Happy 20th Anniversary to Eminem’s second studio album & major-label debut The Slim Shady LP, originally released February 23, 1999.
The video is slightly over a minute long. Comedian Chris D’Elia sits in his car and does the best Eminem impression ever captured on video. Made up of equal parts unintelligible growling and spittle, a few phrases can be deciphered, such as, “You’re in a Ford Taurus getting an abortion and divorce at the same time as Harrison Ford!” Then there’s the coup de grace, “YOU’RE USING TOO MANY NAPKINS! BAPKINS! LAPKINS! YOU’RE USING CHAPSTICK AND NAPKINS WHILE I’M PAPKIN! FLAPPING AROUND LIKE A BAPKIN!”
This is Marshall “Eminem” Mathers now, for all intents and purposes. Minute-long viral videos by D’Elia have been the most interesting thing about Eminem as an artist over the past few years. They’re certainly preferable to Kamikaze, his most recent anger-fueled album that he released in early fall 2018. The project is 45 minutes of Em railing against everyone who didn’t like his previous album, the equally unlistenable Revival (2017).
To Em’s credit, he at least has a sense of humor about D’Elia’s impression, even tweeting out the comedian’s recent parody of the rapper’s labored 10-minute “freestyle” session. Fifteen years ago, Em didn’t take so kindly to this type of thing, getting into a ridiculous beef with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. No, I’m not joking.
Eminem wasn’t always a caricature that churned out stinkers like Kamikaze. He’s one of the biggest selling hip-hop artists of all time, and one of the most decorated. He has sold over 47 million albums in the US, over 220 million worldwide, and has 15 GRAMMY awards to his name. That includes five for best hip-hop album.
He’s also been extremely influential. And yes, much of his power and appeal has come from the fact that he’s a white rapper that appealed to segments of the population that had never listened to hip-hop before he came around. Love him or hate him, he brought hip-hop to a wider audience, and influenced the careers of many of the genre’s current superstars, including artists like Kendrick Lamar and the entire TDE, Tyler, The Creator and the rest of Odd Future, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, and Logic. And the genesis of his career as a rap superstar began with The Slim Shady LP, which was released 20 years ago.
Eminem is not the creation of an A&R or focus group targeted towards appealing to the 18-25 demographic. He lived what he rapped about and he came up the “right” way, toiling in the Detroit’s hip-hop underground scene, working small shows and open mic nights. He earned his stripes in ultra-competitive hip-hop cyphers and battles, finishing second in the 1997 Scribble Jam freestyle competition and participating in the Rap Olympics.
He also collaborated with his other underground peers at the time, recording with Shabaam Sahdeeq, Old World Disorder, and The Anonymous, and became an affiliate of the New Jersey-based Outsidaz camp. And he always kept his original camp close to him, rolling with the Dirty Dozen a.k.a. D12, which included Detroit underground heavies like Proof, Denaun Porter, and Bizarre. Along the way, he recorded Infinite (1996) and The Slim Shady EP (1997), the latter of which really got him noticed.
The poor quality of Em’s product in the second decade of his career has at times led to a reevaluation of the beginning. In the realm of the arts, people like to believe that we live in more enlightened times, and tales of grisly murder, violence towards women, and the mocking of the LGBTQ community is becoming increasingly frowned upon. Considering that these are often pillars of Em’s current catalogue, the question persists as to whether albums like The Slim Shady LP still “hold up.”
I personally believe it does. It’s definitely an album of the time that represents where Eminem was at that singular point in his life just before he was about to make it big. It depicted the thought processes of a person dealing with extreme circumstances in his life, and frantically searching for an outlet to channel his emotion and feeling. The Slim Shady LP succeeds in demonstrating how music can be the salvation for a troubled soul.
As the title suggests, The Slim Shady LP is a repackaged and expanded version of the Slim Shady EP. It features about half the songs that appear on the EP, plus another eleven new tracks. And the album is largely ruled by the “Slim Shady” alter ego that Eminem created. While Em was working to make his name as an emcee, he was going through serious substance abuse issues and some major obstacles on the home front. As a means to cope, Em famously created the “Slim Shady” character, assuming the guise of a rapper who could say all the foul, violent, drug-induced thoughts that ricocheted around his head.
Even in 1999, amongst a rap listenership that had been saturated with ultra-violent gangsta rap, Eminem’s lyrical content was shocking. This is best exemplified in “’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” a holdover from The Slim Shady EP, a warped reinterpretation of both 2Pac’s “’96 Bonnie & Clyde” and Bill Withers’ “Just the Two Of Us.” The song finds him calmly narrating the aftermath of committing a triple murder of his baby’s mother, her new boyfriend, and her stepson to his own young daughter. Originally written as Em’s way to piss off the real-life mother of his child, the image of Em storing the bodies in the trunk of his car and then disposing of them in what I imagine is Michigan’s Lake St. Clair has endured throughout his entire career.
But it’s the current underneath the shocking imagery that endures and makes The Slim Shady LP still resonate two decades later. “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” isn’t really about the imagined killing of his baby’s mother; it’s about the love that Em has for his daughter, and how she remained his anchor as his relationship with her mother disintegrated.
There’s a river of depression that runs through The Slim Shady LP that reflects a man desperately looking for a way to cope. It can be heard on “If I Had” (another holdover from the EP and a reinterpretation of Barenaked Ladies’ “If I Had 1,000,000”), where Em reflects on the obstacles that life continues to present to him and his desire to have enough money to make it all go away.
Em’s pain is most apparent on “Rock Bottom,” a mournful track where he reflects on the desperation that goes along with living in poverty. Written shortly after a period when Em had been fired from his job, overdosed from taking too many pills, and was then evicted from his home, it’s the song where his despair is the most tragically palpable. Over a sample from Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Summertime,” he contemplates using any necessary means to escape his dire situation. His description of his surroundings and mindset is particularly evocative, as he raps, “My life is full of empty promises and broken dreams / I’m hoping things look up, but there ain’t no job openings / I feel discouraged, hungry and malnourished / Living in this house with no furnace, unfurnished.”
Even Em’s use of humor throughout the album underscores his feelings of hopelessness. “Brain Damage” serves as Em’s origin story, as he relates a pair of tales that explore how he became so mentally disturbed. Though the song is darkly funny, featuring tales of ruthless bullies, unsympathetic teachers, and a principal who participates in his ass-kicking, what resonates is the trauma of being bullied through high school and his infamously “complicated” relationship with his mother.
Though Em’s partnership with Dr. Dre has also become a central part of his career, Dre did very little production work on The Slim Shady LP. Most of the production is handled by The Bass Brothers (Mark and Jeff Bass), a Detroit-based duo that’s worked with Em since the beginning of his career. Dre’s production work on the album remains memorable, as evidenced by the mega-hit that was “My Name Is…,” the album’s first single and one of Em’s best known tracks. Dre also produced and appeared on “Guilty Conscience,” the album’s second single, also known for its ultra-violent imagery.
However, Em’s best collaboration with Dre is the album’s third single “Role Model,” a sarcasm-soaked track featuring Em explaining why he isn’t someone to be emulated. It’s also the song in which Em best tackles how others perceive him, as he raps, “Some people only see that I’m white, ignoring skill / ’Cause I stand out like a green hat with an orange bill / But I don't get pissed, y’all don’t even see through the mist / How the fuck can I be white? I don’t even exist.”
The less-heralded entries from The Slim Shady LP are some of its stronger components. “Cum On Everybody,” as evidenced by its fairly juvenile title, is the album’s parody to a late ’90s hip-hop club track. Em is in full self-deprecating mode, uncomfortable with fame, saying the most outlandish shit, and ready to end his career just as it begins. He raps, “I tried suicide once and I’ll try it again / That’s why I write songs where I die at the end / ’Cause I don't give a fuck like my middle finger was stuck / And I was waving it at everybody, screaming, ‘I suck!’”
The album’s pure lyrical highlight is “Bad Meets Evil,” one of Em’s earliest recorded pairings with fellow Detroit-born lyrical brawler Royce Da 5’9”. The two tag-team throughout the song, throwing stiff haymakers over the guitar-driven, Old West-themed track. Em raps likes a man possessed, even as he raps about possessing Royce: “I translate when my voice is read through a seismograph / And the noise is spread, picked up and transmitted through Royce’s head / Trap him in his room, possess him and hoist his bed / ’Til the evilness flows through his blood like poisonous lead.” Meanwhile, Royce shows some of the ferocity that he would become known for throughout his career, rapping, “Whipping human ass, throwing blows, cracking jaws / With my fists wrapped in gauze, dipped in glue and glass / I’m blazing emcees, at the same time amazing emcees / Somehow, emcees ain't that eyebrow-raising to me.”
Em and Royce’s chemistry together was evident and the duo continued to record together in the immediate future and for years to come. Though this was chronologically the first track that Em and Royce recorded together, they released a 12” as the group Bad Meets Evil through indie hip-hop label Game Recordings. While the ostensible single was “Nuthin’ To Do,” it was the B-side, “Scary Movie,” that got the most attention, eventually featured in the parody horror film of the same name. The two didn’t release a project together until the Hell: The Sequel EP in 2011. By then Em had signed Royce’s Slaughterhouse super-group to his Shady Records.
It’s fitting that the album ends with “Still Don’t Give A Fuck,” Em’s defiant pledge that neither money nor fame will change him. He raps, “My brain's gone, my soul's worn, and my spirit is torn / The rest of my body's still being operated on / I’m ducked the fuck down while I'm writing this rhyme / ’Cause I'm probably gonna get struck with lightning this time.” He emerges from the crucible of his life thus far battered and bruised, but stronger and more resolute that he won’t compromise his character.
And, for better or worse, Em never changed who he is throughout his 20-year recording career. He remains a committed lyricist, and a master at putting together words and phrases. What’s faltered is the presentation. Em has produced more of his own material as his career progressed, and he has glaring deficiencies behind the board. And while he’s as sharp as ever at crafting complicated rhyme patterns, too often these days he relies on shouting his lyrics. Or failing that, Em raps using an over-exaggerated accent that renders many of the songs unlistenable (see: Relapse).
I don’t know if Em can escape his current musical malaise. It’s not as simple as “going back to his roots” of The Slim Shady LP, because in many ways, he’s never left them. But the obstacles that he now faces clearly have nothing to do with poverty (he’s worth over $200 million). Instead he’s in the grips of artistic stagnation. From The Slim Shady LP on, his career has been about reacting to his surroundings and translating what he feels into his art. Until he finds a way to become re-inspired, I’ll have to be content to enjoy the times he was able to take the pain in his life and transform it into something worth listening to.