, in 2016, Michigan was supposed to be part of that "blue wall", the safe area for Democrats, but then it went for Trump. It was close — 47.6% to 47.3% — but Michigan went for Trump. And I know the people of that state are very important to you. A lot of fans, I think, particularly some of your white fans, feel that you speak for them and to them. And you made it very clear, 'If you're on the fence, I'm telling you which side to use.' Does it feel like you're walking out on a limb? Or does it feel like this is where the community is, so this is where you need to be.
First of all, for anyone who thinks I speak for them, it doesn't matter what nationality — I speak to everybody. I speak to everybody who is even remotely like me. So, to me, it's not a black or white thing. It's just me saying where I stand, regardless of whatever the risk is. To me, it was more important to say what I need to say and whoever is riding with me, cool. And whoever's not is just not! I don't know, man.
At the end of the day, if all is said and done and I can help change some minds or try and open up some eyes and make people realize that this guy is not doing what he said he was going to do for you ... The people who voted for him maybe thought what I thought in the beginning. And then they were willing to just look past every other thing that he's talking about, because Trump talks a good one. But if you're not one to go fact-check if what he's saying is true when he throws all these statistics out — "Unemployment's been down and it's the lowest in history and the stock markets are ..." Like, if you're not willing to fact-check, you might just believe it. And then he's telling you anything that is remotely anti-Trump is fake news. Anything that's good for him is the real news. There's this alternate reality that he's created for himself and the people that still follow him. So, my goal is to hopefully change some minds, or just say "Screw it," because if that person didn't like me to begin with, I don't know if I'm going to gain a fan.
Tell me about how the idea came about for the song "Untouchable." It's like a scene from a play, where people are talking to each other, but really past each other, or maybe from across a wall. You can sort of envision both of them talking to us, but not even hearing each other. Tell me what you were thinking about.
Well, if you remember, about two years ago, it felt like every other day you would wake up and see the news that another black man is getting shot by the police, and killed for basically nothing. Seeing the thing that happened with Michael Slager and Walter Scott, being shot in the back from about 50 feet, 60 feet away. And then walks up and places the taser on the side of the guy, like he's already got his story of what he's gonna say.
And then Philando Castile, when he's reaching for his wallet, trying to tell you, "I have a gun, but I have a license to carry it," and gets shot and killed. ... And it was one of those things that kept building up and building up and I wanted to say something about it for the longest time, but I needed to make sure that — I wanted to word it correctly. I want to make sure I make all my points, you know, the right way.
Do you feel you got there?
There has been pushback on the blogosphere, people saying this is where everybody is right now, that these are not new thoughts.
No, they're not new thoughts. They're for sure not new thoughts. ... I'm not talking about, "all police are bad." I'm saying that this is the perspective from the racist white cop. This is what got me infuriated, and two years ago got me so flustered I couldn't even write about it because my thoughts would get too scattered. When I get flustered sometimes I just get mad and I can't think clear. I needed to be able to calm down a second, and put the thoughts to the page because, like I said, I wanted to make sure that I worded it the right way. But if people don't feel like I worded it the right way, I don't know.
Do you feel you're helping people see it who didn't see it before? Or is it more about you wanting to be clear about where you stand?
Well, both, but it's more about hopefully being able to open people's eyes with it. Between this song and, I feel like, Joyner Lucas's song, "I'm Not Racist" — actually, that's a funny story because I got the heads-up that that song was coming. I don't know Joyner personally, but we have a mutual friend, and he actually ended up calling my friend Royce da 5'9", and telling him he wanted me to see this video. And when it came out, it was really, really good and it was super powerful. And I felt like, you know what? Hopefully between his song and mine we can open some eyes and maybe keep the movement going, and the conversation.
There are lots of stories in the news right now about women being abused, not being happy with how they've been treated, in the workplace. You know for a fact that throughout your career people have listened to your lyrics and wondered about your attitude toward women. Now that you're at this stage of your career, do you look back on anything differently? Is there anything you wish you had said differently? Does this current discussion touch anything in you that makes you rethink some of the things you've said?
Well, for one I think that it's cool that these women took a stand, for sure. Because I know that that s*** goes on and if women are put in a position where somebody in a position of power is telling them, "If you wanna move up the ladder this is what you're going to have to do," it's messed up.
As for me, I feel like I've always kind of rode the line of the tongue-in-cheek. I believe as human beings we all have different sides to us; serious sides, dark humor sides, whatever. So that's kind of why I've always put the disclaimer out there. I feel like people should be able to know by now when I'm joking and when I'm not, depending on the tone of the record. I think that it pretty much should be common sense, aside from the fact I have daughters.
Kids are our harshest critics. Now that yours are old enough to listen to your music, do any of them have opinions they want to share with you?
Not really, because they know that dad is just dad. ... This is what happens: When I'm writing, sometimes an idea or a line will pop in my head, and I'll be like, "Yo, that thought is messed up." And I either laugh to myself or I say, "You know what? That might be just going too far." So, have I ever took it too far? I probably have, who knows. There's times where sometimes I don't think I took it far enough. Depends on what it is.
I just got asked about, how come I took shots at pop singers in the beginning and I'm not doing it that much anymore? And my answer to that was, "Somebody's name hasn't really fell into the rhyme scheme." If somebody's name pops up in my head and it rhymes with exactly what I'm saying, that's kind of the art to it. As an artist I feel like I can't really just be one thing. I don't want to be one-dimensional because there's so many different angles that I feel like I could write from.
You say in the song "Castle" that you're done, and we hope that's not true. How would you describe this point in your career?
I don't know. I'm at a funny place, you know? Hip-hop has been around for a long time but I don't know if it's really been around long enough to see how long someone could actually go for. You've still got guys like me and Jay-Z. Redman still has it, to me. I'm not sure what I'm going to do next, but I'm still passionate about music, and hip-hop.
Radio producer Adhiti Bandlamudi and web editor Sidney Madden contributed to this story.