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Rap Devils: Eminem vs. Machine Gun Kelly and the State of White Rapperdom

Dissecting the Slim Shady–MGK beef and what it explains about being a white MC in 2018

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Eminem called out Machine Gun Kelly on his surprise album Kamikaze; MGK in turn responded with “Rap Devil,” a scathing diss record against Em, who in turn released a rebuttal called “Killshot.” What happens when white rappers attack? Two Ringer staff writers examine what is and isn’t beyond the pale.


Rob Harvilla: The white rappers are angry. At each other. And this is troubling, and fascinating, and also, if we’re being honest, pretty hilarious. On Friday, Eminem released “Killshot,” a crabby if lively diss track aimed at the young(er) Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly, the latest salvo in a long feud that began in 2012, when MGK opined on Twitter that Eminem’s then-teenage daughter, Hailie, was “hot as fuck.” Technically, “Killshot” is a response to MGK’s “Rap Devil,” unleashed earlier this month in response to several discouraging words that appeared on Eminem’s Billboard chart-topping SEO nightmare of a surprise-dropped new album, Kamikaze, most notably on “Not Alike.” The resulting beef has generated historic numbers for YouTube, and Genius, and the guy who is now somehow producing diss tracks for both sides.

The funniest line on “Rap Devil” is “Somebody grab him some clippers / His fuckin’ beard is weird”; the funniest line on “Killshot” is “How you gonna name yourself after a damn gun and have a man bun?” So what we have here, specifically, is two white rappers insulting one another’s grooming habits. G-Eazy is now involved, ostensibly on Eminem’s side given the whole Halsey thing, and so you’re gonna get like 200 Instagrams of these people flipping the camera the bird. Troubling. Fascinating. Hilarious. But I sense, Justin, that you are concerned. Please share with me your concerns.

Justin Charity: You can always count on me to be vaguely annoyed about popular culture.

There’s some inherent insufferableness to this feud. The deeper it goes, the more obnoxious it gets, e.g., the glistening dirtbag G-Eazy now being involved. It’s hard enough tolerating new Eminem music in this particular decade. It’s too much to ask me to also suffer multiple MGK freestyles and pay attention to G-Eazy’s Instagram account as the price of admission for a desperate Eminem album rollout. Joe Budden has waged war on Eminem too, but he’s become a sideshow. The central conflict is Eminem vs. MGK.

I think it’s necessarily embarrassing for white rappers to underscore their own whiteness in such a loud and contentious fashion. They’re tokenizing each other. They look ridiculous. I would rather watch Eminem battle Tekashi 6ix9ine. That, at least, would present a real and definitive contrast of generations and musical styles—the sort of contrast that Eminem solicits whenever he’s whining about the SoundCloud generation that’s left him behind. Eminem beefing with MGK is a cop-out. It’s Eminem beefing with Everlast all over again.

Harvilla: I wholeheartedly support an Eminem-Tekashi brawl, provided (a) Eminem drop-kicks Tekashi to the moon, and (b) I don’t have to actually listen to any of it. What is notable, maybe, about this MGK-Em situation is that to me it’s both White vs. White and Old vs. Young(er). Race certainly factors heavily into it (“little white toothpick,” etc.), but only alongside what for Em is an overfamiliar Old Man Yells at Dirtbag Cloud approach. “I’m 45 and still outselling you.” “I’d rather be 80-year-old me than 20-year-old you.” And so forth. MGK is, explicitly, an Eminem disciple—the full text of the inciting 2012 tweet, which I am delighted to reproduce for you here, is “ok so i just saw a picture of Eminem’s daughter...and i have to say, she is hot as fuck, in the most respectful way possible cuz Em is king.” Kelly remains, in his way, that respectful: Even the “Rap Devil” line “Homie, we get it, you’re the greatest rapper alive” can’t fully commit to its sarcasm. This conflict is, with apologies to Oedipus, Oedipal. It’s the hapless son trying to slay the exhausted father to his style.

But it is also, as you say, very much about two white rappers grappling with the degree to which their whiteness matters as the rap universe mutates around them and surpasses them. (It matters a great deal, still.) Eminem is famous enough to still debut atop Billboard’s album chart and yet washed enough to spend most of that album complaining about the poor reviews for his previous chart-topping album. (That I prefer Kamikaze to 2017’s Revival is faint praise mostly due to the fact it’s more than a half hour shorter.) MGK has a respectable midlevel career but is unlikely to leap the several tiers between him and prime Eminem, or for that matter Eminem at any point, including this one. They’re both fighting for relevance in terms of both critical respect and commercial clout that isn’t mere zombie-stan inertia. They still want credibility, and they still rap from a fundamental place of insecurity, even if age is now a greater handicap than race where Em’s concerned. So what is a white rapper in 2018 really fighting for? And isn’t all of rap more or less post-credibility at this point?

Charity: It is—and I think the post-credibility atmosphere has transformed the very nature of white rappers in a manner that’s different from and more distressing than how it’s transformed everyone else.

Post Malone is the poster child for this shift. He’s a white rapper from Syracuse who has, for the past three years, quietly annexed the Hot 100. Ostensibly, he’s a trap star. He collaborates with black Atlanta rappers and producers. He makes trap music; he makes pop music. Crucially, he obliterates the distinction.

Notably, Post Malone does all this despite his having publicly expressed his contempt for the genre he’s adopted. “I might rap, but I don’t make rap music,” he says. “If you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life,” he says, “don’t listen to hip-hop.” He says, “There’s not a lot of people talking about real shit.” He says, “I’ll listen to some Bob Dylan.” Essentially, Post Malone is the dark inverse of Eminem’s hyperactive reverence for contemporary hip-hop. Post Malone exploits the post-credibility atmosphere in the extreme. For Post Malone, rapping is a creative means toward a commercial end.

He’s fighting for money. He’s fighting for market share. Hearing his music and his interviews, I suppose Post Malone has very few concerns beyond that. What do you think about Bhad Bhabie? She’s the latest breakout star in the millennial lineage of aspirationally ratchet white-girl rappers with finger-snapping attitudes. She’s Kreayshawn, basically, but she’s already gotten a lot further than Kreayshawn ever did.

Harvilla: Oh, Kreayshawn. You’re breaking my heart. Poor Kreayshawn. I loved Kreayshawn. I’m listening to this. You can’t stop me.

Charity: Listen, Rob—I’ve lived to regret telling you that one of the best rap shows I’ve ever attended was a Lil Debbie concert.

Harvilla: Better Lil Debbie than V-Nasty, friend. I am still young and open-minded enough to realize that I am way too old to wrap my head around Bhad Bhabie. I don’t think she’s an affront to hip-hop culture, but I do think her profiles are way better than her songs, and it’s certainly notable that she does not even pretend to give a shit about hip-hop culture, per se. Kreayshawn took care to present herself as an authentic and semi-reverent East Bay street-rap oddball, but for Bhad Bhabie, rapping is merely the quickest and most prestigious path to fame for someone with bottomless charisma and a knack for loopy catchphrases and a terrible attitude. Vulture just published a piece headlined “Can Bhad Bhabie Rap?” in the time we’ve been having this conversation. It doesn’t matter, nor does it particularly matter that rap barely matters to her.

And this, for me, is the truly bizarre thing about white rappers now. In 2016 Jon Caramanica wrote a great New York Times piece about “the post-accountability era of white rap,” wherein the likes of G-Eazy, Lil Dicky, and your pal Post Malone enjoy wild success while “evading black gatekeepers and going directly to overwhelmingly white consumers, resulting in what can feel like a parallel world, aware of hip-hop’s center but studiously avoiding it.” Past white rap stars fully copped to being interlopers and reacted with either disastrous defiance (Iggy Azalea) or disastrous self-flagellation (Macklemore). But the next Eminem will not require a Dr. Dre–caliber cosign nor know or care enough to even seek one out. Indifference to the genre’s stars, and maybe even the genre itself, is now a feature, not a bug. The last taboo is not even being aware of hip-hop’s center at all.

I’m afraid to ask you what you think of the late Mac Miller, but I’m-a askin’. In my mind he started out as a try-hard white rapper, the Luigi to Asher Roth’s Mario. (I hate this analogy.) But he kept pushing, and getting weirder, and making cooler friends, and I feel like he’d reached a place of at least pretending to grapple with his privilege, making as much of his weaknesses as his strengths. Did he ever clear some kind of barrier for you? Is there a white rapper out there who’s even begun to figure this out?

Charity: The Fader actually got Mac Miller and Vince Staples to talk to one another about this discomfort a few years ago. Mac Miller said, “It was hard to sit here and know that, because I was a white dude, I was able to sell easier and be more marketable. That wasn’t tight to me.”

Mac Miller was an eager foil against the more nihilistic attitudes among his white peers. I struggled with his music—even his more recent music—for a lot of stylistic reasons that I won’t belabor now. But I do think his veneration for musicians like Thundercat, Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, and Chief Keef was grounded more in music than marketing potential. The reason Mac Miller made songs with Earl Sweatshirt seems very different from the reason Post Malone makes songs with 21 Savage, you know? Mac Miller’s sense of musical community and integration was quaint and somewhat old-fashioned. He wasn’t Post Malone, but he wasn’t Macklemore either. He was confident without being the worst sort of swaggering minstrel white boy. Which feels like it’s the best anyone can ask for at this point.

I fear that I’m making Mac Miller sound like an old-ass man. He was 26—five years younger than I am, 30 years younger than you are. He was two years younger than Iggy Azalea. Among rappers, attitudes about race, deference, and credibility don’t form a pure, stark generational split, I don’t think. There are just so many more popular white and otherwise nonblack rappers now, so the tonnage of white rapper shenanigans has reached critical mass. You’ve got Russ, who is basically a parody of insecure-white-rapper bravado, sending goons to beat up Adam22, the No Jumper host, who is himself a classic parody of white hip-hop gatekeepers who get a little too reckless with their clout among black teens. It’s all absurd.

Harvilla: Yeah, it’s not that white rappers don’t feel shame or at least insecurity anymore—it’s just that they no longer have to. Eminem is correct that Machine Gun Kelly wouldn’t have a career without him; Machine Gun Kelly is correct that modern-day Eminem is often so doddering and moribund that even an unsightly no-win feud counts as an interesting new direction. What neither combatant offers us, unfortunately, is an appealing path forward. What should a white rapper do, and be, in 2018? I’m so flummoxed by the question that I’m tempted to make an incendiary statement I’ll live to regret: My favorite white rapper of this present moment is the guy from Twenty One Pilots, who owns every last shred of his eccentricities, practically marinates in his insecurities, makes not the slightest attempt to convince you he’s got Barz, and is so outlandishly himself that he at least spares you the secondhand embarrassment of watching him pretend to be somebody else. Would you please concede, at least, that he’s on Lil Debbie’s level?

Charity: In life, I concede nothing. I survived OB O’Brien. I think I survived Matt Ox. I’m never looking back on straight-outta-tha-suburbs flows.

For a decade, I thought Eminem was—despite his regressive, offensive mode—the ideal white rapper. He was self-conscious but nonetheless confident—aggressive, even. He was down without ever seeming as if he’d cultivated hip-hop as a fetish. Whereas Post Malone or Iggy Azalea are white performers on safari, Eminem always seemed, for better or worse, at home in his genre. Now Eminem couldn’t seem any more out of touch and out of pocket, a sort of Archie Bunker.

Frequently, the commercial mainstream presents such a ludicrous choice—Eminem or MGK, Macklemore or Iggy Azalea—and I begin to accept the suggestion that white rappers are altogether unacceptable. I’m being extreme and dramatic, of course, but so are these knuckleheads. I miss Bubba Sparxxx. He made being a successful white rapper seem way more dignified, the debate more simple, than earlier and later generations proved to be. I miss peak Paul Wall. He’s too cool for this shit.