Eminem Pitchfork Reviews The Marshall Mathers LP

Started by Sav Stanfield, Apr 15, 2018, in Eminem Add to Reading List

  1. Sav Stanfield
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    Apr 15, 2018


    Eminem prowled down a long line of young men, each sporting close-cropped, bleached blonde hair, each dressed just like him. Floodlights lit up the empty avenue outside of Radio City Music Hall where the rapper marched into the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards with his army to perform, “The Real Slim Shady,” the first single from The Marshall Mathers LP. Underneath the song’s wide umbrella of references, a fleet-footed MC took up residence in Dr. Dre’s gooey bass and ornamented harpsichord—J.S. Bach bouncing in a lowrider. Proto-memes and trending topics got thrown into a blender; they came out laced in elegant knots. This was the primordial oil slick from which Eminem emerged, the god particle that launched him to new levels of superstardom.

    ”The Real Slim Shady” wasn’t rap about what was happening on the streets of Brooklyn or Compton or Atlanta or even Detroit. It was rap about what was on television. Specifically, what was on television at that very moment. It was an echo-chamber of MTV-watchers, a real-time “Beavis and Butt-Head” for those who would be later be crowned millennials. As reality TV gained traction, Eminem’s dressing-down of celebrities endeared him to a generation who would soon find “drama” to be the coin of the entertainment realm. He knew it before many: People like the stuff they recognize. That’s pop music.

    This was 18 years ago, two or three epochs in music-industry time, back when “Total Request Live” held sway while boy bands and newly crowned pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilerafilled the airwaves. Long before I ever started thinking critically about music, I sat watching Eminem’s VMA performance from my rural Wisconsin couch, a 10th grader with no social media, no cell phone. I was Eminem’s audience, a teen from Middle America, one of millions. As he stormed the theater with about a hundred carbon copies of himself, countless sociopolitical minefields were being set up around me. I had no awareness of any of them. What I thought, instead, was: This guy is really f---ing good at rapping.

    After the release of The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem would shatter sales records with 1.7 million copies sold in the first week alone, 6.5 million in the first month, and eventually, over 35 million sold worldwide. It’s still the best-selling rap record of all time. He would cross over from rap to pop and rock radio, sell out arenas, win Grammys, rankle Lynne Cheney in front of the U.S. Congress, add a word to the dictionary, and incite protests from no small number of social justice groups. By virtue of his whiteness and talent in almost equal measure, Eminem would come to rule pop culture in America by becoming this century’s prototypical troll.

    Whatever he’s become since, there can be no question that Eminem was one of the greatest to ever do it. He blew a young Kendrick Lamar’s mind, teaching him things about narrative clarity that he wouldn’t learn elsewhere. He killed JAY-Z on his own track, thus spoke Nas. It was Dr. Dre—N.W.A., The Chronic, Aftermath Records, kingpin of West Coast rap-Dr. Dre—who got Eminem’s demo tape in the late ’90s and co-signed this twentysomething, lemon-faced, twiggy, vociferously self-proclaimed son of a b---- from the East side of Detroit born Marshall Bruce Mathers III.

    He was also, and remains, a homophobe, a misogynist, a confessed domestic abuser. He wrote later that, because of his critics, he went into what he called the “‘fa----’ zone” for this album “on purpose. Like, f--- you.” He defended this ugliness using the modern troll’s boilerplate: double down on the thing they want you to change until they can’t tell what you believe and what you don’t. To be a long-suffering listener of Eminem is to contend with this petulant fake-radical impulse, but it remains an impulse that defined the scope and tenor of The Marshall Mathers LP and became part and parcel to its success.

    Before “The Real Slim Shady” came out, Eminem was convinced he didn’t have another song in him that could attract as many new fans as his 1999 breakout single, “My Name Is.” The fear of being a one-hit wonder—a point hammered in a 1999 interview with a pretty-racist Howard Stern, widely regarded as the impetus for the line about “cocky caucasians” who thinks he’s some “wigger”—hung over his head. At a remove, the spacious “My Name Is” scans just barely as rap, something that could possibly have been lumped in with the era’s droll, white-guy rhymes from Nada Surf, Cake, the Butthole Surfers, and Beck.

    ”My Name Is” landed on “TRL” in January of 1999, tipping the scales just enough to give suburban teenagers their first taste of Eminem’s aesthetic: The lyrics were violent, full of one-liners and references (Usher, Nine Inch Nails, Spice Girls) that piqued pop listeners while having the air of danger and a beat by Dre that signified its home was on rap radio. The Beastie Boysa debuted at No. 1 with Hello Nasty in 1998, but Eminem was the first solo white rapper whose name wasn’t a pun on vanilla or snow to achieve huge crossover mainstream success.

    Across his major label debut, The Slim Shady LP, Eminem established the framework of his mythology: He was born into poverty, raised without a father, shuttled between Missouri and the lower-middle-class black neighborhoods of Detroit, rootless, bullied to near-death. The album established his to-put-it-lightly Freudian relationship with his mother, his clear love for legends like Big Daddy Kane and Masta Ace and Nas, and his come-up battle-rapping at the Detroit hip-hop clubs. When the dust settled, his rapid ascent and sudden fame began to burrow into his writing, coloring his every want, thrumming behind the text.

    “The Real Slim Shady” was one of the last songs written for the record. All through 1999, Eminem had been scribbling lyrics—not actual lines, just two or three words, little scraps of meter and verse unarrayed on a page—while on a world tour supporting his debut. Verses began to blacken notebooks after had found inspiration in the deregulated drug culture of Amsterdam, so much so that he almost named this album after the city. Meanwhile, over in the States, Dr. Dre and several other producers, including the Funky Bass Team and the 45 King, were assembling the beats for what would become the B*** of The Marshall Mathers LP. In early 2000, when Eminem submitted the project to Interscope label boss Jimmy Iovine, he was unsatisfied. It was macabre, morose, reflexive, and unflinchingly personal. It also didn’t have a hit.

    The album’s second single, “The Way I Am,” was a direct response to the boardroom ultimatum with Iovine. Eminem got the three-note piano rhythm in his head on the plane ride after leaving Interscope’s office in California, but the rhyme scheme that he wanted to do wouldn’t fit with any other beat he had in the bank. So Eminem made his own backing track, ratcheting and mechanical, giving him his very first production credit. Yoked to this short-short-long cadence, Eminem shadowboxed his critics, his fans, his label, anyone who, real or not, got in his way:

    I’m not gonna be able to top on “My Name Is”
    And pigeon-holed into some poppy sensation
    That got me rotation at rock’n’roll stations

    The virtuosity of “The Way I Am” gained Eminem access to an audience that believed that the better you were at your instrument, the better music you made. That virtuosity made his skill logical, diagrammable, even provable: just look at his enjambment, his multisyllabic rhyme schemes, his never-before-done cadence. It was less about the feel or joy so ingrained in the black music that inspired it, and more about the rap qua rap that awed those white teenagers (there are thousands of videos on YouTube of fans attempting Eminem’s raps, in spiritual concert with the thousands of videos of people trying to play Eddie Van Halen guitar solos).

    The goal of rap, for Eminem, is to overwhelm. The Marshall Mathers LP floods the room with “South Park” and grisly kidnappings, Ricky Martin and ecstasy, the assassination of Gianni Versace and the impregnation of Jennifer Lopez. One minute you’re dealing with hypocritical gun legislation, the next you’re subject to an Insane Clown Posse diss track; as soon as you consider Bill Clinton’s abuse of power, Eminem is recasting the shooters of the Columbine High School massacre as the real victims. It is data overload, that sharp inhale and sigh of never getting a word in edgewise. For 70 minutes, you are tethered to a twirling Mathers, eye to eye, a dizzying and intimate manipulation by pathos and abuse by words. Sometimes it really is just a litany: “Blood, guts, guns, cuts, knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts,” or, “f---, s---, a---, b----, c----, shooby-de-doo-wop, skibbedy-be-bop.” The album’s centrifugal force is thrilling and it is to Eminem’s great credit that he doesn’t once let go of his grasp.

    American culture allowed Eminem to freely negate any kind of identity he wanted to, as was his inherent privilege. But, as the critic Hilton Als wrote in his 2003 essay “White Noise,” it didn’t matter to Eminem. “Mathers never claimed whiteness and its privileges as his birthright because he didn’t feel white and privileged,” Als wrote. It’s interesting, though, that Eminem never negated his masculinity or heterosexuality, two identities that were and, more or less, remain intrinsic to the success of male rappers. His privilege meant that he could shed his racial signifiers and become a ghost, a psychopath, a loving father, a bigot, a clown. So why do fans believe any of this? Why, when they listened to Eminem rip his vocal cords open and disconnect from reality and mimic slitting the throat of his wife while he screams at her to “bleed, b---- bleed” do they take him so seriously?

    Part of it has to do with that virtuosity. If contemporaries like OutKast and Ghostface grew their albums from the soil, Eminem grew his from the salted earth. He’s grounded but acidic, you see the ink of his words, the indent they make on the page, the ridges formed around the letters by the force of his pen. The delight when he finds a little turn of phrase like “ducked the f--- way down,” or, “I guess I must just blew up quick” shoots out dopamine. It would be one thing if Eminem simply loved language, but more than that, he loves the tradition of rapping, this guy whose passion was donated to him by hip-hop at an early age, a vocation that rescued him from the status quo of poverty, that kept him from becoming among the millions just like someone else. At his best, he is like watching a gymnast spin on the parallel bars in slow motion:

    I’m blind from smokin’ ’em, with my windows tinted
    With nine limos rented, doin’ lines of coke in ’em
    With a bunch of guys hoppin’ out, all high and indo-scented

    Part of it, too, was the fantasy he offered. Along with his ’00 nu-metal tourmates Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach, Eminem’s music became synonymous with a kind of ball-chain necklace, mad-at-the-world angst, channeling the latent rage leftover from rap rock’s heyday. Here was a guy who put to carefully chosen words the feeling of being broke, at the end of your rope, jealous and backed up into a corner. Those who threw up their arms and screamed “You don’t want to f--- with me” along with him could feel a little bit of anger exiting their bodies, and the mental pressure dropping by a few millibars.

    But the anger and trauma he conjured from his childhood of abuse and bullying felt uncomfortably real in all his performances. On The Marshall Mathers LP, he suits the action to the word and the word to the action. He picks the right tone for the right mood, the horrorcore of “Remember Me?,” the beleaguered artist on “The Way I Am,” the impish malevolence of “Criminal,” or the tortured, regretful, loving, deranged, murderous everything-all-at-once feeling of “Kim.” We don’t really believe it, but we believe Eminem really believes it.

    Art bends the world in ways we can’t always see. This album is categorically music for kids, and it rests on the shelf as a time capsule from the last big cultural flashpoint of the 20th century. Heard now, the album is still a considerable piece of music, but it’s also full of this hate. And the targets of that hate—women, the LGBTQ community—are the same people that those in power seek to marginalize. To say otherwise is to rob great art of its power. To say that Eminem’s clearly homophobic lyrics should be read as satire is to argue in bad faith that the impact art has on the world, the way it shapes the life of those who experience it, can be controlled and mitigated. Because hate emerges under the guise of art, it doesn’t erase the profound hurt it brings to a population that may be out of your own purview.

    “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Kurt Vonnegut’s words are consigned to the long epilogue of The Marshall Mathers LP, one that began at the 2001 Grammys. The album won Best Rap Album honors but lost Album of the Year to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, a fine record made by two aging private-school-educated jazzbo hipsters who sang about incest and pedophiliac threesomes. The toast of the evening was to be Eminem’s performance with Elton John. As Mathers saw it, this was somehow an olive branch to the gay community, irrefutable proof that he wasn’t a homophobic rapper, that he didn’t have a problem with gays. Protests from the gay-rights group GLAAD and women’s rights group NOW sounded loud from outside the theater. “This is not Lenny Bruce,” said NOW president Patricia Ireland at the event. “This is not even Tupac Shakur. Eminem is not rebelling against authority. He’s attacking groups who are the minority. This is vicious, old-fashioned bigotry.” They chanted “Two-four-six-eight, Eminem is full of hate” and GLAAD bought a 30-second anti-bullying ad on CBS that featured the mother of Matthew Shepard, a man who was beaten and left to die because he was gay.

    The grand finale arrived: Eminem walked out in a baby-blue crushed velvet tracksuit with that same left-to-right prowl he had five months ago at the VMAs, sat astride a bed, and calmly went into “Stan.” Stoic and austere, at his best, Eminem just talked to you while the rhymes seemed incidental, divined without effort. He casts himself as the obsessed fan, Stan, and fires off three letters to himself with escalating severity until we find out that, having drawn inspiration from Slim Shady, Stan kills his own pregnant wife and himself in a car crash. On the fourth verse, Eminem steps into back into a calm Marshall Mathers to respond, tender and apologetic.

    “Stan” was the third single from The Marshall Mathers LP, built from a beat made by the 45 King after he heard the Dido song “Thank You” used in a commercial preview for the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors. It is the lodestar, the faint and slow-beating heart of the album. The word “stan” was added to the dictionary last year, demonstrating how Eminem articulated a brand of sensationalism and celebrity-worship we now take as normal. The song is the key Rorschach test into the indulgent fame-drenched persecution complex of Mathers at the time. He plays both sides of the coin, signifying his total understanding of any controversy around him: He’s both the troubled fan who misunderstands the art of Slim Shady, and he’s Marshall Mathers, the guy who says all “this s--- just clownin’ dawg.” It is the light and the dark that gives dimension to the entire album.

    In the performance, Eminem, again, offers a studio-perfect version, crescendoing through Stan’s verses with histrionic flair, his mic glued to his lips, his other arm a besieged windsock. As the song ends, Elton John trots out to meet Eminem centerstage. They embrace. Mathers glares impudently at the audience, as if the hug were a provocation on its own, as if deeming to touch John in public somehow proved something to his critics. It was a feckless, empty gesture born of a basic bigot’s misunderstanding: How can I be a homophobe with a gay friend? But during Eminem’s imperial year, these objections were drowned out by the roar of the crowd. He joined hands with Elton John and they raised them together, and then Eminem threw his middle fingers up. Everyone in the theater was already on their feet.
    THE SAGA, KingZ, afghaniStan and 5 others like this.
    THE SAGA, KingZ, afghaniStan and 5 others like this.
    May 23, 2024