In 2000, Eminem was perhaps the most anticipated musical artist in America. His major label debut, 1999’s The Slim Shady LP, was a major crossover hit (largely behind lead single “My Name Is”) and launched him into superstardom. The audacious coming-out party of an album was a number of things at once: An icebreaker for horrorcore to hit the mainstream; a showcase for Eminem’s remarkable rapping skills and ability to rhyme clever rhymes; and the introduction of his dark, audacious, deliberately offensive Slim Shady persona. (In the first verse of “My Name Is”, he raps about impregnating a Spice Girl, mocking and then seducing an overweight woman, claiming he “Got pissed off and ripped Pamela Lee’s tits off / And smacked her so hard I knocked her clothes backwards like Kris Kross”, and of course there’s the famous opening line: “Hi kids! Do you like violence?”)
And, of course, it didn’t hurt his crossover success that Eminem was white; that allowed him to break the rock/rap radio stigma that kept black R&B and rap artists (even those with a live-band aspect, like The Roots) on hip-hop radio, whereas white rappers, as the Beastie Boys had done previously, would be readily added to on rock and top-40 radio playlists. With all that in mind, Eminem had not only become one of the biggest stars of his day, but his follow-up to The Slim Shady LP was probably the most anticipated album of the year.
And for my money, The Marshall Mathers LP (released May 23, 2000) is Em at his peak, with the relentless MC skills, inventive lyrics and rhyming, and the audacious sense of humor that all made him a household name in the first place, all coming together to show a portrait of an artist at the peak of his powers.
That said, it’s not a perfect album, and it’s not all humor. There’s a genuine core of anger running through Eminem’s work, and the moments when it takes over make for some of the worst parts of the album. “The Way I Am” was the second single, and it’s fairly pedestrian, containing the complaints Eminem would express elsewhere about being unfairly labeled and ladled with role-model expectations, but with less sense of fun or creativity. And, frankly, I have always and still find “Kim” unlistenable, a genuinely jarring and scary look into a violent mind. (I leave it to someone else to determine whether it’s performance art or genuine domestic rage.)
But it’s the sense of humor and fun that made the album stick with me and makes so much of the album so re-listenable even now. Probably the best example of that is on “Who Knew,” a song that’s generally a response by Eminem to his critics who want to blame him for the behavior of children and teenagers. (Columbine happened a little over a year before this album’s release, after all. Hey, remember when school shootings were rare?)
Specifically I think of the couplet, “I don’t got that bad of a mouth, do I? / Fuck, shit, ass, bitch, cunt, shoo-be-do-doo-wop!” I always crack up at Em leaning into his image as offensive provocateur, and especially how silly and fun he makes it with the vocal scatting. He doubles down on all of it in the next couplet: “Skibbedy-be-bop a-Christopher Reeve / Sonny Bono, skis, horses, and hitting some trees! (Hey!)” It’s hard to even call this offensive, per se, given that it’s really just listing and referencing curse words and tragic events. (And, somewhat cleverly, with inferences to drug use– “ski,” “horse,” and “hitting some trees” being slang terms for using cocaine, heroin, and smoking weed.) It’s funny, really, not even because it’s taboo, but because of how off-the-cuff Eminem makes it seem, how it sounds like he’s doing this mostly to entertain himself. (Beats trying to entertain the people who think you’re the downfall of an entire generation, I guess.)
Similarly flippant is his description on final track “Criminal” of the Gianni Versace-Andrew Cunanan story: “Hey, it’s me, Versace / Whoops, somebody shot me / And I was just checking the mail– get it, ‘checking the male’? Tchk-tchk” (I’m not sure how to best represent that sound, but it’s whatever people do when they make the wink-and-the-gun gesture). Again, it’s the sort of thing that works because Em gives it a sense of freewheeling fun rather than malice, like he’s in it for the wordplay, not to mock the murder itself. (He’s also fully aware of how far he’s going, and acknowledges it in the very next lines: “How many records you expecting to sell / After your second LP sends you directly to jail?”)
Some of the sketches are funny as hell, too, which is a pretty rare accomplishment for a rap album. (Despite this, so many rappers insist on doing them– comics aren’t modern-day philosophers, and rappers aren’t modern-day comics.) “Paul” and “Steve Berman” make a great one-two punch.
Paul is Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s lawyer; after his unsuccessful attempts to get Eminem to tone down The Slim Shady LP (captured in a skit on that album), all he can muster here is weary defeatism. “Em, it’s Paul. Dre gave me a copy of the new album, and I just…” *sigh* “Fuck it.”
Steve Berman has no such defeated energy; the President of Sales and Marketing at Interscope Records has Eminem in to chew him out for the reaction he’s gotten to the new record. “It would be better if you gave me nothing at all,” he starts, and it only goes downhill from there– “Do you know what it feels like to be told to have a record shoved up your ass?”– culminating with “Do you know why Dre’s record was so successful? He’s rapping about big-screen TVs, blunts, 40s, and bitches. You’re rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin. I can’t sell this shit.”
(That said, perhaps Steve ended up being wrong about that, or maybe Eminem was just ahead of his time: For Steve’s complaints that Em was “rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin,” the 2010s sure did bring a generation of rappers that were fond of pill-popping– or just naming themselves after pills— and more open in their mental health struggles and queer sexuality. Admittedly, Eminem’s “rapping about homosexuals” was in a, uh, different vein than your average Soundcloud rapper.)
Another sketch, “Ken Kaniff”, brings back the titular predatory gay man who first appeared in a sketch on The Slim Shady LP. The sketch marks a continuation of Eminem’s feud with Insane Clown Posse, and depicts members Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J taking turns fellating Kaniff, only to reveal they’ve been thinking about Eminem the whole time. It was one piece in the latest chapter of one of rap’s dumber feuds.
The ICP/Eminem feud began in 1997, when ICP was the bigger act (fresh off the success and controversy of The Great Milenko) and Eminem was trying to promote his very first release, The Slim Shady EP. According to Violent J, Eminem handed him a promotional flyer for a release party that read “Featuring appearances by Esham, Kid Rock, and ICP (maybe).” When pressed, Eminem explained, “It says ‘maybe.’ Maybe you will be there; I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you right now. You guys comin’ to my release party, or what?” J’s response: “Fuck no, I ain’t coming to your party. We might have, if you would’ve asked us first, before putting us on the fuckin’ flyer like this.” As much as I sympathize with ICP there, it’s kind of a hilarious and ballsy stunt for Eminem to try.
That led to Eminem dissing ICP in public appearances and interviews, which led to ICP, after the success of The Slim Shady LP, releasing a parody of lead single “My Name Is” called “Slim Anus.” (It’s exactly as sophisticated and on-topic as you’d expect, with a lot of bad gay jokes– although when Nas does it, everyone calls it the best diss track of all time.) Em responded with the above sketch as well as sixteen bars dissing the duo on “Marshall Mathers,” covering the gamut from mocking their makeup and love of Faygo soda to an incident where Eminem’s crew shot paintballs at their truck to some return fire to “Slim Anus” itself. I have to admit I still laugh at “Faggy 2 Dope and Silent Gay”– not so much for the insult, but because, hey, don’t make a diss track calling someone gay if it’s so easy to do the same to you. (I mean, “glass houses” is just a basic rule of ownage.) And I also agree with Eminem– “Slim Anus” is a weird title for a homophobic diss track. (Or, as he puts it: “‘Slim Anus’? You’re damn right, ‘Slim Anus’ / I don’t get fucked in mine like you two little flaming faggots.”) The feud was put to rest in 2005 via the brokerage of Eminem’s old crew, D12.
Wildly, this wasn’t even the most outlandish Eminem got on this track. Only two lines on this album were removed entirely, even from the explicit versions. One of those is on “Marshall Mathers,” when Eminem references his mother’s defamation lawsuit and calls out her attorney by name: “Which is it, bitch, Mrs. Briggs or Miss Mathers? / It doesn’t matter, [your attorney Fred Gibson’s a] faggot.” (The bracketed words are censored from the album, although an uncensored version from the sessions eventually leaked.) Obviously Interscope wasn’t keen on giving an actual lawyer an opening for a lawsuit. Em’s next lines are better, anyway, and more in tune with the inventive rhyme schemes that make him a pleasure to listen to even when his subject matter is so crude and/or cruel: “Talking ‘bout I fabricated my past / He’s just aggravated I won’t ejaculate in his ass.”
The second censored line is on “I’m Back”– remember when I said that Columbine happened less than a year before this album? Turns out that, Rakim homage or not, you still can’t get away with “I take seven [kids] from [Columbine] / Stand ’em all in line, add an AK-47, a revolver, a 9 / A MAC-11 and it oughta solve the problem of mine / And that’s a whole school of bullies shot up all at one time.” (Again, the bracketed words are censored.)
All the aggression and homophobia are easier for me to swallow (I swear to Christ I did not intend a pun there) for a couple of reasons. I’ve covered the wordplay and technical prowess; another reason is that he’s really clever, both in setting up little Easter eggs and playing against expectations. Great example of the former: Put on “Remember Me” and start counting the time from the moment he says “I promised the critics I wouldn’t say ‘fuck’ for six minutes.” My favorite example of the latter is a line from “Criminal”: “I drink malt liquor to fuck you up quicker / than you’d want to fuck me up for saying the word–” and then Em doesn’t say anything, a clever touch that works as both a statement of the line he won’t cross in his rap, and an inquiry into how our own assumptions fill in the blank. (I mean, technically it’s only a half-rhyme.)
Speaking of playing against expectations making the rough parts smoother: For all his swagger and bravado, Eminem makes fun of himself a lot, whether he’s rapping about his destiny to be a senile masturbator, his very average penis, or just how messed-up his mind is after years of drug abuse. The latter also gives him a chance to do some of his more mature songwriting with “Drug Ballad,” a surprisingly wise look back at harder years (and vision of a future where the cycle of self-destruction continues).
But speaking of mature and serious– and, throwing back to “Who Knew”, Eminem’s awareness of fandom and his impact– nothing on this album– hell, few singles of the decade— approach the jaw-dropping third track, “Stan.”
“Stan” is an arresting, masterful look at the obsession of an unwell fan, who continually writes Eminem and grows angrier and angrier (and stranger and stranger) with each letter as they go unreplied. Built around a sample of Dido’s “Thank You” (which helped turn that song into a major hit of 2001 and perhaps the defining song of Dido’s career), “Stan” reveals a remarkable emotional depth and sensitivity that Eminem’s work hadn’t previously displayed; it’s powerful not only in its own right but in coming from Eminem of all people, Mr. “I’ll be the only person in the nursing home flirting / When I’m jacking off with Jergens and I’m jerking / But this whole bag of Viagra isn’t working”– he always had this in him; he just chose to be outrageous.
And if you want to know just how gifted Eminem is, listen closely not even for the rhymes he’s written, but how he manages to make the in-character voices of Stan and Eminem so distinct, yet within such a small range that they both clearly come from his own voice. He’s almost Jon Benjamin-esque in capturing those subtleties. And really, what more can you say about the power of “Stan” than this: Its title came into the popular usage as a verb to describe an obsessive fan a decade (or more) after the song’s release.
The one thing you can definitely say about The Marshall Mathers LP is that it’s an artist at the height of his powers. Sometimes those powers are used for good: creative rhymes, outrageous humor, and deep insight and maturity into the role and responsibility of the artist– and sometimes for evil: violence, misogyny, and homophobia. But you sure as hell won’t find anything like this record from anyone, or anywhere, or anytime else– not even Eminem himself.