Yeah, so … I started out to write about Eminem’s 2017 album Revival, which critics and many fans hated, and the piece morphed into a career retrospective. This has been building up (clearly) for a long time. Quarantine gave me the time, plus a week in a cabin in the damn woods isolated also gave me time. Finally decided to just get ‘er done. It’s way too long. But once I started I couldn’t stop and the times are so bizarre right now I thought, Fuck it. Read it in pieces, if you want. Split it up. Or skip it. Whatever. I had to write it.
To start where we will end up – eventually: Revival
Eminem’s 9th studio album Revival was released in 2017, which already feels like it was 10 years ago. Since then, Eminem has released not one but two albums.
The placement of Revival in the surrounding context of his life and career is important, and although I started this piece wanting to talk about Revival, clearly it morphed into something else, all about the context as well as the journey of being his fan. I’ve been working on this in bits and pieces for a month and I realize it’s too long but this is my bandwidth and these are difficult times and having this to work on has been really good!
Over the course of his career, Eminem has built up an intimidating body of work, albums, stand-alone singles, guest-spots, collaborations (his group D12 made up of his buddies from “back in the day”, Bad Meets Evil with Royce da 5’9″). He’s got so much material, and he’s always been so personal, that this body of work feels like it is in dialogue with itself: songs talk TO each other, songs update other songs. For example, he writes a song about his murdered best friend, then re-visits it again in 6 or 7 years when distance has provided him more perspective. This is why many critics say he doesn’t rap about anything, it’s all just same ol’ same ol’ to them. Would you say that about Bruce Springsteen? Springsteen doesn’t have a million different subjects, he focuses on the ones that matter to him, and his subjects are like a fingerprint: if you’re a fan you know what he cares about, what troubles him, what hurts him, and he finds infinite layers in these subjects, over decades. That’s what MM is doing. (Besides: he DID switch it up in Revival and the same critics who said “God, ANOTHER song about his wife? ANOTHER diss song?” or whatever, rejected the album, basically scoffing at it. So the man is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.)
If you’re a fan, then following him has been like watching a man grapple with his past, his trauma, his psychology, his anger, his insanity – in real time. This is why his fan base is so loyal, so passionate about him. He draws you in to his life, and the majority of it is not pretty. He can be cathartic in that way. He has made a career out of his rage, his pain, his desire to piss people off, to outrage them just for the hell of it. He has made a career out of his beefs with other rappers (and Presidents, and his family members, the list is endless). He says outRAGEOUS shit, and then laughs in your face when you’re shocked. Half the time the crazy shit he said was chosen merely because it rhymed: so that’s either better or worse, depending on how you look at it. (This was really more his Slim Shady persona, which he mostly dropped after The Slim Shady LP, the one that introduced him to the world. Slim Shady was the alter ego who gave him permission to say all the crazy shit in his head, and it was Slim Shady who made him famous. People were like, “….Is he … allowed to say all that stuff?” This was back in the 1999 and early 2000s.)
Let’s get this out of the way.
Just a caveat to start, which I have to do every time I write about him: Libraries of commentary have been written on the man since he first hit in 1999. If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s fine, but that’s on you. He is one of the highest selling artists of all time, and the highest selling hip hop artist, period. He’s had multiple albums go platinum many times over, and some went diamond. (The short list of albums that have gone diamond is brilliantly bizarre. Elvis’ Christmas album is on there, as is a Kenny G album. Madonna’s Like a Virgin is on there, and so is Def Leppard, Carole King. Only 92 albums: here’s a ranked list by Andrew Unterberger with some funny commentary, like this on Billy Joel’s The Stranger: “you have to get to the second side, maybe all the way to the penultimate track, to reach a song you won’t already know by heart just by living in the world.” lol ) MM’s stuff still debuts at #1, and he’s 47, 20 years after he first exploded onto the scene. This is almost unheard-of – it’s new territory: rap is a young artform. Longevity hasn’t really been tested yet – people like Jay Z, MM, are testing it. But to still be at the top 20 years in … Who else qualifies? Michael Jackson? Prince? To get to the top is (relatively) easy. To STAY at the top is HARD.
If you haven’t listened to him and you’ve just heard some of the horrible things he’s said in his songs, then I’m not going to stand around defending him. Yes, he’s said many awful things. The “what he says is offensive”/”no what he says is not offensive” or, worse “stop being so sensitive” – thing is a closed loop, and I stopped participating in it circa 2001. I do not think ANYONE should tell ANYONE that they should “stop being so sensitive” about something that hurts them. It’s not my place to tell anyone what they should/should not tolerate – I would never do that – but the flipside is also true. It’s possible for me to 1. say “this shit is offensive” and 2. say at the same time “My God, his rhyme scheme is off the hook.” Or at least it’s possible for me. If it’s not possible for you, that’s fine. I don’t mean to sound defensive, you just get sick of saying the same damn thing for 20 years. I point you to Robert Christgau’s excellent pieces on MM, he’s very good on this whole dealing-with-Eminem’s-offensive material thing.
I’ve been on the front-lines of the Eminem-Wars since he first appeared, and I’m tired of re-litigating him for every new person who somehow just discovered 5 minutes ago he says outrageous shit. I’m not here to convince anyone, although if my words make someone want to check him out, that’s cool! BUT: if someone starts out a comment with “How could you like/support an artist who says …” I’m done. He’s been asked so many times about his offensive lyrics, and he’s often given thoughtful answers. He’s also said, “Go fuck yourself.” Or “It ain’t my problem if you’re offended.” He was taken aback by the controversies (early on, that is): in the underground battle scene where he came from, anything goes in terms of language. (Also: rap is filled with terrible language, slurs, misogyny, etc. Eminem was being singled out. I mean, I get it: he was selling literally millions more albums than anyone else, but still: it was irritating and hypocritical.)
Here is how the “debating Eminem” conversation goes, because it’s how it always goes:
Outraged person who has never listened to Eminem: “Didn’t he write a song about killing his wife??”
Me: “Yes. He did. And it’s a masterpiece. Anything else?”
For me: Eminem’s roiling pain, titanic rage and self-pity, his mental instability, but also his humor! He is often very funny! – and his ability to turn all that into art is why I love him, not to mention how powerful and exciting he is as a performer. There’s also his genius with language, and it gets better every year, more complex, more difficult to follow, fun to parse out – puns, word play, homophones, extended metaphors, similes, internal rhyme schemes. I often weep when listening to his songs. I sometimes laugh out loud too. I sometimes cringe. I sometimes get grossed out. (Not sure I ever need to hear “Fack” again.) I sometimes think, “Jesus Christ, man, CALM DOWN.” Catharsis isn’t always pleasant. Pity and terror.
I don’t judge an artist by whether or not he is socially acceptable. It’s just not my criteria for whether or not I am a fan of someone, and I have the right to maintain that as my set of criteria. Eminem has, obviously, been controversial from the moment he appeared, and often for very good reason. When I hear people say, “The 90s were different. That kind of humor was really ‘in’ then, it just won’t fly now” I wonder what planet they are living on. His song “Kim” (the masterpiece I just mentioned) was included in one of those dumb clickbait links like “songs with lyrics that wouldn’t fly today”. If you think “Kim” FLEW in 2000, when it came out, you’re out of your goddamn mind. If you think people in 2000 listened to “Kim” with an over-it yawn, you shouldn’t have regular writing gigs because you clearly don’t know how to do research or even THINK. Eminem’s brand of humor was in no way “in” in the late 90s/2000s. On the contrary. It felt like nation-wide barricades bristling with armaments were erected overnight trying to keep him OUT. Protests, petitions, Congressmen scolding teenagers, stern op-ed columns, all all shrieking “WHAT IS HAPPENING THAT WE AS A CULTURE ARE ALLOWING THIS?”
The ’90s were not THAT long ago, you actually can research all of this. From my perspective, as someone who was alive then: He was a rage-ball baby-brat-face peroxide blonde saying outrageous offensive shit, none of which I “endorsed”, and half of which I could not take seriously anyway because of his tongue-in-cheek delivery and his overall obnoxious middle-school persona. A lot of what he said was cartoonish, a nightmare-on-elm-street version of violence. Like a pimply adolescent who just discovered the word “fuck.” It all seemed like it was performance art. He has said over and over again: I am not a role model, the world is fucked up and “I’m just adding to it.” (He doesn’t say that so much now, but at the beginning, he was definitely thumbing his nose. He was a STAR, not a role model.)
There will be people who will never want to listen to him because his rage is triggering to them, and they hate his language. This is completely understandable and I do not judge people for choosing not to listen to him. Everyone needs to manage their own triggers. People aren’t prudes or uptight for choosing not to listen to him. I do not judge people for writing angry op-ed columns and expressing themselves in re: what they find offensive and hurtful in his language. But it goes (all) ways: you get to express yourself, he gets to express himself, and I get to express myself. Let the battle rage: this is the beautiful mess of living in a free society. Not liking him is 100% understandable. But I’ll be damned if anyone tells me I shouldn’t listen to him because THEY don’t like him, or try to silence him because they don’t like him. Get the fuck outta here.
I say this all the time about other subjects: “I’d rather talk about [whatever], than spend time talking about whether or not [whatever] is worth talking about.”
A final note, and I thank Robert Christgau pointing this out in one of his many columns on Eminem:
In 2000, the same year as The Marshall Mathers LP, which tipped Eminem over into Phenomenon Status, Steely Dan released Two Against Nature, a critical and commercial success, which won a bunch of Grammy’s. While everyone was losing their damn minds about “Kim” or “Guilty Conscience”, calling for Eminem to be silenced/shut down/shamed, shrieking “WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN” – somehow no one was up in arms about Steely Dan’s “Janie Runaway”, which details a 50-something man meeting up with his underage girlfriend, wondering if it will be a “federal case” if he takes her across state lines. “Janie Runaway” is a frankly titillating song, with no irony or distancing-perspective present – part of why it works, by the way. It’s Humbert Humbert. Christgau loves “Janie Runaway”, he just points out the hypocrisy of calling out Eminem’s often nightmarish wish-fulfillment scenarios all while ignoring the un-ironic paean-to-pedophilia that is “Janie Runaway.” Christgau wrote, provocatively:
It’s stupid or deceitful to argue that “Kim,” in which you hear him slitting his wife’s throat, is an incitement to murder. The wrong listener can misconstrue anything. But the unbearably raw pain of Slim’s/Eminem’s/Marshall’s drunken rage, misery, and insanity render “Kim” a far more socially responsible work than “Janie Runaway.” The teenagers know what the moral arbiters don’t understand.
The kids knew the man was not a menace to society. Or, if he was a “menace”, it was along the lines of …
Plus, much of his appeal was he did not appear to take himself seriously. Like, at all.
When you read the details of his early life, you’d think you were watching a documentary about a person who eventually became a serial killer.
He grew up rough and hard in Detroit. His father took off when he was 6 months old, never to return. (Or, he did try to make contact again, but only after his son was famous. Said son was like, “NOW you give me the time of day? Fuck you.”) His mother – 15 years old when she gave birth to him – was addicted to drugs and neglected her son as well as physically abused him. She gave him sleeping pills and Valium when he was a child. Mathers claims he was a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. He was probably a hyper child, maybe she wanted him to settle down. Whatever her motives were, it was messed up. Men were in and out of the house, and he witnessed a lot of violence. He witnessed some guy break his mother’s eye socket. He, too, took the brunt of a lot of violence. His stepfather beat the shit out of him, terrorized him emotionally. He and his mom kept getting evicted so they’d jump around from place to place, meaning Mathers was always the new kid in school. He got his ass kicked at home, he got his ass kicked at school, he got his ass kicked on the way to school, he got his ass kicked on the way home from school. His childhood was one of endless abuse on all sides, of being unable to defend himself. His mother did not protect him. He was thrown to the wolves, at the mercy of the violent adults around him. His family tree is filled with addiction, mental illness and suicides.
So when people are like “God, he’s so ANGRY”, I always think, “YEAH. Wouldn’t you be?” In my opinion, he’s a trauma survivor, with lifelong scars, lifelong mistrust of others – all of which I find totally understandable. His uncle Ronnie introduced him to hip hop when he was 10, 11 years old, and he fell in love with it. He was a student of the game (one of the reasons why most black rap artists respect him. He knows his shit. He respects the artform.). He started to try to write songs. He did 9th grade 3 times before dropping out. His beloved Uncle Ronnie committed suicide: Mathers’ only safe harbor vanished. (One of MM’s tattoos is of his uncle Ronnie.)
Around this time, when he was still a teenager, he met DeShaun Dupree Holton, a.k.a. Proof.
Proof was very connected with the burgeoning hip hop scene in Detroit (if you see 8 Mile, Mekhi Phifer plays the “Proof” role). They would mess around with rhymes and beats and Proof immediately recognized his friend’s gift. Coming into rap battles at these underground clubs must have been unbelievably intimidating, for a newbie and a white kid, but Proof believed in his friend, and cleared the way so Mathers could take center stage, usually to a hostile crowd. (Proof joked that he used the “White Men Can’t Jump technique.”) Onstage Mathers was ferocious, gifted with language – and that’s what rap, at its purest, is about – LANGUAGE. He would win the crowd over with his skills. The two boys were thick as thieves.
Kim and Hailie
Mathers met Kimberly Scott at a party when they were teenagers. She was 13, he was 16. Kids. Kim also came from a troubled background, a home of chaos and alcoholism. She and her twin sister ran away from home, and somehow they both ended up staying with Marshall and his mother. The relationship between Kim and Marshall has spanned decades at this point, and is an epic part of Eminem’s story, since he is still writing songs about her. (Poor woman.) You can’t call them “high school sweethearts” because neither of them were going to school. They were basically street urchins. Ports in a crazy storm.
She was his first love, and – at least from what I can tell, based on what he himself has said – his only love. He said she was the only person he could be “real” with, and now he’s too famous and he distrusts women. Does she like ME, or my FAME? You never see him out at events with hot women on his arm. You never hear about him dating anyone, although he’s got to be, right? On the DL? Apparently, according to an interview with Vulture, he does use Tindr, which is so wild to me. How does that even work? He also doesn’t do what so many other rap artists do, sing constantly about their sexual prowess and what a virile man they are. With MM, it’s the opposite. I go into that below. It’s weird: you have to listen closely for it, but mostly, you can feel it in the absence: Wait, where are all his songs about his prolific sexual prowess? [Crickets.] At any rate: if you listen to Eminem’s music, then Kim is a huge “character”, and any time he raps about a woman – even now – everyone assumes it must be about Kim. (I repeat: that poor woman. She must be so over it by now. They get along fine now. And with all the shit she talked about him – and boy, was she entitled to talk trash – she always said he was a good father. To quote FB, which I am no longer on: “It’s complicated.”)
In December, 1995, Kim gave birth to a baby girl named Hailie Jade. Mathers was 24 years old when Hailie arrived. Hailie put the pressure on him to support his family. He felt that pressure like a boulder.
To fast forward a bit: in 2000, notoriously – it made headlines all over the world – Mathers assaulted a bouncer at a club, whom he saw kissing his wife. He was arrested on a concealed weapons charge, appeared in court, meek and blonde, in handcuffs and a suit, and got a couple years probation.
He said in interviews later it was a terrifying experience mainly because he feared he would lose custody of Hailie. It was a warning: Do not act like this ever again. To his credit, he never did. He calmed down with the pistol-toting behavior. He was never in trouble – at least like THAT – again. Mathers and Kim got married in 1999, got divorced a couple years after that. In 2006, they re-married. Then they got divorced a couple months later. I mean, it probably could just keep going.
Hailie was born on Christmas day, 1995. Mathers had four more years to go before The Slim Shady LP, which launched him into fame. Four long long years.
The Detroit Rap Battle Scene
In the meantime, he worked shitty jobs and he and Kim tried to get by. He competed in rap battles. The novelty of him being white wore off the second he started rapping. (Go seek out footage of those early rap battles – 1996, 1997 – he is terrifying.) He had no fear. He was crazy onstage. He really was like nobody else at that time, and not just because of his skin color. His lyrical linguistic skills are second to none (listen to how other rappers talk about him): once you get into his stuff, sometimes rock ‘n roll starts to sound lazy, at least in its vocabulary: you keep waiting for “the doubles” (double entendres) or “triples” (triple entendres). Marshall Mathers loves language, he hears rhymes where other people do not hear rhymes, he loves puns, word play, working out schemes using double sometimes triple and in a couple of cases quadruple entendres. He was not the first to do this, and he’d be the first to pay tribute to the ones who inspired him. LL Cool J was a big one. Tupac another. Biggie. Wordsmiths. Most impressively, Mathers was able to do all of this wordplay FREESTYLE: to improvise with this level of complexity is very rare. To think up puns and double meanings on the fly and at lightning speed while ALSO making sense takes a certain kind of nimble obsessive mind. He bends words to rhyme with each other, and he matches the delivery to the words: he makes sure he punches up the rhymes vocally. He would be embarrassed to just rhyme the end of a line. He is obsessed with compound syllables. They all have to rhyme too.
MM around this time. Look at the faces of the people in the balcony. It says a lot.
When critics or some fans get bored by his raps about other rappers, his “diss” tracks, his aggressive flexing at other rappers … it seems like they forget he came out of a competitive scene. Literally. Competitions. You had to show you were the best, and the crowd voted on your skills. In that scene, saying mean shit about other people is how you won. You tried to disarm them. Linguistically. You tried to point out their weak spots – in their appearance, in their skills (or lack thereof), or ANYTHING that could make the other person look weak. Do they drive a shitty car? Are they short? Do they live with their mom? Are their sneakers gross? Whatever. It’s all ammo.
This is the world Eminem came from. This is the world they all came from. Battling is not PART of the culture, it IS the culture. The big-wigs – Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z – all rapped this way, airing out grievances, taking pot-shots – often horrific pot-shots – at each other in song. There are still rappers emerging from the rap battle scene (not surprisingly, they are usually the ones with the most highly-tuned poetic/rhyming skill – you HAVE to have that skill to even go one round in these battles). But many more people are NOT coming from out of that scene, and many critics don’t take that “scene” into consideration – out of ignorance? or … (Eminem always gets more flak for his diss tracks than other rappers get for theirs. Why this may be, I’ll leave you to ponder.) To them, Eminem focusing so much on other rappers seems petty. Like: why is this rich man whining. Petty? Whining? Go back to the Biggie-Tupac “war.” Those guys – not just them, but everyone – were ALWAYS talking shit about each other in song. And they were rich and famous too. And their disses were not “I fucked your mom”, and not “Your shoes are ugly” but hard-core scary stuff like Tupac’s drop-the-mic diss: “My .44 make sure all your kids don’t grow.” You cringe when you hear it, hearing the escalation of it. But you also admire how he put it together.
This shit is not pretty, and it’s not meant to be pretty, it can be very dangerous, and can easily get out of hand, as happened with the Tupac/Biggie situation. But more often than not, rap battles involve people saying ruthless shit to each other, and then shaking hands afterwards. It’s not personal.
It makes me think of that funny scene in Straight Outta Compton, when the members of NWA sit around listening to Ice Cube diss all of them on the legendary “No Vaseline,” recorded after leaving the group. “Jerry” – the sketchy manager (Paul Giamatti) flips when he is referenced in the song as a “Jew.”
It’s a case of divide-and-conquer,
‘Cause you let a Jew break up my crew.
He threatens to sue Cube for defamation. Meanwhile, everyone else listens to the diss track, listen to themselves BEING dissed, and laugh out loud, enjoying Ice Cube’s cleverness with his insults. Eazy-E says, “Relax, Jerry. It’s battle rap.” Critics act like “Jerry” any time a diss track comes out. Meanwhile, the actual hip hop community all of this comes FROM enjoys the “battle” as entertainment. RAPPERS get it, but critics and outraged people who want everyone to use their indoor voice all the time flip out. People who call Eminem out specifically for being “mean” or “he can dish it out but he can’t take it” …. they clearly don’t listen to hip hop. Someone disses you, you respond with your own diss. Also: do you know how many disses MM chooses NOT to respond to? He’s very calculated about when he steps into the ring. Talking shit about each other is part of the whole GAME, and being CLEVER about it is what makes it fun.
That diss is a work of art.
And I will say this: when Slim Shady arrived – with The Slim Shady LP – the insanity of his insults, the comic-book-horror-movie violence, the whole vibe of “There ain’t NOTHING I won’t say” – is a huge part of why he appealed to black hip hop fans and artists; in other words, the audience he wanted to reach in the first place. Yes, he was accused of stealing black music, of being a “culture vulture” – he still is. But there are powerful voices on the other side, powerful voices from powerful people. When Eminem was left off of a Top 5 Rappers list in 2009 (he’s always left off lists – he raps about it all the time), many top artists spoke out about it. Lil Wayne said in an interview, in real time when he heard the news, “Eminem’s not on there? Who IS on there then?” Jay-Z felt so strongly he put out a statement: “I think you do the credibility of this list a disservice if you don’t thoroughly explain his omission.” Most people respected his skill, respected his integrity, how much he clearly was a student of the game – and since then, they respect how much he has promoted black artists, including producing their records. People who knew battle rap intimately could tell exactly what MM was about, AND that he wasn’t trying to use rap as a stepping-stone to a pop career. If you are a white boy and you talk THAT insane on your debut album, you’ve got to be legit. Because you clearly do not care at ALL.
LL Cool J, one of Eminem’s idols, said that Eminem was instantly recognized by those who knew the score not as a “white rapper” but as an emcee: there’s a difference.
Further side note: If you really want to hear Eminem unleashed, at his most dazzling verbally, his funniest but also his absolute most brutal: go down the deep rabbit hole into the “diss tracks.” They are legendary. In some of them, he crosses way way WAY over the line. He’s still doing diss tracks. In 2018, on the heels of Revival, he released Kamikaze, an entire album made up of incandescent diss tracks. He went after EVERYBODY. Once again: most critics were bored by it, irritated, one said, “epic fail” – how original! (Eminem would smoke you in a language-battle, Mr. Professional Writer). However, the hip hop community ate that shit up.
There are articles about Eminem’s most famous and most vicious diss tracks, if you want bread crumbs through the forest. Diss tracks are weird, you really need at least a couple of background details to know what people are talking about. Notable Eminem diss tracks: “Nail in the Coffin,” “The Warning,” “Bully,” “Can I Bitch”, “Hailie’s Revenge” … the list goes on. They are vicious. Honestly, “Quitter” is almost too rough. (One of the Youtube reactors I follow finished listening to “Quitter” and said, “That’s some Tupac shit.”) Most of these don’t make it onto proper albums, you have to seek them out. Find “The Sauce.” It’s fucking terrifying. Some guy on Twitter said, “I bet Benzino still has PTSD from hearing The Sauce.” Hell, I have PTSD from hearing “The Sauce.” He literally hawks spit in his mouth, spits it out, and then RHYMES the next line with the sound of that vile spit sound. Seriously. The man is hard and cold as shit. People literally back away from beefs with him. He’s that intimidating. I could write a whole thing about Eminem’s various beefs and the music that came out of it but LET’S CONTINUE.
1995-97, Infinite, the birth of Slim Shady, “Rock Bottom”, and Slim Shady EP
Detroit producers Jeff and Mark Bass had heard Mathers on the radio doing a rap freestyle on some morning show. They reached out and Mathers “signed” with them. They produced Infinite, his first studio album. You can’t buy Infinite anywhere. Only 1,000 copies sold, and they were mostly sold by Mathers himself from out of his car. The album was pretty much totally ignored, a humiliating experience. Listening to Infinite now (people have uploaded the tracks to YouTube) is a fascinating insight into Marshall Mathers PRE Slim Shady. He has said that he consciously tried to write “radio-friendly” songs because he wanted to … you know, be on the radio. It’s surreal, because in a matter of just 3 years, “the radio” would be overwhelmed by his harshest craziest lyrics, a word Bleeped out every line – and yet there it was, “the radio” succumbing to him, blaring out all those “Bleeps” to a massive mainstream audience. He got so big the industry was forced to comply with him, not the other way around.
But back before he birthed Slim Shady, he was still trying to find his way in what was still purely a local scene. He was trying to figure out a way to transform his successes at rap battles into actual albums (many can’t manage that). Infinite was his first attempt and, as I said, it was his stab at being commercial. He needed the money.
On Infinite, you can hear he’s already good with word play, and he’s fast. He’s got an ego (“I’m infinite!”), but he raps about real life too. It’s just … different. He raps about “finding his Christianity”, for example. He was about to become a father when he recorded Infinite, and his anxiety was ACUTE. Proof, Mr. Porter, all of Eminem’s posse, appeared on Infinite, or worked on Infinite, but when it came out in 1996 it changed nothing for Mathers. It might as well have never even happened. Also, because he was white, he got a lot of shit like, “You don’t belong here – go do a rock ‘n roll album, Elvis, get the fuck out of here.” (He has referenced Elvis so many times over the years in his songs, I need to do a little tally. He knows what Elvis means, and what it means when Elvis is used as a criticism towards him. He has also PLAYED Elvis in two of his videos. It’s hard for me to express how happy this makes me.)
Mathers was disheartened when Infinite didn’t go anywhere. I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just about “having a dream” and being “disappointed”. It’s that he’s washing dishes at a restaurant, squatting at his girlfriend’s mom’s house, with a baby on the way. He has an 8th grade education. He has said over and over he was never good at anything else. It’s just a different mindset. Like he says in “Lose Yourself”: “Success was my only motherfuckin’ option.”
In Infinite’s disappointing wake, he got the idea – out of nowhere, as he describes it – to create an alter ego, a crazy wild-eyed demon who would allow him to let all his “evil” out. An alter ego who would throw shade (“shady”) at EVERYbody. He was skinny, so “slim” worked: a skinny kid throwing shade, BEING shady. The name appealed to him: it rhymed with so much.
During the years in between Hailie’s birth (1995) and The Slim Shady LP (1999), he was growing in confidence about his ability to put songs together. He wrote about where he was at in his life. One of the things that stands out about Eminem – particularly as a white rapper in a predominantly black field – is that he didn’t “front” about who he was. Among hip hop artists: the main thing was to be REAL. Don’t PRETEND to be a gangster, you’re gonna be called out QUICK. (You can see this dynamic in the final rap battle in 8 Mile, when B. Rabbit finally takes down his opponent by revealing to the crowd that this “gangsta” went to Cranbrook – “That’s a private school!”) Mathers was a tough street kid – this was authentic, you can feel it – but if he had tried to act like his idea of a rap star, “fronting” as a thug/gangsta/pimp or whatever – it would have been so phony his competition would have destroyed him. In a competitive world, under enormous pressure, Mathers didn’t pretend. (Once he became famous, there are a couple of songs where he “pretends”, and they stand out. D12 is a lot of tough-talking guns-and-clubbin’ stuff – a lot of it’s fun but it’s the narrowest of the lanes he drives in. The subject matter of those songs is really not his milieu.) He wrote about his “white trash” life.
You can feel poverty licking at his heels in these early songs. Particularly “Rock Bottom”, which maybe I’ll write about in depth at some point. It ended up on The Slim Shady LP, but there’s a demo version of the song, and it’s more interesting, because he recorded the demo WHEN he was at Rock Bottom. He was in the thick of it, he wasn’t looking BACK on it like he was when he re-recorded it in Dr. Dre’s studio. One of the lines in “Rock Bottom” is “my daughter’s down to her last diaper” and in the demo he legit sounds like he’s going to burst into tears. Because there’s no distance. He’s singing about where he’s at right then. He’s gonna finish recording this song and then he’s gonna scrounge around in the sofa for coins so he can put together enough to buy some diapers. That’s how bad it was. It’s very tough to listen to.
He was in despair when he recorded that song. He was a failure as a man. After recording “Rock Bottom,” literally that same night, he swallowed a bottle of Codeine, and then puked it all up. You can hear this emotional state in the demo. Going gold wasn’t on his mind. He and Kim and Hailie were living in a crack-infested neighborhood, with occasional gunfights in the streets, where they were robbed repeatedly. Rock Bottom.
Ready to flex a little bit as his new alter ego, he recorded an EP in 1997, The Slim Shady EP, just a handful of songs, a couple of which would end up on The Slim Shady LP (the one produced by Dr. Dre, the one that thrust him onto a national stage).
Just one year has passed since Infinite and it’s already like he’s a different person. Slim Shady EP starts with a nightmare sequence where a “good” Marshall is taken over – screaming in terror – by a snarling demon (i.e. Slim Shady). Then comes a song where he sings despairingly about how tired he is of … everything (“If I Had”), where he lashes out and declares his independence from giving a fuck (“Just Don’t Give a F***”) and then the terrifying “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” – which has to be heard to be believed, and speaks to how much Slim Shady set him free if THAT is the shit he felt it was “appropriate” to share. (Hats off to Tori Amos for covering “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”. It has to be one of the most unlikely covers in all of music history.) Slim Shady EP is a desolate and bleak album. There’s no joy on it. Mathers started to pass it around wherever he went. People liked this one more than Infinite. He got picked by Wendy Day to be on the rap team she had organized, based solely on the strength of that EP. It tells you something about the rap world: middle-class people raised on pop music recoil hearing that EP. Hip hop people were like: This is fucking NUTS and I want to hear more of it.
It was Wendy Day who ended up bringing Mathers to Los Angeles to compete in the Rap Olympics in 1997. This would be the trip that would change everything.
A final word about Slim Shady
Without Slim Shady, there’d be no Eminem. People credit Dr. Dre with “making” Eminem. Of course he helped. But Slim Shady was Mathers’ own invention. This was when he really started getting creative because he wasn’t trying to write or sound like anyone else AND he was rapping about shit that would end up tapping into a Mother Lode of feeling and rebellion in a generation that sorely needed it – but I’ll get to that.
Slim Shady was his Id, his fucked-up white trash inner demon, who raps about cutting women up with chainsaws and nailing someone’s nuts to the wall, all while laughing about it … you name it. He had been stomped on his whole life. Slim Shady allowed him to tell the world just what he thought of it. Slim Shady also allowed him to be funny. To goof off. He does different voices, he makes fun of himself. This is key to his appeal. To play into the novelty-act vibe of him being a white boy doing rap, he dyed his hair platinum blonde. He looked like a skinhead/Aryan youth/hillbilly. He didn’t downplay the elephant in the room, his race. He boldly decided to exaggerate it, exaggerate what made him different. Not only am I white, but I have blonde hair and blue eyes and I am ADORABLE. And not only am I adorable, but I have a dimple in my fucking chin. I LOOK like I’m a Backstreet Boy, but I’m gonna KILL The Backstreet Boys with a chainsaw, motherfuckers. This has always been one of his tactics: beat people to the punch, admit shit about himself before it can be used against him. A disarming tactic. It worked.
He looked frightening almost, a deranged weirdo, who would say anything.
Finally. Dr. Dre.
Enter the 1997 Rap Olympics. The rap team he was on traveled to Los Angeles to compete, plane tickets paid for by the team’s organizer. The night before the trip, Mathers came home to find he had been evicted, and all of their furniture was out on the sidewalk, neighbors coming over and hauling shit home, right under Mathers’ eyes. He had nowhere to stay so he broke into his own former home, slept on the floor, got up and flew to Los Angeles. He brought some copies of Slim Shady EP, just in case. First prize in the Rap Olympics was $500. Not huge stakes. But to Mathers the stakes couldn’t have been higher. He needed that $500. For rent. Mathers came in second place. He was crushed.
A guy came up to him after he lost, and asked for a copy of the demo tape. Mathers handed it over, like, whatever, my life is over, here’s my tape. And this was the defining moment. That rando was an intern at Interscope Records. The intern took the EP back to Interscope and played it for Jimmy Iovine. Iovine was impressed enough he played it for the legendary Dr. Dre. All of this is so well-documented I’m slightly bored even just writing it out. It’s like Elvis walking into Sun Records in 1953 to record a song for his mother. Dre immediately felt the potential in what he heard, and had no idea the voice he was hearing – with its thick Detroit accent – was a white kid’s voice. Dre was like, “Go find that kid and bring him to me.” Mathers gets the most unbelievable call of his life. Dr. Dre on the line …
Mathers felt the pressure but this time it was good pressure: Dre was one of rap’s GODS – not as a rapper, per se, but as a producer. He challenged Mathers in all the right ways, while also keeping MM’s raw-ness and insanity and out there lyrics intact. Rap has always been about pushing the boundaries of what you’re allowed to say. I mean, speaking of Dre, N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police”, amirite? Dre challenged Mathers vocally, pushing him until – as Mathers puts it – he was literally screaming. He helped Mathers work with his voice, finding flexibility and layers of expressiveness, which you don’t hear in Infinite and the EP. Eventually they had enough material for an album. The advance press was FRENZIED, and this was completely 100% because of Dr. Dre’s involvement. Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers was a total unknown, but Dr. Dre was an instant calling card – to fans white and black. If DRE gave this kid the stamp of approval, then we sure as hell are going to check him out.
The Slim Shady LP (1999)
The Slim Shady LP was released in February 1999.
And all hell broke loose.
The album debuted at #2 on Billboard and reached #1 on R&B/rap charts. Slim Shady was suddenly everywhere. The opening song – “My Name Is” – introduced us to him. It’s one of the weirdest opening tracks on a debut album ever. It starts with literally “Hi. My name is.” He sounds completely obnoxious. His voice sounds like “Nyah nyah nyah I don’t care if you’re offended fuck you I can say whatever I want HA HA HA HA.” The song is a TAUNT. MM said, “The song was a hello to the world and a fuck you to the world at the same time.” The music video was KEY to him making a splash. This was when videos really mattered. I actually remember where I was when I first saw it. I was in my apartment in Hoboken, watching MTV, and suddenly …
Unfortunately, they censored him from the start. So the lyrics here are altered from what they really are. The first line of the verse is: “Hi, kids. Do you like violence?” It’s irritating that we don’t have the explicit version of the videos, but the real lyrics are easily accessible.
The video was my introduction to him. I don’t even think the album was out yet. I didn’t even know what I was looking at. Who is this maniac? Also: Dr. Dre is IN the video. I was a huge NWA fan. I had no idea about Slim Shady’s backstory, knew absolutely nothing about him, and so Dre’s presence did what it was supposed to do: it told me that Dr. Dre thought this guy was good, so pay close attention. I thought the video was hilarious. Slim Shady as Marilyn Manson? As Bill Clinton? As a ventriloquist’s dummy?? WTF? The “kids” got it immediately. I mean …
… this is not a serious song.
I was a grown-up when I first heard him, but I am also immature, so maybe that has something to do with why I found him funny. It was so obvious he was trying to be as shocking as possible with those lyrics, a Howard Stern-in-his-heyday kind of thing (and Howard Stern was in his heyday at this time), but it was all presented in such a playful and almost ironic way I had no idea what to take seriously and what not to take seriously. Also, after saying “Hi, my name is” he immediately starts admitting all this shit that people don’t normally admit to: “I haven’t had a woman in years. My palms are too hairy to hide.” I had no way of knowing whether or not that was true, but it’s such a weird line – especially since he looked so young. It sounds like something a grizzled retired sea captain would say. I cannot stress enough how attention-getting the video was. Slim Shady had arrived. I bought the album the first chance I could.
“My Name Is” includes the lines:
I don’t give a fuck, God sent me to piss the world off!
He was right.
Eminem, Proof to his left
The song that caused the most controversy was “Guilty Conscience.” It was treated like a national emergency. The track, featuring both Slim Shady and Dr. Dre, presents three different scenarios: a guy about to rob a liquor store; a guy about to assault a drunk underage girl at a party; a guy about to kill his wife for sleeping with another man. Each scenario presents the guy with a choice, the angel and devil on his shoulders (and in fact that scene in Animal House was Mathers’ inspiration for the song – one of the lines in the song suggests dropping the drunk girl off on her parents’ doorstep).
In the track, Dre plays the conscience, the angel, and Slim plays the wilding-out devil. The song was seen as an endorsement of Slim’s side of things. People ignored Dre’s calm commentary, and only heard Slim Shady’s increasingly unhinged “NAH FUCK THAT”. The song is a dialogue, not a monologue, it’s a debate, not a soliloquy. The title is “Guilty Conscience”, not “Fuck Having a Conscience.” Both sides are presented. It’s actually kind of a brilliant structure. I never once listened to it and thought it was an endorsement of the “devil” side. But subtlety was lost in the firestorm of controversy – and that’s what it felt like. A firestorm. This song should not be allowed to exist was the basic attitude. It is DANGEROUS. People are going to think it’s okay to rob liquor stores now because Slim Shady says it’s okay. I thought the whole thing was absurd. Of all the shocking stuff on the album, “Guilty Conscience” was the least shocking (as far as I was concerned). By presenting these scenarios in the way it does, with Dr. Dre – the older man, the authority figure – saying “Calm down – think about the consequences – ” – all as Slim Shady spazzes out … it emphasizes that it is bad to react impulsively, even if you’re upset. Take a second, breathe, don’t do something you’ll regret forever. I always make fun of people who want movies to basically blare neon arrows down at scenes saying “THIS IS BAD DON’T DO THIS.” But this song practically DOES have a neon sign, saying “THIS IS BAD DON’T DO THIS.” The fact that in the last scenario, the devil wins, just shows that sometimes the devil wins that’s all. Also, it’s a joke: it’s a fake argument between Dr. Dre and Slim, playing up the fact that the protege is not under the thumb of his mentor. It gave Slim Shady – or Marshall Mathers – agency, it looked like he was in charge of the song and the album – not Dre. It was a smart choice, career-wise.
Cool video, too. Let’s hear it for a Robert Culp cameo.
Grown-ups were horrified. Politicians were outraged. Preachers had apoplectic fits. Kids were enraptured. Special interest groups picketed his shows. All of this flowed into his fame. Every controversy worked to his advantage. Slim Shady was great armor, armor he needed all along.
I love Robert Christgau’s paragraph on The Slim Shady LP in his indispensable book: Albums of the ’90s:
Anybody who believes kids are naive enough to take this record literally is right to fear them, because that’s the kind of adult teenagers hate. Daring moralizers to go on the attack while explicitly–but not (fuck you, dickwad) unambiguously–declaring itself a satiric, cautionary fiction, this cause célèbre runs short of ideas only toward the end, when Dre’s whiteboy turns provocation into the dull sensationalism fools think is his whole story. Over an hour his cadence gets wearing, too. But he flat-out loves to rhyme–“seizure”/”T-shirt,” “eyeballs”/”Lysol”/”my fault,” “BM”/”GM”/”be him”/”Tylenol PM”/”coliseum,” “Mike D”/”might be”–and you have to love the way he slips in sotto voce asides from innocent bystanders. Sticking nine-inch nails through his eyelids, flattening a black bully with a four-inch broom, reminding his conscience/producer about Dee Barnes, watching helplessly as an abused Valley Girl OD’s on his shrooms, cajoling his baby daughter Hailey into helping him get rid of her mom’s body, he shows more comic genius than any pop musician since–Loudon Wainwright III?
I’m with him.
Enter the void in the culture.
There’s way more to be said about WHY Eminem “hit” and hit so hard. I think there are multiple factors, only some of which has to do with the state of hip hop. I don’t have enough distance from it to really speak exactly to what was going on, and the VOID that Eminem exploited and filled up and expanded. In terms of hip hop, the 80s and 90s were a fruitful and tumultuous time. N.W.A. changed the world! Boyz in the Hood came out in 1991 and was a major film for many reasons. Snoop Dogg’s first album Doggystyle was a massive hit, and has just grown in stature ever since. In the early 90s, so-called “Gangsta rap” was under fire from the highest offices in the land, Dan Quayle made a scolding speech about N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police,” with ranks of policemen standing behind him (Oh shit, member Dan Quayle?) So there was all this controversy, but hip hop was rising in power and influence, seeping its way into the mainstream. It was no longer just “niche”, or contained to its initial audience. These songs were coming up from the underground, and it was exciting and raw and angry. All these new great stars were on the rise. Then, in 1996/1997, months apart, Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were murdered (the murders remain unsolved). This event, and the “east coast/west coast” rap rivalry thing plunged the hip hop world into rounds of grieving, accusations, chaos. It also was a shame, because it unfairly “affirmed” what the critics had been saying about “gangsta rap.”
In the 80s, the success of The Beastie Boys – middle-class Jewish kids from Brooklyn – made serious inroads in re: white people listening to this music. They opened for Madonna. They fused hip hop with punk rock, creating a clash of styles that still feels fresh, even though it’s been imitated to death. When N.W.A. and Public Enemy sampled songs by the Beastie Boys, it was a signal of things to come.
Outside of hip hop, the ’90s really started with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” released in 1991. It exploded the world as we knew it. Suddenly, BANDS were back, so-called “grunge,” which shattered the synthesized 80s past – dominated by music made by young Boomers – in other words, a generation older than those of us who were in high school at the time – practically overnight. These grunge bands were mostly made up of white kids our own age, white kids with a lot of pent-up rage, feeling like dirtbags, growing up in the shadow of the Boomers who mocked us, inspired by punk rock and heavy metal, the whole aimless cynical opting-out-of-the-rat-race anti-social Gen X thing. I’m Gen X, so I can say that.
“Grunge” lasted for a glorious half second. Music on the radio was suddenly angry, loud, rebellious … but then it was almost like the industry snapped back into a more easily controllable form, with the arrival of Britney Spears (1998) and all the Boy Bands, like the Backstreet Boys, etc. The rise of these people feels calculated to me. No shade on Britney or boy bands. I love them. But … why does it have to be one or the other? Almost overnight, once again, the sound of fury vanished from the radio. For a brief shining second, screaming uncontrollable rage was Top 40 material. It was thrilling! And then suddenly … here come ranks of sexualized teenagers who don’t write their own songs. It was weird to watch it all happen in real time. From Liz Phair to this … overnight.
And so … with the death of Biggie and Tupac – AND the quick disappearance of “grunge” AND the rise of the pre-manufactured Lolita stars … there was a void, and – very important – it was a cross-cultural cross-class cross-racial and even cross-generational void. It’s rare you ever get a void that enormous in a culture, and when you do – either someone comes along and fills it up (like Elvis did), or the void eventually subsides as other things come into play. But in 1999, the void was gigantic. And Eminem stepped into that void.
Nirvana had been FAN-chosen, not industry-chosen. The same would be true of Eminem. He was the voice of rebellion, but it wasn’t safe middle-class liberal-white rebellion – it was rebellion from the pissed-off underclass. (I came across this installation artist who’s been doing an Eminem project for years and he said he was interested in how this “middle-class heteronormative” man became so famous. In what universe is food stamps, evictions, and federal housing projects middle-class? Have you listened to “Rock Bottom”? Middle class? Dummy.)
I’m sure there is a lot of subtlety here I am missing. There’s the element of race – and how Eminem widened the umbrella for rap fans to include white kids (although there had always been white hip hop fans) – and some people still hate Eminem for that. It can’t be denied that MM tapped into SOMEthing, something that NEEDED to be tapped into, and it wasn’t just among white teenagers. He wouldn’t have the numbers he has if he had just hooked in white teenagers. That’s the phenomenon of him, how wide his appeal got. I was older when he arrived, so I can’t speak to the power of adolescent association with him – but it makes sense: If you’re an angry hurting lonely teenager, and the main pop stars are kids who got their start on the Mickey Mouse club – literally – then you may very well have thought, “Jesus, is anyone talking about REAL SHIT anymore?” Enter Shady, the embodiment of an upraised middle finger. Make that two upraised middle fingers.
The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Next came The Marshall Mathers LP, one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, but also one of the greatest albums of any genre, end-stop. It’s hip-hop, yeah, but it’s really punk rock in its ruthless slaying of … the whole entire civilized world.
Here’s the deal, just to give people who weren’t there or weren’t into it an idea: The Marshall Mathers LP sold 1.7 million records in the first week. This broke records, making it the fastest-selling album in United States history. But it didn’t just break records – it smashed them to pieces. I’d have to check – but I think his record broke the record set by Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. These albums were POURING out of the record stores in a FLOOD of sales. 1.7 million albums in a week was a dazzling and awe-inspiring number. To those who hated Eminem, the number was ominous as hell: How can this be happening?? Can it be stopped? He was suddenly not a novelty-act, not just Dre’s blonde crazy protege, but a serious contender all on his own. He just broke everyone else’s records, Prince, Madonna, whoever else you want to mention. I just looked up that list as it stands now – 20 years later – with so many new names on the list – and the Marshall Mathers LP is STILL at #4! (Also: Encore and The Eminem Show are at 6 and 7. So he STILL has three albums – from 15-20 years ago – in the Top 10. This is insane. Taylor Swift is all over that list now too, although behind MM in actual numbers. She still hasn’t beat that Marshall Mathers accomplishment. The Marshall Mathers LP was a PHENOM. It wiped out the PAST, ya dig? I don’t care what metrics you use: selling almost 2 million albums in one week is INSANE.) The Slim Shady LP is of its moment. Much of it doesn’t travel well or date all that well. The Marshall Mathers LP is timeless.
In that link way above of the 92 diamond albums, here’s what the writer had to say about Marshall Mathers LP, which pretty much covers it:
An EMP of negative energy unleashed by one man on his wife, his mother, his label, his fans, and — last and absolutely least — himself. The Marshall Mathers LP might stand as the last album to really make parents feel like one artist could single-handedly bring about the end of Western Civilization, and Eminem made his apocalyptic case with humor, hooks, and some of the most creative wordplay hip-hop has ever seen, creating a savage and frequently inexcusable masterpiece of not giving a f—.
Bless! “Inexcusable masterpiece.” !! That’s so right on!
Back when you actually bought records or tapes – you listened to an album start to finish. The Marshall Mathers LP should be listened to that way – all of his albums should be listened to that way. He’s Generation X. He grew up without technology/internet. He’s still old school. You make an album and it’s a story and one song leads to another making up a whole. So … the track list of The Marshall Mathers LP is intimidating. These songs are still considered among his greatest.
“Stan”, first of all – generally regarded to be one of his best songs, and one of the best rap songs ever written. It’s so huge that the word “stan” has filtered into the popular lexicon – meaning “super fan” – and half the people using the term have no idea that it came from an Eminem song. “Stan” is told from the perspective of a crazy Eminem fan, increasingly desperate to get Eminem’s attention. It’s the King of Comedy of the hip hop world. With Dido singing on it, it’s an unforgettable story-telling song, with a classic music video:
But also on the album: “The Way I Am,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “I’m Back,” “Marshall Mathers” (starting to phase out Slim Shady), the monstrous “Kim”, “Criminal.” Like Thriller, like Purple Rain, the album kept going … and going … and going … as hit after hit after hit climbed the charts. It took up practically the whole year. That album is a MONSTER.
Eminem handled fame with “quiet dignity and grace”…..
Yeah. No. Off the top of my head: He was always in and out of trouble, putting his foot in his mouth, refusing to apologize, leaping off stages to punch someone in the audience who looked at him wrong, getting into fights across multiple continents, popping Ecstasy while talking to a reporter, being sued by everyone including his mother. He’s a tough person but thin-skinned, he started beefs with pop music stars mainly because he didn’t want to be associated with them in the public’s mind – Britney, Backstreet Boys, Christina, etc. He went after Moby, an absolutely pointless beef that made him look weak and humorless. He bought a house – his first – and Detroit wouldn’t let him put up a fence around it because of zoning laws or something – does anyone else remember this? So all day and all night, autograph-seekers would swarm onto his lawn, banging on his door, peeking through the windows, looking for him. He, Kim and Hailie were basically prisoners in their own home. The house was across the street from a trailer park, and one day he came home and there were like 20 kids swimming in his pool. He would answer the door with a gun in his hand, terrifying the children who just wanted an autograph. He would chase people off his property, holding said gun. Fame was an assault and he had no idea how to handle it. He also had a blast.
He developed a drug problem without ever seeking out drugs, or even purchasing them. They were just offered to him everywhere he went once he became famous, people throwing drugs at him through his limo windows. Life was a nonstop party. He and Kim finally got married somewhere in here, after 10 years being together and apart and together and apart. Insane. I think he was court-ordered to take anger management classes after some violent incident. So what did he name his next tour? The Anger Management Tour. Everything, even his problems, was fodder. He wasn’t riding the whirlwind, he WAS the whirlwind.
He was baffled as to why people were so upset about some of his lyrics. To him, it was so clear he was joking and that he didn’t mean all that shit. To him, that was just how it was done in the clubs he came up in. Outrageous ruthless shit won rap battles, and he was still in that mode. In 1999, he was asked about his offensive lyrics by a reporter and he said, and I quote: “I never raped no girl, I never killed nobody. This is my art, I’m not doing these things in real life.” Or, fanning the flames: “I don’t hate women. Just the bitch I’m married to.” As the criticism heated up, he doubled down. I believe him when he says that he had not been looking to become a Pop-Rap Crossover Cultural Phenomenon (who could even plan for that?) – all he wanted was respect from other rap emcees and artists, the guys he idolized. He was determined that he would never let down THOSE guys by compromising his gritty lethal underground chops, no matter how famous he got. And … I think he still feels that way. (See the digression below about his jaw-droppingly sick line in his verse on “Medicine Man” from 2015. He hasn’t softened at all.) The duet with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy’s – which was Eminem’s idea after talking with Elton backstage at some event, plus Elton John’s pointed vocal support of him (he compared MM to Mick Jagger and told everyone basically to calm the fuck down), was an attempt at damage control. The duet took up a couple of news cycles, and pictures of them holding hands and bowing were everywhere.
The Grammy’s duet has led to what is now clearly a lifelong friendship. Elton was involved in MM’s recovery process after MM overdosed in 2007, checking in every day, an unofficial sponsor. Eminem would call Elton if he was struggling. When Elton John married his longtime partner in 2014, Eminem sent a wedding gift: two diamond-encrusted cock rings. Lol. The arguments over his language and use of slurs continues. Half the time his language is for shock-value, half the time the line is actually not saying what the critics are saying it’s saying, but his irony doesn’t “play well”. But sometimes it’s grotesque and aggressive just for the sake of getting a rise out of people. If he wasn’t so good with the pen as he was flinging insults, people wouldn’t get so upset. It’s like Dave Chapelle, a polarizing figure who sometimes says shit you aren’t supposed to say. There’s a difference between an incoherent rando ranting and slobbering ugliness on the sidewalk, and someone who can actually put words together, clever airtight phrases. Words are just words, yes, but they can also be dangerous. Propaganda shows us that. Eminem truly does not feel they are dangerous, they’re just words, not a Code for How to Live Your Life. It’s like Swift’s A Modest Proposal. It still feels dangerous: you read it and worry that someone might take it seriously, not picking up on the satire. These arguments about Eminem have been going on for 20 years and – even with things like him supporting gay marriage publicly, with comments like, “There’s no reason gay people shouldn’t be as miserable as the rest of us”, or, less jokey: “I say so much shit that’s tongue-in-cheek. I poke fun at other people, myself. But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I’m glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves” – the arguments over language continue, and will continue to … continue. He’s just one of those figures.
During the early aughts, Eminem was a blonde Tasmanian devil jumping off tour busses and then jumping back on, flipping everyone the bird, selling out stadiums, causing absolute mayhem in the crowds. The first Rolling Stone profile of him (1999) was an extremely memorable piece, and provides a vivid picture of how weird this all must have been and how fast it happened. (Mathers is described as “a class clown with a lot on his mind” which I think is very good.) Mathers has a couple days off, so he and the reporter head back to Detroit. Mathers is dying to see his daughter. His videos are all over MTV, he’s selling out shows, and he still lives in his mom’s trailer. He comes home to his trailer park, with reporter and Kim in tow, holding Hailie in his arms, and there’s an eviction notice taped on the trailer door. It’s like he’s still at “Rock Bottom” in some alternate universe … or, it’s hard to let “Rock Bottom” go when you suddenly catapult into the stratosphere.
He was, for sure, an enfant terribles(TM) and he was treated – literally – like a national crisis. Like a Red Alert Defcon One crisis.
The criticisms and “constant controversies”, including being denounced from the Congress floor, didn’t make a dent in what was happening: he just got bigger … and bigger … and bigger …
The Eminem Show (2002)
And this was when everyone got on the bandwagon. This was when soccer moms got on the bandwagon. I think Maureen Dowd even wrote a column about it. This was when grandmas got on the bandwagon. This was when you heard “Without Me” blaring from every radio in every store, blasting out of every open car window. This was the album that tipped him over from just hip hop into … something else entirely.
Something that doesn’t get a lot of mention: The Eminem Show is one of the best post-9/11 albums, and by that I mean the albums that came out directly in the wake of the terrorist attack, 2002-3. The Eminem Show is haunted by the towers, by the clouds of war, by Anthrax, by terrorism. There were other people who “reacted” to 9/11 in song – Bruce Springsteen in particular (Springsteen again!) – but for me The Eminem Show is the best. Maybe you’d have to have lived through it to feel the jittery year following 9/11 in every track. There isn’t a bad track on the album. He is now famous around the world, so he raps about being famous – this started in Marshall Mathers LP (see: “The Way I Am” – the quote in the title of this post, by the way, comes from “The Way I Am”). He’s so huge he can’t leave his house. He raps about the controversies. He is defiant, unrepentant. There are two songs about Hailie, one of which she appears on. (Eminem and Kim got divorced around this time – for the first time – and Kim spiraled down in a big way, and Eminem sued for -custody of Hailie. The couple now share custody. I can’t keep up.)
Regular themes: drug use, fame, why he’s popular (“Parents are pissed but the kids love it”), his wife, his child, his various beefs. It includes enduring hits like “Till I Collapse” (in most Em fans’ top 5 Eminem tracks ever – it’s certainly in mine).
“Without Me” was a huge hit. The best thing is, it’s a diss track in disguise, a diss track with a light-hearted humorous irresistible beat. The whole point of the song is: “Everyone hates me, yeah. But picture the game without me. You can’t. It’ll feel so empty without me.” He starts with a frank admission:
I’ve created a monster
‘Cause nobody wants to see Marshall no more
They want Shady. I’m chopped liver!
The video is one of his best. It’s pure silliness. The bitter message is there, but it’s covered up in MADCAPPERY. He does pratfalls in his superhero bodysuit. He can’t let the Moby thing go. He plays his own mother appearing on the Sally Jessie Raphael show. He electrocutes Dick Cheney. He plays 1970s-era Elvis, breakdancing in his bathroom at Graceland. He plays Osama bin Laden, dancing to “Without Me” in his cave in Afghanistan. Eminem is out of his mind.
The Eminem Show also includes “Sing for the Moment,” “White America”, “Soldier”, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, and the mighty “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” where he aired the “skeletons” of the abuse he experienced at the hands of his mother. He regrets the song now, which he admits in “Headlights,” the sequel song from years later – with music video directed by Spike Lee. But “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” stands as one of his greatest accomplishments. You want to know why his fans love him? Watch the “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” video.
He may regret “Cleanin’ Out my Closet” now but it was where he was at at the time. He always says that: It was where I was at at the time, but I’ve changed, and here’s a song showing my change. It’s irresponsible in so many ways, roping his family members into the worldwide spotlight, putting them on display when he has all the power and they have none. He has eventually admitted to these mistakes in recent songs, but so many people are so turned off they haven’t stuck around to see the change. (And, to repeat myself, that’s FINE. If you read any of this and feel like I’m pressuring you to check him out, OR that I’m saying that people who hate him are wrong: you’re mis-reading me. I write enthusiastically and passionately and I write about stuff I think is fun to write about. And then someone says, “Is it okay that I will never read Ulysses?” Kiddo, I don’t care WHAT you do. Don’t take me so personally. I’m writing about what I want to write about.) On The Slim Shady LP, he made a crack about his mother’s drug use and she sued him for $10 million. Her own son. From “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”:
How dare you try to take what you didn’t help me to get?
You selfish bitch, I hope you fuckin burn in hell for this shit.
Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me?
Well, guess what. I am dead. Dead to you as can be.
Eminem is not PLAYING. And then the chorus is him singing over and over “I’m sorry Mama, I never meant to hurt you.” The emotions are wild, the pain totally unmanaged – the song IS the “managing” of them. The video includes shots of him bursting into tears, falling to his knees, praying in church (God is a presence in many of his songs), digging a grave (is it for him? for her? or maybe he’s not digging to bury something, he’s digging something UP, all those skeletons) and screaming up into the rain, his whole body heaving with hurt. (This is something a lot of people don’t catch with him. I wrote about it in my piece on “Kim.” People hear the rage and miss the hurt. But he’s putting the hurt right out front.)
The Eminem Show brought him not just controversy at a white-hot level – with Tipper Gore and Lynne Cheney spearheading Congress to put Parental Advisory stickers on all his albums – but into the upper echelons of Iconic Fame, a place where few artists ever go.
8 Mile (2002)
The same year as The Eminem Show was 8 Mile, directed by Curtis Hanson, based on Eminem’s early years and how he got his start. The same YEAR. It didn’t feel like overkill at the time. He was so huge that the hunger for him was insatiable. So The Eminem Show comes out, and it dominates the charts, and “Without Me” becomes this gigantic dance-party hit, like a pop song, on the radio in constant rotation. We were not even done dealing with The Eminem Show when 8 Mile arrived. I felt like I went into Eminem Mode for a whole year, and it was 2002, a shitty shitty year, so the escape was so welcome. It’s such a good movie, with or without the backstory, and Eminem is a wonderful actor, so much so it makes you wish he had done more. If anything, 8 Mile soft pedaled some of the harshness, particularly in the portrayal of his mother (beautifully played by Kim Basinger), but in general, the depiction of the underground rap battle scene in Detroit – the real purpose of the film – is extraordinary. You really feel like you are there.
As if he didn’t have enough to do, he also produced the soundtrack, with a couple of notable tracks: “Rap Game,” with D12 (his group), “Rabbit Run” and, of course, the anthemic theme song – “Lose Yourself” – which became an instant classic. The second you hear it, you’re hooked into it, and you never “get over” the song. Every time it comes on you start wanting to … trash your apartment or some shit. He wrote it and recorded it in something like a 48 hour time period.
“Lose Yourself’ is Eminem’s thesis statement. Its status is untouchable. It won the Oscar.
Around the time of 8 Mile, he stopped being able to sleep. A doctor prescribed sleeping pills. This is an all-too familiar story. Drugs weren’t recreational, now he needed them to knock him out and wake him up. He has said that his next album – Encore – released in 2004 – was made totally under the influence of all the shit he was taking.
Encore didn’t get particularly good reviews (however, see above: it is still on the fastest-selling-albums-in-the-US list: a testament to the hunger for him at the time). Some of the songs on Encore are … pointless. Now he’s often playful and silly and rapping about stupid shit – he doesn’t always take on heavy subjects … but songs like “Rain Man,” “Big Weenie” (lol) feel like a goof, and that’s it. There’s no engine running underneath them. Some of the songs on Encore are wonderful, showing deeper perspectives on some of the things he had rapped about previously. In some he explores subjects he’s explored before, but I’m not sure why people use that as a criticism AGAINST him. Every long-lasting artist does this?
One of the major tracks is “Mockingbird.”
Around this time, Kim was going through all kinds of crazy shit, making tabloid headlines: drug addiction, a suicide attempt, DUIs, she was literally on the run from the cops at one point, she did jail time. During these years, Eminem adopted two girls: he adopted his niece, who was the daughter of Kim’s twin sister Dawn (Dawn died of a drug overdose). Even more … extraordinary? During one of the times he and Kim broke up, Kim had a daughter with another man. And Eminem adopted HER too, since the biological dad was a deadbeat loser. To underline: He adopted the child his wife had with another man. He refers to them all as “my daughters”. Additionally, his half-brother Nate – much younger than MM – had been taken away by CPS, and was being “raised” in foster care. This haunted MM. He promised Nate that he would get him out of there the first chance he got, and it was the first order of business once success arrived. So he had custody of Nate, too. Just to keep track of the tally: Mathers ended up raising four children, only one of which was his biological child.
“Mockingbird”, on Encore, is addressed to his daughters: he tries to explain what is happening with their mother, and how they don’t need to worry, they will always be taken care of. It is a heartbreaking song, and a heartbreaking video, utilizing real home movies of Kim and Marshall and Hailie in happier days.
People say: God, why is he airing out his dirty laundry in public? Hi, I’d like to introduce you to Art, it seems like you haven’t met before.
“Mosh” is another important track, a rager critiquing the Iraq War, and condemning President Bush.
When he came out with the Trump Rap in 2017, all these people on Twitter were like, “He’s WOKE now?” “He’s political now?” “I’m allowed to like Eminem now?” (First of all: don’t ever let anyone dictate to you what you are/are not “allowed” to like. I know it’s hard. But RESIST.) I read all those Tweets and thought, “Life actually existed before you started paying attention to it. Eminem has ALWAYS rapped about politics, although sometimes in a totally mocking way. He supported John Kerry. He supported Obama. He voted for Hillary. This is all public knowledge. Pay better attention.” I also love “Crazy In Love,” which samples Heart’s “Crazy on You” – and is a love song, Eminem-style, i.e. fucked up, neurotic, wild.
I also love what he does when he sings, “Guess we must be crazy in loooo-OOOVE”. He always says he can’t sing. But he can. This is one of the rare songs where he sings the whole thing. In general, rap purists hate it when he does that. I love it though! Far below in this post, I wrote a “digression” about his relationship/sex songs because … they’re unique to him, and not at all what you would expect of a young hot new male star. “Crazy In Love” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
Despite these stand-out tracks, you can feel him unraveling, losing something. There are a couple of tracks that no WAY would have made the cut a couple years earlier or a couple years later.
Curtain Call (2005)
In 2005, he came out with Curtain Call, a Greatest Hits album with a couple of new tracks. He had only been in the industry for 6 years and a “Greatest Hits” album was already in order. That’s how nuts his trajectory had been.
So many people who become famous so quickly, particularly in the rap game, immediately diversify. They come out with clothing lines, they open restaurants, they do endorsements. Success may vanish overnight, you keep stockpiling just in case. Chris Rock made fun of this in one of his bits: “Stevie Wonder wasn’t trying to be a MOGUL. Everyone’s tryin’ to be a MOGUL now.” Eminem, I think, came out with a line of sneakers – or worked with Nike on something. He donated the money to charity. Other than that, he didn’t go the mogul route at all. Early on, 2001/2, he set up his foundation, and has raised money for youth programs in Detroit, but it gets no publicity so you’d never know about it. Through his foundation, he’s been feeding over-worked healthcare workers throughout Detroit during this pandemic. The only reason we even know about it is a healthcare worker posted a picture on Instagram of the food delivered to the hospital by Eminem. He’s devoted to his city. He’s given millions of dollars to various causes. When the bombing happened at Ariana Grande’s concert, he donated a significant amount to the Red Cross in Manchester, and posted a call for donations on Twitter. His fans responded, donating over 2 million pounds in a couple of days. When he used the bombing as a metaphor in one of his songs (it’s always when he brings in metaphors/similes that he gets into trouble), people lost their SHIT – Ariana Grande fans hit the ROOF – but did you forget that literally 5 months ago the man all on his own set to work probably while the smoke was still rising raising money for those affected? Why do people not remember what happened literally yesterday? We have the Internet, it’s all on record, what has happened to people’s ability to retain what happened yesterday? This isn’t trying to remember what went on in ancient Rome, it happened right in the rear view mirror.
So no, he did not become a mogul. He did not “diversify.” He set up his own record label, he started producing people’s albums. With all the ups and downs, his main focus is writing and recording, staying in Detroit (he never left) and raising his kids. He rarely tours. He’s not going to Fashion Week to oversee the launch of his new line of track suits. NO DISRESPECT to people who go that route. Life’s tough. Get yours. I’m just pointing out he didn’t do any of that, yet another way he’s eccentric.
Things fall apart.
After Curtain Call, Eminem “went away” for such a long time – 4 years – an eternity in the entertainment industry – that it seemed like Curtain Call had actually BEEN his curtain call. We would hear things, we would get glimpses of what was going on, and a couple of pictures leaked – alarming pictures, where Eminem looked fat and very unwell. If you had been “all in” from the jump, and had gotten used to his output, the gap between Curtain Call (which wasn’t even a full album, so the real gap started with Encore) and Relapse – in 2009 – felt endless.
2006 was Mathers’ annus horribilis. Mathers and Kim re-married in January, 2006, after a couple years apart. Whatever was going on with him was not good, because he filed for divorce – AGAIN – on April 5. The dates are important because it was a Clusterfuck of Awful which helps explain later events. We’ve all probably been there, when life becomes a Perfect Storm. On April 11, 2006 – not even a week after filing for divorce, Proof, Mathers’ best friend since childhood, was killed in some kind of shootout in a Detroit pool hall. The event is still cloaked in mystery, and Proof was lambasted posthumously as a thug, which poured salt into the wounds of the community who loved him and knew him as a generous and kind person. He was so much a part of the Detroit hip-hop community. Eminem described him as the “glue” that bound everyone together. A lot of things fell apart when Proof died.
Proof and Eminem
Eminem was shattered by the loss. He has never really recovered from Proof’s death, although he is now able to write about it, to share his feelings. After Proof’s death, Eminem retreated from the world, and his drug abuse escalated. In December of 2006, he did a now-notorious interview with BET where he looks bloated and devastated. Like he’s been crying for days – which he probably had been.
He can’t understand the questions being asked him. He zones out and has to be prompted to answer. 50 Cent, a really good friend, sits beside him, and you can feel 50 Cent’s alarm at the state of his friend, and he keeps trying to help him out, nudging him to answer, filling in the blanks when Eminem trails off, sometimes outright answering for him – all very gently – he’s so obviously trying to protect his friend from being exposed or embarrassed.
Footnote: what Dr. Dre was to Eminem, Eminem was to 50 Cent: when 50 Cent got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this year, he asked both Dr. Dre and Eminem to be there and asked Eminem to give the speech. Eminem so rarely “goes out” to industry events, his appearance really speaks to his love for 50 Cent. It was very heartwarming.
The 2006 BET interview got the gossip rags talking. Eminem was so clearly impaired. I remember watching that interview and thinking, “What is going on with him, I am very concerned.”
After that interview, his friends staged an intervention. He was irritated by their concern, but they were so insistent he get help he went to rehab in early 2007, mainly to placate his friends. When he came out he – unsurprisingly – relapsed. Then, on December 24, 2007, he overdosed on Methadone, and his daughters found him unresponsive on the bathroom floor. He was rushed to the hospital. His organs had shut down. He had violent seizures. He was on a ventilator. He said he felt his soul leave his body and float across the room, a classic near-death experience. His daughters and Kim were around the hospital bed, crying. The doctor told him that if he had gotten to the hospital just two hours later he would have died. But he pulled himself up out of it, went into rehab for real, and began the long road to sobriety. He leaned heavily on Elton John for support. He went to meetings at a nearby church, where other recovering addicts asked him for autographs. All through this, fans did not hear from him. Not a peep. He went radio silent for years. All we knew was he had overdosed. MM also had crippling writer’s block during the final years of his using. I suppose if you’ve been writing/recording while under the influence for most of your life … then finding a healthier relationship to your work process is going to be challenging.
2008 saw the publication of his memoir The Way I Am. The preface is devoted to his friendship with Proof, and he shares how lonely he is without his friend. It’s touching. The book is dedicated to Hailie.
That Christmas, my siblings and I – unbeknownst to each other – all bought it for each other for Christmas. Somehow it all worked out: it was like, “Oh. Well, everyone’s going to need this. So let’s buy it up.” The only other time that happened was with Bill Simmons’ Now I Can Die in Peace, where we each received it for Christmas. I bought it for Jean, Siobhan bought it for Bren, Jean bought it for Siobhan – etc. We sat around on Christmas Day reading Eminem’s memoir which, by the way, has a blurb from Seamus freakin’ Heaney on the front. Listen. People who love language GET Eminem. They understand he’s doing something important. It’s kind of a coffee table book, lots of pictures, snapshots from his own family albums, etc. You know I peered closely at the books he has on his shelves! He’s got a copy of James Baldwin’s Jimmy’s Blues, okay? But best of all, you get to see pages from his famous NOTEBOOKS. I dread the day he “goes,” but I would love to see the publication of a facsimile of his crazy notebooks.
After these difficult years, newly sober, he started writing again. And suddenly (well, it felt like “suddenly”) he came out with a new album called – ever the provocateur – Relapse. The cover image is his face made from a pile of pills. Poke the bear, Marshall!
Relapse has some good tracks but you keep waiting for him to settle the fuck down and TELL us some shit. Or at least I do. Enough with the goofy accents, enough with all the “characters” – we want to hear where you’ve BEEN, man! In a lot of the songs, he’s playing people other than himself – serial killers, psychos, sex fiends – and this was probably a catharsis for him, but maybe it also was a way to shield what he just went through from our eyes. He wasn’t ready yet, maybe. He does the OPPOSITE of going “confessional” on Relapse – which, of course, was his right to do. The different accents irritated people. Also, everyone missed his SPEED. The raps were slow. Deliberate. In a recent interview, Eminem said he went back and listened to Relapse and wondered why the fuck his friends didn’t tell him to lay off the accents. All of that being said, I love the sillier songs on here. I love when he goofs off, when he’s playful. “Crack a Bottle” is great – a collab with Dr. Dre and 50 Cent, who both get verses to themselves, with Eminem singing that ridiculous juvenile chorus – “bitches hoppin’ in my Tahoe-e” – it’s so catchy it makes me laugh out loud. You have to sing along, but when you sing along you’re saying stuff like “Where’s the rubbers? Who’s got the rubbers? I notice there’s so many of them and there’s really not that many of us …” I can understand parents not wanting their 12-year-olds to be singing that shit at the top of their lungs, but I’m a grown woman, I can handle it.
I also really like “Stay Wide Awake”, even though he’s singing in some weird … French? accent about stalking and killing women. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing with his voice there, but I do like that song, and the rhyme scheme is BANANAS.
Eminem felt rushed to put out Relapse. Some of the rhymes are not up to his standard of complexity. He was just throwing shit at the wall – it probably felt good to just be DOING it again. But it’s definitely a spinning-his-wheels album – the only one on his discography that feels that way. I listen to it, and I feel like he’s hiding, protecting himself. He’s not going to bare his soul until he’s damn ready.
He was ready on the next album, 2010’s Recovery.
This was the sober Marshall, feeling grateful for his life, for clarity of mind, AND for the fans who stuck by him. Recovery was the #1 album in the US in 2010, just to give you an idea of the scope, if for some reason you don’t remember what happened yesterday, or weren’t paying attention.
The opening song “Not Afraid” is a self-empowerment anthem. If you had been with him since Slim Shady, it was like stepping into an alternate reality. It’s practically a Bruce Springsteen song, for God’s sake. (And that’s a compliment.) In their famous interview, Anderson Cooper asked Mathers, “Could you have pictured writing a song like ‘Not Afraid’ 10 years ago?” Mathers said, “No way.”
Still, he cautioned, “I don’t want to go too far in that direction.” He needs us to know he’ll never lose his edge! There are some fun songs on Recovery too: a party song (“white trash party”), a couple of relationship songs (his relationship songs are always anxiety-provoking and volatile), some potshots at other rappers (of course) and the gigantic hit “Love the Way You Lie”, done with Rihanna – about an abusive and yet addictive love relationship, something both Mathers and Rihanna know a little bit about. Recovery was a smash hit, with fans and critics alike.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)
Almost middle-aged now, he started looking backwards, at the albums that made his name. It makes sense. I talked a lot of shit back then. Maybe I should see what I have to say about all of it now. His next album was called The Marshall Mathers LP 2, a callback. Even the cover was a callback, except in the new album, he was no longer in the photo and the house – one of the actual houses he lived in as a kid – is boarded up and condemned.
This was such a major moment for us fans. First of all: how ballsy is it to come out with a sequel to the album that made your name, that will be in the history books for all time? He had been through so much in the intervening 13 years, he wanted to go back and re-visit all that material in a new way. The albums talk to each other. It’s an opportunity to look at where he was in 2000 and where he was now, 13 years later.
It’s also an opportunity to really perceive how much he has grown, lyrically, structurally. Here is where he really started to go insane with the compound syllable/double entendre/word play thing. It had always been there but … he jacked it up starting around here. And now it’s almost completely out of hand.
“My metaphors are so complicated it takes 6 minutes to get applause” – Eminem, “Nuttin’ to Do”
He thinks about rhymes in almost a four-dimensional way. If you first listened to Eminem’s later albums, and then go back to listen to his first three albums, you will definitely see the difference in stark clarity. His early stuff wasn’t simplistic – it was always witty, and his imagery was always insanely vivid. It’s just that Eminem’s penchant for creating striations of meaning with almost every single word didn’t really start coming into play until around here.
— The opening track is the absolutely astonishing “Bad Guy,” a sequel to “Stan,” maybe his greatest song. “Bad Guy” is told from the perspective of Stan’s little brother Matthew (mentioned in the original song), who blames Eminem for his older brother’s death, and has now come to Eminem’s house in the middle of the night to exact his revenge. (I wrote about this song recently, because a stalker actually just DID break into Eminem’s house. AND the stalker’s name was Matthew.) “Bad Guy” is a jaw-dropping song and – for my money – the final verse is (maybe?) one of his finest hours – not just the writing but the performance of it. The first time I heard the song I literally didn’t breathe during that final verse. So it was a bold opener. Bold, too, to do a callback to “Stan” – the bar is so high. But that’s MM’s jam: trying to reach the bar he himself set, and – if possible – top it. “Bad Guy” does not top “Stan” – nothing could – but it’s a brilliant track. It’s brilliant on another layer too: He speaks throughout as “Matthew” and in so doing – in that last verse particularly – he addresses nearly every one of the criticisms launched at his music and him through the years, and because he’s speaking as “Matthew” – the criticisms stand. He – Eminem – does not defend himself in this song, does not rap about the First Amendment, like he always does. He – Eminem – is not allowed to speak. And in silencing himself, he acknowledges the bad karma he has created by not giving a fuck about other people’s feelings, he acknowledges he has hurt people – entire groups of people – and even though you really don’t have control over how people “take” you – by muzzling himself in that final verse, he acknowledges that that’s a copout. In a way, when Matthew arrives to kill him, Eminem acknowledges he has it coming. It’s very intricate what he’s doing here.
— “Rhyme or Reason” is addressed to his absent father, the first of its kind, although his dad had come up a lot through his other songs. Here, he goes direct. It’s the twin to “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” In “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” he “took out” his mother. Now it’s time to take down dear old Dad.
— “So Much Better” has a super sick chorus, really catchy, and I find myself singing along and then laughing out loud because the words are so brutal. (See, maybe that’s the key to why I’m into him. His brutal shit doesn’t really get to me. And this is a brutal song about women. Shrug. I don’t take it personally.) “So Much Better” could be about a woman – but it also could be about the pull of drugs. This is usually the way it goes with him: songs sometimes go on two completely separate tracks, and they make sense either way.
— “Survival” — is massive. A song to rock the arenas. It’s a flex. And the sound is ENORMOUS.
— “Legacy” is gorgeous. Turn it up to 11. To me, “Survival” and “Legacy” feel like they go together. This is the trauma survivor talking. He’s pissed, but he made it out. And it’s the thing about his DELIVERY: how much he is IN whatever emotion it is. It’s not particularly pleasant or relaxing – ever – but that’s his gift.
— “Asshole” – with hook by regular collaborator Skylar Grey – is one of his “Everyone fucking hates me, I’m a villain” songs – it’s part of the fuel that lights his fire.
— “Berzerk” — This is raging rock ‘n roll, a dance-floor type of song, a slam dance kind of song. I’m not sure what exactly is going on, still figuring it out, but he is talking SHIT about everyone.
— “Rap God” — This song really should need no introduction. It exploded like an atom bomb into the landscape. It’s a FLEX at what they call “mumble rap” – the new trend – mumble rap is all about the beat, and “nobody” cares about “lyrical rappers” anymore. Which MM is one. MM is very irritated by mumble rap. He was like, “Okay. So you all don’t care about lyrics anymore? Suck on THIS.” It’s that obnoxious. But he got himself into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most words said in the shortest amount of time (which he then proceeded to BREAK in “Godzilla”, which came out early this year.) He was like, “Fuck all this mumble shit. Here are some WORDS.” And if you’re exhausted by the first four and a half minutes … just wait. The video is a hoot too. Here are the lyrics, if you want to (try) to keep up. And also hear what the hell it is he is saying. Here’s an awesome video made by two Reactors I also frequent on YouTube, where they break down all of these bars. It takes them an HOUR. Listen, Eminem fans don’t mess around.
There is no point to the song except as a flex at people who dismiss him for being too wordy, who make fun of him for reading the dictionary (they literally do mock him for this, like … way to keep your bar really low, people), who dismiss the importance of lyrics in general. There are so many rappers coming up, though, who push themselves lyrically, and Eminem has been a huge part of that.
To prove the point I kept trying to make way above: Eminem loves Lil Wayne and has collaborated with him often. Eminem may be the funniest person who never ever smiles.
— “Brainless” is about being an abused child, picked on by everyone, and “look at me now, bitches.”
— “Stronger Than I Was” is told from Kim’s perspective (poor Kim): it’s his way of stepping into her shoes and owning his shit, seeing what a nightmare he was in her eyes. If “Bad Guy” was the sequel to “Stan,” then “Stronger Than I Was” was the sequel to “Kim”. He got a lot of shit for this one, mainly because he sings most of it (I love it when he sings, and he sings the hell out of this), but … the singing seems to be the point: this is Kim speaking, not him. Not my favorite on the record, but still … he’s got balls for attempting it, and there is a lot of emotion in it. How many other people would even attempt this? Write a song about how awful they are, sung from the perspective of their ex-partner? It’s wild. You cringe a little bit. But that’s him. You cringe. Sometimes you’re like “Maybe cooler heads should have prevailed…” But. Yeah. That’s not him. No cooler head exists.
— “The Monster” – another duet with Rihanna (I think they’ve done 3 or 4 total). This got major radio play, launched him even further into another fan base entirely – the Rihanna fan base (which I felt strongly when my sister and I went to go see the two of them in concert) – and it’s a great pairing. Make friends with the monster under your bed. You can take that any way you want.
— “So Far” is very funny. It’s so light-hearted even though he’s rapping about his irritation with his own unmanageable level of fame – so it’s basically a light-hearted sequel to “The Way I Am”. He samples Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” which is so perfect I can’t believe he hasn’t done it before. My favorite line, sung to the tune of “Life’s Been Good” (and he does a pretty damn good Joe Walsh imitation): “Got friends on Facebook all over the world / Not sure what that means, they tell me it’s good.” Why does this make me laugh? It’s so human. He is not into internet shit. Recently pictures emerged of Kim showing him how to use his phone. Like, that’s the level we’re at. What’s so great about “So Far” is he uses his regular tactic of calling himSELF out. Everything the critics say about him – he’s rich and powerful, why is he still whining? – he puts into the song, into his own mouth, lampooning himSELF. He said in an interview, “The whole song is me complaining about things I really shouldn’t be complaining about.” And I love this line, and have stolen it for my own use:
I’d count my blessings but I suck at math.
— “Love Game” – with Kendrick Lamar doing a verse (Eminem absolutely loves Kendrick) – is …. the funny thing is: the beat is sweet, almost a puppy-love-song beat – you bounce your head to it, it gives you a good feeling, a sweet feeling. But then … you listen to the lyrics. Still: this is a love song. Here’s how Eminem sings about love:
I confess I’m a static addict I guess
That’s why I’m so clingy, every girl I’ve ever had either says
I got too much baggage or I’m too fuckin’ dramatic, man what the fuck is the matter? I’m just
A fuckin’ romantic, I fuckin’ love you, you fuckin’ bitch!
Listen to the shit he’s admitting about himself. If you don’t get thrown off by the last couple of words … which is clearly just a joke, juxtaposing “I fuckin’ love you” with an insult … he’s telling the truth on himself big-time. He admits: I. Am. A. Nightmare Boyfriend and Person in General.
— “Headlights” – an apology to his mother – an emotional maelstrom. Listen to his PERFORMANCE. Sometimes his songs are just about the word-play. The whole point is to break apart his multiple meanings. Some songs are him showing off his skills. Other songs – like this one – aren’t about the word play at all. It’s about the story, and his performance of the story. He is overwhelming here. (Reminder: music video directed by Spike Lee.)
— “Evil Twin” is a fantastic performance from him – all about how lonely it is at the top. Everything is fueled by rage. He’s a fucking maniac.
Then there were bonus tracks:
— “Don’t Front” — This is the kind of thing where people are like “Why is he so angry?” “Why does he keep rapping about rap?” I covered that above. The rap scene he came out of is all about disses and competition.
— “Baby” – one of those songs where he goes after EVERYBODY. It’s a warning to anyone who comes for him. I mean, think about it. What’s Ja Rule up to these days? [Crickets.] My point exactly.
— “Desperation” – this song is FIRE. One of Eminem’s songs about sex and wanting sex. Eminem’s sexy “I want you” songs are unique, he includes the weirdest un-sexiest details. So in this song: he wants this woman BAD. He LOVES her body, mm-mm-MM. He’s in HEAT for her and she’s coming over for a hookup. And the music is pure rock ‘n roll. The music is pure sex, and he’s in that cock of the walk Robert Plant zone. Then in the verse: he reveals that he called her job and spoke to her BOSS, asking if she can take a day off from work to be with him. LEARN BOUNDARIES. Imagine how freaked out you might be if you were the woman in this scenario. Dude, I need this job. We fucked once, why are you CALLING MY BOSS?? (Down below in the post, I go into how he includes details like this in most of his sex songs.)
— “Groundhog Day” – He goes back to his lonely childhood and how he found his release in music. It’s a memoir song.
— “Beautiful Pain” – If I’m reading this right, it’s about emerging from addiction. Like a phoenix.
— “Wicked Ways” — another one of those flex songs. One of those “You do not want to mess with me” songs. And you really don’t. Hey, Ja Rule, what’s up?
I’m still plumbing the depths of this album. His lyrics require multiple listens. There are still puns I’m discovering.
Over the next couple of years, Eminem showed up in guest-spots on other people’s songs, and always crushed it. There’s a joke among the YouTube reactors I follow: #EminemGoesLast. If you have a bunch of people doing verses on a song, and Eminem is one of them, Eminem has to go last because he tends to show everyone else up. You forget whose song it is. Go check out Yelawolf’s “Best Friend.” Eminem’s verse is among the best things he’s ever done – both lyrically and performance-wise – and you forget it’s a guest spot. You think it’s HIS song and Yelawolf is a guest star, not the other way around. Yelawolf’s song is about God. Eminem takes his cue from that, and his verse is about God, too, or at least it’s addressed to God, but it’s also addressed to Proof, his best friend up in the sky. Eminem is out of this world here – vocally, for sure, but his performance in the video is also out of this world.
Sometimes his guest spots are where he goes most insane.
Unlike the gap between Encore and Relapse, these years didn’t feel precarious. Eminem was sober, he was doing good, showing up here and there. Then 45 became President. I mentioned the 2017 “Trump Rap” above. But there was a precursor, dropped during 45’s campaign, called “Campaign Speech.” It’s an 8-minute free-flow rant, name-dropping left and right – from Chuck Norris to 45 to Agatha Christie to Edward Norton to Trayvon Martin and on and on. It’s mostly about him and the rest of hip hop (what a shock), but he goes after Trump, goes after Ivanka, Melania – no one is safe.
Of course it generated controversy and not just because of the language – people have always got on him about his language, that’s nothing new – but the politics of it. Like I said earlier, if you had been following Eminem all along, you knew his politics. But like most of us, the election of 45 was a game-changer. There were protests, the Kaepernick thing, the Charlottesville protest, Black Lives Matter, everything. Kxng Crooked, a great rapper and friend to Eminem, said in one of his songs: “White rappers shouldn’t stay quiet”. This hit MM hard. He knew he probably had a lot of 45-supporters in his fan base. So at the 2017 BET Awards, he did a freestyle follow-up to “Campaign Speech” which told everyone in no uncertain terms where he stood.
And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his
I’m drawing in the sand a line: you’re either for or against
And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split
On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this:
As you can imagine, he got so much shit for this. The Secret Service showed up unannounced at his studio to interview him, to ascertain whether or not he was an actual threat to the President. But also, the MAGA crowd went nuts, and many fans turned on him. As MM cracked in a later song, taunting other rappers: – “I cut my motherfuckin’ fan base in half and still outsold you.”
But he was also criticized for this from some corners of hip hop: his flow was bad, the vocab elementary, he looked a mess, it was not his best rhyming, whatever. These people will never be happy with anything he does. Of COURSE the rap was elementary, and not “Rap God” dazzling because he wanted to get the message across, not just to his fans but to people who didn’t listen to him, to 45 himself. He didn’t want anything to distract. The message was more important than the beat/technique. Joyner Lucas references MM’s Trump freestyle on his brilliant song “I’m Not Racist”:
When Eminem went against Trump, that was the illest
‘Cause even though he’s white, he let us know he standin’ with us
Redman, one of MM’s hip hop idols, was interviewed about the Trump freestyle and the criticisms thereof, and he could not have been clearer in his assessment:
So the Trump thing thrust Eminem into the center of a firestorm, his favorite place to be. Right after, a couple of tracks as well as a track list leaked for his new album, Revival, scheduled for release in December, 2017. So finally. Let’s talk about Revival.
He’s always been a provocateur but Revival was different. It would not be correct to say that Revival is more “personal” than his other work, because it’s all personal. But it is definitely introspective, pained, regretful, and it’s so raw and honest some of the tracks are, frankly, difficult to listen to. He was 27 years old when he became famous. It’s 20 years later now. A lot’s happened. If he kept being Slim Shady over and over again, he’d be just a gimmick, the Andrew Dice Clay of rap. But an introspective man howling with regret, acknowledging how sick he is of his own self-pity, his love for his children, his love for his dead friend … as well as addressing the issues facing us in Trump’s first year in office – and addressing them in a serious way … this Eminem wasn’t at all what people – many critics, many fans – wanted from him. Now look, I will not overstate this: Revival still went to #1 immediately upon its release. Eminem could release a track of him snoring and it would go to #1. That’s just the way it is. But the majority of chatter around Revival was “… what the fuck is this.” A couple of tracks leaked ahead of the release, and the reaction was super negative. The track list leaked and the reaction was negative – people were having a negative reaction to songs they hadn’t even heard yet.
Here’s what I think happened, in part: people saw the track list and saw all the non-hip hop collaborators – all the POP MUSIC collaborators – and not only that but most of them were WOMEN – people like Pink, Alicia Keys, Kehlani, etc. – and dismissed it as “trash” (they were literally calling it “trash”). I dislike assigning motives but people saw that list and were like “He’s gone soft.” Could the presence of all those female songbirds have something to do with why these “macho” music critics sneered at the album, before they had even heard it? “WTF is this pop shit.” was the reaction. Fear of vulnerability to women? Oh and Eminem collaborated with Ed freakin’ Sheeran on the album too! (It’s a great collab, a really interesting relationship song, one of MM’s most mature, which I’ll get to.) So the album was trashed before it came out.
I was completely baffled by all of this once I heard the album, which – of course – I bought the day it was released. I think Revival is one of his best. In my opinion, Revival will have a revival, it will rise to the top of his discography where it belongs, in terms of critical assessment. Time will vindicate Revival. Critics will regret sleeping on this one.
Yes, it’s not a rap-heavy album, so that was a risk but … I don’t know. I appreciate any artist who keeps taking risks. Sometimes their failures are FAR more interesting than other people’s successes. Eminem has always been brave enough to admit less than positive things about himself. There’s nothing bad you could say about him that he hasn’t also said about himself. But what he’s revealing on Revival, particularly in the opening track, is new. It felt scary, listening to it. I felt worried for him, the way you do when you watch someone admit a vulnerability and you know the crowd is going to go AFTER them for it. He’s now actually thinking about mortality. 45 years old. It’s the time. Life won’t last forever. His relationship with fame has always been fraught with anger, as grateful as he is for his success. But now he admits it hurts getting older, being ignored by younger people, how much it hurts to be dismissed, not understood. I cringed, listening, thinking, “Oh shit. You reveal this soft underbelly, you admit shit like this, about how hurt you are at not being at the top, your ambivalent feelings about growing older, about being ignored by younger people … yikes, Em, people are gonna pounce.” And they did.
But here’s another thing, and this is me admitting something about myself: We’re only a couple years apart in age. We came up in the same era. We are the last generation to grow up without the Internet. We have been ignored and passed over by the behemoth generations on either side of us. And because we are Gen X, we don’t really care about being ignored. To quote Kurt Cobain, “Whatever. Never mind.” I like us. Every generation has good points, bad points … but I am talking now as a Gen Xer: I feel comfortable with my generation, because we’re all growing up together, we all have had different experiences, but there’s a commonality there: we all were in our 20s together, 30s … checking in with Gen X stars, as they go through the same-ish shit we’re going through is part of what it means to “identify” with a pop culture figure. And so Eminem’s anxieties about being ignored because of how old he is, being dismissed before he even says anything because “who cares, you’re just an old guy, fuck you” is something I FEEL and I fucking RELATE to. But I hesitate to say it out loud because I will be pounced on. A friend of mine, who’s a Boomer, said something on Twitter that didn’t pass muster with the younger crowd. Someone Tweeted back at her, “Retire, bitch.” I am sure this person believes that they are lovely and tolerant and progressive. But “Retire, bitch” is the attitude towards older people, PARTICULARLY older women. So when Eminem is admitting all this stuff I mySELF feel exposed. And THAT is one HELL of a catharsis, although it’s an uneasy anxiety-provoking one.
Looked at in another light though: His attitudes here may be the most provocative thing he’s ever done. Because he removed his layers of protection. There’s still a lot of bragging and boasting on the album – it’s who he is as an emcee – but it’s undercut by this deep strain of almost existential anxiety: where am I at right now, what does the future hold, how much time do I have left, what will become of me if no one “gives a fuck about my rhymes” anymore? When the hell did I get so old?
So. Let’s get to it. Revival. Like all great albums, it is a journey. It should be listened to in order (particularly the last two songs: do not listen to “Castle” and “Arose” separately. Listen to “Castle” and “Arose” in order. That’s an order.) The album starts out raw, moves to anger, stays angry, lightens up, then careens into a politics, then retreats into the personal, then back into political, then back into the personal … and on and on it goes. This is his life now: angry, scared, aware, grateful. The album closes out in a one-two punch (“Castle” and “Arose”) that left me gasping for breath the first time I heard it. The second time I listened to the two songs, I started crying – yes, because of the story he was telling – finally – but also because of his PERFORMANCE of those songs. My GOD his performance in those songs. The album ends and you have to lie down.
I thank the YouTube commenter who observed that the first line of the album is “Why are expectations so high?” and the last line of the album answers the question of the first line: “Now I know.” This is Eminem’s brilliance, and Revival‘s brilliance.
He launches it with a track unlike any other in Eminem’s entire discography.
1. “Walk on Water”
A heart-crushing collab between MM and Beyoncé. She sings a gorgeous hook (written by regular MM collaborator Skylar Grey), about how she walks on water “but only when it freezes” and goes on to explain – and it’s breathtaking:
cuz I’m only human
just like you
Making my mistakes
oh if you only knew
I don’t think you should believe in me the way that you do
cuz I’m terrified to let you down…
I literally gasped the first time I heard this song. Underneath Beyoncé you can hear MM muttering to himself and crumpling up drafts and tossing them aside. He raps about his insecurities, his feelings of pressure, of feeling like he’s getting old, admitting his flaws – fearing the day when the crowds don’t show up anymore. Listen:
Will this step just be another misstep
To tarnish, whatever the legacy, love or respect
The rhyme has to be perfect, the delivery flawless
And it always feels like I’m hittin’ the mark
‘Til I go sit in the car, listen and pick it apart
Like, “This shit is garbage!”
Eminem has revealed a lot about himself over the years. He is clearly competitive, and is competitive mostly with himself. When he’s interviewed, he comes off as very humble. He still, to this day, shouts out the greats who inspired him. In his memoir, he mentions how he’s never 100% pleased with what he’s done. He’s always listening after it’s out there, and wanting to tweak, fix things he thinks he’s missed. But to say it in a song, and the lead song of his new album … that’s next level honesty. Basically you’re “asking for it” if you reveal something like that. They’re coming for you. “Walk on Water” is the opener and he is accompanied by a superstar diva global phenomenon, reminding her fans that she sure as hell DOES walk on water “but only when it freezes,” just like the rest of us. People trashed this song. It’s not the MM they wanted. Oh well. You snooze you lose as my Dad says. Like I always say, there is such a thing as a wrong opinion.
If you hear this song as just another Eminem track launching shots at other rappers, you’re missing what he’s doing. Underneath all of it is the same anxiety coursing through “Walk on Water.” It’s in the same scarily vulnerable state, the chorus worrying: “Do you still believe in me?” He’s furious. He’s always furious. He admitted in a recent interview that as fucked up as it might sound he is happiest when he’s angry. Anger is a comfort zone. And this, too, is honest, but it’s the kind of honesty that is not self-flattering – and this is key to “getting” Eminem. People think honesty is great, but they don’t really: a certain KIND of honesty they get behind. But past a certain line, they start judging.
If you write personally, as I do, then you know when you cross the line. I wrote this huge long piece once about a painful breakup (understatement): The breakup happened, and then I got on a flight, face literally puffy from crying, and my journey home was the most nightmarish travel experience in my whole life: it felt like the universe was a sinister cackling entity (I was not at all well at the time), conspiring to deny me the comfort of home, comfort, in general. It took me a full day to get from Chicago to my door in Hoboken. A taxi driver ended up having to take care of me emotionally I was so out of control in the back seat. I was undiagnosed then. I was clearly (in retrospect) having a major episode, and there was a point – on an empty train platform – when I felt the pull of suicide, and had to call a friend to stay on the phone with me. I wore out every single person I met in that 24 hour period. It was a beast that piece. Some people responded well, but others were like, “Jesus Christ, this was long, you need an editor.” One guy said, “No wonder that guy broke up with you. Here’s a hint: Guys don’t like all this drama.” The piece was years ago and I still remember that comment. I revealed my sadness about this breakup, how much I longed for this man. This guy went for the jugular and attacked those very vulnerabilities I just revealed.
That’s what you get when you are honest about the moments when you are truly weak, when you lose your balance, when you are honest about behaving badly, and, worse, providing context for bad behavior. Nope. Not allowed anymore. The only thing we care about is you behaving like an asshole. Context is irrelevant. Well, there goes the majority of literature, I guess. There goes the possibility of forgiveness or grace or change. You’re either good or you’re bad for all time. There’s a kind of honesty which brings sympathy. “Here’s the hard life I had.” “I was a nerd who was bullied in school.” “I struggle with anxiety.” People hover around you cooing sympathy. In fact, they love you so much that in my opinion it no longer qualifies as “brave” to admit you didn’t fit in in high school, or you had dark thoughts as a teen, or whatever. But if you are honest like “I totally over-reacted in this situation. I behaved badly with this person. I did not handle my emotions well that night”? Look out. The crowd is coming for you. Because they are all perfect and they never behaved badly, and if they did, they would never admit it. “Believe” features a ferocious performance from Eminem, but pay attention to the lyrics, pay attention to his rhyme patterns and various schemes.
Just one example of how he uses schemes. Eminem fans are familiar with this, and part of the fun of his stuff is discovering his schemes and how he draws it out with word play, puns, double meaning.
So close, God, it’s like I almost got it
But close only counts in time, bombs and horseshoes
So I Unabomb shit—tick, tick, tick—no remorse, pew!
Screw it, I’m lit, and that attitude I blew up on quick
That’s why they call me firecracker
I grew up on WIC—wick, wick, wick—with a short fuse
I got some important news to report to
Anyone who thought I was done: nah bitch, not quite
Spotlight’s back on, got my faith, where’s yours?
The scheme here is twofold: the imagery all has to do with time and with bombs. (And you put “time” and “bomb” together and you get … timebomb.)
“Close only counts in time, bombs and horseshoes.” Lol. Being “close” doesn’t count in life – you have to “get it”, otherwise, who cares? Close only counts in time, bombs, and horseshoes. With bombs, you gotta come close to your target. With horseshoes, you gotta come close when you toss that thing. Otherwise it doesn’t count.
He moves on with the time/bomb theme: He’s the Unabomber (with his pen: most of his violent imagery, about murder or bombs or whatever is not literally about murder or throwing bombs: it’s about killing you with his rhymes). So he’s the Unabomber with his pen – the bomb goes “tick tick tick” – which also sounds like a clock ticking – Now he’s “lit”, he “blew up”, he’s a “firecracker” – he “grew up on WIC” (i.e. the federal assistance program for Women, Infants, and Children), but “WIC” is also the “wick” of a bomb, the lit fuse … Okay, so you see the obsessive weaving going on here. The whole song is like that. Yes, he’s showing off his inventiveness but also, honestly, it’s just how his mind works. He’s probably always just sitting around thinking up schemes and working them out.
This has Phresher on the hook, and should not be confused with the “Chloraseptic Remix” (released a month after Revival dropped, and which was a furious response to the negative reaction to the album, as well as the opening salvo in what would eventually be Kamikaze). This first version is clearly directed at other rappers, maybe a specific one? I’m not sure: he’s calling someone a “has been”, and bragging that he’ll beat him in the ring every time, any time. The cadence is so complicated you have no idea what he is going to do next. It’s full of change-ups. Suddenly he’s all staccato, breaking up words in weird places – just so you catch the rhyming compound syllables (if Eminem marries again, it will be to a compound syllable), and he’s basically spitting out the words, with contempt, fury. The fury here, though, is NOTHING compared to the “Remix” version, which I’ll get to later.
The scheme here is one of throats. You speak through your throat. You make yourself heard via your throat. But there are all kinds of other connotations MM explores through the song.
I’m at your throat like chloraseptic, ‘septic
And you got strep, I’m too complex with, ‘plex with
This shit I wrote is on some next shit, next shit
I’m at your throat, I’m feelin’ reckless, reckless, yeah
“Strep” and “complex” – complex meaning “strep complex” but also being “complex” with rhymes. He’s “next shit” with his “complex” rhymes, he’s “at your throat” with those rhymes, feeling reck(wreck)less. Once you hear the “remix” though it’s impossible to listen to this without feeling like it’s a dress rehearsal for the rage bomb that would descend with the “remix”.
Eminem got a lot of shit for this one. He also got a lot of praise. In terms of public narrative, it’s almost like “Untouchable” came out too early. On the flipside, if it came out now, it would seem like it was too late, like he was hurrying to stay “relevant.” So let’s underline: “Untouchable” is about police brutality, Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick’s protest, as well as systemic racism, and it came out in 2017.
In this climate, in the first year of a divisive presidency… to have one of the most famous rappers in the world, and a white rapper, call it out was major. People criticized the song’s flow (or lack thereof), the rudimentary rhythms. Like with the Trump rap, Eminem made a choice to simplify everything: back in 2004, in “Mosh” – another relatively un-complex song – he says:
Let me simplify the rhyme just to amplify the noise
I read a comment over on YouTube from a guy in the military who is a huge Eminem fan and he said, essentially, “I was disgusted by Kaepernick’s protest until I heard this song. This song made me take a closer look and changed my mind.” I can understand people’s criticisms of this song – but again, on the flipside, Eminem has power, he has a huge white fan base: that comment is at least one confirmation that it did make a difference.
There were others who criticized “Untouchable”, like he should “stay in his lane”. He’s been in this lane before, though, although not so explicitly, and not where he thrust himself into the perspectives of the different sides. “Shaq”, one of my favorite YouTube reactors, listened to “Untouchable” and said, “I don’t hear a man who is clout-chasing. I hear a man who has been paying attention.”
5. “River” [featuring Ed Sheeran]
This one is my latest obsession. I go through waves. Right now, I’m all about “River.”
Maybe I’ll take a second to talk about Eminem’s history with relationship songs and songs about sex. Because it’s why “River” made me sit up in my chair and think, “Wow, wait a second, what’s going on here?”
Digression in re: Eminem’s songs about relationships/sex
When he started out he rapped very personally about his wife, and usually in negative terms. But she was the only one on his mind. This has continued to be true for years. He’s never had any other significant relationship. She was it. It really is for better for worse. And by worse, I mean, WORSE. So “relationship” songs on his tracks were usually about his crazy marriage. In recent years, he’s come out with a couple others, like one about dating someone who’s only into him because he’s famous, rock star stuff like that. But in general: in the Marshall Mathers Matrix, relationships = Kim. We’re all used to it by now, and I am sure Kim is beyond over it. More on Kim in a bit because there is a doozy of a song on Revival about her, where he drops the pose of “Stronger Than I Was” and really owns up to his shit. It’s a long overdue apology.
Another category of “relationship” song is the “I’m out partying and having sex with a bunch of hoes” type of song. “Bitches hoppin’ in my Tahoe” and etc. If you listen to a lot of rap, you know the diversity that’s out there. Rap got stigmatized with the “gangsta rap” label, with the notorious videos too, but it was such a small sub-set of what was going on (and a lot of gangsta rap is great, too). But it can’t be denied that a lot of hip hop features men bragging about their sexual prowess, AND displaying carelessness about womens’ feelings. Basically: suck my dick and get the fuck out. (Honestly, it’s not just hip hop that’s “guilty” of this. I mean, Aerosmith? The Rolling Stones? Everyone? Male rock stars have been bragging about their prowess since rock ‘n roll was invented.)
A lot of this comes from not wanting to show vulnerability, not wanting to admit that a WOMAN (yuk!!) has any influence over you … and this is one of the things Eminem up-ended, challenged. Here comes this peroxide blonde psycho, rapping about just one woman, over and over and over and over again. His relationship songs are suffused with anxiety and insecurity. His sex songs, too – or the lack thereof. I am thinking and I am coming up with maybe 8 or 9 sex songs, and in such a massive discography that means it’s really an absence. A lot of rap artists focus on sex solely, with lots of preening about how much action they get. Eminem just does not do that. He very rarely brags about how awesome he is in bed. In fact, (and so sorry for this gossip rag shit, I can’t help all the stuff I’ve absorbed over the years) a couple of women have kissed and told to tabloids about sleeping with him. The stories corroborate, making me think there might be some truth to it. Commonalities: he was a great kisser but was uncertain about everything else, needed her to take the lead – which, honestly, isn’t even a criticism I don’t think, especially since it’s clear from those stories he understands consent – and of course these women may be lying through their opportunistic teeth. So what does Eminem do in response? He comes out with a song where he proclaims, “They say I’m no good at sex, oh well.” lol. Other men would hear rumors about how they were bad in bed, and come out with the Braggiest Song Ever about their prowess. Eminem puts the rumor INTO a song and makes a joke out of it, where he’s the butt of the joke. That’s power.
The whole Mariah Carey back and forth was kind of boring to go through as a fan – everyone was sick of it long before it was over – but in the diss song he wrote about her, he actually described (and treat every single bit of information he provides with DEEP skepticism) how he came too soon during sex. I mean, thanks, but I really didn’t need to know that, Marshall. He told his shame before she could. He wants to control the narrative, but NOT by bragging or covering up – he controls the narrative by telling the worst of it. Now she has no ammo to use against him if he’s already told everyone THAT. Listen: the man is very strange. I don’t know what else to say. You poke him with a thumb tack, he comes back at you with an Uzi. (There’s a line to this effect in the recent “Godzilla.”)
Like I said, there are songs where he’s all about getting sex – but they are few and far between, and the vibe is usually humorous and slap-happy (I love boobs and ass! yay!), as opposed to grown-man sexual come-ons. One of the exceptions, mentioned above, is “Superman”, off The Eminem Show, which is a “love ’em and leave ’em and I don’t care” song, and the video is very sexual, lots of skin, him taking his shirt off, him unzipping his fly, being callous about all the women throwing themselves at him.
“Superman” includes a line of double-standard contempt: “we just met and I just fucked you.” Which … if you are familiar with his work, this just doesn’t … sound right. Not that he isn’t rude about women, he often is, but he’s rude in a different way. Sometimes he’s outright hostile. Sometimes he’s a psycho! But that line makes him sound very young to me, young and inexperienced – but I get the sense he’s not aware that that’s how it makes him sound. It’s like he’s pretending to be someone else. He’s bragging, but he’s showing me something else. I’m “going off” here, it’s just always been my gut feeling about “Superman” that it’s not coming from an entirely truthful place, that it’s a put-on – but (rare for him), Eminem isn’t aware it’s a put-on. HE feels like he’s on the level. The song lacks IRONY – which also makes it stand out, since he uses irony so regularly. He doesn’t have many songs like “Superman”. It’s not his thing. He said later – and this is so typical – “Superman” came about in part because he had broken up with Kim (one of the lines of the song is “I’m single now!” and in the video he shows his bare ring finger) and he was sowing his wild oats, and basically proclaiming his independence. But even in his Declaration of Independence, he mentions Kim! It’s like the whole song’s a Fuck You to her. These two wear me out.
In general, at least as presented in his songs (I want to make that clear: this is just me close-reading his lyrics) he’s too hyper and insecure to pursue women in a confident adult way, let alone a smoldering Lothario way. I don’t think he has it in him to present himself as a sex symbol, without parodying the IDEA of a sex symbol or making fun of his own attempts.
See also the the video for “We Made You”, a song which may be not his finest hour (he himself has name-checked “We Made You” as something he’s ashamed of), but the video is very funny. It’s a time-capsule of 2008-2009. He parodies everyone who’s “of the moment”: It starts off with him as Bret Michaels, doing a parody of that ridiculous reality show Rock of Love (and honestly, he looks hot with long blonde hair and a cowboy hat), but then he also portrays a self-important douchebag on a date with Kim Kardashian (look at his behavior starting at around the 1:12 mark. He is a CLOWN), he mocks John Mayer – being all earnest-sexy with a guitar – he dresses up as a lumberjack in order to fuck Sarah Palin – he’s Amy Winehouse’s husband Blake – shown making out with “Amy” in some truly disgusting closeups – he is Britney’s K-Fed, he’s Spock wreaking havoc, he’s Spock as Norman Bates, he’s Tony Romo grinding on Jessica Simpson. He’s Elvis in Jailhouse Rock. NONE of this has a point. But it’s entertaining because it’s Eminem pretending he’s sexy, making a big deal out of how sexy he is … and of course it’s ridiculous, and he knows it, and we’re all in on the joke, AND we can all share a laugh over all the people he’s mocking. This is his wheelhouse when it comes to sex – and it’s pretty niche, I have to say, especially in a male star of his stature.
He’s a sexual mess, all contradictions. He does not peacock around flaunting his sex skillz. Instead, he admits all kinds of stuff about himself, stuff men work hard to hide, especially in the mostly macho field of hip hop. When he’s writing a hook-up/sex song, he includes details other songwriters would never include. Like being dehydrated. Like feeling insecure and self-conscious. Like getting all caught up in his head even as he pursues her across the room. Like needing breath mints STAT. Like being clingy. It’s a one-night stand, my dude, you need to relax.
Let’s discuss the clingy thing, especially since he calls himself “clingy” in “Love Game”. He calls himself all kinds of things in “Love Game.” He admits to getting attached to women way too fast – and it shows up a lot in his songs. “Fast” as in “Immediately.” Love and sex are conflated – you really have to listen to him a certain way to get this. But it’s there, it’s everywhere. (It shows up blatantly in 8 Mile too – which, I get, is a fictionalized version of him – but bear with me as I riff. My friend Jen and I talked about 8 Mile after we saw it, and she said, “He and that girl – they fucked once – why was he flipping out when he saw her with that other guy? Did he really think she was his girlfriend?” I mean, I think … yes. He did. He fucked her and that means something to him. I am just going off how he writes about himself, this is just interpretation: Mathers doesn’t just assume women will be into him – in fact, it’s the opposite (I always think of him sobbing, “You think I’m ugly, don’t you?” on “Kim”) – and this is one of the reasons why fame was such a mindfuck – NOW all you bitches want me?? I’m not trying to make this sound romantic or like “Look how sensitive he is” – I think he KNOWS it’s not romantic, it’s neurotic and a real problem – he chases women away with this shit.
It’s the unexpected part of him, especially alongside him screaming “slut bitch cunt” and etc. It always seemed to me, especially in light of songs like “Kim” or any of the other songs where he references her – the epithets could be seen as his way to grab some control back over these fucking maddening creatures who have so much power over him. Maybe it takes a woman to actually perceive this duality, and/or say it out loud, I don’t know. If a man made this observation, he might get lambasted. I might get lambasted too. I’m not JUDGING Eminem for any of this, by the way. I am not “weighing in” like some moral arbiter of whether or not his attitudes are correct or socially acceptable. We’re all human, we’ve all got shit. I’ve got issues too, many of which are similar to the shit he describes in his songs. I think he’s speaking a truth lots of men feel, lots of women perceive, and people don’t really admit to this stuff. So, for example: back in “Drug Ballad,” (which he calls his “love song”) off Marshall Mathers LP, it shows up:
This ecstasy’s got me standing next to you
Getting sentimental as fuck spillin’ guts to you
We just met but I think I’m in love with you.
Compare that to “We just met and I just fucked you” in “Superman” (on The Eminem Show, just a year later). What a difference a year makes. The line in “Drug Ballad” just strikes me as closer to the truth of it. You can blame the ecstasy, okay. But he’s painting a picture, he’s showing us who he is. Or at least part of who he is. Let’s add to the formula: Love/sex/DRUGS conflated – this is a common theme/device, which he exploits linguistically (more and more as the years move on, sometimes stringing out the word-play throughout an entire song, so that you can’t tell if he’s talking about love/sex – conflated for him already – drugs or the rap game. He’s very good at this.)
In another song, he gets a girl into bed and then checks her phone while she’s out of the room, reading the text messages from some other guy and getting jealous. He met the woman 2 hours ago and he’s confronting her like, “WHO’S JEFF?” This is portrayed in the beautiful video for “Space Bound”, co-starring Sasha Grey (her presence of course got everyone blabbing). He has a couple of acting moments here that are particularly vulnerable. One when he’s in the car, listening to her talk. The way he looks at her, in general. There’s something … soft there. They’re headed to a motel, so … it’s a hookup, but the man cannot relax. Then, a bit later, stopping for a bite to eat, he can’t stop himself. He peeks at her phone. He’s into her now. Who is she texting? Why isn’t her focus on me? I’m inadequate, I can’t satisfy her, I need her to think ONLY about me, what other guys has she been with?, would she rather be with that guy? who made her smile like that when she glanced at her phone? I have to be the only guy in her life … I mean, that’s what’s happening here. Anti-violence groups protested this video for some of its scenes – sigh. Yes, there is violence but it’s not there for shock value. It’s there because this is where this guy is at. Loneliness makes people this crazy. The song isn’t an ENDORSEMENT of this kind of clingy-gone-bad behavior. It’s an interrogation of it, it’s a presentation of a very real emotional thing that happens. It’s a Travis Bickle scenario, something I think Eminem knows a LOT about, but instead of murdering a bunch of people, he murders with his pen lyrically. In the video: the man is split: there’s the soft listening vulnerable man in the front seat, there’s the raging man in the backseat, refusing to get hurt again. (And … I just need to point out the man uses the words “blood-sucking succubus” in the song.)
Eminem is telling on himself here. Telling on yourself like this is vulnerable. Oh forget it, you get sick of trying to explain this to people.
This is not flattering stuff. Women run screaming from this kind of behavior. It’s too much too soon! He gets hysterical. He’s overly-involved way too fast. He’s possessive – inappropriately. Okay, fine, get mad your wife cheated, but don’t get mad that a woman you just met has text messages from another guy on her phone. All of this does not add up to “What a manly STUD.” It’s the opposite. It’s neurotic.
This is yet another reason why his fans stick with him, why he’s the powerful figure he is. Because he admits shit like this, shit we all feel, shit we DON’T admit to.
But when he does brag about sex, he brags BIG, and it’s usually in the context of a metaphor or simile for something else (which, as we have seen, tend to cause problems for him). Some of these sexual bragging images are so outrageous that firestorms of controversy erupt around them. For example:
“Medicine Man” (2015)
Eminem said one sexual thing in his CRAZY guest-spot verse on Dr. Dre’s “Medicine Man” (on the Straight Outta Compton soundtrack) that made headlines, with victims advocate groups issuing statements, Twitter in an uproar, etc., and one word of the line is still censored. (I’m glad they just left it like that. I’m sure MM would have pulled his verse if they demanded he change the line, and they’d rather have him on the soundtrack and censor him than not have him on there, particularly because of the Dre connection with Straight Outta Compton – AND that at the end of the film they include clips of Eminem talking about how Dre changed his life. Eminem had to be on that soundtrack: he is part of Dre’s legacy. And LET ME JUST POINT OUT: Straight Outta Compton is about N.W.A.’s battle against censorship, Straight Outta Compton has a scene where the police warn N.W.A. before a concert that if they play “Fuck the Police” they will be arrested immediately … and then Eminem strolls into the booth – for DR. DRE’S TRACK, not even his own – to record a song for the soundtrack for a movie ABOUT Dr. Dre and ABOUT freedom of speech – and proceeds to say something so fucking insane it has to be censored. I mean, the irony is rich.) I saw a video with a guy analyzing the lyrics and he said he thinks that Dre and Em decided to censor that word on their own, to make the line sound even dirtier and nastier. I approve of this message. I’m pretty hard to shock but that line shocked even me and yet it’s so clear what he was doing. I’m not posting the lyrics on my site because I don’t want to be spammed by porn-bots from Belarus, but I do want to point something out, to show the method to his (legit) madness. So here’s the song with lyrics.
And if you listen, don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s really bad.
Listen to the words of the chorus. When these guys go into the booth to create something, there’s usually a hook in place to bounce ideas off of. Every song has a theme, and it’s usually established by the hook. The rappers create verses to comment on/speak to/elaborate on what the hook says/suggests to them.
So, first of all: the chorus is a graphic sex metaphor, F-bombs and all. It’s not ABOUT sex, but it’s using sexual language. So Eminem went off what was in the hook. He listens to language very closely. His line – the only sexual line in his entire verse – fits with that chorus, loops his verse back into the hook. It’s brilliant in that way. (Boy, I am determined to make so many new friends with this post!)
Second of all, it’s a ferocious performance from him and it’s one of those rhymes that when it arrives – after a relentless buildup – it feels inevitable, wrong as it is. And it is wrong in every way possible! Even the YouTube reactors I follow, men who grew up on the roughest hardest rap lyrics there are, wince when they come to MM’s line, pause the video and shout, “WHAT THE FUCK.” One of my favorites and regular pitstops – No Life Shaq – leapt out of his chair and backed all the way across the room, to get away from those words on his computer screen.
Member what I said about how MM’s sickest lines early on garnered the respect of those who understand rap, real emcees, other artists, people who came from the underground scene? They knew that a line like that would win any rap battle. Nobody could top it. Game over, drop the mic. That’s the whole POINT of battling and emceeing, to come up with lines like that. And of COURSE he doesn’t mean it. But boy, what a rhyme!
And lastly: the song isn’t about sex at all, it’s about the rap game and their own status in it. MM’s line is a metaphor for the whole scheme of his verse – and like I said, when MM uses metaphors he gets into trouble, it’s where he’s often the most shocking and people take the statement literally, and if you point out it’s a metaphor they will say “Well, he shouldn’t have used that as a metaphor” or “It doesn’t matter” and at that point I just give up. In “Medicine Man,” MM addresses the criticism he gets for his lyrics and how he decided early on that “opposing you [i.e. the critics] is what I’m s’posed to do.” So then he ends up the whole thing by spitting maybe the sickest thing he’s ever said (and that’s saying something). It’s almost like: “This line is specifically for the critics I just mentioned above. I am now going to say the worst thing I’ve ever said, just for you.” It’s a killshot. It’s: You have been trying to silence me for 21 years and you have FAILED. Also: you hate me but you just can’t stop talking about me, can you. Just ignore me and get on with your lives if you hate me so much. But you can’t do it, can you. No one is immune to my power, not even you.
The line before THE line is:
Non-believers there ain’t none.
There’s a double there: “none” is also “nun” – which connects thematically with “non-believers” which then leads into the sexual metaphor that crosses every line in existence.
In other words: in Eminem-Land it’s Tuesday.
Back to “River”
There’s a killllller hook by Ed Sheeran, and Em’s rap is very much like a country song, one of those “story” songs, like “Jolene” or something. You listen to the words, and the situation unfolds like a movie. A woman is married to a man who fucks around on her, comes home to her at night with scratches all over his body from the sex he’s had with some other woman. The woman uses Eminem – or the narrator Eminem’s created – to get revenge on her husband. Eminem is happy to comply, but he doesn’t take it seriously as relationship-material. She’s using him and he’s using her, in other words. The difference is: he knows better. He knows she’s fragile and he knows she’s trying to get payback – and cooler heads should have prevailed. (See above: no such thing.) Then she gets pregnant with Eminem’s baby and he pressures her to get an abortion. He’s a pawn in the game of this couple’s relationship. He feels regret, he doesn’t know how to break it off with this woman, it seems like she’s way too into him, and he’s not into her in that way. He has to basically say, “I was just having fun, sorry you took it so seriously” (ouch). It’s a classic case of miscommunication, and unintended consequences resulting from what should have just been a fling. The song is epic. It’s also an acknowledgment of the realities of sex, even casual sex, and how women pay the price, and how men can be careless about that, and cruelly indifferent to what they helped create (a baby).
“What’s one more lie, to tell our unborn child?”
I am racking my brains to think of another song in this particular vein in Eminem’s discography and I’m coming up dry. (His latest album, released early this year, has another intriguing relationship story-song on it, too – so if this is a new direction he’s going in, I am all for it. It’s fascinating, since for 20 years it’s been Kim Kim Kim constantly.)
One of the things that always gets me about Eminem is not just his word play or the stories he tells, but his performances and the passion and feeling he puts into what he’s doing. I consider his songs to be acting performances. I wrote about this at length in my piece on “Kim.” And that is certainly the case in “River.” It’s a painful song and he – the male character in the song, the “I” of the song – does not come off looking good at all. He – the songwriter – is on HER side throughout.
Also: the video is phenomenal. I love how they made it like a small documentary. He gets to act too. He’s so good. So is she.
Let’s take a tiny moment to enjoy his wordplay:
So she’s been on the web lately
Says maybe she’ll be my Gwen Stacy, to spite her man
Pretty simple but still, pleasing, how he draws the Spiderman analogy out.
“She’s been on the web” – the Internet, checking her husband’s Internet chats, looking for who he’s cheating with. “the web” – Spiderman.
“Says maybe she’ll be my Gwen Stacy” – Peter Parker’s love interest
“to spite her man” – pretty self-explanatory – she’s using him to “spite” her husband, but if you glide the words together you hear “to spiderman”. “She’ll be my Gwen Stacy to Spiderman.”
Classic Eminem. He can’t stop himself.
6. “Remind Me” [Intro]
Just 26 seconds long, leading into “Remind Me” – and coming off “River” – we hear this kind of ominous beat, with a chorus chanting “Ah-ah … ah-ah …” It’s a very big sound for a 26 second long song. But you’re coming off the whirlwind of “River,” and that big sound continues, with Eminem saying:
You drive me crazy
You may be crazy too
You make me do things
I normally wouldn’t do
You make me feel things
That I never felt
It gotta be the real thing
‘Cause you remind me of myself
So we’re staying in relationship mode, but the mood has shifted. I love the narcissism of the last 2 lines: “It’s gotta be the real thing / ‘Cause you remind me of myself.” Everything is a mirror. This is also one of those things most people would be hesitant to say out loud. “I love you, you remind me of me!”
Which leads us to:
7. “Remind Me”
This is one of his Sex songs, one of his few “Let’s go to bed, girl, and go crazy” songs. With some typical Eminem eccentricities. He samples Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” (swoon), which gives the song a huge sound and a positive sexy vibe, rare for him, and switches up her lyrics so he sings “I love YOU, ’cause you remind me of me!” Maybe you have to be a certain kind of person to find this funny. Welcome to my club if this makes you laugh. It’s the sort of thing you usually hesitate to say out loud because it sounds so vain. But there’s that deeper thing going on, like: “I am nasty and weird and people don’t get me – but you seem nasty and weird too – so I recognize you – and I am really really into this.” I don’t know, I relate to this. It sounds like my one and only love-at-first-sight experience. We didn’t meet each other. We RECOGNIZED each other. I now know to run like hell when this happens. It may be explosive sexually and otherwise but you’re gonna burn each other up and burn both your lives to the ground. So … I really get that part of him, and why he sings about sex in the weird codependent way he does. Also, he’s just … funny.
So come and spend the night with the guy most are terrified of
But tonight, curiosity overrides ya
Besides you’re fire (I love) like a starter pistol
Crystal and slides huns, tonight I’m your pilot
‘Cause you should be up in the sky, girl
You’re so fucking fly, you belong in the mile high club.
Neurotic honesty again, in the middle of a one night stand:
So come on, baby, the night’s young
Don’t string me along, I’m high-strung.
“Hey, come have sex with me, your ass is amazing, I’m so high-strung.” lol And also: “We’ve just fucked and I am now in love with you.” Nightmare.
He also spends a verse of the song keeping his cool, setting boundaries: “I want sex but mi casa is not su casa, don’t get comfortable, you won’t be here long.” But then he ends the song saying “I’m falling in likeness with you.” (Again, a pun: “falling in like” but also “falling in like with my likeness”. Someone is giving mixed signals here and it ain’t her.)
This might be one of the most positive “relationship” songs he’s ever done.
Back to the album structure: after the first 5 songs, we NEED this break, this fun-loving sex break. Especially with where he is headed next.
9. “Like Home” [featuring Alicia Keys]
I remember the first time I listened to this song. I was in my car, on some road trip, and I listened to Revival start to finish. It was that listen that made me a “stan” of the album, because I sensed its structure, I could feel how the songs were talking to each other, how he kept the mood diverse, always switching it up, you never knew what would come next. And as I listened to “Like Home,” driving along the Garden State Parkway, I got emotional. I realized what he was singing about, and he was saying what I was feeling, and Keys’ gorgeous accompaniment of him was incredibly emotional, particularly in 2017, the first awful year of the latest administration: Keys is the counterpoint to MM’s anger, she’s holding up the idea of “home”, to stay safe until this virus has left our body politic. I lost it when he mentioned “Heather” (Heather Heyer), as well as starting the whole thing off about 45 banning trans people from the military “with a Tweet”. He growls that line. Like Shaq said: The man pays attention and he is furious. It’s the follow-up to his Trump rap, it’s a national anthem, it’s us against 45. “HE’S TRYIN TO DIVIDE US” he screams. His fury on
But you ain’t ruinin’ our country, punk
This one doesn’t really need any bar breakdowns, but he covered every single thing that had been on my mind, on the minds of so many people. It made me cry. It still makes me cry.
At this point, Eminem is on a mission to alienate every single one of his fans who still supports 45.
10. “Bad Husband” [featuring X Ambassadors]
After the swerve into the political, he swerves back to the personal. We’ve had a relationship story song, we’ve had a neurotic one-night-stand song, and now … of course … because he can’t help it … he’s back to Kim. I don’t know if any of us saw this song coming. Maybe we thought “Stronger Than I Was” was his attempt at a “Headlights” kind of song, where he apologized to his mother and “took back” “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”. Maybe we thought “Stronger Than I Was” was his attempt to “take back” the song “Kim”, where he fantasizes about killing her. Yeah, maybe take that one back, Em. Also, he and Kim got divorced in 2006. 11 years earlier. What on earth is there left to say? Well, “Bad Husband”, with X Ambassadors singing the chorus:
How come, how come, you can be a liar and a good father?
A good dad, but a bad husband?
And then Eminem:
But I’m sorry, Kim
More than you could ever comprehend
Leavin’ you was fuckin’ harder than
Sawing off a fuckin’ body limb
Once upon a time were all we had
Maybe that’s what drew us
To each other, it was true love
Shit, we never knew was possible
We might have loved each other too much
And maybe that’s what made us do what
We did to each other, all the screw-ups
‘Cause you always thought that you was
More in love with me
And I was thinkin’ I was more in love than you was
Eminem fans everywhere were like: “Holy shit.” I mean, you’d have to be an idiot to look at all the horrible songs he’s written about her and think they come out of just hate. You don’t hate someone like that if you don’t love them. Just to give some perspective, and I’m not defending any of this or endorsing it or whatever, I’m just stating the facts: when Eminem wrote “Kim” – maybe the scariest song to ever appear on an album loved by 13-year-olds – the two had broken up, and Kim was keeping him from seeing Hailie. She was also seeing someone new. Eminem wrote it in a rage. The two ended up talking, and he gave her a heads up – I wrote this crazy song about you, I was really mad when I wrote it, I don’t feel that way anymore, but it’s going on the album, wanna hear it? He played it for her, and her response was to take him back. They got back together, and got married soon after. So … take that for what it’s worth.
The tone of his voice throughout “Bad Husband” is filled with anguish, self-loathing and the love he still has for her, and trying to just forgive their younger selves for being so fucking batshit and putting each other through so much. “We’re not bad people, we were just bad together.” The understatement of the century. She beat the shit out of him once, and he admitted he “laid hands on her” too. “Girls, your dad’s a scumbag …” he sings to his daughters.
In my opinion, it’s a breathtaking song. Maybe some people are sick of the whole Kim thing. Okay? But … he’s him, this is him, he’s a personal artist, this is at the extreme end of confessional and if you’ve been following along all along, it was quite something to hear it for the first time.
11. “Tragic Endings” [featuring Skylar Grey]
On the surface, this seems obvious. It’s a love song, it’s about a woman, it’s about falling in love, losing your bearings, etc. Pretty cut-and-dry. But nothing is ever cut-and-dry with Eminem. At least not in his mature period. Skylar Grey, with her beautiful voice, starts us off:
I’m stumbling, I can’t see straight
And it’s my fault I got this way
I got my hands on something great
And found a way to mess it up
I did my best, I tried to change
But it’s just in my DNA
I got my hands on something great
And found a way to fuck it up again
Now I’m the one thing you couldn’t hate more
But you’re the one thing that I would die for
Later she sings:
I’m dying to breathe
And all you do is strangle me
Such a beautiful relief
‘Cause I’m so drunk off tragic endings
In Eminem’s first verse:
Cause I feel like I’m a piece of shit every time she yells at me
Selfishly addicted, definitely doesn’t help that she
Makes me feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven
But makes life a living hell for me
She does that thing with her lip, now she’s melting me
I’m putty in her palms, I’m wrapped around her finger
A yo-yo on a string, she lets me sit there and just dangle
Until something better comes along
And she’ll just drop me like a hot potato
I look like I’m in pain, but I’m okay though
‘Cause I know she loves me—my friends, what do they know?
He paints a pretty vivid picture. The woman has all the control in the relationship. She yells at him but he loves how she makes him feel. She also makes him feel like shit. His friends – who have clearly been telling him the whole situation is bad news – don’t know shit. She LOVES him, he’s sure of it. In the next verse comes the excoriating confession:
In my moments of weakness
I openly admit the shit I wouldn’t normally
I’m extremely self-conscious and enormously
Insecure and she uses it to torture when she torments me
The song goes along in this vein. This woman is messing with his head, he’s so into her she’s bad for him, he can’t walk away. The song totally works if you listen to it as a song about him and a woman.
But shift the lens just slightly. Take the cues from the language throughout, they’re all there. This is Close Reading, which Eminem requires. “stumbling” “can’t see straight” “drunk” “falling” “addicted” she makes me feel like “heaven,” she makes my life “a living hell,” “when I’m up she’s a downer” “there’s just something about her / That makes me not able to function without her.” I mean, and it goes on like this. I think this is not about a woman at all. I think it is clearly about his relationship with his addiction. Once I shifted the lens, it’s the only way I can hear it now.
But like I said, it still works if you think it’s about a woman.
He maintains entire songs, sometimes, on two totally different meaning-tracks. It could be one, it could be the other, it could be both.
Think about where “Tragic Endings” is placed. Think about the song it comes after. During the entirety of his romantic relationship with Kim – which lasted from the late 80s until 2006 – one or the other or both were doing drugs. Or drinking too much. He’s just apologized to Kim. A real apology. He’s owned the shit he needs to own, and you can still feel the love he has for her. In a way, “Tragic Endings” – with its “is this about a woman or is it about drugs?” – is the perfect companion piece. Kim is a woman but she was also his drug. He said it in another song: “You’re my reason for living.” Uhm, pressure? So here, he’s talking about his addictive personality, and how his addictions do have a romantic and sexual context, a very common feeling among addicts.
As far as I’m concerned, Revival is 11 for 11, at this point.
Welcome back to the stage, Slim Shady, ya FREAK!
This could be listed under the heading: “Eminem Shows His Obsession with Serial Killers.” “Stay Wide Awake” and “3 a.m.” are also in this category. People act like an obsession with serial killers is some weird niche thing. Or that it means you “admire” serial killers. I guess these morons have somehow missed the fact that True Crime is a bazillion dollar business, and there are entire cable channels devoted to evil sadistic crimes. I would imagine MM’s obsession is like most people’s obsessions: it’s fascinating to try to get a glimpse into a deviant mind, it’s intriguing to wonder what the world must look like for that person, it’s interesting to ponder what it would be like to go so hogwild. I think, too, that he may see a potential road he could have gone down, if he hadn’t found rap. I also think imagining himself into these psychos’ shoes is cathartic for him. He can let his evil imagination run wild.
He lets Slim Shady out of the closet in this horrorcore murder-fest. The language is extremely complicated, he raps very quickly, and it’s filled with compound syllables rhyming all over the place. In my opinion, that’s what he’s most interested in in “Framed”: flexing his language skills.
Second murder with no recollection of it
Collectin’ newspaper articles, cuttin’ out sections from it
Memory’s too fucked to remember, destructive temper
Cut my public defender’s jugular then stuck him up in a blender
Another dismembered toddler discovered this winter probably
‘Cause the disassembled body
Was covered up in the snow since the month of November oddly
I’m wanted for questioning
Them son of a bitches probably just wanna pin this on me
Follow along and listen for the number of words with “uck” and “eck” sounds. That’s one rhyming pattern. Another pattern is “em” or “en” sounds, running on a parallel track. The rhymes at the end of the lines are the least interesting part.
It’s easy to get sucked into the story of his songs, or his performances. Sometimes, though, I force myself to filter all that out, and just listen to what he’s doing with the rhyme patterns. It’s always so fascinating.
13. “Nowhere Fast” [feat. Kehlani]
Kehlani’s chorus: “We’re going nowhere fast.” Steeped in the darkness of the world, of America. References to terrorist attacks, to the world ending, mass shootings … The world is going up in flames, we might as well embrace the moment, the moment is all there is. In a certain light “seize the moment” is positive and empowering. Here, it sounds a little desperate, a little last-stand. The outside world is very much a part of this album, just like 9/11 was very much a part of The Eminem Show.
I also wish I had thought of this line, and will now proceed to use it left and right?
But if at times my heart it seems like it’s in the wrong place.
It’s probably ’cause it’s on my sleeve.
After following a wandering and bipolar (I get to say that) path through politics, obsessive relationships, grandiose bragging, mournful apologies … now it’s time to let off some sexual steam. Like I said, MM’s “let’s get it on” songs are few and far between, and they’re usually so entertaining because of the lyrics, the outrageous puns, the weird incongruous details he includes, and the overall happy playful vibe. But THIS one is especially special because Eminem samples for the chorus, THIS:
I can’t take it. Eminem sings and raps the SHIT out of this – it’s aggressive sexually – which is actually good to hear – enough sexual neurosis, man! take charge, she’ll love it! – but then, suddenly, when the chorus comes in, instead of that power and horniness continuing, we get these reedy-thin male voices trying to harmonize tentatively: “feel feel feel … my heat …”
It makes me laugh every time I hear it.
The song is a rager. He is on the prowl. He wants this woman BAD. He stalks her through a convenience store. He brags about himself, how he’s gonna give her the time of her life … and the LYRICS. Pure shock value, but clever shock value. The middle finger line is particularly good, and (I’m sorry I know I’m a terrible person) I also love the first verse, where he makes a shocking connection to 45, a man he despises, and connects up all these images, using a cat theme (or … a pussy theme), and it’s one of those things where you laugh WHILE saying “Oh my God, this is so not funny.” That’s Slim Shady. The whole song’s a sexual brag BUT … in case you’re in danger of taking it at face value, in comes the chorus with those two weak falsetto male voices whispering “feel feel feel my heat” and forget it, I’m DEAD. With that, Eminem undercuts the entire damn song, like he usually does in his “sex songs”. In his rap songs, he out-and-out brags. In his sex songs, he brags with an ironic wink. He’s a “rap God” not a “sex God.”
He starts “Heat” with:
Lady, you remind me of my raps on that Relapse shit
Cause you got an ass thick as them accents.
Member what I said 12 years ago about how irritated everyone was with all the accents he used on Relapse? Dying.
This is hard-core word-play, it’s fast as hell, you can barely keep up with him. It’s a flex, for sure: every line has multiple puns, imagery, metaphors, and it’s all happening at lightning-speed. If the last song showed his tentative “feel feel feel my heat” thing about sex, then here, when he’s mouthing off to his (total lack of) competition, there’s zero tentativeness. This is his thing as an emcee. It’s part of the deal with coming out of a competitive environment. I’M THE CHAMP, BITCHES. And listening to this tongue-twister it’s hard to argue. I’m still studying the lyrics on this one. It’s one of those songs where if a line seems pretty straightforward, if it seems to be saying what it’s saying and that’s it, it just means you haven’t worked it out yet. Keep digging.
16. “Need Me” [featuring Pink]
Now this is REALLY interesting. He and Pink have collaborated a bunch of times. She appears as a guest on his songs, he does a guest verse on her songs. I think there have been 4 collabs so far, but I may be missing some. I am pretty sure it started when he asked her to do the hook on “Won’t Back Down” on Recovery. She, because she is brave and smart, said, “Yes. I will do it but only if you return the favor on one of my tracks.” He said fine. Go, Pink. You have to at least ASK. She was talking to Entertainment Weekly about getting Eminem to rap on her song “Revenge” and I love her description:
I sneak-attacked him. Max [Martin] and I started making ‘Revenge,’ and I wrote this rap. We were drinking a lot of wine, and then I went home and I thought more wine would be a good idea. I emailed [Eminem]. This is why they call it liquid courage. And I said, ‘You know I love you. I like that you work with a lot of the same people, like Rihanna. She’s hotter than me, but I’m funnier. So I’m going for a rap Grammy, and I’d like to take you along with me.’ It was this long email, and he wrote back right away and just said, ‘Okay.’ I emailed him again. I was like, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever heard! I want to tackle you and rub your face in the dirt!’ He just wrote back and was like, ‘Okay.’
One-word replies to long gushing wine-drenched love letters.
So there’s a history there. He’s on her song “Weekend.” He’s on her song “Revenge.” She’s on his “Won’t Back Down” (a great track), and now she shows up here on Revival in “Need Me.”
Why I say this is interesting is because: I haven’t put a stopwatch to it, but it feels like she’s on “Need Me” just as much as he is. She isn’t just singing a chorus, she’s singing a whole song, and it feels like he’s guest-spotting on HER song, as opposed to the other way around. I find this a fascinating choice, and at first I was like, “Wait … where is HE in all of this?” And he does do an extensive rap eventually, but you still always feel HER in it. (This is rare. Member what I said about Eminem obliterating everyone who appears on a track with him?) And I am a HUGE HUGE Pink fan. A lifelong Pink stan. I’m always excited when they work together, but my first reaction to this one was a slight sense of frustration. It felt out of balance. It felt like there was too much her.
But I was wrong. This is why he is the artist he is. He puts a song on HIS album, dominated by another artist, a female artist, a female artist who’s not a rapper. He lets her do her thing, and he is basically supporting what she says, providing his thoughts on HER hook. I think a lot of people were bothered by this song for the same reasons I initially was. “Nah, this is a Pink song, this should be on one of HER albums.” Despite feeling that way, though, I noticed that I kept seeking out this song. I gravitated towards it. It took me somewhere every time I listened to it. Finally, I started to re-think my first impression. There’s something really powerful here, really emotional and relatable.
This is a love song, end-stop. (In my opinion. Everything is up to interpretation.) And it’s a certain kind of love, where you feel like you can’t go on without that person, OR you feel responsible because that person couldn’t go on without you. Need and love are indistinguishable. I have no idea myself how you untangle those two things. Pink sings:
The carpet is burned
I hate to find you like this
I always find you like this
I come home and clean up your mess
What would you do without that?
Why do I always come back? Oh
What I wouldn’t do for you
She wonders if she puts up with all of this because it means “he needs me” (Phone call for Nancy in Oliver!). Classic codependence. Like dating an addict, getting sucked into being “the one” who can help them stay on track, getting addicted to the sensation of being needed.
When Eminem comes in, he paints such a vivid picture it’s practically a short story. He’s embroiled in a relationship, it feels like they’re “raising each other” (Kim? Is that you?), but she’s wilder than he is (how is that possible?) and he’s filled with jealousy and mistrust. He’s on her all the time: who are you calling? Where have you been? She gets in trouble, he has to bail her out and he feels responsible for her: If he leaves her, she might REALLY get in trouble.
I don’t believe in
Going to bed mad, I keep on trying
To make a bad girl good
But haven’t I stood by you in good times?
And bad? I’m starting to feel like your goddamn dad
‘Cause I literally feel like you could die if ever should I
Leave you for good and never would I
It’d be all bad, never understood why they call it goodbye
I love that line. “never understood why they call it GOODbye” – ain’t nothing good about “goodbyes.” “Badbye” more like it.
And so maybe all of her chaos means she “needs him”, and there’s nothing better – or more addictive – than being needed.
I could never turn my fucking back on you—what is that?
I’m co-dependent, I’m just now noticing it
But somehow it’s like every time I’m about to go to end it
I ain’t got the cajones to do it, nor the heart
There it is. He said it himself. “I’m co-dependent, I’m just now noticing it.” No disrespect, MM, but we all noticed it years ago.
Seriously, I don’t know what my problem was the first time I heard “Need Me.” I was so wrong about it.
This is a powerful and complex love song about needing what’s bad for you, for feeling responsible for someone else, for getting sucked into a situation that’s bad all around, but you can’t get out.
“Need Me” is some grown-up shit, in other words.
This whole ALBUM is some grown-up shit, and the more I think about how it was treated upon its release, the more irritated I get.
17. “In Your Head”
The sample for this one is The Cranberries’ “Zombie” – the Gen-X-era anthem (RIP Dolores O’Riordan). So we hear O’Riordan’s haunting voice asking over and over “What’s in your head?” And so this song is Eminem’s answer. It’s about fame – again – the reality of which he has always struggled with. But it’s also all the stuff that comes with fame. Here, he addresses Hailie – his daughter – who was, at the time of Revival, a college student – apologizing for rapping about her so much over the years, it put too much heat on her, too much focus on her. Other rappers perceived Hailie as one of Eminem’s “weak spots” and would incorporate her into their songs (to their peril. Ja Rule destroyed his career by disrespecting Hailie, who was a child at the time.) The Hailie section is important because the next song – “Castle” – takes the form of a series of letters written to Hailie over the years. So let’s say this in another way: Here in “In Your Head” he apologizes to Hailie for talking about her so much, and then in the VERY next song, he can’t help himself, he’s back at it.
There are only two verses and they are not, how you say, “bar heavy.” He’s not flipping and dipping and rappity-rap-rap-rapping at lightning-quick speed, skipping through similes, etc. It is pretty straightforward.
HAVING SAID THAT: I want you to pay close attention to the second verse, the one that starts “It seems to be the reoccurring main theme…” Put aside the emotion he’s putting into it and how he is drawing you into his story, and:
1. Listen to the words
2. Listen to how he’s SAYING the words – because the way he says them tells you how to listen.
This is what he does. He HITS the rhyme patterns vocally – it’s why he can be so exciting as a performer. He PUNCHES his voice on the words or syllables that need emphasis – either emotionally, rhythmically, or linguistically – and in the second verse of “In Your Head” he uses just ONE rhyme scheme. Normally, he does rhyme schemes in clusters – so you’ve got a whole section where he’s rhyming words with “it” in them, and then he’ll move on to another discrete cluster with internal rhymes of “it” but with encircling rhymes of another scheme.
Here, in the second verse, he has just one rhyme scheme – rare for him – and it gives the verse its drowning-man-crying-for-help feeling. The rhymes he chooses are the “ee” sound and the “ing” sound. It’s not just the end of the lines, he doesn’t do it that simplistically – never has, never will. “Ee” and “ing” dominate through every line, every syllable – and he PUNCHES those sounds so you can hear it. He sounds desperate, like he’s gasping for breath, hanging onto the rhyme scheme for dear life. This is why he is so admired by other rap artists. Because he has bars – but he’s got cadence too.
It’s one of my favorite performances from him because he’s doing so much. He’s telling the story AND he’s helping you with how to listen to it and what to listen for.
And it’s a perfect segue into the tremendous emotional experience of the two final songs, which need to be listened to in tandem.
18-19. “Castle” and “Arose”
Two separate songs, but I’ll talk about them together. They go together, and “Arose” at one point literally rewinds itself, going back to “Castle,” the two songs creating a loop, two chapters of the same story. The event at the end of “Castle” leads into the events of “Arose.”
Neither of these songs feature complex word-play. It’s “simple” – for him – but the simplicity has a purpose. Here, the story really IS the thing. You don’t have to pay attention to anything else, or filter anything else out. The song is there to take you on a journey. “Castle” is made up of a series of letters to Hailie, starting when she’s in utero, up through 2007 when she’s 12. So he adjusts his language because she’s a child. The simplicity of the statements and sentiments – in both songs – are blasted away by the power and emotion of his performance – it may be his very best. Listen, I said it in my piece on “Kim”: as an actor MM goes deeper and real-ler than many an A-lister. You almost step back from the speakers. It’s too much. Let’s go back to “Headlights.” Listen to how he says the words “Overwhelming sadness.” There’s a slight pause before he says the words – it’s like where he’s going is too much, it hits him too hard. If you don’t feel what he feels, then … somewhere you’ve decided not to feel it, #sorrynotsorry. The whole thing feels like it’s too much for him to share. William Wordsworth said that poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Eminem (and many others, by the way), say “Fuck that.” Eminem has no tranquility. He doesn’t write from a distance. In his songs, he writes his way OUT of whatever torment he’s in. (To quote a line from Hamilton: Lin Manuel Miranda has said he was mostly inspired by Eminem’s lyrics when writing his musical).
So both “Castle” and “Arose” are overwhelming from a performance standpoint, and there are certain lines I can’t hear without tears welling up in my eyes, and I’ve listened to the songs probably 100s of times by now.
I love you, Bean
Didn’t want you to know I was struggling
But the way he SAYS that already painful line. (“Bean” is Hailie). He screams these lines, bending the words to make them rhyme:
“I love you BEEEEEEEEAN, didn’t want you to know I was strugglEEEEEEEENG.”
This whole entire post has been leading up to “Castle” and “Arose” and I didn’t mean to write this much and I truly expect that 90% of people will have dropped off long ago. If you have read all that I wrote, though, and if you already are an Eminem fan, then you will instantly know the “events” in his life that “Castle” and “Arose” cover:
“Castle”: his love for his daughter, his rise to fame, his descent into prescription-pill-dependence, and it ends with his overdose on December 24, 2007 (the day before Christmas, which also happens to be Hailie’s birthday)
“Arose”: his near-death experience in the hospital and then coming back to life … on Christmas Day, 2007. It’s almost too good to be true, symbolically, but that’s how it happened.
These are the final two songs on Revival. “Arose” IS his actual literal revival. He’s mentioned his drug addiction in song before, of course – On Relapse, he covered these events in “Beautiful” – but we’ve never gotten a blow-by-blow of his hospital time, and what it was like for him on that table, struggling for his life, regretting everything, terrified of leaving his daughters.
Here is something truly nerdy, but it speaks to how carefully Eminem constructed these songs: December 24, 2007 was a Monday. Christmas was on Tuesday. “Arose” ends with the words:
Now a new day is dawning
I’m up, Tuesday, it’s morning
Now I know.
Even though the songs go together, they each have a totally unique sound, nothing like each other, so that when “Arose” literally re-winds the tape – when “Castle” starts up again it’s instantly recognizable what has happened (this is why you must listen to them together).
“Castle” has a chorus/hook. “Arose” doesn’t. “Arose” is one long blended-together stream-of-conscious howl.
So let’s examine each, I put clips to both songs below:
Walking through “Castle”:
In “Castle”, there are three verses, and each one is a different letter to Hailie over the years.
December 1st, 1995: a month before Hailie was born.
December 1st, 1996: one year later, Hailie is a year old.
December 24th, 2007: 11 years later. Hailie is 12 years old.
The first two letters come from the desperate “Rock Bottom” pre-Slim-Shady pre-fame years. The last letter comes post-fame.
The chorus is from Liz Rodrigues, and it’s a haunting lullaby-type sound, with eerily bleak lyrics:
I built this castle
Now we are trapped on the throne
I’m sorry we’re alone
I wrote my chapter
You’ll turn the page when I’m gone
I hope you’ll sing along
This is your song
Then another section of the chorus starts, but it feels like it’s far back on the track, Eminem singing like he’s underwater, trying to be heard:
I just want you to know that I ain’t scared
Whatever it takes to raise you, I’m prepared
To do whatever, to do whatever
And underneath THAT, you can hear Eminem muttering and scribbling, pencil on paper, ending with:
December 1st, 1995, Dear Hailie:
The first letter is filled with the fears of a man about to become a father – a 24-year-old man – and he’s excited and looking forward to meeting her, but also so afraid about his ability to provide for her:
You’ll be coming out of Mommy’s stomach soon
I better do something quick if I’ma be able to support you
I can barely support me, but as long as you’re healthy
That’s all that matters for the time being
He then goes on to tell her he’s been working at music, trying to get something going, but nothing’s happened yet, but he promises her he’ll keep trying. And in this line, his cadence is just a little bit off, there are almost too many words to fit in the space allotted to him:
Let’s see how far I can take it with this music
I’m getting sick of chasing this illusion
Then he interrupts himself, while never interrupting the flow, saying:
Sorry for sloppy writing
The pen in my hand is shaking, please excuse me
Dad’s a little nervous.
So the “off” cadence was a deliberate choice by MM the writer. His verbal choices – allowing one line to be “off” in its flow – has an objective, an underlying emotional reason. He’s nervous about becoming a father, his pen is shaking as he writes, he can’t keep up some immaculate flow in that condition! This is why I say his songs are acting performances.
He closes out the first letter with hands-down no-contest the sweetest thing he has ever written – you almost can’t believe it as it’s happening:
Welcome to Mom and Dad’s crazy world
Love, Daddy, maple flavored kisses, buttered pancakes, and syrup
Liz Rodgrigues comes back in with her creepy fairy-tale chorus of a lonely castle with two people – father and daughter – trapped on a throne, and he repeats his chorus, coming up from the deep, his voice pushed back on the track, with sounds of him scribbling, murmuring, “shit” and then starting up the second letter. Hailie has now arrived. It starts humorously:
You got your momma’s personality, same eyes as I got
Her beautiful smile, but your ears are the same size as mine are
Sorry for that, a little minor mishap
But you’ll grow into them, baby.
He tells her he’s still on the grind, doing open mics, not to become famous but “tryin to keep the lights on.” This is “Rock Bottom” time. In between remembering how she took her first steps, encouraging her that she will probably be walking soon, he’s seething about the reaction to Infinite:
My Infinite CD flopped, too many soft tunes
They’re talking bad about Dad, it’s ticking me off too.
Then suddenly, he gets the idea for Slim Shady, the alter ego that would save his life and launch his career:
Makes me feel like I don’t belong or something. Ooh!
I think I might have just stumbled onto something new
Got a prediction for the future, I’m hoping that you
Open this envelope when you’re older and it holds true
The creepy chorus again, same structure, leading into the final letter, on Christmas Eve, 2007. The mood here is radically different. He sounds panicked, manic, apologetic, self-loathing, it’s difficult to listen to. He apologizes to Hailie again:
I’ve said your name but always tried to hide your face
This game is crazy, I wanted to claim my love for you, but dang
I never knew it’d be like this, if I did I wouldn’t have done it
You ain’t asked for none of this shit, now you’re being punished?!
The fact that he says “dang” is key that he never forgets who he’s talking to. He said to Anderson Cooper that there’s no profanity in his house, he doesn’t talk at home the way he talks in his songs. The “dang” moment is then undercut by “shit” – he’s getting too angry – and then swept away by his fury in the next lines:
They can take this fame back, I don’t want it
I’ll put out this last album then I’m done with it
One-hundred percent finished
Fed up with it, I’m hanging it up, FUCK IT
Excuse the cursing, baby, but just know
That I’m a good person, though they portray me as cold.
“Excuse the cursing.” If you caught the “dang” then you caught that. He’s begging her to know he’s a good person, to not believe what’s written about him, and then you remember the date he’s writing this letter, and you realize that this is a goodbye note. Or at least that was my experience, the song was so powerful and new – unlike any other thing he’s ever done – that listening to it for the first time was almost a bewildering experience. It was around the “just know that I’m a good person” moment that I put together where all this was going, what this final letter was. A suicide note. He tries to stave it off himself:
Don’t take this letter I wrote
As a goodbye note, ’cause your dad’s at the end of his rope
The ending of the song is chilling:
Anyways sweetie, I better go
I’m getting sleepy, love, Dad…
Shit, I don’t know.
You then hear sounds of him opening something – the sound of paper rustling, the sound of him drinking, swallowing the pills … there’s a pause, and then you hear the sound of a body collapsing on the floor.
Walking through “Arose”:
Unlike “Castle,” this one has no chorus. It’s one long verse. If you’re lying almost dead on a hospital table after OD-ing, you’re not going to be thinking in carefully constructed verses. Because it’s just one long verse, the overall feeling of “Arose” is relentless. He never once “comes out of it,” and we never once get a “break” from what he’s going through. He’s dying on the table and suddenly he doesn’t WANT to die, he doesn’t WANT to leave his family, there’s so much he’s going to miss now, so much he won’t be able to see – and none of the things he regrets has anything to do with music, or albums he won’t put out now, or music he won’t make. It’s all about his children. You can’t perform a song like this without meaning it. He means every word.
To start with: as I said there’s no chorus, but a song is sampled, a song which plays dimly in the background throughout. What song is it? Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” Even the choice of the sample is a double: “The Rose” sampled on “Arose” – or “A Rose.”
Eminem is fucking smart. “The Rose” is all about a Janis-Joplin-type star, who makes it to the top, and yet fame doesn’t bring happiness, and we all know what happened to Joplin. So sampling that – yet another songbird accompanying him – and Bette Midler, no less – no wonder rap purists were disgusted by this album. But … but … he’s trying something ELSE here, and it’s a PERFECT sample, for the theme of the song. Beneath Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” you can also hear – dimly – the ventilator he’s hooked up to going in and out: the machine breathing for him.
Even though there’s no chorus to break things up, there is an image scheme at work, and it all has to do with “tape” and “volume.” Tape as in cassette tapes, any kind of tape. The first line is
If I could rewind time like a tape
Inside a boombox
One day for every pill
Or percocet that I ate
Cut down on the Valium
I’da heard everything
There’s more than meets the eye going on there. Time is a tape you can’t rewind. He wants to back through all the drugs he did. He wishes he had “cut down on the Valium” – but “Valium” is also “volume”, connecting with the tape metaphor: and “volume” also has multiple meanings: the volume on the tape being played, which is his life. Overdosing means you are turning down the volume (i.e. dying) on the tape of your life. “Volume” could also mean “the volume of drugs I was taking – I wish I could cut down on all that.” If you turn down the “volume”, if you “rewind time”, you could “hear everything” – i.e. everything that really matters, like family and your kids and the love of your friends. Fame doesn’t factor in at ALL on “Arose.” Fame is non-existent, and that’s REALLY rare for him.
As he struggles for his life, he is aware of what is going on around him. He hears what the nurses and doctors are saying about his condition. He is aware of his daughters clinging to his neck and crying. (Like I said: the song is relentless.) It all might sound sentimental and “confessional” but … honestly, here’s the deal, and why I say all of this makes him a major ACTOR: he isn’t looking back on the experience, telling us a story with distance from it. He relives it. He is IN it. So when he raps:
Wish I had the strength to just blow a kiss
I go to make a fist
But I can’t make one, I’m frozen stiff
I yell, but nothing comes out
I’m crying inside, I shout
My vocal cords won’t permit me
I scream, but it’s not aloud
…you feel what he’s feeling, how awful it is to be aware of everything that’s going on, but not having control over your body. (Sorry, can’t help it: “I scream, but it’s not aloud.” “Aloud” – “allowed”.)
Whenever he addresses Hailie, his pain ratchets up to the sky. He can’t bear the thought of leaving her, and it kills him, seeing how sad she’s been about how sad HE’S been:
And it’s your birthday
Jade, I’m missing your birthday
Baby girl, I’m sorry
I fucking hate when you hurt, Hai!
He literally screams those lines. He mourns the future he won’t see, HER future, not his:
I just thought about the aisle
I’ll never get to walk us down
Never see you
Graduate in your caps and gowns
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Proof arrives. His best friend. When Proof appears (and who knows, maybe he did actually appear to Eminem) – Eminem immediately starts screaming an apology, he’s so ashamed of who he’s become.. Once his focus moves away from his daughters and towards Proof (his other nickname was “Doody”), you know MM is moving towards death.
And Proof, I’m truly sorry
If I let you down, but this tore me in two
The thought of no more me and you
You gave me shoes, Nikes like new
For me for school
Doody, I’m trying, but you
You were the glue that binded
So many things
And suddenly he repeats the first line:
I’d give anything to rewind it
If you’re an Eminem fan, which I am (CLEARLY) … this repetition stuck out. He doesn’t normally repeat himself like that, at least not in verses. He doesn’t loop back to a theme he’s already exhausted. But here, he did. It feels almost like he didn’t mean to do it – but then, of course, there is a method to his madness, which will become clear later in the song.
He screams to Proof, reliving the trauma of his friend’s death, how he closes his eyes at night and sees Proof’s dead body:
I couldn’t sleep at night ’cause
That image burned in my brain
Of you on the table
Me falling across your body
Not able to stand to save you
God, why did you take him?
By this point, I am so exhausted from feeling his emotions I am ready for the song to be over. But we’re only halfway through. Then, suddenly, he starts giving his daughters final instructions for their lives:
Little ladies, be brave
Take care of your mother
Smile pretty for pictures
Always cherish each other
“Take care of your mother” almost did me in the first time I heard it.
But he is FAR from done. He calls out for his brother Nate and gives his brother final instructions:
And, little bro, keep making me proud
You better marry that girl
‘Cause she’s faithfully down
And when you’re exchanging those sacred vows
Just know that if I could be there, I would
And should you ever see parenthood
I know you’ll be good at it
(Hopeful coda to all this operatic grief: Nate DID end up marrying that “faithfully down” girl.)
On a roll now with final instructions, he says, his voice dripping with hatred, and yet also bitter awareness of the truth to this:
Oh, almost forgot to do something
Thank my father too
I actually learnt a lot from you
You taught me what not to do
And Mom, wish I’d have had the chance
To have one last heart-to-heart
Honest and open talk with you
What? It’s not a secret that Eminem and his mother don’t talk. Too much polluted water under the bridge. I believe she’s ill right now. I think he’s paying her medical expenses. I just don’t know the situation. Anyway, after “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” and “Headlights,” hearing him yowling about having “one last heart-to-heart honest and open talk” is something else: it is a reminder that as public as he is with his private life, there is much he has never said, will not say, as is his right.
He leaves his body, and sees the nurse unplugging the machine. Proof is waiting for him. In the final stretch now, his final gasps, the rhythms becomes … choppy, with weird line breaks, almost like this is the life draining out, the breath choppy, as he still emphasizes the rhyme pattern, which gives this the sound, as I said, of the final gasps of a dying man:
Girls, PLEASE don’t get upset
I SEE those CHEEKS soaking and wet
As you SQUEEZE hold of my neck
So forciblEE, don’t wanna let
ME go, pillow drenched
It sounds like the only thing keeping him alive is those “EE” rhymes. Hand-holds.
Meanwhile, ALL THROUGH this Bette Midler sings “The Rose” underneath, adding to the song’s piercing emotionality.
Then, yet again, the same line comes up:
I’m tryna rewind time like a tape
And then it comes up for the last time:
To rewrite a mistake
I’m rewinding the tape
… and as he says it, his voice distorts and slows down, like you’re slowing down a tape recording, and then the tape rewinds with a violent screeching sound … and there’s a pause, a pause of nothing-ness.
The tape then jerks to life again, having found its spot – and when the song roars back … it’s not “Arose”. We’ve gone back to “Castle”. To the final verse of “Castle” which he proceeds to re-write. He re-writes his own ending. I cannot believe people called this song “trash.” They fear emotions. They have disgust for emotions and “weakness” (i.e. vulnerability). He repeats some of the lines, and then there’s a shift:
Excuse the cursing, baby, but just know
That I’m a good person, though they portray me as cold
And if things should worsen, but I bet you they won’t
I’m pledging to throw this methadone in the toilet
Shred these old letters I wrote
All that old pathetic loathing, closing credits can roll
Energy coming back, he looks forward – to the new albums in his future, name-checking them:
With Recovery, Mathers LP2
Help propel me to
This is the first mention of his career in this whole thing.
For anyone not following, he tells us in no uncertain terms what just happened:
Consider the last four minutes as
That’s the song I’d have sang to my daughters
If I’d have made it to the hospital
Less than two hours later, but I fought it
Came back like a boomerang on ’em
Now a new day is dawning
I’m up, Tuesday, it’s morning
Now I know
Nerdy observation: when he says “the last four minutes” he means literally. At the 4 minute mark of “Arose”, the new verse of “Castle” begins.
After “Now I know” we hear the bookend of the end of “Castle” with the sound of him swallowing all those pills. “Arose” ends with the sound of him flushing the pills down the toilet.
I am going to be perfectly clear. I love it when Eminem dazzles us with word-play and doubles and how fast he can go, and how clever he is, how many damn words he knows (he worked “antidisestablishmentarianism” into a song, because if you’re into words, you know what that word signifies). I love his wild references – from Socrates to Leave It to Beaver to John Updike (“Rabbit Run”) – his rapid-fire cadence, his double-times … all that stuff that really made him famous, and rightly so.
But “Castle” and “Arose” is NEW. He’s 20 years into his career, and this is a man who really struggles with fame, who really really has a hard time with it, and yet here he is being MORE open, forcing himself to be MORE revealing – to a crowd who is often very hostile to him. I thank him for creating “Castle” and “Arose”. It can’t have been easy. To me, it sounds like he was crying AS he wrote those songs. He has imagined himself into the “situations” of the song, like sense memory, or affective memory – and he REALLY does it. Listen to what he is doing – emotionally – acting-wise – on “Arose.”
This is epic Shakesepearean-level emotion. A dying man’s final wishes, gasped out to his family members on his death bed, before the breath floods back into his lungs, and he wakes up exhilarated, ready to meet the rest of his life.
After all that, here are the two songs in question:
Over on YouTube, where I’ve been spending most of my time these days, Revival has had a resurgence. I think it might have started with “Untouchable” racing through the reactor community like a wildfire during this quarantine, as the BLM movement went worldwide. I guess what bothered me most about the initial response was the dismissive quality: “Throw this trash away.” I feel like he has earned the right to actually be LISTENED to, not just dismissed.
As the YouTube reactors re-discovered Revival, which didn’t come out all that long ago, the comments section is filled with people who rank it as one of their favorites. It’s not my favorite, I think I’d have to go with Marshall Mathers LP for that one, but I have very strong feelings about Revival, and very much appreciate how risky it is, even riskier in its own way than the MMLP. Revival blew me away, to be honest, and I’m talking as a person who’s been in from the jump, and owns almost everything he’s done, including his guest spots, his early freestyles, stuff he did in the early 90s when he was in his teens.
Nothing prepared me for Revival. It’s not just about “baring his soul” – it was about finding the right structure, constructing the perfect bars that will EXPRESS what was IN his soul. This is the element that sets him – and all the greats – apart. Another of my favorite YouTube reactors (Stevie Knight) loves diss tracks because it means people are “talking their shit.” He shouts at the computer: “TALK YO SHIT.” (He’s even made it into merch, T-shirts with TALK YO SHIT across the front. lol.) By “talking yo shit” he means: someone making his points, laying down the facts, throwing a punch verbally, whatever it is, getting shit off your chest. It’s easy to “talk yo shit.” What’s hard is to “talk yo shit” using complex flow/cadence/puns/cleverness. That’s where Eminem shines. He rarely sacrifices one for the other.
Here, in song after song, Eminem “talks his shit” but does so in a variety of forms, schemes, structures, so you never get comfortable, you never know what’s coming next, but whatever it is, you know you’re in good hands.
I’m not sure what we all thought would happen post-Revival, but it wasn’t what ended up happening.
The reaction to Revival made him MAD. I’m sure he was hurt too. You do something like “Castle” and “Arose” and people call it “trash”? Ouch. He was definitely keeping up on what everyone was saying about his album, and kind of shocked at how hostile people were to it. (He has since described this in interviews.) The rage began to burn. Eminem is best when he’s furious.
A month after Revival dropped, suddenly, out of nowhere, Eminem released a song, “Chloraseptic (The Remix)”, using the hook off of the same song on Revival, but adding a verse from 2 Chainz and changing his original verse, keeping the “throat” theme, and the song ends Eminem growling:
I’ll be back
And when I am, I’ll be at your fuckin’ throat.
It’s a warning and a promise.
Nobody had heard anything from Eminem in that intervening month. I was still enjoying getting to know Revival, I’m sure many of us were, but behind the scenes, a conflagration was erupting. “Chloraseptic Remix” arrived, stunning everyone.
9 months later – in other words, my head spun – didn’t he JUST release an album? – Eminem dropped a full album called Kamikaze, a surprise attack, its cover image a tribute to the Beastie Boys’ famous album License to Ill.
Eminem announced the album on Twitter, accompanied by a middle finger emoji:
— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) August 31, 2018
The world of Eminem fans – and the entire hip hop world, really – lost their ever-loving minds.
He meant what he said at the end of the Remix: “I’ll be back and I’m coming for your THROATS.”
He learned his lesson from Revival, with those tracks leaking. There was no advance publicity for Kamikaze. Nobody knew what was coming, although “Chloraseptic Remix” should have been a clue. He paired up with Dr. Dre again as producer – another sign of how back to basics he was getting, back to the beginning of his peroxide-blonde emcee from the underground days – and invited tons of rappers to guest-spot. It was a very rap heavy album: one of the criticisms of Revival was it didn’t feature much serious rapping, and there were almost no rap guest artists. So on this one, he invited a murderer’s row of world-class hip hop artists – up-and-comers, veterans – all people who feel the same way he does about where rap is right now, and who represent for him hope for the future, or the kind of rap he admires, the kind of rap he wants to keep alive, protect.
On Kamikaze he had one subject: the state of hip hop and all his PROBLEMS with it. The new trends he hates. Hip hop fans are STILL talking about Kamikaze. Some love it, some hate it. Either way: it launched a lively – and sometimes rancorous – back and forth that continues to this day, always an exciting thing in our current world where conversation itself is freezing up on social media due to the polarized environment. With Kamikaze, Eminem launched 20 personal beefs in one day. Many of these rappers came back at him with their own diss tracks, or trashed him on podcasts. He responded to some of these beefs with yet ANOTHER diss track. It was a glorious time of UNSTOPPABLE ATTACK AND THEN RETALIATION, from all sides. Everyone jumped in to react, trying to fight him off, people got more creative. Some were like, “Whatever, cranky old guy” but because of the ferocity of the attack, it basically proved his initial point.
If you don’t go for this kind of thing, a free-for-all brawl featuring multiple contenders, it would have been distressing and/or tiresome, a bunch of gorillas pounding their chests at each other. But if you LOVE this kind of thing, because you recognized it for what it was – an industry-wide battle rap – it was super fun. Everyone was furious at Eminem, except for everyone who wasn’t. Fan wars erupted on Twitter, on Instagram, everywhere. The fan bases of the rappers Eminem dissed swarmed after him in a buzzing murderous cloud. I’m sure Eminem loved every second of it. Kamikaze was a score-settling shit-disturbing record. Eminem was TALKIN HIS SHIT.
Kamikaze debuted at #1. Shocker.
A really cool byproduct of all of this: People who ignored Revival, or listened once and decided they hated it, went back to give it another listen, based on Eminem’s constant references to the negative reactions to it. It’s hard to imagine any other huge artist making what is essentially a tantrum album about the response to his previous album. Most would hurry on by, hoping the “failure” would soon be forgotten. Not Slim Shady, the guy who once leapt off stages to punch guys who heckled him (or didn’t even, Slim Shady just thought they did). This man won’t back down. It’s probably a personal limitation, and he perhaps isn’t a very happy person because of it – but – as with everything else – he turned the limitation into his strength as an artist. The competitive spirit ignited in him from the rap battle scene continues to inspire him. He hasn’t gotten lazy or soft. He will not rest on his laurels. Eminem reminds us again and again of not just his rage, but his hurt – member what I said a decade ago about how sometimes people miss the hurt behind all that rage?
Kamikaze lived up to its title.
A year after Kamikaze, he suddenly – again – came out with his Alfred-Hitchcock-inspired Music to Be Murdered By, as diverse as Kamikaze was single-subject focused. The three albums, almost back to back, has provided an embarrassment of riches. Maybe I’ll do track breakdowns of Kamikaze and Music to be Murdered By eventually, since I’m still absorbing those two albums. Eminem can’t be absorbed in one listen. You have to sit with it. You have to study it.
I have been working on this piece since June. It has ballooned into something wholly unmanageable and I was going to break it up into different parts for “publication” but then I thought, Nah. This joint is my joint and it’s a FREE joint and I put an insane amount of work into this thing – even though most of the information was off the top of my head – might as well put it to use – and I want the piece to stand all together. It was fun to work on it and I needed to work on it. I did this one for me. But if any of you out there got anything out of it, if you enjoyed any of it, if you learned anything, if it piqued your interest, if you are an MM fan and love to read analysis of Eminem – as I do, as so many do … then that’s really why I wrote it.
This is me TALKIN MY SHIT.
If you’ve made it to this point:
But music is reflection of self, we just explain it, and then we get our checks in the mail
It’s fucked up ain’t it
How we can come from practically nothing to being able to have any fuckin’ thing that we wanted
That’s why we sing for these kids, who don’t have a thing
Except for a dream, and a fuckin’ rap magazine
Who post pin-up pictures on their walls all day long
Idolize their favorite rappers and know all their songs
Or for anyone who’s ever been through shit in their lives
Till they sit and they cry at night wishin’ they’d die
Till they throw on a rap record and they sit, and they vibe
We’re nothin’ to you but we’re the fuckin’ shit in their eyes
That’s why we seize the moment – try to freeze it and own it, squeeze it and hold it
‘Cause we consider these minutes golden
And maybe they’ll admit it when we’re gone
Just let our spirits live on, through our lyrics that you hear in our songs..
— Eminem, “Sing for the Moment”