Aaron Matthews isn’t American, but he gets the gist.
Among popular rappers, Emimem’s sense of self-awareness is rivalled by only Jay and (arguably) 50 Cent. On his ’97 song “Low Down, Dirty,” he imitates a backpacker critiquing the Slim Shady EP: “Slim Shady, his tape is dope, I love it/It’s rugged, but he needs to quit talking all that drug shit.”Five years later, Em had become more self-aware and serious — examining the meaning of his new-found fame and money.
The Eminem Show dropped in 2002 at the height of boy band fever and effectively ended the boy-band era in the U.S. by selling 1 million copies in its first week.
After a short intro, we hear “White America”, where Em thoughtfully dissects the machinations that allowed a poor white kid from 8 Mile to dominate TV and radio. The partnership with Dr. Dre that took him from underground curiosity, to where “every fan black that I got was probably his in exchange for every white fan that he got/like damn, we just swapped.” Em’s presence on Dre’s 2001 was crucial to re-establishing the super producer’s commercial relevance, with “Forgot About Dre” and “What’s The Difference” re-minting Dr. Dre as an A-lister. And so baby blue eyes and blonde hair made Eminem a star.
NWA may have been tremendously influential in the projects and the inner city, but it was the reverberation in the suburbs that catapulted them to true national stardom. History bears out that scaring white America is the fast track to fame. The Odd Future/Em comparisons are staid at this point, but it’s worth noting the exasperation in Em’s voice and Tyler, the Creator, where people are unable to distinguish between persona and personality. Or see Em’s lament that “activists [act] like I’m the first rapper to smack a bitch or say faggot.” OF’s renegade appeal spoke to similarly suburban audiences and offered a modern example of how controversy can equate to success.
The Eminem Show has plenty of rough patches where the gap between Em’s talent and the standard rap star template is clear. “Superman” is a tongue-in-cheek sex rap that makes me want to shower. Does anyone want to picture Marshall’s unveiled anemic crackerjack torso? Both “Soldier” and “Goodbye Hollywood” employ Em’s trademark tinkly synths and soft drums for more disclosure of Em’s personal life. These two songs deals with Em’s nightclub confrontation with a bouncer he spotted kissing up on Kim and a subsequent gun possession charge. Today, the songs sound trite, dated in a time where court cases can be addressed 15 minutes after allegations appear on Twitter. Meanwhile, “Say What You Say” is a occasionally entertaining Jermaine Dupri diss that has no business being on the album.
Eminem’s writing also improved following The Marshall Mathers LP. The semi- autobiographical “Sing For The Moment” is the rare Eminem track written from the third person perspective. It’s nuanced and relatable because it strays away from the album’s constant focus, Eminem. Should you be able to overlook a slightly corny Aerosmith sample, you’ll find some of Em’s best writing. Find a more succinct explanation of rap’s power over institutions: “These ideas are nightmares to white parents/Whose worst fear is a child with dyed hair and who likes earrings/Like whatever they say has no bearing, it’s so scary in a house that allows no swearing.”
“Square Dance” explains the Bush government’s failings while taking pot shots at Canibus over a lumbering, piano-led Dr. Dre beat. References to 9/11 abound, at a time when only Dipset were positively invoking Bin Laden. On “Hailie’s Song,” Em gets serious about his relationship with his daughter Hailie, having finally secured custody from ex-wife Kim. It reads a little hackneyed in hindsight, but the emotion remains palpable — a well-earned happiness in the aftermath of the on-wax psychosis of “Kim.”
“Cleaning Out My Closet” finds Eminem directly and concisely addressing his issues with his neglectful mother, his father walking out, and being protested for his lyrics. The creeping piano, soft snares and soaring 70s-style guitar maintain the empathic power of the song even after the topical relevance has disappeared. Em co-produced a few joints on the Marshall Mathers LP, but this is his first take on producing a full album. He produces or co-produces 17 of the 20 songs, forging a distinctive production aesthetic: soft click tracks, piano, tinny rock guitar. His production narrows the sonic world of the album and enhances the insular feel of the record. The few outsized moments come from outside producers (see Dre’s terse strings and belching bass on “Business”) and the single “Without Me”, milking Em’s prototypical “first single” with a pumping beat and harmless disses (seriously, Moby?). We didn’t hear “Square Dance” or “White America” on the radio, so people uninterested in really listening to the lyrics still got the rebel-to-white-america values without the depth.
If I could re-sequence the album, I’d axe “Say What You Say” and the goofy death threats of “My Dad’s Gone Crazy”. “Till I Collapse” should really be the closing track, a near-perfect ode to Em’s dedication to the art of rhyme over “We Will Rock You” claps with a smooth Nate Dogg chorus. And yeah, Em’s verse on Jay-Z’s “Renegade” trumps anything on this album, but that’s another story. In 2002, Em existed in his own world and we were better off for it.