So Eminem has just released his sixth major album (seventh, if you count the 8 Mile soundtrack), one that I’d been simultaneously anticipating and dreading ever since last summer’s supposed comeback album, Relapse. Perhaps more than any other album in my lifetime, this new disc Recovery had the potential to either immortalize or dismiss one of the greatest musical artists of my generation. After an incredible run of four straight genre-defying/ worldwide-chart-topping successes, Eminem fell into heavy drug abuse and released two half-assed clunkers(three, if you count “The Re-Up”) made interesting by a sparing handful of songs, made relevant by the artist’s previous successes, made chart-toppers by the faithful fans (like myself) who convinced ourselves that the albums were better than they were. Now, with Recovery, we would either see Eminem emerge as a victorious hero, battling his way from the belly of the beast…or we would see him as a tragic figure, a shadow of his former self, a talented Daunte Culpepper type who–we could now be convinced–would never regain the fire and the confidence and the smarts that had propelled him to the top.
In short, Recovery would–whether positive or negative–provide an interesting climax and resolution to the first decade and a half of a still-ongoing career.
So before I really delve into my thoughts on the CD itself, I want to truly analyze the musical (mainly the lyrical content) of those first 13 or so years. Why did this album mean so much to me, and (likely) to so many others? Why did it sell over 700,000 copies in its first week, even when the last CDs were so disappointing? I don’t necessarily want to analyze Eminem as a person…just the literature that he has produced, the character that he has created…in an effort to figure out why I think he has become the greatest musical artist (and–again–one of the greatest fictional/semi-fictional/ autobiographical characters) of this generation.
Really, I think, you can call Eminem the “Last Great Artist of Generation X,” or the “First Great Artist of the Millennial Generation,” and either would be appropriate. He’s 37 now, but his music first hit at a time when the marketplace was dominated by the first wave of Millennial glitz and glamour: boy bands and bling-bling. He was the counter-culture in 1998-2002, the answer to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, the scapegoat after every Colombine-style act of teenage violence. He might belong to “Generation X” if we apply a strict definition of that generation’s age range, but his music? In 1999, if you were between the ages of 13 and 20 (the Millennial age range), and you were vomiting every time you had to hear “Tearing Up My Heart,” you were silently applauding every time you heard “My Name Is” or “Guilty Conscience” come on the radio.
And so that’s where we start.
The moment where the character first appeared and disrupted and redefined the entire spirit of the times.
The Slim Shady LP: Irreverent, Controversial, Aggravating, Refreshing
End of the century. Final years of the Clinton era. Monica Lewinsky. Armageddon and Aerosmith and Ben Affleck and Saving Private Ryan. Nathan Holic graduates high school, starts college, wears these crazy new khaki shorts called “cargo shorts.” Finally gets a car with a CD player. Discovers something called a “CD-R,” and mp3s.
And hey, remember this lyric? “Everytime I come around your city bling bling/ Pinky ring worth about fi’ty bling bling/ Everytime I buy a new ride bling bling/ Lorenzos on Yokahama tires bling bling.”
Ironically, this hook–which represents the lowest point of rap music, an era where lyrics overwhelmingly focused upon money and jewelry (yes, more than usual), where rappers became caricatures, a stretch of several years as mystifying and ridiculous as the “Hair Metal” 1980s for rock music–was actually sung by Lil Wayne, who faded in and out of mild popularity throughout the next few years, along with the rest of the Cash Money Millionaires. When anyone talks about the “Bling Era” of rap, they will inevitably point to Cash Money and to this song, even though Lil Wayne somehow persevered and later redefined himself enough in the latter half of the 2000s to become one of the most popular rappers of the last couple years.
It seemed as if all late-90s mainstream music was sparkling somehow, glittery, covered with a studio-created veneer, slick. Yes, you had the obvious Bubblegum Pop of Backstreet and Britney, but you also had the disingenuous and generic rock of Creed, the let’s-talk-about-diamonds rap of Juvenile and B.G. The raw emotion of the grunge era and the gangsta rap era had finally been contained by the record execs, polished and spit-shined and plastic-wrapped and made safe for the world.
And then you had this:
“Hi kids! Do you like violence?/ Wanna see me stick Nine Inch Nails through each one of my eyelids?”
“My brain’s dead weight, I’m trying to get my head straight/ But I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I want to impregnate.”
“Well since age twelve, I’ve felt like I’m someone else/Cause I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt./ Got pissed off and ripped Pamela Lee’s tits off/ And smacked her so hard I knocked her clothes backwards like Kris Kross.”
Quite the contrast. No, violence wasn’t anything new to rap music…but this? The easy pop culture references, the backslaps to the bubblegum world of 1998 and 1999. And this was a white rapper? Produced by Dr. Dre, alternating between references to “white culture” and “black culture?” It seems taken for granted now, easy to predict, just like Allied victory in World War II…but this was indeed a major unexpected jolt to the system back when “The Slim Shady LP” was released. But there was also the self-deprecation, the cruel jokes at the rapper’s own expense, something we didn’t hear in other take-me-seriously music of the times:
“My English teacher wanted to have sex in Junior High/ The only problem was, my English teacher was a guy.”
“Am I coming or going? I can barely decide./ I just drank a fifth of vodka — dare me to drive?/All my life I was very deprived./ I ain’t had a woman in years, and my palms are too hairy to hide.”
Really, the character of Slim Shady–new to the world–could be summarized with a single line from “My Name Is”: “I don’t give a fuck, God sent me to piss the world off.” That was the point. That was the reason for the ridiculous success of the CD. Does it matter whether it appealed to everyone, whether it was the best-selling CD of the year, the winner of more Grammy’s, etc.? Nope. Like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Eminem’s first major single (and the character it introduces) is important because it did–yes!–piss the world off.
But what sticks with me most about the entire album, even now, are the other ways in which Eminem was introducing his three personas (Eminem the rapper, Slim Shady the prankster, and Marshall Mathers the vulnerable human) to the world. The stories he was telling: rich, vivid narratives in his verse; characters in every song; detailed settings; complex cause-effect actions, memories, reflections over the course of four-minute raps. Consider the ballad of “Just the Two of Us” (or “’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” as it was renamed from EP to LP), controversial for its subject matter (Marshall Mathers kills his wife, and with the help of his baby daughter, tosses her dead body into a lake), thematically important for its stark contrast to the positive Will Smith song of the same name, but skillful and memorable for the quality of the narrative itself:
“Wake up sweepy head, we’re here, before we pway/
we’re gonna take mama for a wittle walk along the pier./
Baby, don’t cry honey, don’t get the wrong idea/
Mama’s too sweepy to hear you screamin in her ear./
That’s why you can’t get her to wake, but don’t worry/
Da-da made a nice bed for mommy at the bottom of the lake./
Here, you wanna help da-da tie a rope around this rock? (yeah!)/
We’ll tie it to her footsie, then we’ll roll her off the dock./
Ready now, here we go, on the count of free../
One.. two.. free.. WHEEEEEE!/
There goes mama, spwashin in the wa-ta/
No more fightin wit dad, no more restraining order/
No more step-da-da, no more new brother/
Blow her kisses bye-bye, tell mama you love her (mommy!)/
Now we’ll go play in the sand, build a castle and junk/
But first, just help dad with two more things out the trunk.”
Dark? Twisted? Yes, yes. And a thousand other adjectives. But damn it, it was a story. It was a fictional story, sure, but this narrative was pulsing with more honesty than a stack of Britney or Puff Daddy CDs.
And consider the characters in “My Fault,” another disturbing ballad-style rap about a mushroom overdose:
“I went to John’s rave with Ron and Dave/ And met a new wave blonde babe with half of her head shaved./ A nurse aid who came to get laid and tied up/ with first-aid tape and raped on the first date./ Susan — an ex-heroin addict who just stopped usin’/ Was into booze and alternative music./ Told me she was going back to use it again./I said wait, first try this hallucinogen,/ It’s better than heroin and the booze and the gin.”
Or the characters of Eddie and Stan from “Guilty Conscience,” or the high school bully DeAngelo Bailey from “Brain Damage”: “Way before my baby daughter Hailey/ I was harassed daily by this fat kid named D’Angelo Bailey/ An eighth grader who acted obnoxious, cause his father boxes/so everyday he’d shove me in the lockers./ One day he came in the bathroom while I was pissin/ And had me in the position to beat me into submission./ He banged my head against the urinal til he broke my nose,/ Soaked my clothes in blood, grabbed me and choked my throat./ I tried to plead and tell him, ‘We shouldn’t beef’/ But he just wouldn’t leave, he kept chokin me and I couldn’t breathe./ He looked at me and said, ‘You gonna die honkey!’”
Or the full dialogue from that same song:
Something told me, “Try to fake a stomach ache it works.”
I screamed, “Owww! My appendix feels like they could burst!
Teacher, teacher, quick I need a naked nurse!”
[T] “What’s the matter?”
[E] “I don’t know, my leg, it hurts!”
[T] “Leg? I thought you said it was your tummy?”
[E] “Oh, I mean it is, but I also got a bum knee!”
[T] “Mr. Mathers, the fun and games are over.
And just for that stunt, you’re gonna get some extra homework.”
[E] “But don’t you wanna give me after school detention?”
[T] “Nah, that bully wants to beat your ass and I’ma let him.”
This rapper…Eminem…he was a storyteller, not just a musician, and this CD…this was our introduction to an entire cast of characters in what would be an ongoing piece of literature that has now spanned longer than a decade. At the time, critics and listeners would dismiss it–and particularly the prankster-style songs of the Slim Shady character–as childish, sophomoric, juvenile. Foul-mouthed. Base. Violent. Gratuitous. Homophobic. And maybe it is all of those things. Maybe Marshall Mathers (the real man) is all of those things. Or maybe he’s just one, or two, or none.
But–then as now–I became interested in the story. I became interested in this saga as literature, the heartbreaking honesty of a narrator willing to spill his feelings about every aspect of his own life…feelings that seemed eerily appropriate for America at the end of the 20th century…and if you listened closely to that first CD, you knew that the story was not over. You knew that it would only get more interesting, that the dark lyrics of “If I Had” were just the beginning:
I’m tired of being white trash, broke and always poor,
Tired of taking pop bottles back to the party store.
I’m tired of not having a phone,
Tired of not having a home to have one in if I did have it on.
Tired of not driving a BM,
Tired of not working at GM, tired of wanting to be him
Tired of not sleeping without a Tylenol PM,
Tired of not performing in a packed coliseum,
Tired of not being on tour,
Tired of fucking the same blonde whore after work,
in the back of a Contour.
These sometimes-pessimistic (but ultimately, by album’s end, optimistic) reflections would soon have a sequel. Soon, Eminem would no longer be tired of “not performing in a packed coliseum.” The success of “The Slim Shady LP” was the destruction of the Death Star, the joy of the celebrating Rebels, but you knew…Darth Vader was spinning away, spinning away, staring all around him, growing angrier by the second…and the next time we encountered this storyteller, the narrative would grow far more interesting.