Artist Spotlight: Eminem (Part 1 of 2)

Around the turn of the millennium before Columbine and 9/11, one of the biggest pop cultural phenomena was Eminem, a rapper who wowed Whites and Blacks alike through tracks with curse-filled verses that verbally stomped on the backs of homosexuals and women. As a teenager in 1999, I was also taken in by Eminem’s Slim Shady LP. Perhaps it was mostly the hype and backlash maybe mixed in with the novelty of a White guy who could actually rap well.

I also liked his next album, although not quite as much, but once the one after that had come out, I felt his bark had lost its bite. As such, this Artist Spotlight will stop at about 2002. Then I will hand the storytelling reigns over to Mexican-American Martian, who had asked for an AS on Marshall Mathers in the first place. But, not being there at the time, he felt like it would be the worst case scenario if he himself were to start one. So I’ll start it: here is Eminem’s Artist Spotlight – Part One.

Marshall Bruce Mathers the Third was born in 1972 in Missouri to a 17-year-old Deborah Rae and a 21-year-old daddy who went away. He was never heard from again. So Debbie and Marshall 3 switched back and forth between Michigan and Missouri until settling down when the boy was eleven in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit. It was there where for the next few years he would be bullied, abused, and economically exploited, though some of that had started earlier.

For the most part, he was okay. Truly impressive, given the bad influences and what his mother and other kids supposedly did to him. Pretty much the only thing that would get him through the tears and fears was rap, which he started doing at fourteen. A truant throughout high school, he joined a group called the New Jacks and recorded a few tracks. Here is an example of that. Personally, I don’t think that “MC Double M” is all that great here, but he was real young, this was the 80s, and Slim Shady was still about a decade away.

From New Jacks to Bassmint Productions to Soul Intent in the early 90s. During this time, Marshall 3 refined his technique, stuffing in all the rhymes he could while staying rhythmically tight. But even though he was getting mighty good, he went nowhere, repeatedly got hurt, neglected, and rejected by the Detroit scene due to being White. He would gain respect as a battle rapper, though, in his late teens. But no one wanted the high school dropout to rap clean, they wanted him mean and even a tad obscene, and so that is where his material leaned.

By 1995, things were changing greatly. Eminem’s off-and-on girlfriend, Kim, had a Christmas baby, whom they named Hallie. But it was still a hellish daily struggle, so Marshall 3 got serious, and released his debut solo LP in 1996 called Infinite. And though there were descriptions of violent acts, an unsympathetic portrayal of a woman with an STD, a wish to smack his girlfriend, drugs, and curses in it, his verses were mostly about positivity in the face of adversity.

I guess that he wanted commercial appeal and respect as a serious lyricist but, unfortunately, people just weren’t getting into it. So, he had attempted to do and be better, but things got worse. I’m not sure what the deal was, but perhaps it was because they didn’t feel the White guy was being real. Or it might have been that they surmised that Em tried to imitate AZ or bite Nas and others who broke out earlier, but were barely older or were even younger than him.

Whatever the case, it must have stung very painfully; enough for him to get fed up and attempt suicide instead of fight. But he soon tried to get stronger with his childhood friend Proof and show that he could be good by being really bad. With four other neighborhood boys, they formed the Dirty Dozen. But six was half of what they had needed, so it was then decided that they would fix that by each of them having alter-egos.

Marshall 3 chose the character of Slim Shady, who embodied those mad fantasies that had been burning up in his subconscious for what had seemed like an eternity. Marshall wasn’t trying to be an artist; it was all catharsis and with no barometer for how far it went. He loosened up his rhythmic flow to sound more off-kilter and off-beat. In 1997, with no hope, no filter, or any lofty ambition, he made another solo release called Slim Shady EP.

Forced to do more hard stuff, Em went horrorcore, so none could say he didn’t go far enough. Cruel, bleak, rough, and filled with profanity, Eminem’s Slim Shady EP, was completely empty of decent humanity; a depressed and nihilistic fantasy of a broke and broken man’s insanity getting the best of him, setting fire to himself and the rest of society. With little thought to a mainstream fandom, the targets of his ire were both highly specific (like Kim) and random.

Shady seemed to hate everyone except for Hallie, so does that mean that he hated all gay people and ladies? Well, yes. But I guess that the rationalization may be that since Marshall 3 had been brutally bullied, neglected and abused for no reason, then no way should safety or protection be guaranteed to anyone. And it wouldn’t be any fun for his hellish wrath to be simply held back by fellow victims who would not fend for themselves on their own and, thus, were owed no sympathy from him.

Between you and me, the crimes in these early rhymes ain’t at all true. Not one. All Eminem had gotten charged for was a paintball gun incident between 1992 and 3; it wasn’t even him that done committed it. His worst acts were extreme truancy, drug use, and sneaking into a school to beat the students with his battle rap fluency. Still, listeners wanted him to spit hardcore, so that is what he had written. Fewer bit this time, but there was one difference.

Though a failure commercially, Shady was able to play a little on a radio station way out in L.A. That got the attention of Dr. Dre, who soon decided he could make a major hit out of this Detroit bit player. Em had idolized Dre, so he embraced the opportunity to write and recite his rhymes with impunity. Taking three of the six songs on the EP, Em added eleven more (plus six skits) and, with Dre’s help, he released The Slim Shady LP.

It provided more stylized horrorcore, vile fantasies, trials of being poor, and abhorrent stories of a childhood few would ask for. But apart from and a part of those harmful raps was a hearty and disarming witty charm that sometimes bordered on humorous…warmth? Yes, the tracks definitely had frustration, sadness, and threats, but Slim’s sound seemed effortlessly laid back, even when loud or fast, like most of what he was saying was him just playing, toying, joking around and this madness was the only joy this broken man had ever found.

With minimal censorship, the LP was released to some fanfare. Suddenly Eminem was everywhere. His first single, My Name Is, got him on hip hop, rock, and pop radio. TRL also treated Marshall 3 really well. His race and pretty face went from being a liability to rocketing him to the top with no denial of his ability. It must have been a thrill to be famous and out of poverty. But, of course, complacency for Slim Shady was not meant to be.

His tracks got bought, got played, and got him paid. But he also caught backlash from those saying he made cash for being worse trash than all the gangster rappers over the past decade for his incessant cursing of women and gay persons. Many hoped this verbal prankster would just fade away. Especially after the Columbine Massacre that happened a couple of months later. Except he kept on rapping, now with a newfound rage that he directed at the critics and haters.

Fifteen months after Em’s first major release came The Marshall Mathers LP. Still a rude and witty joker, he seemed moodier and angrier, deliberately trying to provoke his new critics with his cruel, juvenile, and crude lyrics. They had hated the song where he had his daughter help him dispose of her mother’s corpse? So he made a prequel song where he killed Kim. He would vent more gleefully about bullies, and even mentioned Columbine, in the second track below, although that spot got partially censored.

Eminem also displayed thoughtfulness regarding his influence on fans, making a near seven-minute track where a man goes crazy for him. Actually, I thought that it was just a long-form way for him to indulge in how great he is. And how definitely not gay he is. And he would subsequently say and say that Slim Shady is not responsible for anyone’s bad actions. The onus would always be on others. The media and bad parents like his own mother. But never Marshall Mathers. What he said didn’t matter.

He also thought a lot about hating pop stars, given that even getting positioned on pop charts maybe made him livid. He probably couldn’t live with it or forgive it. To be fair, though, many of his violently sexual raps and wretchedly sketchy lyrics were backed up with music tracks that were highly accessible and very catchy. And while I get that he was truly wary and weary of all these people missing the spirit of his material, I can’t believe that he couldn’t hear it.

Eminem also often made the choice to rap in a raspy voice, which he had previously employed only sparingly. It took me a few listens to become aware that he was doing this, but soon it was almost all that I was hearing. And that’s still true. It is right there in the opening rap called Kill You. Maybe he did it so Shady would sound crazy like Busta Rhymes, but I thought it was a little silly. Not too much, but just a bit of an odd touch at times.

He also included more guest rappers aside from Doctor Dre. I guess since The Slim Shady LP was a hit, they thought it okay to have his friends and idols help him out a bit. He had a couple of guest singers as well aside from Dina (not Deborah) Rae for choruses, because one was a Dido sample and the other Nate Dogg, of course. Shady also sang a lot too, maybe more than on his last LP and almost as much as Aubrey Drake does. I don’t know what the reason for that was.

In any case, I preferred the more laid back vibe of the previous LP to the uncaged dog in a rabid rage rap style that he frequently engaged in here. And the callbacks after callbacks did none of these Marshall Mathers LP tracks any favors, since many tended to suffer musically when compared to their earlier counterparts. But, while those things did slightly annoy me, I still enjoyed the album all right, just not quite as heartily as I did the older one.

The next year, the Dirty Dozen or D12 reunited to release their debut LP called Devil’s Night. I will just say that the album was….meh…and go sail right past it to talk about 2002’s The Eminem Show. Well, at this point, I was starting to lose my affinity for Eminem and was maybe looking for an excuse to cut him loose from me. I had gotten into a few rappers who were not so hard and whose misogyny and anti-gay feelings…at least did not go that far.

But Eminem had truly become the preeminent rap star in the game, so I still had to check out his new LP. And while Without Me did not sound to me to be as good as My Name Is, I did prefer it to The Real Slim Shady, undoubtedly. I guess I was also curious to see (or hear) whatever any new controversy was all about this year. I got a copy of the album that once again got all types of people acting hysterical, starting with…a skit…and then to White America.

So, this track…was…well, I did like the backing music, and the intro made it seem like the lyrics would get really political, which would be a little new; previously Shady only briefly mentioned the goings on with Bill Clinton’s woody. So, I was ready for maybe…oh…it’s about how his life as a White rapper has both its perks and perils? Again? He has mentioned this plenty already, and much more concisely then. I know well enough the nonsense White people can get up to. My eyes aren’t baby blue and I’m not White. I got it, all right.

Business was fine, but forgettable. The next track was Cleaning Out My Closet, which was incredible. Actually, I am kidding. I didn’t like it then and I still dislike it. His flow is stilted and the backing track just clashes with the gruff vocals in this. Why is it that loud and rowdy rap tracks frequently feature beats that sounds like four hands clapping or rain tapping on paper stacks? I feel like the only cases where it’s all right to try it is when it’s fast like Miami Bass is, or when it’s relaxed and quiet.

Anyways…Square Dance is…fair. Then there is The Kiss skit. And then…okay, I cannot be the only one who did this. It’s this whole reenactment of Eminem pistol whipping the guy whom he saw kissing his wife, Kim. The music gets spooky and ominous as the real-life drama unfolds and it builds and builds as it seems that Slim could kill someone. Oh, no. What will happen? Someone screams. Then Em sings “I’m a soldier” and I just cannot stop laughing.

Listen to that. The lyrics may amount to a thrilling account of a mass killing, but it sounds almost as silly as any of his joke songs that he had put on previous LPs. And that backing track is lame as hell. DMX could have maybe gotten away with something like this, as an example. But with Eminem, it sounds goddamn dumb. While the use of backing music was rarely the focus of his tracks, in this case, it’s bad enough to be very distracting. Skip Drips Without Me Skit.

Oh, here we go with a song I like. And I don’t even care a bit for Aerosmith. ButSing for the Moment is quite good. It’s serious without being overbearing. And it almost seems like Eminem does think about his fans a little. Why couldn’t Cleaning Out My Closet have had a similar backing track? Whatever, I am not going back to that. Let’s go forwards and…ick…okay, seriously, why does he try to sing so much? Am I the only one who realizes he stinks?

Skip another skit and some raps…you know, Till I Collapse would have been fine with different instrumentation for the backing track. I am just not that into the simple hand claps. Okay, one more song: Crazy with Hallie Jade…oh, I hate this. And so the show’s curtain closes with a gay skit. I got to say, some of this album is great, but overall, I cannot take it. His growling grates, I miss his rhythmically loose and laid-back style. I was done with Marshall 3 for a while; no D12, no 8 Mile.

Come 2004, Em was back with more tracks on an album called Encore. What could be in store? Good stuff? Less Eminem attempting to sing? Relying upon guest singers at a minimum? More fun, off-kilter elements? Spitting more effortlessly witty zingers? Fewer stupid voices without context? Less plain-old dumb shit? Using music with more heft instead of just gruff yelling? What could come from it? I must have had a bit of hope left until I chose listen to Just Lose It and NOPE!

But before I give this AS up to the Mexican American, here is a non-album track from ’99 called Any Man. It is not really a nostalgic track for me, since I had heard at most maybe forty seconds of it before starting to tackle this very post. But it boasts pretty much everything that I initially liked about Eminem…and, also, no singing. And since I have played it way too many times while typing this up, I may as well end this whole thing by hyping it up a bit.