It was probably inevitable, from the moment the first letters were mailed and feds swarmed East Coast post offices in hazmat suits, that Eminem was going to equate “anthrax” with “Tampax”. The Detroit-born rapper had risen to superstardom during the late Clinton years — allegedly during boom times, when his provocation for the sake of provocation was enough to disrupt the average American calm — and any news event that paralyzed the big audience was safe to animate it. But a lot had changed between his second album, the incredibly huge The Marshall Mathers Album, and his third. There was the Bush-Gore election and the subsequent battle in the Supreme Court; the attacks of September 11 and these shipments of anthrax; the invasion of Afghanistan and the saber blows in Iraq. The atmosphere of the country has been totally transformed. (Later anthropologists might call it a “change of mood.”) The pop-cultural landscape he surveyed from his summit was not the same he had clung to during his ascent.
During this political and psychological realignment, the artist’s personal life unravels. Where Eminem had once taken obvious joy in skewering the thriving tabloid culture and the celebrities who were locked in a symbiotic gait with it, he now found himself at its center. One day in the summer of 2000, he pulled out a gun twice: during an altercation with the Insane Clown Posse and later outside a bar where he claims he saw his wife, Kim, kissing a bouncer, and is accused of having whipped him with a pistol. (He would plead in the gun whipping case and receive probation.) About a month later – just days after a Detroit concert where Eminem performed “Kim,” a song that imagines his murder, while stifling a inflatable doll in her image – Kim attempted suicide. She would go on to sue him for defamation, a lawsuit that could add to those of her mother and a former classmate who felt slandered in another song. All of this has been covered comprehensively.
The maxim says that you have a lifetime to write your first album and six months to write the second. However, while Interscope had surely wanted The Marshall Mathers Album leave soon after The Slim Shady Album turned out to be a phenomenon, Eminem was allowed time away from the din – so much so that he almost named this record amsterdam, after the town where he hid while he wrote many of his incredibly elastic verses and worked his way through the gummy bass lines and gaping negative space in the beats that Dr Dre and Mel-Man gave him were playing during transatlantic phone calls. It was the third LP that was randomly recorded – between takes for 8 milesthe quasi-autobiographical film which will be released the same year, so quickly that Dre did not seem to have the same talking points about it as the headliner. Inspired by the Jim Carrey film, the rapper gave his awkwardly restless album about life in the spotlight the only name that would fit: The Eminem Show.
The Eminem Show is not exactly the portrait of a man on the edge of the abyss. There are startling confessions – some designed as such and some unintentional – but the album begins and ends in total control. And yet, there’s a kind of unraveling happening here: the personal of the politician, the personality of the man behind it all. This deconstruction is less revealing, or at least less enriching, than it seems. Eminem’s Magic Trick The Marshall Mathers Album – other than the musical ingenuity of this album – was the total fusion, in almost every verse, of all his preoccupations as an artist, with the harrowing autobiography, the absolutism of freedom of expression and the violence of cartoons wrapping around each other until they become inextricable. When these threads are isolated from each other, some turn out to be radically more convincing than others.
For the way parts of Eminem’s life had been subsumed into his mythos — his tumultuous relationship with Kim and his mother, the tenderness with his daughter, Hailie — it can be easy to forget how the incident of the pistol shot looms. The Eminem Show. It’s not just recreated on one of the album’s sketches, but used as an organizing event for “Soldier” and “Say Goodbye Hollywood” and for emotional climaxes in “Sing For The Moment” and “Cleaning Out My Closet”. But she, like the other introspective notes The Eminem Show strikes, is rendered with too little ironic distance and too much self-pity. It’s an aesthetic criticism, of course; we are talking about a parent who was facing a prison sentence. But it’s hard to take seriously an artist who has needled the rich and comfortable at every stage of his career when he raps about being a “soldier” – and stops short of comparing himself to 2Pac – to wait in a bar parking lot to catch his wife cheating on him. The tonal configuration is so clunky that it forgoes any plausible claims of unreliable storytelling here and there: when he raps, on “Hailie’s Song,” “I’m so glad her mother didn’t want her,” he seems cruel to have put this notion into the world, not fascinatingly complex as he had to hope.
Whereas The Eminem Show is certainly a major work, it does not play like an album to which one would have granted the time and the attention necessary to remain coherent with what it could have been.
The album is much more effective when Eminem looks outward, especially to the new administration. The Eminem Show was released (a week ahead of its scheduled date, to combat rampant contraband) less than nine months after 9/11, at a time when George W. Bush’s approval ratings were hovering in the 70s and stations radio stations blacklisted artists who dared to speak out against US incursions into the Middle East or the domestic spy apparatus. But Eminem insisted. Excerpt from “Square Dance”:
“’All this terror, America demands action!
Next thing you know you got Uncle Sam’s ass asking
To join the army, or what you’ll do for their navy
You’re just a baby recruited at 18
You on a plane now, eating their food and their baked beans
I’m 28 – they’ll get you before they get me!”
To mock those who eagerly enlisted in late 2001 and early 2002 is to go as brutally against the culture as possible; later on the album, in what at first seems like a throwaway phrase, he raps that there’s “no tower too high / no plane I can’t learn to fly”. The rejections of the so-called War on Terror were intriguing in themselves, but also gave new gravity to his feuds with the FCC (“Without Me”) and the squabbles with cultural conservatives over his lyrics. And suddenly, all this movement of sand around him transformed his position into one of obvious moral rectitude: the puritanism that he found simply boring during the Clinton years was being exploited for something extremely horrifying. Imagine Woody Guthrie rapping in a Robin costume with a giant prosthetic bulge.
Eminem continued to rap, as he had on previous albums, shrewdly and with a certain humility about the role race played in his career. The Eminem Show opens with “White America,” the hook of which is one of the most viciously sly passages in its catalog (“I could be one of your children…I’m going to NMTlook how many hugs I get!”) It points out the obvious (“Let’s do the math: if I were black, I would have sold half of it”), but also gives a curiously unbiased appreciation of the character who made famous: “So much anger directed in no direction / Just sprays and sprays. It gives him the leeway to draw the line he does on ‘Without Me,’ where he compares himself to Elvis Presley for taking advantage of ‘a black art form – but then mocks the lemmingish record executives who tried and failed to replicate his success with white rappers of their own.
Yet even most of these songs are driven by a pedestrian production at best. There was a moment during the MMLP sessions — and it’s been well-documented, talking about the story swallowed by legend — after Dre and Eminem believed the album was done, but Interscope asked him to go back to the studio in search of a lead single. He found one, in ‘The Real Slim Shady’, but also recorded ‘The Way I Am’, a static screed over a moody piano loop. It also became a hit – and was the first time Eminem was credited as lead producer. This song, adored by many fans, was a terrible omen for Eminem’s later work. Where he was once an infinitely flexible rapper, his verses jumping and stuttering around the beat, “The Way I Am” put him at ease in a drone, his intensity ramped up all the way then locked in this gear.
This would become a much bigger problem in the 2010s, but creeps into the vocals of songs like “Soldier”, “Closet”, and “Sing For the Moment”. (As the volume is turned down, even lighter records like “Business” find it stuck in a listless rut.) More frustrating is “Way I Am”‘s hangover on the production side. Eminem just wasn’t ready to handle the beats of a major rap album, like he does almost the entirety of The Eminem Show, which on the whole sounds tinny and rhythmically flat, its biggest swing being a cutesy Aerosmith flip. The beats would be a disaster if given to another artist; Eminem had a deep enough understanding of his needs as a hyper-technical rapper that he frequently finds smart pockets and sometimes, like on “Without Me,” he raps in a wonderfully playful tone. But there’s none of the whiplash verb that has marked the best songs on his previous LPs.
Whereas The Eminem Show is certainly a major work – in some respects the last of the first phase of his career, such as that of 2004 Bis was hampered by his struggles with drug addiction — it doesn’t play like an album given the time and attention to stay cohesive in what it could have been. (This is evidenced even by the songs chosen for an extended edition, released on streaming platforms this month: only one of the bonus tracks is from this time, the others from a mixtape the following year, when he had moved into a new phase of creation, or MMLP sessions.) What stays with you is despair. For all the tonal incongruity and musical flatness running through the LP, there is a white-hot hunger at its center. Take “Till I Collapse,” a song that became a staple on gym playlists, despite being a mildly paranoid record of Eminem’s career at the time. “Is it a miracle?” he asks in his first verse, “Or am I just a fizzy pop product?” The truth is, he was neither – rather, he was an extremely talented MC with a keen eye on the social hypocrisy around him, whose own anger threatened to swallow it all up. inside.