When Eminem Mattered: The Importance of the First Marshall Mathers LPS

In the face of criticism about hip-hop’s lyrics, Chuck D once argued that rappers weren’t glorifying drugs and violence but rather reporting on the ills of the inner city for the rest of the country. It’s an ethos the genre has maintained ever since, even as hip-hop has grown beyond solely documenting urban America. So while the scenery for some rappers might have switched from brownstones and corner stores to private jets and red carpets, many of them kept reporting on the culture around them. And as our culture grew more and more absurd—filled with an irrepressible need for fame (however fleeting and belittling) and skewed priorities—no rapper documented it better than Eminem did on his 2000 album The Marshall Mathers LP.

Today, 13 years later, Eminem is releasing the sequel to his seminal album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. His flow is still sharp, but in recent years, it has become apparent that his grasp on American culture and his ability to cut it to its core has passed him by. Yet the ensuing years have also cemented the greatness of the original MMLP. His snapshot of the country at the turn of the millennium stands as one of the most perfect cultural critiques ever set to bass lines and snares. He handled the era’s excess, self-importance, celebrity-worship and burgeoning mass media with equal parts comedy, irony and provocation. With hindsight, we can now see Eminem as a writer who could be revisited for generations to understand the foolishness of his time.

Even before the first MMLP, Eminem was a giant star. His 1999 debut album, The Slim Shady LP, went platinum in 10 days, and he was the first rapper to land a No. 1 song on MTV’s Total Request Live, which in those days was one of the biggest deals in music. In just a few short years, the high school dropout went from Detroit fast-food worker to Dr. Dre protégé to crown prince of hip-hop. And he seemed to hate every minute of it. The public appearances, vapid mainstream media and outsized scrutiny of his lyrics all annoyed him. So he decided to hold up a mirror to the culture that had made him a Britney Spears-level celebrity.

Eminem’s credibility originally derived from his exceptional skill on the mic. From the first song on the original MMLP to the final bar of the 8 Mile soundtrack in 2002, Eminem was easily the best rapper on the planet. Case in point: He infamously out-rapped Jay-Z, theretofore the planetary king of rap, on Jay-Z’s Blueprint album with the epic “Renegade” track. Eminem’s verse was so incredible that Nas used it against Jay-Z in their ongoing feud, rapping, “Eminem murdered you on your own shit.” It was more a testament to the respect Eminem had earned as much as a sleight in Jay-Z’s direction.

But flow alone isn’t enough to make a great album. The first MMLP benefits from Eminem’s unique place in the culture at the time. His level of fame made him an insider in the pop machine; but because the machine hadn’t created him like it had Mouseketeers Spears and Justin Timberlake, he was enough of an outsider that he could lambaste it at will. This allowed him to take shots at the very institutions he was supposed to worship. “You think I give a damn about a Grammy?” he raps on “The Real Slim Shady.” “Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me / ‘But Slim, what if you win, wouldn’t it be weird?’ / Why? So you guys could just lie to get me here / So you can sit me here next to Britney Spears?”

No one, in fact, was spared his wrath—moralists most of all. In Eminem’s estimation, it was ludicrous to blame him and other entertainers for society’s ills when the president (Bill Clinton) had just received a blow job from an intern (Monica Lewinsky). He found it equally ludicrous that we all cared so much about that blow job when so many worse things were happening in the country. “My morals went [thump] when the president got oral / Sex in the Oval Office on top of his desk / Off of his own employee,” he raps on “Criminal,” the last track on the original MMLP. This was pre-9/11 America in a nutshell. Our biggest problem was a presidential sex scandal and deciding whether or not to spend $300 on an extra-rare Beanie Baby. Listening to the album now elicits a “Seriously, this is what you guys were worried about?” response. But that was Eminem’s brilliance; he understood the absurdity of the era before most of the rest of the culture—or at the very least, he could articulate it better than anyone else.

He also understood how advocacy groups had begun to use the media, which was rapidly becoming a 24/7 cross-platform entity that constantly needed to be fed, to cynically manufacture outrage. And so, on the first MMLP, he pushed buttons to amp up the outrage—and, of course, publicity for himself. Listening to the album, you’d think Eminem was Public Enemy No. 1. Yet, that simply wasn’t the case. Sure, Timothy White wrote a scathing article for Billboard about the violence in Eminem’s debut album. But it wasn’t until Eminem flaunted his (limited) critics that mothers in Middle America started to develop an intense hatred for the blonde rapper. As such, he got the exact response he set out to achieve—including a failed attempt by LGBT activists to boycott him at the Grammys. He admitted as much on the original MMLP’s “Bitch Please II”: “Give me the mic, let me recite until Timothy White / Pickets outside the Interscope offices every night."

But for White and all of those concerned mothers to dismiss the first MMLP as a cavalcade of homophobic slurs and violence is to miss out on an exploration of what it means to be famous in a society with backward morals—i.e., there’s a lot of deep thinking happening on the album. “Stan,” an epistolary song in which Eminem’s biggest fan is driven to murder his baby’s mother and commit suicide over unrequited affection from his hero, is a complex rumination on idolatry, fame, disaffection and obsession. And “Remember Me,” a song about the Columbine shootings, is a wry examination of how people blamed music and video games for the violence that took place in Colorado:

Came home, and somebody musta broke in the back window
And stole two loaded machine guns and both of my trench coats
Sick, sick dreams of picnic scenes
Two kids, sixteen with M-16's and ten clips each
And them shits reach through six kids each
And Slim gets blamed in Bill Clint's speech to fix these streets

Where did the artist who pulled off the original MMLP go? Well, he’s still better than 98 percent of rappers out there. But his punchlines are clunkier (a “you’re rubber, I’m glue” reference on MMLP 2?), his ability to effortlessly float on a beat has slowed and his command of cadence has been replaced with a lot of screaming. Most of all, however, he’s not as engaged with the world. He’s 41 years old now and has spent most of the last decade working himself back from a drug addiction that nearly killed him. His last album, 2010’s Recovery, revolved around his newfound sobriety and struggle with drugs, which made for an overly serious downer—a surprise given his talents.

So in 2013, Em is more Hailie’s dad, who was just named homecoming queen, than Kim’s bad-boy baby daddy. And his disconnect from culture is apparent. On the third leaked song from MMLP 2, “Rap God,” Eminem half-heartedly references a two-year-old feud between rapper Fabolous and Kim Kardashian-ex Ray J. If that doesn’t date him, his continued Clinton-Lewinsky references certainly do.

Even his public appearances seem tired. Whenever he was interviewed or making frequent appearances on TRL, Eminem was quick to thumb his nose at pop culture by dropping a “Funky Bunch” reference to piss off Mark Wahlberg or some other self-important celebrity. These days, Eminem stands around awkwardly whenever he’s on camera—a la his uncomfortable interview with Brent Musburger during a recent ABC college football broadcast. During such painful moments, it becomes readily apparent what the problem is—we no longer understand Eminem, and he no longer understands us.


David Dennis writes a bi-weekly column for The Guardian. He is also creative director of The Smoking Section. Follow him on Twitter @DavidDTSS.

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