Every rapper has a pseudonym or five, and every major pop star has toyed with an “alter ego.” But no one turned those personalities into a bloody Cuisinart blur like Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, aka Slim Shady. In his hands, identity was more than a branding exercise: It was a thrilling, high-stakes card game. When he lost control of it, it nearly devoured him whole, and he emerged from the resulting depression and drug addiction on 2010′s Recovery with all of his cards on the floor, pleading with his fans to reconnect with him. This is normally the heartbreaking moment in the pop-culture narrative when the audience turns away, leaving the artist to their Sunset Boulevard decline. But Recovery still sold millions of copies – such is his hold on our imagination.
What is it about this pissy white kid we find so compelling? Our fascination with him is, itself, fascinating – there’s not a lot about him, after all, that screams “pop star.” His music is overwhelmingly misanthropic and hateful, even when it’s funny. You can’t dance to any of it, and none of it is much “fun,” really. Eminem might be the most anhedonic pop superstar in history.
And yet, when he starts rapping, rules start breaking. Busta Rhymes claimed that he put his head through his tour bus window after hearing Eminem rap on “Guilty Conscience.” The story is apocryphal. Hopefully. But it speaks to the very real danger that trembles in the air when Mathers opens his mouth. The sound of his voice – a pinched blare that freezes whatever track he’s on in its steps – is like an incitement to violence unto itself. His delivery, meanwhile, is a match to his volatile subject matter: frighteningly unpredictable, as liable to lunge ahead as stagger behind the beat. He doesn’t ride the beat – he vandalizes it, wiping his muddy shoes all over it and fleeing the scene. No matter who you were – Dr. Dre, who signed Eminem on the strength of a demo tape, Busta Rhymes, a 13-year-old suburban kid, C. Dolores Tucker – the first time you heard him, you said to yourself: Who is that guy?
Answering that question, in a million different contradictory ways, became Mathers’s shtick and survival strategy. There had been white guys in rap before him, but he was pointedly white, with ice-blue eyes, a jutting Adam’s apple, and, to hammer the point home, frosted peroxide-blond hair. His constant “duck season/rabbit season” self-repositioning helped him wrestle with and dodge the contradictions he brought with him into the booth. “How the fuck could I be white? I don’t even exist,” he rapped shrewdly on “Role Model.” “I am whoever you say I am,” he taunted on “The Way I Am” – a perfect Eminem line, nicked from a Rakim song and aimed at – well, that was hard to discern.
But everyone who heard it felt personally implicated in some way, which was a measure of his talent – his records have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. They are uneven and often exasperating to listen to. Most of them have at least one irredeemably awful moment. But when you have the ability to make 30 million people feel like you are screaming desperately into their ear, you earn the right to your exceptions. Here, then, is a guided tour of the minefield that is Marshall Mathers. Step lightly.
Eminem Says “Hi!”
Lots of great rappers have begun their first albums with a memorable, statement-of-purpose line. Very few, however, manage to compress their essence into seven syllables. "Hi, kids! Do you like violence?": Everything was present, somehow, in the first line of "My Name Is," the first song on The Slim Shady LP. The shock humor, the Whoopee-Cushion whine of the voice, the self-appointed role as cheerful corruptor of youth, the intriguingly off-kilter slant rhyme ("violence" telescopes into "vi-lence" to fit the meter); in a split second, Eminem springs into view like paper snakes from a novelty peanuts can.
That song, his breakout hit, is a lurching, rhythmically unstable piece of music; the beat keeps doing a cartoon kersplat, slipping on a banana peel of a keyboard line, while Eminem's rapping seems to be struggling against the very notion of a downbeat. He would later criticize his performance on his early records: "I was always falling off the beat," he lamented to XXL in 2004 — but the odd littered pauses heighten the unpredictability. The video's visual accompaniment — a shot of Mathers jerking spastically in a strait jacket filmed through a fisheye lens — reinforced the vibe: antic, volatile, barely contained. It was one hell of an introduction, and it laid out the first card in the dizzying game of three-persona Monte — Slim Shady, raging id; Eminem, amoral entertainer; Marshall Mathers, the tortured, self-loathing poor white kid behind them both — that was to follow. Eleven years later, this shrewdly-conceived gambit feels exhausted, its thematic bones picked clean by Eminem and by the endless cultural commentators that followed him. Suffice it to say that no one made more vivid or skillful use of the unreliable narrator device in hip-hop, and Mathers earned the fame and notoriety he was gunning for. He also "created a monster," as he would admit on "Without Me" years later, and speculation about his intentions tended the swallow the public discussion. The rap album underneath this psychological circus sometimes seems to be hiding in plain sight.
Musically, it remains a compellingly weird one. They were an odd couple, Em and Dre, and the The Slim Shady LP documents their warring impulses: between Dr. Dre's gut-rumbling funk and Mather's sharp, needling whine; between Dre's sullen reserve and Mathers's burning need for the world's attention. "Guilty Conscience," their duet on The Slim Shady LP, captures their dynamic. In the song, they play two halves of a conflicted conscience. Dre, playing against type, argues for caution while Eminem goads the song's players into brash action — "Fuck that! Do that shit, shoot that bitch!" It's a remarkable song, but the crucial moment comes at the end, when Em turns on Dre and accuses him of hypocrisy. Dre, losing his cool, threatens to kill Eminem, but Eminem sidesteps and shames him. For rap fans, there was no greater sign of Eminem's legitimacy: He got Dre to play the straight man.
For Mathers, this kind of cultural currency meant everything. "Some people only see that I'm white, ignoring skill/ 'cuz I stand out like a green hat with an orange bill," he rapped on "Role Model," hinting at the decades of frustration that led to The Slim Shady LP. Dre's cosign was a blessing and a kind of dare: After years lurking on the sidelines, one fortuitous meeting catapulted Mathers to the center of the rap conversation. It was an absurdly risky move on Dre's part, and Mathers was keenly aware of it. In 1997, he told SPIN magazine, with characteristic bluntness, "I appreciate that [Dre] is basically putting his credibility on the line for me. Because if I come out wack, it could destroy his career." The Slim Shady LP is the sound of that kid rising, magnificently, to the occasion. There was little evidence in his discography up until this point to suggest he was capable of it, but he produced the kind of layered and jarringly indelible pop record that had never existed before. It hasn't been duplicated.
Eminem Goes Super-Nova
The Marshall Mathers LP is the fulcrum of Eminem's story — the moment where he was highest, the moment when he began to fall. It sold nearly 2 million records in its first week, instantly becoming the fastest-selling rap album in history. He topped Britney Spears's first-week sales records. The media-analysis zoomed into overdrive. And then things got really weird. Through-the-looking-glass, never-look-back weird. This was Em's Thriller, the moment where it suddenly became impossible to hear his music as simple pop or rap music: He was Cultural Phenomenon Music. He was everywhere. And everyone on the planet suddenly needed to fashion some sort of opinion about him, and did.
The album gave them plenty to work with. All of Eminem's most-quoted lyrics are here, from "The Real Slim Shady": "You act like you never seen a white person before," and "Who Knew": "What do I think of success? It sucks, too much stress," to the much bandied-about hateful stuff, like this from "Kill You": "You think I won't choke no whore till her vocal chords don't work in her throat no more?" and "Criminal": "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ that'll stab you in the head whether you a fag or lez" (seriously, I can't even count how many times I saw those lyrics spelled out on a "Hate Speech or Free Speech?" news report). The music grew darker along with the lyrics — Mathers's preoccupation with moody goth sounds begins in earnest here, with "The Way I Am," his first credited production job, a sullen loop of church bells and minor-key piano. That song, along with "Stan" and "Kim," solidified Eminem's critical reputation as one of rap's most compelling confessional storytellers. None of these songs have lost their power — "Kim," in particular, remains five of pop music's most upsetting minutes, a domestic dispute no one should have to witness frozen into a formally perfect rap song.
But there's much more to The Marshall Mathers LP. There are Easter Eggs for rap nerds, like the return of one-time Death Row member RBX and Onyx's Sticky Fingaz for "Remember Me?" and sneaky references to Rakim rhyme patterns on "I'm Back." Above all, there is masterful rapping. Eminem has never rapped better than he does on this album; hardly anyone has. His mastery over long chains of vowel sounds hit new peak, resulting in delirious runs like "I take each individual degenerate's head and reach into it"; "Serial killer hiding murder material in a cereal box on top of your stereo"; "Whatever happened to catchin' a good old-fashioned passionate ass-whoopin?" He was never more slyly self-aware: "You think of my name now whenever you say 'hi'/ Became a commodity now that I'm W-H-I/ --T-E, because MTV was so friendly to me," he raps on "Who Knew." He was never funnier. His pain was never more compelling. From here, where do you go?
After The Marshall Mathers LP, there was nowhere left for Eminem to build but up. Every major pop artist hits this point in their career sooner or later — the point at which forward motion becomes impossible — but Eminem had the misfortune of hitting it sooner than most. He responded as most artists in his position do: with a bigger, darker, more grandiose version of his most definitive work. The Eminem Show is nominally the final third of his three-act play, but it's mostly a retread of the themes he explored brilliantly on The Marshall Mathers LP, bolstered with added injections of paranoia, bluster, and anxiety.
Still, The Eminem Show contains some of the most compelling pieces of the Eminem jigsaw puzzle. "Cleaning Out My Closet" paints Mathers's Oedipal drama its queasiest shade of black; he has never sounded so shivering and pitiful as he does over its mournful music-box and lightly ticking snare, recalling suffering from "Munchausen's Syndrome" ("My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn't.") "White America" contains his most vicious rejoinder to media hand-wringing over his lyrics: "Hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston/ After it bothered the fathers of daughters startin' to blossom," he sneers. On "Square Dance," he paints a vivid draft scenario: "You're just a baby, gettin' recruited at 18/ You on a plane now, eatin' they food and they baked beans." And the "We Will Rock You"-style boom-boom-CLAP beat of "Till I Collapse" is the first glimpse of the grimly chest-thumping motivational music he would specialize in later on in his career.
He also tightened the screws on his flow, reeling in his wild tangents so that they fit more cleanly than ever within the confines of Dre's spartan beats. The results are mixed: on "Soldier," he surprises us with an invigorating 2Pac impression. Elsewhere, he sounds more monolithic but less agile, an impression reinforced by the plodding production — "Sing For the Moment," a maudlin reworking of Aerosmith's "Dream On," is one of the most leaden, obvious moments in his catalog. On "Superman," he tests out his first honest-to-God double-time Southern bounce flow. Behind all of these minor renovations and tinkering improvements, however, you can sense the force of inspiration tapering off. From here, Mathers would hit one more trap door, escaping to the 8 Mile of his youth. After that, the walls would start to close in for real.
There are three full songs by Eminem on 8 Mile, the soundtrack to the blockbuster piece of Rocky-style rap mythology he made with director Curtis Hanson. There is the title track, which is built on a loping sample of train wheels; there is the booming "Rabbit Run," in which Eminem raps in one long, panicked, escalating verse. And, oh yeah — there's a little song called "Lose Yourself." Maybe you've heard that one.
The rest of the album is a grab bag of guest appearances both notable (Jay-Z, with Freeway in tow; a pre-Get Rich Or Die Tryin' 50 Cent; Rakim, in the middle of his brief, uneasy courtship with Aftermath; Nas, in the full flush of his late-period imperial haughtiness), non-notable (the rest of D12; a joylessly grunting Xzibit); and just plain obscure (The Outsidaz's Young Zee; R&B duo Boomkat). In rough outline, 8 Mile resembles Jay-Z's The Dynasty record, the moment where the marquee star steps back from center stage a little, allowing the size and conviction of his crew speak for him. Trouble is, Eminem's flunkies aren't half as compelling as Jay-Z's, and the production, overwhelmingly by Mathers, doesn't hold a candle to Roc-A-Fella's mid-decade production stable. Eminem's drums hit with a tinny clack that bears an unfortunate resemblance to the firing pistons of his hometown Detroit's industrial plants, and his musical color scheme is a similarly joyless grayscale.
Still, the album remains essential listening for those three solo tracks alone, which find Eminem at the peak of his artistic powers and his superstardom. Even though the chorus of "Lose Yourself" resides permanently in your brain stem, there's probably still something to revisit in the song's labyrinthine verses, perpetual motion machines where sound, sense, meaning, and rhythm coalesce into a frictionless blur. "8 Mile" might be his most vivid depiction ever of his trailer-park years, complete with lovely little asides about his little sister, who "colors until the crayon gets dull in her hand/ As she colors her big brother, her mother and dad/ Ain't no tellin' what really goes on in her little head." And on "Run Rabbit Run," which closes the album," he builds a blaring epic about dealing with writer's block.
This focus is illuminating: Even at the height of his stardom, Eminem was firmly a writer's rapper, one who reveled in the details of his unglamorous trade — ink-stained fingers, dog-eared notebooks, heaped baskets of crumpled paper — the same way Raekwon fetishized the crusted-over pan, the flakes on the stove, the rubber-banded stacks of filthy cash of the crack game. Scribbling rhymes in a notebook will never be as magnetically cool as running a criminal empire, but on 8 Mile, Eminem had the kind of charisma to burn that he could make struggling to finish a verse sound like a gladiatorial event.
Eminem Shows Up But Isn’t There
"How else can I put it?/ This is the only thing that I'm good at." If there's a sadder, sorrier excuse for returning to a ravenous public with a weak, warmed-over album, I haven't heard it. And yet this bald admission, arriving late into the song "Rain Man," is one of the most uncomfortably honest lines on Encore, wherein Eminem the Brand returns out of commercial necessity while his spirit remains locked in his lonely mansion, disappearing further into pill addiction.
The Marshall Mathers of Encore, simply put, is a defeated man. His live-wire voice sounds bored and tired. His syllables blur together into a dismaying mush-mouth. He assays hundreds of jokes, but doesn't manage a single laugh, which is perhaps the most damning thing you can say about an album that features an entire song rapped from the perspective of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. He knows he's supposed to be funny, though, so he tries, half-heartedly poking fun at Christopher Reeves again on "Rain Man" (who, at this point, had passed away). It's indicative of his sputtering creative wires that the entire disheartening affair takes up the better part of one rambling verse and fails to even rouse a faint smile. There is a peculiarly hollow kind of heartbreak in watching the world's funniest, most compelling bully try — and fail — to make a good joke at someone else's expense.
When Eminem's not grimacing through his Clown Routine, Encore gets more interesting. "Mosh," his 2004 Election protest song, is a joyless trudge, but it remains a fascinating outlier in his discography, a fleeting bout of earnest social consciousness. "Yellow Brick Road" is a touching autobiographical account of his awkward youthful love affair with hip-hop, sporting X-Clan African medallions and Flava Flav clocks to the mall and getting beaten up. "Like Toy Soldiers," which samples the '80s hit by Martika, is a pained apologia for and explanation of his wildly escalating feud with Ja Rule and Murder, Inc. and The Source, ending with the most un-Eminem-like declaration "If ya'll can stop poppin' off at your jaws, well then I can/ 'cuz frankly I'm sick of talking." Sick of talking: You don't get a more grave diagnosis of a rapper's spiritual sickness than that.
Eminem Doesn’t Even Show Up
Skip this one; Eminem certainly did. Eminem Presents: The Re-Up is an empty cash-grab project that was hustled out to the market for the 2006 holiday season, mostly to fill a void of Eminem-related material two years after Encore. The record hardly features Mathers, who, at the nadir of his personal tailspin, was in no shape to record anyway. To fill the void, we get a list of Shady Record third-stringers, people like Ca$his, Bobby Creekwater and Stat Quo. Mathers had retreated from the mic booth to where he was least wanted — the studio — and the barely-there beats of Eminem Presents: The Re-Up amount to incontrovertible evidence of his tin ear.
The few times he does open his mouth to rap, it's heartbreaking: His once-knifepoint sharp voice has dulled into a throaty, toneless shout, and his sense of rhythm has all but disappeared, along with his sense of humor. We're left with the once-invincible Slim Shady lamenting his place in rap: "Not even the same league as Jay-Z, Nas, Pac, Biggie or maybe/ They name me somewhere on the bottom right after AZ," he moans on "We're Back." The Re-Up was released shortly after Mathers's childhood friend Proof was shot and killed outside a Detroit nightclub; by his own account, on 2009's comeback Relapse, he was a walking shell during these years. When he appeared in public, his weight gain was obvious, and fleshy bags collected underneath his eyes. In his fiery prime, he had called himself "the worst thing since Elvis Presley": If his career matched Elvis's in any regard, the years of The Re-Up present a painfully obvious analog.