• Entertainment
  • Music

Why Eminem’s ‘Houdini’ Is Exciting His Fans and Revolting His Critics

6 minute read

Yes, an Eminem music video is trending in the year 2024. On May 30, the 51-year-old rapper released “Houdini,” the first single from his upcoming The Death of Slim Shady, teasing in a promotional video with the magician David Blaine that he would “make [his] career disappear.” “Houdini” is now the No. 1 trending music video on YouTube, and “Eminem” is the top trending topic on X and Google. The video is hypercharged by three surefire paths to virality in this era of social media: nostalgia, shock value, and celebrity cameos. 


For the last couple years, pop culture has been awash in a yearning for the Y2K era thanks to a “20-year nostalgia cycle,” TIME TV critic Judy Berman wrote in 2022. Olivia Rodrigo helped revive Paramore; Jack Harlow hit No. 1 with a Fergie sample. And it just so happens Eminem was one of the biggest stars of this cool-again era. He’s actually already benefited enormously from this cultural moment: His 2004 song “Mockingbird” went viral on TikTok last year, thanks to the popularity of a sped-up version, and soon crossed 1.5 billion streams on Spotify. 

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Eminem would eventually embrace this trend directly. In “Houdini,” he literally steps out of a time portal from 2002, when one of his biggest hits, “Without Me,” surged to No. 1 in 15 countries. Much of “Houdini” is an homage to “Without Me”: It starts with the same “guess who’s back” refrain; revives his Rapboy superhero costume; and mirrors the original video’s comic-book graphics and many of its camera shots, including Emimem riding shotgun in a car with a chagrined Dr. Dre. 

Read More: Welcome to the Era of Unapologetic Bad Taste

“Houdini” also brings back Eminem’s many bleach-blonde look-alikes from his “The Real Slim Shady” video. And the rapper adds another layer of nostalgia by heavily interpolating a hit from 20 years before his own first peak: Steve Miller Band’s 1982 song “Abracadabra,” which is regarded as either a classic pop-rock earworm or insufferable camp, depending on who you ask. 

While Eminem’s music has largely been very dark and self-serious for the past decade, “Houdini,” is much lighter, funnier, and more self-deprecating. Given all of these factors, many fans praised the song as a return to form. 


But many others online reacted to “Houdini” with revulsion, particularly due to a single line in the middle of the song that references one of the biggest rappers of the current moment. “If I was to ask for Megan Thee Stallion if she would collab with me, would I really have a shot at a feat?” he raps. The line references the fact that Megan Thee Stallion was shot in the foot by rapper Tory Lanez, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of three felonies including discharging a firearm with gross negligence. And the music video displays subtitles making the feet/feat pun overly clear, just in case listeners miss it. 

The line could simply be read as a groan-inducing bit of wordplay. But it’s also a potent dog whistle, because Megan has been the subject of intense misogyny and backlash following her shooting. Megan’s conflict with Lanez was endlessly dissected and wielded as a referendum on much bigger (and frequently toxic) debates, around believing women, the persecution of Black men, and the sexuality of female rappers. (It’s also not the first rap track to take the shooting lightly; Nicki Minaj got there first, with “Bigfoot” earlier this year.)

Detractors of Eminem criticized his reference to Megan as a needless misstep. But the lyric is not evidence of Eminem stumbling into a faux pas, but rather running headlong into the realm of bad taste. Eminem was an edgelord before that word existed; he has always written deliberately shocking or extremist lyrics in order to get a rise out of both his fans and critics. He’s delivered especially heinous lyrics under his alter ego Slim Shady, who 50 Cent labeled as a “psychopath” in a promotional video supporting Eminem last month. That video gleefully advertises Eminem’s “rude lyrics and controversial antics,” and shows Slim Shady dying at the hand of his haters. So Eminem’s reference to Megan appears calculated; it practically begs the public to fire up the outrage hamster wheel, and it has already succeeded in that regard. 

“Houdini” is filled with all sorts of other provocative lyrics: “My transgender cat’s Siamese/ Identifies as Black, but acts Chinese”; “In the coupe, leaning back my seat/ Bumpin' R. Kelly's favorite group, the Black guy pees” (a near-homonym for The Black Eyed Peas and a reference to a specific instance of sexual abuse which increased the prison time Kelly was already serving). He even disses his own children: “F-ck my own kids, they're brats,” he raps, while his three children are shown in the music video reacting with disgust. 

Many of these edgy lyrics have garnered fierce backlash—”Eminem’s New Song “Houdini” Is Really, Really Bad,” reads a Stereogum review—and then a counter-backlash, with his fans arguing that his critics can’t take a joke. All of those diatribes, no matter what side they’re on, have resulted in pure engagement. 


Finally, the third reason that “Houdini” has garnered so many eyeballs is because culture lovers love celebrity cameos. This week, the third installment of the Knives Out movie franchise ginned up excitement by trickling out names of its extremely famous cast. Taylor Swift, of course, has found enormous success in lacing her music videos with all sorts of Easter eggs which often reference her famous friends and paramours. 

Read More: All the References in Taylor Swift’s Title Track ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

So “Houdini” is stuffed with appearances. For rap heads, there’s Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and the storied hip-hop producer The Alchemist. For comedy fans, there’s Pete Davidson—who starred in many parody tributes to Eminem during his time at SNL—and Shane Gillis, whose career took off precisely because he was booted from SNL for his offensive comments. 

Taken together, “Houdini” practically hits every square in an imaginary game of virality bingo. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue with the fact that, at least in the cultural zeitgeist, Shady is back.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com