Ode to Em

ARTS, Features, Music
img_eminemEminem’s colourful journey from rags to Rapture.

Marshall Bruce Mathers III, aka Eminem, will perform for the first time in New Zealand this week at the Rapture, a stadium concert featuring a collection of international and national urban talent. A fitting gathering for the self-described Rap God, the line-up is headed by Los Angeles hip hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All after Kendrick Lamar’s last minute dropout, with J Cole, Action Bronson, and New Zealand’s David Dallas rounding out the final support slots.

As the biggest white rapper of all time (also a producer and actor in the likes of 8 Mile), the American commonly known by his stage name Eminem and alter ego Slim Shady has won 13 Grammys and sold over 220 million records spanning an 18 year career. His arrival in New Zealand affords a performance of historic value which also brings opportunity to reflect on the eight albums that have been devoured over almost two decades. His most recent album, The Marshall Mathers LP II, was released in November last year and acts as a continuation of what many consider his magnum opus—2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP—in a bid to rekindle his relationship with the muse that felt somewhat lost on previous releases.

Eminem’s discography boasts intricate rhyming and syllable flipping prowess, with tales of comic debauchery, personal torment, and real-world burdens laced with celebrity insults, all accompanied by a vengeful middle-finger thrown high and proud. The kicker, though, has always been the natural storytelling ability that, in most cases, blends fact with fiction and lends a satirical tone to a large chunk of his work. Two records, however, stand out as critical documents in rap (and popular music in general) history: The Slim Shady LP (1999) and The Marshall Mathers LP.

On both records, his tongue lashes with a viciousness that is both appalling and addictive. Criminal fantasies are played out with a comic tinge; at times we are briefly granted passage through the drugged haze to view the man behind the rapper, at other times we are dragged deeper into the maniacal maze where Em takes a firmer, more sadistic aim at those who have cheated him. On these two records, Eminem is full of raw hunger and determination.

Beneath the parental advisory sticker, the violence, the accused homophobia and women bashing, therein lies a literary storyline that has always struck a chord with the masses. It’s a rags to riches, against all odds tale, which in this particular rendition reads of a white man on the wrong side of Detroit who later becomes the biggest selling artist of the 2000s. Praise too, must be credited to Dr. Dre’s thick bass beats, resembling horror movie samples filtered through g-funk DNA; very befitting for the macabre circus of Marshall Mathers’s fantasy.

While both LPs share thematic and lyrical similarities, their differences are influenced by events preceding their respective releases: the SSLP, a product born from the life-long dream to be taken seriously as a rapper; and the MMLP, a product of retaliation against media scrutiny, the struggles faced while adapting to a lifestyle of fame, and the never ending saga of family issues.

Shortly after the independent debut release of 1996’s Infinite, Marshall was overcome with an epiphany while seated on the toilet. What Infinite lacked, was a voice strong enough to act as protagonist or alter-ego, a vessel to aim that coarse mouth. Slim Shady—an ultra-violent anti-hero resembling A Clockwork Orange’s Alex—was born, and over the twenty track album he would run amok through Marshall Mathers’s past, recounting reality but colouring it a different shade of crazy:

Hi kids, do you like violence, do you wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids? Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did? Try acid and get fucked up worse than my life is?

Going triple platinum by the end of 1999, the SSLP was met with acclaim and controversy. The track ‘97 Bonnie and Clyde’ depicts the disposal of his murdered wife, while on ‘Guilty Conscience’, he encourages a man to murder his lover. Elsewhere he explains the harsh life at Rock Bottom, and dedicates two tracks to the mindset of not caring, still and just. Shady made his point.

A year later Eminem returned with the follow up, and as the title suggests, this outing was slated for a much more personal vendetta. It sold 1.76 million copies in its first week, and is now certified 10x platinum by the RIAA. With The Marshall Mathers LP his alter-ego still relishes in cutting down MTV personalities and other celebrities from Christina Aguilera to Fred Durst, and Britney Spears to Mark Wahlberg, but it is accompanied with a sombre examination of his past and the dissatisfaction with his present fame.

There is no filter or filler, each track serves with purpose and each emotion is dialled to tipping point. The now classic ‘Stan’ is a poignant tale of a fan losing his life to obsession, while ‘Drug Ballad’ contrasts substance abuse with a similar breed of fandom. With a malevolent eye he wields his most putrid, murderous tale to date through ‘Kim’, an agonising domestic fight ending in a blood bath. ‘The Way I Am’ points the finger back at middle America’s hypocrisy and lends comment to the victimised Marilyn Manson, and then there’s arguably his most popular hit, ‘The Real Slim Shady’:

I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t then why would I say I am, I dunno that’s just the way I am.

On the SSLP, Eminem was an adolescent punk terrorising defenceless citizens with his “go-go-gadget dick”, but here, through 18 tracks, Eminem is at his most vulnerable. And in this vulnerability he seems to bottle his anger and crystallise it in every rhyme. On the MMLP, he finds the perfect meeting point between the alter ego, the man and the rapper.

I’m sure Eminem’s Rapture will feature a career-spanning set list to satisfy the variety of fans in attendance. Those taken from 2002’s The Eminem Show will be great, and the few that will come from Encore, Relapse, Recovery and the MMLP2 should go down a treat, too. But none will touch the venomous cuts from those two classics. And that’s okay—the rags to riches narrative had run its course, the white kid on the wrong side of Detroit had won his major battles and earned praise for his talents. The fact that he did so with his own rhymes and through his unique, schizophrenic manner, is what makes the SSLP and MMLP iconic rap (and pop) documents.

Rapture 2014 featuring Eminem and special guests takes place at Western Springs Stadium, Auckland on February 15.