Suspenseful With A Pencil: The Eminem Show is 20
Few artists experience the level of success Eminem has achieved. Check his resume. If you haven’t been paying attention to rap music or pop culture for the last couple decades, he’s done it all, and he did a lot of it before he hit middle age. Now in his late 40s, Eminem spent the last decade selling another 14 million albums, yet many folks believe his best stuff came in the first half of his career.
I’m not here to engage in that debate, but it’s hard to argue against Eminem’s incredible opening act. He stumbled out of the gates with his official debut, Infinite (1996), failing to register on the rap Richter scale despite being a solid production. It wasn’t until Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre flew out to Michigan to meet Eminem, setting the stage for a late 90s Aftermath Renaissance, that everything changed.
By 2002, Eminem had dropped two massive hit albums that shifted rap’s tectonic plates, nabbed a few Grammy’s, toured the world, and become an international mega-star. Few celebrities were as famous at that time, and no rapper was as ubiquitous in pop culture. He was the scourge of Middle America, encouraging tepid white youth to scream “I just don’t give a fuck” while drinking a fifth of vodka. Bleached hair was optional for this revolution because no matter how imposters managed their disguises, you couldn’t fake being the real Slim Shady.
1.7 million copies of The Marshall Mathers LP found their way into the CD booklets of fans across the U.S. the first week the album was out in 2000, making it one of the biggest releases in history. I remember buying it the day it came out, towards the end of my senior year in high school. Juniors and seniors could go off-campus for lunch, and I went with a friend to go pick up the album. We each bought a copy and rocked it on our way back to campus, stopping to grab a few Gorditas from Taco Bell. We ate them in my car as listened to The Marshall Mathers LP thump, mesmerized by Eminem’s skill and wordplay, cracking up at his rapid-fire one-liners. When we got back to campus, with a few minutes to spare before classes resumed, another student was walking through the hall where my locker bay was, and he was holding a copy of the album over his head, proclaiming it was “Marshall Mathers Day!”
Wild stuff. The hype was real, and it stayed heightened for the next few years because Eminem was controversial and talented. He was a “first of his kind” in many ways, and that distinction helped propel him into fame, but let’s acknowledge the obvious talent Eminem has at bending and twisting words into difficult cadences and rhyme patterns. He does that to tell a story, or just get some shit off his chest, or murder other emcees on record.
The Eminem Show had to follow up what must have been the wildest few years for Marshall Mathers. Drake never really started at the bottom when he arrived on scene to sing and rap his way to the top of the music world. He was a known commodity for his work in Degrassi: The Next Generation. It’s more like he went from 25 to 100. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Eminem, though, was actually at the bottom; poor white trash turned aspiring rap star who capitalized on the moment when opportunity and preparation met. He was unknown in December of 1998, and then on MTV a few months later. In May 2002, he was a global sensation, and he had another smash hit record to smack the world across the face with.
The Eminem Show is stellar. Eminem is still provocative; his sophomoric battle-rap insults haven’t yet worn out their welcome, but there’s more to Eminem on this album than even what he gave fans on The Marshall Mathers LP. He’s politically charged (“White America”). He’s exorcising more demons — another failed relationship with a woman, his mom (“Cleanin’ Out My Closet”). He’s reflecting on his affect on the youth of the world (“Sing For The Moment”). He’s praising the one female in his life that centers him, who he loves most dearly (“Hailie’s Song”). Yeah, he also talks shit about Kim and boy bands and Fred Durst, and he wraps about VD, again, but this was the lane that he created, owned, and absolutely crushed for a 5-year stretch, before the pain killers forced Eminem to re-route his career. Given all of the artists who overdosed before he became famous and all those who have overdosed just in the last few years, it’s remarkable that Eminem is still alive. We all cheered him on when downed that vodka, and we dared him to drive, just so we could watch and listen to it all go down.
Give it up to one of the best to ever do it, on the 20th anniversary of his last truly great album. Eminem still has enough juice in the tank to wreck bars and sell records, but it was Slim Shady who set the world on fire, and The Eminem Show was the final appearance of that artist, for better and worse.
“Cleanin’ Out My Closet”
I got some skeletons in my closet, and I don’t know if no one knows it/So before they throw me inside my coffin and close it/ I’ma expose it.
Eminem’s superpower is not actually his ability to bend words to form rhymes where other rappers would settle for more standard patterns and schemes. No, his power is to channel raw anger and churn that energy into a song. You listen to “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”, and you end up with emotional scars.
Nothing will slow this dude down, not the critics who want to see him censored for good and not the weight of all the bullshit that’s anchored to him from a childhood spent in neglect and trauma. He’s over it, and this song is the funeral hymn for all those skeletons.
“Sing For The Moment”
These ideas are nightmares to white parents/ Whose worst fear is a child with dyed hair and who likes earrings.
Kris Ex wrote a review for The Eminem Show in Rolling Stone magazine, and in it he called the album the “best rap-rock album in history,” and he’s probably right. Eminem produced or co-produced most of this album, and a lot of the tracks have electric guitars mixed into the beat, and a heaviness that somehow reflects the tone of rock music from the early 00s.
On this track, Eminem is looking at the impact his career has had on his young fans, one of which I was. His influence on pop culture was pretty insane, and “Sing For The Moment” is that crossroad where Eminem is at the zenith of his game, interpolating a hit from one of the most popular American rock bands (a band famous for making the first crossover rap/rock track with Run D.M.C.), with the lead guitarist from that band shredding his ax in a solo at the end of the track. It’s not quite as powerful as “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”, but “Sing For The Moment” has the gravitas of an artist with the self-awareness to recognize their impact on the form.
I got my baby, maybe, the only woman I adore.
This was not one of my favorite songs in 2002, when I was 20 and childless. Back then, the third coveted spot on my list would have gone to “Soldier”. I like Eminem in attack mode. But, this is a retrospective piece, and I have changed in the last twenty years.
One of the biggest changes in my life since then is that I’m now a dad. This track reminds me of our daughter, our first born, and all of the emotions I felt the day she arrived in our lives and what I would do to protect her. Eminem sings (poorly, but authentically) and drops one of the best rap verses of the album, celebrating getting full custody of Hailie after a long battle with her mom.