Eminem’s follow-up to his 1999 debut The Slim Shady LP was where he proved, definitively, that he was not just a potty-mouthed provocateur, sent here by God to piss the world off, but also a great artist. The Slim Shady LP introduced the world to his devilish alter ego and had several startling moments, including “My Name Is”, “Guilty Conscience” (in which Dr. Dre played the good guy), and particularly “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”. Yet The Marshall Mathers LP, released only a year later, exploded with a relentless imaginative fury that put its predecessor in the shade. It topped the US and UK charts, spawned several hit singles, and proved that rap could be a mass commercial phenomenon. It turned Eminem into a household name.
This was a worrying development for a lot of people. Moralists balked at the violence of his lyrics and were horrified by his seismic impact upon youth culture. (‘Will someone please think of the children!’) Lynne Cheney famously called him “a rap singer who advocates murder and rape” and linked his music to the massacre at Columbine. Ontario Attorney General Jim Flaherty even wanted to ban him from entering Canada, saying: ‘I personally don’t want anyone coming to Canada who will come here and advocate violence against women’.
These people made the grave mistake of taking Eminem at face value, of interpreting his lyrics literally, which usually you can’t. You really only have to listen to the first few lines of his first hit, “My Name Is”, to cotton on to the fact that he was teasing the world with the Slim Shady persona: ‘Hi kids! Do you like violence?/Wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?’
Never mind, many of the kids understood the joke – the layers of irony, the exaggerating for comic effect, the deliberate winding up of moralists – and what’s more, quite a few of them saw past the joke to discover something deeper in this strange white rapper, something to help them make a new sense of their lives. Because in the end, they realised, Eminem’s crusade was not really against women or gays. It was against hypocrites. Kids are pretty sharp at detecting hypocrisy, sharper than many adults give them credit for. So when some rapper tells them ‘Yeah, I probably got a couple of screws up in my head loose/But no worse than what’s goin’ on in your parents’ bedroom’ (on ‘The Real Slim Shady’), that kind of honesty can be downright inspiring. It’s a massive middle finger up to all figures of authority (like Lynne Cheney or your parents) who preach from on high and expect you to believe that they’re squeaky clean images of perfection.
But the takedown of authority figures is obviously not the main reason kids still listen to Eminem to this day, even if it’s definitely part of his appeal. Critics often assume that everyone else listens to lyrics as much as they do, which is a mistake. The main reason is that Eminem’s music sounds great, regardless of its social value. Don’t underestimate the importance of the catchy singalong chorus on “The Real Slim Shady” or haunting Dido sample on “Stan” to The Marshall Mathers LP’s commercial success, because these concessions to the pop market certainly helped the album to crossover. Also, Dr. Dre and the other producers crafted perfect beats that were simple and got people moving, without distracting from the main attraction. Because the main appeal to everyone, black or white, was the musicality of the superstar himself.
Eminem’s powerful flow and breathtaking feats of rhyming on The Marshall Mathers LP can only be described as musical. He helped illustrate to millions of rock fans, who didn’t necessarily understand hip-hop, that the genre wasn’t just talking over a beat, but a rhythmically complex, difficult art form. Nobody could deny the man’s talent.
There are some astonishing moments that hold up to this day. “The Way I Am” is written in anapaestic tetrameter, which won’t mean much to most people, but anyone with ears can hear how Eminem stresses every third syllable on the verses, spitting them into your eardrum like a rabid dog being let off the leash. “Kill You” is equally menacing, with its stop-start syncopation, but it also manages to rhyme ‘G’s’ with ‘tweece… twice!’
Yet the heart of the album is two narrative epics, where in a rarity for pop music the stories are actually worth following: “Stan” and “Kim”. The Oscars-worthy play-acting of psychopathic maniacs on these songs took the embedded rage of hip-hop to operatic new levels, and were so convincing that, particularly in the latter case, many otherwise rational people were unable to figure out that Eminem was performing at all. “Kim” may be his darkest moment on record, a murder fantasy that more than anything else he’s done sounds like a nightmare. Its real-life correlations to his own failing marriage remain disturbing. But if you really listen to his crazed shrieks, then it quickly becomes clear, like “Stan”, that Eminem is performing rather than endorsing the role of male aggressor. It’s a great performance – you can’t listen to it without being completely horrified, which is more than you can say for the casual misogyny of most gangsta rap.
But Eminem doesn’t just sound angry all the time – that would get tedious. So I direct any sceptics who doubt his emotional range towards “Drug Ballad”, a strange but moving song. It’s one of the best ever written about addiction. Eminem calls it his ‘love song’, which like all of his best jokes is both funny and revealing. Because the song’s all about reliance, just like love is. It’s about how drugs might well destroy your brain and spinal chord but you’ll keep on doing them anyway. It’s Infinite Jest or Trainspotting packed into five minutes, and Eminem’s raps over the plinking piano, women’s chorus and urgent, pulsing beat have rarely sounded as vulnerable. ‘These drugs really got a hold on me’ he keeps singing on the chorus, and the line sounds scarier every time.
These shades of subtlety clearly passed over the heads of casual observers like Lynne Cheney, but now The Marshall Mathers LP is rightly regarded as a classic by anyone with even a passing interest in hip-hop. Those who get the thing really do get it: Elvis Costello described it as ‘faster, funnier, and, in an odd way, more truthful than most records. It’s up there with the best of The Simpsons, and I mean that as the highest compliment.’ I know exactly what he means. Elton John recently argued that: ‘For me, Eminem was never homophobic… He’s just writing about the way things are, not how he thinks, but the way things are.’ That’s a crude way of putting it, but he’s right, and he understands Eminem’s intentions better than most heterosexuals do, perhaps because he’s also a performer. All of today’s rap stars still give him mad respect – try finding a rapper who doesn’t, it’s an impossible task. His impact on the genre is too huge.
And to understand that impact you don’t need to look any further than The Marshall Mathers LP, where he was at the peak of his powers. It came at a time when he was on top of the world and smarter than everyone else, and he knew it. That confluence of cockiness and genius can only really be compared to Bob Dylan in his Highway 61 Revisited prime.
Never again did Eminem create an album so consistently entertaining or thought-provoking, although he’s come close. The Eminem Show (2002) was even more obsessed with the heavy toll of fame, but it was catchier, particularly on the hit single “Without Me”, and more explicitly political with “White America”. Encore (2004) was widely panned, and its never-more-crude jokes do make that reaction easy to understand, but more to the point it had far too many ballads and not enough fire in its belly. The confused stumble of Relapse (2009) was just depressing – Em clearly didn’t know what to do with his image any more, so he pursued cheap shock tactics without psychological insight instead – and what’s worse, wound up offending nobody.
Never mind, Recovery (2010) really was what it promised to be, and had some muscular raps plus his biggest-ever single, “Love the Way You Lie” with Rihanna. Then there was the terribly underrated The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013), which against all the odds actually deepened and expanded on the original, picking up the narrative thread of “Stan” on “Bad Guy” and issuing two of his most pained confessions with “The Monster” and “Headlights”. What’s more, on its final, disturbing track, the aptly named “Evil Twin”, he finally admitted the truth about the relation between Marshall Mathers and his crazy alter ego Slim Shady that nobody wanted to hear: “we are the same, bitch.”
It was another career peak, but as with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or David Simon’s The Wire, no matter what else Eminem does he will always be remembered for The Marshall Mathers LP. And that’s no bad thing.
Look, the album isn’t perfect. Like anyone else who cares about music, I really wish he wouldn’t pass the mic to his untalented posse D12 on “Under the Influence”. Simply put, they can’t keep up, and nor can any of the other guests on the album (including Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre). Like far too many early-2000s rap records it’s padded out to an unnecessary length by these guest spots, as well as skits and filler, and it’s aggravating to realise that beneath the 70 minute final cut is a near-flawless 50 minute album, if only Eminem/Dre had been a bit more judicious in their editing.
But just look again at the tracklist! ‘Kill You’, ‘Stan’, ‘Who Knew’, ‘The Way I Am’, ‘The Real Slim Shady’, ‘I’m Back’, ‘Drug Ballad’, ‘Kim’, ‘Criminal’… These are all some of the best, most entertaining, and most complex songs ever written, and they account for half the record. With such towering peaks, The Marshall Mathers LP richly deserves its place on any list of the greatest rap albums of all time.