In a relationship not dissimilar to that between Arnold Schwarzenegger and his acting, it is not serious artistic merit which is the most noteworthy element of Machine Gun Kelly’s Rap Devil, but the piece of beef which produced it. As a track, Rap Devil is average to the point of completely unremarkable. But as part of Kelly’s six-year feud with Eminem, Rap Devil is a snapshot of a longstanding tradition of rap in 2018; an image both of how rap culture has changed over the past thirty years and the ugly relationship the modern industry has with the genre’s origins.
The beef began with a tasteless tweet in 2012 in which Kelly referred to Eminem’s then-sixteen-year-old daughter as ‘hot as f**k’. Apparently lacking any working grasp of irony, Kelly insisted he said so ‘in the most respectful way possible’ but Eminem nonetheless took offence and, according to Kelly, had the younger artist blacklisted from several of rap’s most important record labels and radio stations. The feud then churned under the surface for several years until this August, when Eminem came swinging out of the blue on his surprise album Kamikaze, airing his distaste with Kelly’s comments and a host of other issues he takes with a ‘non-threatening blond fairy cornball’.
If a disstrack on a surprise album is the rap equivalent of a sucker punch, Kelly certainly wasn’t dazed for long; the speed of his response, taking just days, is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the track. Otherwise, Rap Devil is a competent, listenable track lacking any real spark. The rhymes are mostly decent but basic, helped along by Kelly’s characteristically good flow. In a few short passages he really gains some traction and throws down in a way which would make perhaps even peak Marshall Mathers proud. The beat is also good throughout, from the opening ear-worm of a guitar riff to the thumping backtrack. The chorus, however, is weak. The refrain of ‘Let’s talk about it,’ and the accompanying hashtag, is more suburban mom than presumably was intended, and the inexplicable use of auto-tune is reminiscent of the worst of early-noughties boybands.
But beef is not won by technical rapping ability. It is the diss, not the track, which takes primacy and it is the cutting disses that first drew attention to Rap Devil. His ‘corny hats and sweatsuits’ do often make the self-proclaimed Rap God look more like a middle-class father in fancy dress. It is equally true that the records Eminem made a decade ago were far better than his recent output, and if Kelly’s account of the tweet episode is accurate, the once-infamous Slim Shady’s skin certainly has thinned over time. Eminem has said many things about many women, from Mariah Carey to his own mother, that are much more disrespectful than anything Kelly said about his daughter.
Unfortunately, Kelly embarrasses himself with another host of disses ranging from the infantile to the idiotic. Confusingly conceding that Eminem is the ‘greatest rapper alive,’ Kelly then calls him a ‘dweeb’ for ‘reading the dictionary,’ in the style a schoolchild who jealously bullies a smarter classmate. His pubescent reference to his 6’4’’ stature, worked around a pun on ‘looking up to,’ is downright embarrassing, as are the toothless comments on Eminem’s age.
But it is violence – or the lack thereof – which is most striking here. Rap has a long, unpleasant history of violence, and the American ghettos which were its cradle remain awash with blood. Beef itself is a relic of these origins, of the gangland feuds which claimed the lives of some of rap’s brightest early stars, and the threats of violence which are almost ubiquitous in rap once were, and for many amateurs remain, very serious. But for Kelly and Eminem, they are meaningless. Both men are millionaires, far removed both from rap’s volatile origins and their own. Kelly cannot possibly believe he will gamble all he has gained to ‘draw some white chalk around’ Eminem’s body. Kelly himself even alludes to this absurdity, calling Eminem’s words ‘tough talk from a rapper payin’ millions for security a year.’ But again, the absence of an eye for irony embarrasses him; the only actual fracas of the feud amounted to Kelly’s security team assaulting an actor who criticised his comments on Eminem’s daughter.
To see an impervious millionaire profit from a riskless impression of ghetto life, though unsurprising, is an ugly indictment of modern mainstream rap’s relationship with its origins, even before the inevitable considerations of race. But ultimately it makes Rap Devil a riotous success. Kelly’s attack on the world’s best-selling rapper was a well-calculated move which came off perfectly. His profile was raised massively, and the song is one of his bestselling and most played. To attempt to assess such an episode primarily on artistic merit is at best naïve. At worst it is callous, blinkered and ignorant.
A version of this article was first submitted as an entry for the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism