Revisiting Eminem’s Battle Rap Fairytale 8 Mile

About halfway through 8 Mile, Eminem’s character, B-Rabbit, interrupts a casual rap battle happening between his car factory co-workers on their lunch break. Xzibit, playing a guy named Mike, starts to throw jokes ripping on the weight and sexuality of innocent bystanders who are just trying to chill for their 30 minutes, and B-Rabbit steps in to save the day, or at least that’s what he believes .

He opens with “OK, folks, enough with the gay jokes/Especially from a gay broke bitch yourself.” I get it, he’s twisting Mike’s words back at him, and Em’s cartoonishly intense delivery makes you lean on every syllable. Then in true Eminem fashion, he keeps going to the point where it gets uncomfortable. “This guy cashed his whole check and bought one Ho-Ho/Fuckin’ homo’ little maggot, you can’t hack it.” And then he thinks he’s really about to bury him: “Paul’s gay, but you’re af****t.” It doesn’t end there, but you get the gist. Even if it’s supposed to be semi-fictional, this less than two minutes of rapping crystallizes how a chunk of Eminem’s most impactful music is remembered today. It’s sharp and sometimes funny until the joke is pushed so far that he ends up sounding like the joke instead. If you look up any modern-day Eminem parody—even the ones unintentionally made by himself—they’ll sound a lot like this freestyle.

When used more imaginatively, that ultra-intensity, over-exaggeration, and acidity were part of what made Eminem a magnetic rapper. There’s an insatiable hunger and twisted charisma to his 1999 breakout, The Slim Shady LPand its 2000 follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP. But ultimately, the albums are patchy listens, marred by lyrics and drawn-out scenarios so overly edgy that I don’t revisit them these days. And he leaned into his nasty side so thoroughly that when the 8 Mile script, written by Scott Silver and loosely based on Eminem’s life, was brought to Dr. Dre, Em’s Aftermath label boss, Dre apparently said, “What a movie about Eminem needs is six fucked-up scenes.” Thankfully, the filmmakers ignored that advice.

Outside of the lunch break freestyle, 2002’s 8 Mile is Eminem with the rougher edges sanded off. In other cases, that would be a point of criticism, but for Eminem it’s refreshing. Directed by Curtis Hanson, four years after his screenwriting Oscar for LA Confidential, 8 Mile is an underdog tale about B-Rabbit climbing up the mid-’90s Detroit battle rap ladder while struggling to get by and find the time to work on his demo. The structure is similar to a sports movie: say, Rockyor The Bad News Bears. B-Rabbit’s main issues are that he’s broke, a choke artist, and white. They really ham up the struggle of white rappers, treating him like he’s Rudy.