Almost as infamous for the violence and homophobia in his lyrics as he is famous for his undeniable skills as a rapper, Detroit’s Eminem (born Marshall Bruce Mathers III in St. Joseph, Missouri) is that rarity in turn-of-the-millennium popular culture: a tremendously successful artist who makes his audience equally uncomfortable and entertained by refusing to be taken at face value. As skilled at deceit as he is at diction, Eminem is brilliant at willfully blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, insults and threats, words and violence, confession and subterfuge, hip-hop and pop. Credit also his outstanding verbal skills — an invigorating use of counter-rhythms, internal rhymes, half-, even non-rhymes that sound like rhymes; the clarity and precision of his flow; and his tremendously dynamic range of expression. Raising the stakes of music as theater, he performs, often in character, fully committing himself to the emotions of songs. But what ultimately makes Eminem the cultural force he has become is his tremendous ability to understand and exploit his audience and his position as a white rapper in a mass culture currently dominated by hip-hop. Just listen to his self-awareness at the opening of The Marshall Mathers LP or on “White America.” He has chosen multi-platinum teen-pop sensations as “rivals,” reserving his battles with semi-popular rappers for non-album tracks. Witness the subtle mellowing out that preceded the release of his film debut. Perhaps the most significant line he’s blurred is the one dividing art and commerce in a genre typically dominated by the latter.
Brothers Jeff and Mark Bass — former members of the forgotten light-funk combo Dreamboy — discovered the teenager freestyling on a Detroit radio program in 1990. Six years later they released Eminem’s debut on their fledgling WEB Entertainment label. Solidly professional, but otherwise unexceptional, Infinite presents a positive and laid-back rapper reeling off rapid-fire rhymes over the Bass Brothers’ jazzy, down-tempo R&B grooves. The subject matter is frequently overshadowed by Em’s attempts to rhyme what seems like every third word (you can just see him poring over Webster’s in search of rhymes), but clear indications of future concerns (including then-newborn daughter Hailie) poke through — notably distrust of women on the tale of disease-spreading “Maxine” and at the album’s close, as the LL Cool J-style love ballad “Searchin” gives way to “Backstabber” and “Jealousy Woes.”
Infinite failed to sell out its initial 500-copy pressing. A year later, Eminem, stung by criticism that he sounded too much like Nas and AZ, reemerged with The Slim Shady EP and his alter-ego, an amoral psychopath through whom he could vent anger and indulge in his most reprehensible fantasies. Despite a hardened delivery, shifted focus from medium to message and DJ Head pushing the Bass Brothers’ production toward a more commercial (but still down-tempo) G-funk, The Slim Shady EP is only a modest improvement over Infinite, with two notable exceptions. “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” makes effective use of the Slim Shady persona, introducing the unique sort of verbal slapstick that would become Eminem’s calling card. “Just the Two of Us” is simply startling. An ingenious and horrifying fantasy in which Eminem — speaking in baby talk to his infant daughter — gives a running commentary on the disposal of her mother’s murdered body, the song combines captivating role-playing with a twisted sort of emotional honesty hidden behind (or, more accurately, channeled into) pathologically violent behavior. The agile rhymer is revealed as an artist capable of emotionally complex and challenging material and a performer willing and able to fully immerse himself in a performance. Together, “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” and “Just the Two of Us” foretell Eminem’s best work, and both reappear on his major-label debut (the latter under the title “97′ Bonnie & Clyde”).
The Slim Shady EP succeeded where Infinite failed, leading to a second-place finish in the Rap Coalition’s 1997 Rap Olympics in Los Angeles, an appearance on the underground club hit “5 Star Generals” with Shabaam Shadeeq, and participation in the inaugural Lyricist Lounge tour. An LA radio appearance brought him to the attention of Dr. Dre, who signed him to Aftermath and released The Slim Shady LP in early 1999. Three songs from the EP re-edited without DJ Head’s samples, eight new Bass Brothers tracks and three tunes from a rapid-fire session with Dre, The Slim Shady LP is as scattershot as its assembly. Even so, it adds several potent weapons — including a wicked sense of humor and Dre’s irresistible hooks — to Eminem’s arsenal of clever rhymes, laser-guided cadences and elaborate fantasies. The match of wit and beats achieves a special symbiosis on “My Name Is,” a delightful bit of game-show funk and comic one-liners that better defines Slim Shady as a cartoonish, drug-addled manifestation of Eminem’s id. The daring duo takes the Slim-Shady-as-id idea to its logical conclusion on the bumping “Guilty Conscience,” and mocks the character’s potential influence on Eminem’s audience with the scathingly sarcastic “Role Model.” While the majority of the new Bass Brothers tracks fail to improve on the quality of the material on the EP — thus weighing down the second half of the disc — “Brain Damage” and “My Fault” pick up on the playful cartoonishness of the Dre material. “My Fault,” complete with Eminem singing the chorus, is especially effective, playing a friend’s mushroom OD for laughs — and, ultimately, pathos as Eminem breaks down into hysterics at the song’s conclusion in a surprisingly effective bit of acting. Led by “My Name Is,” The Slim Shady LP turned Eminem into a multi-platinum pariah, widely condemned for the drug use and misogyny in his lyrics. That, of course, served to increase Eminem’s sales and fame, and inspire his best and most profane album, The Marshall Mathers LP.
Capturing all of his inherent contradictions and extremes, The Marshall Mathers LP is a complex and challenging record. It’s unforgivably offensive, undeniably artful, irresistibly tuneful and captivating, at times unlistenably hateful and violent, but its ability to provoke strong reactions of all sorts affirms its status as one of hip-hop’s masterworks. (Even the Grammy Awards got the point, and gave Eminem three statues on the back of “The Real Slim Shady.”) With Dr. Dre and the Bass Brothers each producing six tracks, the album is far more unified than its predecessor, thanks to the Bass Brothers’ ability to ape Dre’s playful funk style on “Drug Ballad,” “Under the Influence” and “Criminal.” It also marks a tremendous leap forward for Eminem. Lobbing back every shred of negative energy directed his way, Eminem comes on like a man possessed on the enraged opener “Kill You” and rarely lets up on that intensity through the like-minded closer “Criminal.” In the four songs at the album’s heart, Eminem answers his critics brashly (the you-want-offensive-I’ll-give-you-offensive “Kill You”), thoughtfully (the magnificent portrayal of a fatally misguided fan, “Stan”), honestly (“Who Knew”) and defiantly (“The Way I Am,” Eminem’s first entirely self-produced track). In a rare case of replicating the success of a hit without shame, “The Real Slim Shady” is actually superior to “My Name Is.” But the mind truly begins to spin during “Kim.” Cinematic in scope, the “97′ Bonnie & Clyde” prequel graphically depicts the elaborate fictional murder of Eminem’s then-wife, Kim Scott, in which he portrays her as well as himself. Easily the most disturbing track ever on an album that has sold more than eight-million copies, it tosses aside the baby talk for fever-pitched dialogue in verse, the Father Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde dichotomy for a confused jumble of love, hate and jealousy, and the calm aftermath for the chaotic murder itself. Genuinely terrifying and troublingly heartfelt, it remains Eminem’s greatest artistic accomplishment.
In the wake of The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem emerged as the primary figure in 21st century popular music, dominating album charts, award shows, pop and hip-hop radio and MTV, and becoming the target of considerable outrage from the entire political spectrum. Thus, it was a surprise that his next release was as a member of the largely unknown six-man crew D12 (aka the Detroit Twelve, Dirty Dozen). Judging by their lyrics, the members of D12 are primarily concerned with drugs, bitches, guns and psychosis, making Devils Night, in essence, a less challenging Eminem record that blends more easily into hip-hop radio play lists. In fact, D12 are a skilled and charismatic crew that sounds at home in the hook-laden musical environment created by Dr. Dre, Eminem and fellow group member Kon Artis (Denaun Porter). Less an active group than a brotherhood of Detroit-based solo artists (some of whom were on The Slim Shady EP and The Marshall Mathers LP), D12 had reportedly promised each other that whichever one of them became successful first would bring the others along. Eminem’s spotlight here is not vocal — his contribution is no more extensive than any one else’s — but off-mic. The first release on Eminem’s own label, Devils Night lists him as executive producer. He also produced eight tracks with more than adequate results. As a turning point, Devils Night was a test run for taking the reins of his career in 2002.
Things began to settle down for Eminem. He and Kim divorced with joint custody of Hailie. A multi-million-dollar defamation lawsuit filed against him by his mother was settled for a nominal fee. He avoided jail time on weapons charged stemming from a nightclub incident. An FCC ruling declaring the radio version of “The Real Slim Shady” offensive was overturned. The careers of some of his chosen targets (Everlast, Insane Clown Posse, Canibus, etc.) had begun to wane. So it’s not hard to see why the rage on The Marshall Mathers LP is largely absent from The Eminem Show. Drawing little from his personal life other than the night club incident and the forced recap “Cleanin Out My Closet,” Eminem turns his attention back to his rhyming skills, reaching a new level of trickery (even attempting to rhyme “oranges” with “hinges” and “syringes”). As the album’s primary producer, Eminem employed Jeff Bass, DJ Head and Detroit veteran Louis Resto as collaborators — although Dr. Dre, who produced just three tracks, is again executive producer. There are missteps (most notably the horrendous use of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” on “Sing for the Moment” and the irritating anti-love ballad “Superman”), but Eminem manages to establish his own sound — tuneful and dramatically potent, if still underdeveloped — within the framework set up by Dr. Dre and the Bass Brothers. He even produces the worthy “My Name Is”/”The Real Slim Shady” follow-up “Without Me.” With the photo of Eminem in a shirt and tie reading the stock reports and retirement hints in the lyrics, The Eminem Show proves that the budding businessman learned more from Dre than just how to build a hook.
Eminem followed that toned-down album with a poorly disguised version of his pre-Infinite self in the hip-hop-era Purple Rain, 8 Mile. Presenting Eminem as a sympathetic Rocky-style underdog, the film hit number one, as did the soundtrack’s “Eye of the Tiger” single “Lose Yourself,” the subject matter of which is strongly reminiscent of Infinite‘s “Never 2 Far.” Another Eminem production, “Lose Yourself” is pitch-perfect for its purposes (which surely includes use at sporting events) and added an Oscar for best song to Eminem’s trophy case. The remainder of the 8 Mile soundtrack, however, is a largely forgettable collection of second-rate efforts by Nas, Rakim, Xzibit and Gang Starr and abysmal ones from Shady Records artists Obie Trice and D12. Jay-Z’s Eminem-produced “8 Miles and Runnin'” stands out, as does Eminem’s title track, though neither is their best work. “Lose Yourself” aside, the soundtrack is most noteworthy for launching the career of Eminem’s own protégé, 50 Cent, and quite possibly a new career for Eminem himself.