Across three decades, Marshall Mathers III has inhabited many different roles in hip-hop. Among them, he's been a record-breaker, a commercial titan and even a label boss. But if there’s one position that he’s refused to bequeath to new talents or contemporaries, it is that of hip-hop’s chief agitator. Save for Tyler, The Creator, whose initial work caused such an uproar that he was banned from several countries, no one in the history of hip-hop has even come close to causing the level of moral panic that Eminem could during his prime-- and perhaps still incites, to this day.

Seen as the scourge of the suburbs by many parents during his initial rise to superstardom, Em is a unique case in the sense that, rather than soften his approach once he entered the mainstream, Detroit’s finest doubled down in his right to offend and abhor. However, where Eminem is capable of delivering a verse that challenges your perception of where “the line” is, he is equally able to uplift listeners with tales of resilience and grit. What’s allowed Mathers to fluidly move between these seemingly opposing identities comes from the idea that there’s Marshall, and there’s Shady. By donning an alter-ego that served as the vessel for his most depraved thoughts and murderous fantasies, the traditional approach was for listeners to accept that there was a degree of distance between the real man and the maniacal character that he assumes.

But in modern times, the context around what’s being said within a work of art has taken a backseat for quick soundbites. And on a soundbite-driven platform such as TikTok, Eminem has found himself scrutinized by “Gen-Z” for some of the lines on 2010’s “Love The Way You Lie.”  

eminem and rihanna love the way you live cancel culture

Eminem & Rihanna performing at the 2010 MTV VMAs - Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

A number one record around the world when first released as the second single from Recovery, this Rihanna duet tells the story of a tempestuous relationship and the temporary madness that it could instil in both parties, but wasn’t really subjected to any ripples of controversy at the time. Yet framed through the hyper-lens of cancel culture, lines such as “if she ever tries to fuckin’ leave again, I’mma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire” have led to accusations that Em was actively promoting domestic abuse and as a consequence, should be cast aside. 

TikTok users’ attempts to take Em to task has been met with audible groans by fans who see it as a needless exercise. While from the perspective of fellow artistic provocateur Corey Taylor, who caused his own stir in the 2000s as the frontman of mask-clad metal outfit Slipknot, he believes that trying to defame Em based on one line sets a dangerous precedent. 

"At this point, you’re talking about the Salem witch trials," Taylor remarked in the wake of the news. "You’re talking about America in the ’20s where the KKK was like a political force. You’re talking about complete condemnation without context or any rationalization for an action like that."

Although Corey’s comments about social media acting as judge, jury and executioner speak to larger issues around free speech, the reaction from those who’ve charted Em’s career is more one of bemusement. When it comes to Marshall Mathers making controversial statements or having high-profile run-ins with offended parties, his lyrics on “Love The Way You Lie” might as well be a lullaby.

Through both his art and the ways in which his words have been received, Em’s career path stands as a testament to not only his own imperviousness to any attempts to condemn him, but of a high-profile journey that likely would have been cut short long ago if it’d began in modern times. And, if Eminem were to have began his career in our current decade, the possible hurdles he'd face would fall into two distinct categories. 

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Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/Getty Images

The Bars

Throughout his entire career, Shady has presented himself as a master of the macabre, deranged and, at times, downright gross, in a way that would likely prove prohibitive when attempting to enter the mainstream today. After all, it wasn’t until after Tyler, The Creator and his Odd Future cohorts such as Earl Sweatshirt dispensed with the grislier side of their personas that they obtained their greatest successes. Yet for Em, his rise to world domination always had an undercurrent of menace that veered from playfully juvenile to incomparably twisted in any rap sub-genre, aside from horrorcore.

Over the course of this chaotic run, compromise has very seldom if ever been entertained by Em or those in charge of his career. In fact, two of the more notorious times that censorship was foisted on him by his label came on 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP. Most notably, in "Kim," a six-minute fantasy about murdering Eminem's ex-wife, the line about a "four year old boy laying dead with a slit throat" was seen as taking it too far. As a result, the line was censored, even on the explicit record, but was still unchanged from what Em had written on the pad. 

EMINEM Cancel culture

Sal Idriss/Redferns/Getty Images

Taking domestic violence way further than “Love The Way You Lie” ever did, the vengeful ideas that were harboured on “Kim” are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to Em’s status as a sneering middle finger to the boundaries of taste. 

When it came to the other instance of censorship that Shady ran into on The Marshall Mathers LP, his words took on a much more controversial tone in that rather than being a work of fiction, a creation of his brain’s most sinister urges, they were derived from death and despair that’d taken place in real life.

Taken from the iconic “I’m Back”-- and far from the only monstrous but masterfully-crafted bar on the track-- Em found his words subjected to further intervention from his label when he referenced a high school massacre that’d shook America to its core, just a year prior to the album’s release date, spitting:

I take seven {kids} from {Columbine}, stand 'em all in line

Add an AK-47, a revolver, a 9

A MAC-11 and it oughta solve the problem of mine

And that's a whole school of bullies shot up all at one time” 

At once paying homage to the scheme from Eric B and Rakim’s “My Melody” and pushing his incendiary wordplay to the limits of public acceptance, Em would have to wait until the release of "Rap God," 13-years later, for the line to be heard without any muted words. 

In these two examples, we see clearly where Interscope/Aftermath decided to pull rank and save Eminem from himself, when his every move was already marred in controversy. However, minus those few bars, what remained across singles and albums wasn’t exactly sterilized for public consumption, either. Whether he was making a mockery of Michael Jackson’s Legal issues on "Just Lose It," discussing the lewdest of sexual acts on “FACK” or showing that he hadn’t lost a step when it came to causing outrage on Relapse, the Detroit native has never hesitated to use shock as a selling point. 

By no means a complete list, here are a few rhymes that, if “Love The Way You Lie” was considered egregious, would likely have TikTok users calling 911. 

"Low Down, Dirty" (1997)

Used to let the babysitter suck my dick when I was littler
Smoke a blunt while I'm titty-fucking Bette Midler
Slap dips, support domestic violence
Beat your bitch's ass while your kids stare in silence

"97 Bonnie & Clyde" (1998)

Oh where's mama? she's takin a little nap in the trunk
Oh that smell (whew!) da-da musta runned over a skunk

Now I know what you're thinkin', it's kind of late to go swimmin'
But you know your mama, she's one of those type of women

"Just Don’t Give A Fuck" (1998)

Then I went to Jim Beam, that's when my face grayed
Went to gym in 8th grade, (raped) the women's swim team

"Criminal" (2000) 

My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge
That’ll stab you in the head, whether you’re a f*g or les
Pants or dress? Hate f*gs?
The answer’s ‘yes’

"Stay Wide Awake" (2009)

I see my target, put my car in park, and approach a tender
Young girl by the name of Brenda, and I pretend to befriend her

Sit down beside her like a spider, hi there girl, you mighta
Heard of me before, see whore, you're the kind of girl that I'd a–
-ssault and rape, then figure why not try to make your pussy wider

Fuck you with an umbrella then open it up while the shit's inside ya
I'm the kind of guy that's mild but I might flip and get a little bit wilder
Impregnate a lesbian, yeah, now let's see her have triplets, and I'll di–
-sintegrate them babies as soon as they're out her with formalde–
-hyde and cyanide, girl, you can try and hide, you can try to scream louder
No need for no gunpowder, that only takes all the fun out of
Murderin', I'd rather go vinn-vinn, and now you see just how the
Fuck I do just what I do when I cut right through your scalp, uhh
Shit, wait a minute, I mean skull, my knife seems dull, pull another one out, uh

"Insane" (2013)

I was born with a dick in my brain, yeah, fucked in the head
My stepfather said that I sucked in the bed

Til one night he snuck in and said
We're going out back, I want my dick sucked in the shed


The Conflicts

Considering that Eminem came out the gate with the most unhinged bars imaginable on 1997’s Slim Shady EP, there’s every chance that if Shady were to emerge today, he may not have been granted access to the entertainment world’s inner circle. And yet, his love for vulgar bars and button-pushing has meant that Em has had to weather storms of controversy and frequent attempts at "cancellation" (prior to the term being coined), which proves that if he couldn’t be taken down on those numerous occasions, he might as well be indestructible.

Many of Em’s most persistent detractors have come from the LGBTQIA community. A byproduct of his tendency to use homophobic slurs, which Em has always insisted was spawned by battle rap days, rather than a hatred of gay people, it’s an issue that’s dogged him from the days where gay activist groups would protest outside of his shows all the way through 2018, when controversy arose after his remarks about Tyler, The Creator on “Fall.” 

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GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) activists outside the Grammy Awards, protesting Eminem's lyrics, 2001 - Jason Kirk/Newsmaker/Getty Images

But where using a slur in that manner, even in 2018, could have meant the death knell for any high-profile celebrity, Em was granted a fair hearing in much the same way he was, when he chose to collaborate with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards Ceremony.

When asked why such a prominent gay artist would choose to show solidarity with Em, the British singer/songwriter’s explained his rationale to The Los Angeles Times. He claimed that he’d "rather tear down walls between people than build them up. If I thought for one minute that he was hateful, I wouldn’t do it."

eminem elton john

Elton John & Eminem performing at the Grammy Awards, 2001 - Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Empowered by Elton’s endorsement, it allowed Eminem to be framed in a new context that it’s unlikely he’d be afforded today. In many ways, it mirrored the same leeway that he received when numerous enemies flagged up his use of racially-charged lyrics on 1993’s "Foolish Pride." The song, which was dug up in 2003 as part of Benzino's on-going beef with Eminem at the time, was originally written after Em's girlfriend broke up with him, prompting his youthful declaration, "never date a black girl because blacks only want your money." It was shocking, but did little to damage his legacy in the eyes of fans around the world, as Em faced the backlash head on and accepted responsibility. In a way that seems almost unfathomable today, where a slip-up from one's past can resurface to cause irrevocable damage.

From publicly airing Mariah Carey’s voicemails in what’d be seen today as a blatant invasion of privacy, to making lyrical allusions to the Manchester Arena suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 22 concertgoers on Music To Be Murdered By, Em’s career has been lined with events and choices that would’ve completely destroyed a lesser artist. For comparison, even A$AP Rocky had to make amends for disparaging comments made about Rita Ora on 2015’s "Better Things." Meanwhile, Em hasn’t so much as had to reconsider his lyrics about Lana Del Rey, Lindsay Lohan or any number of prominent figures that have faced his meticulously-crafted wrath.  

No matter how hard certain parties may try, you can’t cancel what is undeniable. Regardless of how much of his past is dredged up or how society changes, Em’s legacy as a commercial artist and pedigree as an MC is such that he simply isn’t going anywhere. After all, this is a man that’s been investigated by the Secret Service on two separate occasions in relation to threats made towards presidents that entered office decades apart. 

So, as an artist that had cemented his name in the history books and in the hearts of fans the world over, long before cancel culture was a thing, Em has safeguarded himself-- and even his most divisive work--- against the rules that are applicable to the lives of any artist that is setting out on a career today.