The Marshall Mathers LP: The Curse
The characters had been introduced, and the world had formed its opinions: critical reception had been recorded in daily newspapers, in the glossy magazines; television personalities had registered disgust or elation at the release of The Slim Shady LP and the subsequent collaborations with Dr. Dre and B.I.G.; other musicians, other rappers were forced to articulate their own ideas on the Eminem phenomenon. Was he for real? Was he talented or just disgusting? A real rapper, or just a gimmick? Did he even care about hip-hop, the tradition, the history, or was he–the white rapper–just bastardizing the genre, hijacking it, capitalizing off the already-teeming ranks of white suburban kids who found release in black hip-hop CDs? And if you did accept that he was talented, would he be able to replicate his success from his first CD and maintain the popularity that had eluded almost every other white rapper in the previous two decades?
Some of these questions seem silly today, and for anyone who had seriously listened to Eminem’s first CD, the answers were already obvious. But in 1999 and 2000, it was evident that the questions were grating on the rapper himself. He had achieved an incredible amount of fame and celebrity in a very short period of time, and the criticism–in a new digital information age, with the internet suddenly making every review and every comment available at any time (even NWA and Ice-T hadn’t dealt with this type of instant and omnipresent backlash)–must have seemed smothering.
And The Marshall Mathers LP was the angry answer to every question, every commentator, every skeptical critic or musician. If The Slim Shady LP–so full of prankster-twisted talent–had been the answer to late-’90s pop, to a slick and disingenuous culture that was in full bloom, The Marshall Mathers LP would serve as a death-blow for boy bands and bling-bling-rap, the ultimate realization of all that was possible not just with the rap genre, but with all music.
The CD itself was an angry and sad story all at once, a sort of Empire Strikes Back-style sequel…I remember listening to it for the first time and thinking, “Wow. This certainly changes things.” I wasn’t sure how it changed things, or even what those “things” were, but if you remember the moment when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite (yes, that’s a nerdy reference that I’m making), or the moment when Luke learned that Darth Vader was his father, you certainly remember that strange feeling that anything was suddenly possible, and that you needed–you needed–the next installment in the story to come as quickly as possible. (No joke: I remember counting the days until The Eminem Show was released, something I’d never done before)
But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s start with the The Marshall Mathers LP itself, what Eminem was doing, why/how it registered such an undeniable emotional reaction with the world, how his characters grew, and how the story’s rising action continued to climb.
The CD starts off with the same shock-rap lyrics as The Slim Shady LP, and so–when we first start listening–we almost think that it’s more of the same:
They said I can’t rap about being broke no more
They ain’t say I can’t rap about coke no more
(AH!) Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore
’til the vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?
Ahh, yes, it’s just the “Slim Shady” character again. It’s just the rapper’s alter-ego throwing violent images together in the exact same way as he did in the first CD. It’s like watching Friday the 13th Part 3, which was just a carbon copy of the first two movies. No real growth. The second CD is the same as the first and…wait…something stops us in our thoughts. In one of the very first lines, has he already begun to question his own fame? “They said I can’t rap about being broke no more.” Has he already taken issue with the very material that allowed him to break through to the mainstream? Then we have this:
Shut up slut, you’re causing too much chaos
Just bend over and take it like a slut, OK Ma?
“Oh, now he’s raping his own mother, abusing a whore,
snorting coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?”
You god damn right BITCH, and now it’s too late
I’m triple platinum and tragedies happen in two states
I invented violence, you vile venomous volatile bitches
Now it’s undeniable. In the very first song, we have the Slim Shady character mocking himself and mocking the material from the first album. Questioning his own fame. Attempting social commentary about the claims that music can cause violence. Then we have these lyrics:
I ain’t “acid rap,” but I rap on acid
Got a new blow-up doll and just had a strap-on added.
WHOOPS! Is that a subliminal hint? NO!
Just criminal intent to sodomize women again.
Eminem offend? NO! Eminem insult
And if you ever give in to him, you give him an impulse
to do it again.
This song, “Kill You,” becomes a mission statement for the characters for the entirety of the album, and it is delivered through the voice of the prankster Slim Shady: “You don’t want to fuck with Shady/ cause Shady will fucking kill you.” Just the same as a medieval court jester, the prankster is allowed to make the most extreme statements so long as they are over-the-top. Here, he is not only mocking himself and his subject matter, but mocking every commentator who has ever suggested that violence in popular culture somehow equates to a violent artist, or violent fans. And it isn’t even a fair fight. It’s hard to argue with the irrational Slim Shady character: when he says that he will fucking kill us, are we supposed to argue that we’re actually afraid of him, that he’ll actually kill us? If we do, then we’re morons.
And then Slim Shady is answered at the very end of “Kill You” by the more rational voice of the Eminem character: “I’m just playing ladies. You know I love you.” It almost functions as a transition between songs. We start The Marshall Mathers LP with over-the-top violence in the voice of Slim Shady, and then we move to the more serious voice of Eminem himself. Not the alter-ego. The man. If Slim mocked his critics, how does Eminem view his newfound fame?
I still remember the first time I ever heard the song “Stan.” Summer of 2000, riding in the passenger seat of a friend’s SUV around the city of Orlando. “Dude, this song is so fucked up,” he said and turned it up so that all we could hear was the pounding bass, the rain and the thunder, then the haunting voice of Dido. I hadn’t bought the CD yet; I’d been working a lot at the time, and I an mp3 of the album’s first single on my computer, so I figured I could hold out for a little while. But after that car ride?I almost felt guilty for ever downloading the mp3s to begin with…
“Stan,” of course, does fit into the larger Eminem narrative (it’s the epitome of the Empire Strikes Back idea, a moment of true darkness, complete with storm clouds and emotional deaths and “did that just happen?” reactions) , but it also functions as its own story, which is why it has probably become the best-known and (maybe) most popular song the rapper has ever created. It’s a tragic short story that, interestingly, introduces a character who will never again appear in an Eminem song: Stan.
Dear Slim, I wrote but you still ain’t callin
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ’em.
There probably was a problem at the post office or something
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot him
but anyways; fuck it, what’s been up? Man how’s your daughter?
My girlfriend’s pregnant too, I’m bout to be a father
If I have a daughter, guess what I’ma call her?
I’ma name her Bonnie
I read about your Uncle Ronnie too I’m sorry
I had a friend kill himself over some bitch who didn’t want him
I know you probably hear this everyday, but I’m your biggest fan
I even got the underground shit that you did with Skam
I got a room full of your posters and your pictures man
I like the shit you did with Ruckus too, that shit was phat
Anyways, I hope you get this man, hit me back,
just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan
This is Stan
It’s definitely a disturbing introduction, too. Whereas “Kill You” disguised its serious content behind the playful voice of Slim Shady, “Stan” immediately immerses us in depression and obsession. The character of Stan comes to serve as a stand-in for every celebrity-worshipper that has caused Marshall Mathers grief since the release of that first CD, and even comes to represent the rapper’s own regrets about ever having discussed his personal life in his songs (the line, “Man how’s your daughter?” hits like a sucker punch). And, of course, it gets worse:
I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs
so when I have a shitty day, I drift away and put ’em on
cause I don’t really got shit else so that shit helps when I’m depressed
I even got a tattoo of your name across the chest
Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds
It’s like adrenaline, the pain is such a sudden rush for me
See everything you say is real, and I respect you cause you tell it
Like a good short story, “Stan” gives us that steady rising action, the character slowly becoming more and more dangerous…until finally he snaps:
So this is my cassette I’m sending you, I hope you hear it
I’m in the car right now, I’m doing 90 on the freeway
Hey Slim, I drank a fifth of vodka, you dare me to drive?
You know the song by Phil Collins, “In the Air of the Night”
about that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drowning
but didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?
That’s kinda how this is, you coulda rescued me from drowning
Now it’s too late – I’m on a 1000 downers now, I’m drowsy
and all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call
Here, we have the careful interweaving of Eminem’s lyrics from his first CD (the famous “fifth of vodka” line from “My Name Is”) with Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” a song from a genre that no one would ever confuse with rap, and which–coupled with references to Limp Bizkit and Marilyn Manson throughout the rest of the CD–offers an extremely potent response to the “music causes violence” argument to which this entire CD is a response.
And, of course, as quickly as Stan has appeared in an Eminem song…he is dead. All at once, he is one of the rapper’s most brilliant creations, and one of his shortest-lived.
Eminem himself doesn’t even appear until the rap’s final verse. We know that it’s Eminem (or perhaps just plain old Marshall Mathers) because he is calm, rational.
I’m sorry I didn’t see you at the show, I musta missed you
Don’t think I did that shit intentionally just to diss you
But what’s this shit you said about you like to cut your wrists too?
I say that shit just clowning dog,
c’mon – how fucked up is you?
In fact, he even gives us his thesis statement on “celebrity worship,” a couple quick lines that seem to sum up his overall reaction to the past year and a half of his life:
I’m glad I inspire you but Stan
why are you so mad? Try to understand, that I do want you as a fan
I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit…
“Stan” became more than a song, I think. Later, it would become Eminem’s chance to reconcile with the mainstream world, with the gay community, with anyone he had ever offended…Later, it would become his most powerful statement, the one song that every fan (or admirer, or even casual listener) could point to and say, “This Eminem guy? He’s got some good stuff to say. ” Later, it would even become the song that (I think) made bling-bling rap irrelevant and stupid. But that would all come later, after the single and the video and the Grammy performance with Elton John.
Because, as much as I loved it the first time I heard it, it was only track number three on The Marshall Mathers LP. The story kept going…the characters had only really given us their introductory remarks.
The two next songs on the CD, “Who Knew?” and “The Way I Am,” seemed to work together to progress the story of Eminem’s angry reaction to the fame heaped upon him by the release of his first CD, and perhaps even an angry reaction to his alter-ego of Slim Shady.
In “Who Knew?” we have an interplay between the Eminem character and the Slim Shady character, again questioning the influence of music-violence in the real world. Slim Shady seems to appear in the first couple lines: “I put wives at risk with a knife like this/Shit, you probably think I’m in your tape deck now/ I’m in the back seat of your truck with duct tape stretched out.” But Slim Shady disappears pretty quickly, almost as if Eminem is breaking the third wall and telling his audience that there is only one person, that the Eminem-Marshall Mathers- Slim Shady trio is just a single man giving a performance:
I’m sorry there must be a mix-up
You want me to fix-up lyrics while our President gets his dick sucked?
Fuck that! Take drugs! Rape sluts!
Make fun of gay clubs! Men who wear makeup!
Get aware! Wake up! Get a sense of humor!
Quit tryin’ to censor music
This is for your kid’s amusement
A couple other lines stand out as Eminem “thesis statements” for the entire CD. First, the chorus, which seems to come from an incredulous Marshall Mathers: “I never knew I would get this big/ I never knew I would affect this kid.” And: “So how much easier would life be/ If nineteen million motherfuckers grew to be just like me.” He delivers them in such a somber voice, dripping with regret even while attempting to protest the argument that his critics have made, so that you start to wonder if he is questioning himself already (by track number five!). And then there’s this:
How many retards will listen to me?
And run in the school shooting when they’re pissed at the teacher
Her or him, is it you? Is it him?
Wasn’t me, Slim Shady said to do it again
Damn, how much damage can you do with a pen?
Man, I’m just as fucked up as you would’ve been
If you would’ve been in my shoes, who would’ve thought?
Slim Shady would’ve been something that you would’ve bought
That would’ve made you get a gun and shoot at a cop
I just said it. I didn’t know if you did it or not
And the final line of the song: “How the fuck was I supposed to know?”
And then the angry, fed-up-with-the-bullshit beat of “The Way I Am,” which–like “Stan”–became something more than just a song.
In fact, even though it doesn’t really offer any new ideas or perspectives on the subject matter from earlier songs, it might just be the angriest song on the CD. It’s potent. You can hear the spit flying from Eminem’s mouth as he raps “Go call you a lawyer! File you a lawsuit! I’ll smile in the courtroom and buy you a wardrobe!” There’s a raw emotion here that–to be honest–I’m not sure I heard on the entire first CD. For my money, there might not even be another complete verse in the history of mainstream American music as angry as this one:
Sometimes I just feel like my father, I hate to be bothered
With all of this nonsense, it’s constant,
And “oh, it’s his lyrical content!”
The song “Guilty Conscience” has gotten such rotten responses
And all of this controversy circles me
And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me
So I point one back at ’em
But not the index or pinky or the ring or the thumb
It’s the one you put up when you don’t give a fuck
When you won’t just put up with the bullshit they pull
Cause they full of shit too
When a dude’s gettin bullied and shoots up your school
And they blame it on Marilyn – and the heroin,
Where were the parents at?
And look at where it’s at, middle America,
Now it’s a tragedy,
Now it’s so sad to see,
An upper-class city having this happening,
Then attack Eminem cause I rap this way
But I’m glad cause they feed me the fuel
That I need for the fire to burn and it’s burnin’ and I have returned…
It’s all-encompassing. At first, I was going to cut and paste short quotes from the song, but then I realized: you can’t cut this song apart. It’s an avalanche of emotion; once you start, you simply cannot stop, each syllable building on the last and growing angrier, angrier, no breaks, no pauses, no periods, a long run-on of rage, until it’s almost a relief to be finished with the verse. Hell, we don’t think it can be topped. We think Eminem must be finished, energy expended. But then:
I’m so sick and tired of being admired
That I wish that I would just die or get fired
And drop from my label, and stop with the fables,
I’m not gonna be able to top Hi, my name is,
And pigeon holdin’ to some poppy sensations
They cop me rotation at Rock ‘N’ Roll stations
And I just do not have the patience
To deal with this cocky Caucasians
Who think I’m some wigga who just tries to be black
Cause I talk with an accent and grab on my balls
So they always keep asking the same fucking questions
What school did I go to?
What hood I grew up in?
The why? The who, what?
When and where and the how?
Till I’m grabbing my hair and I’m tearing it out
You’ve been driving me crazy, I can’t take it
I’m racing, I’m pacing, I stand and I sit
And I’m thankful for every fan that I get
But I can’t take a shit in the bathroom
Without someone standing by it
No I won’t sign your autograph
You can call me an asshole
Again, you can’t chop this song apart. If “Stan” would become Eminem’s most provocative song, his most celebrated, “The Way I Am” was likely the most honest piece he’d ever produced. We also get the feeling that this is a character that this character of Marshall Mathers/ Eminem had worked himself into a frenzy. Now he is no longer simply responding to critics or crazy fans (as he had been on the first songs), but showing the world how his entire personal life had fallen into disarray.
After the first song, he’d scrapped the “Slim Shady” alter-ego; after the second song, he’d killed the “Stan” character; after just a couple songs as “Eminem,” he’d now emerged as soul-baring Marshall Mathers…all other personas and characters were laid aside…Marshall Mathers–by this point in the CD, not even half-over–was already showing us his breaking point. You almost got the feeling that he might not make it through the entire CD.
So the focus would change considerably in the next few songs, shifting to celebrity culture (“The Real Slim Shady”), the tradition of rap (“Remember Me?” and “Bitch Please II”), and the city of Detroit (“Amityville”). And in “I’m Back,” the character of Slim Shady definitely reappears, perhaps in an effort to lighten the mood of the CD (who would have thought that violent shock-rap would be needed to lighten the mood?) and take aim at the threat of censorship. (there are bleeped-out gaps in a few of the songs on my copy this CD, and to this day, I still wonder what words are beneath those gaps)
But still there was the occasional song of such unvarnished honesty that–once you heard the opening verse–you almost wanted to rewind and start over and listen again. There was “Marshall Mathers,” quietly furious in its declaration that Marshall was “just a regular guy.” There was “Kim,” the sequel to “Just the Two of Us” from Eminem’s first CD, a violent scream-fest that one-upped the graphic nature of any song he’d ever recorded (“Sit down bitch! You move again, I’ll beat the shit out of you!”), every single line delivered with an exclamation point. If “The Way I Am” was Marshall Mathers at his breaking point, “Kim”–at the end of the CD–was Marshall Mathers past his breaking point, a glimpse into one possible future. In this world, the violent insanity of the Slim Shady and Stan characters had infected the Marshall Mathers character, also.
The Marshall Mathers LP was like The Empire Strikes Back in another way, too. There was no neat conclusion.
Yes, the CD answered every argument that the family-first/conservative critics could offer. Yes, it successfully showed the ridiculousness of celebrity worship and superfandom, the horrible consequences. But the honesty of the CD–the honesty of the voice, the honesty of the characters in each song–was, by album’s end, also a curse: this was Eminem’s furious response to fame and criticism, a blood-curdling plea to leave him alone, his assertion that he was indeed human and not just another plastic Britney or N*Sync.
But really, the story itself only invited more scrutiny. In registering his angry response, Eminem had so finely chiseled the characters in the songs, revealing so many real details in his life, that the listening public now thirsted for more.
More complications for Marshall Mathers! More complications for Eminem! What happens next, what happens next?
The angry response of The Marshall Mathers LP would (yes!) cause further complications for the character of Eminem. And I was no different than the rest of the listening public: I couldn’t wait to see how it turned out.
previous – The Epic Eminem Analysis Part II