How Eminem Peaked With ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ and ‘The Eminem Show’
The way that Nas tried in vain to duplicate the impossible magic of Illmatic or Jay-Z has attempted to use personal favorite Reasonable Doubt as his blueprint, a 46-year-old Eminem recently confessed that he has been toiling, with varied results, under the shadow of his turn-of-century masterpiece, The Marshall Mathers LP.
“I’ma be 100 percent honest: I feel like—and I’ve felt like this for a long time—I’ve always been chasing The Marshall Mathers LP,” Eminem tells interviewer Sway Calloway in February’s virtual-reality short film, Marshall from Detroit. “Because I know that captured a moment, you know what I’m saying? It’s kind of like a time capsule, when I look back at it. The times that it was back then and the turmoil in my life that was happening.”
That turmoil, both internal and external, manifested itself in a pair of beautifully wretched May flowers that celebrate anniversaries within days of each other.
If 1999’s The Slim Shady LP, Em’s major-label debut, introduced the world to a lyrical monster, The Marshall Mathers LP (released May 23, 2000) and The Eminem Show (released May 26, 2002) proved that this monster had layers and ideas and staying power beyond your mom’s wildest nightmares.
This was Eminem striking his creative and commercial peak all at once—and bucking the notion that doing so was oxymoronic in hip-hop. These two ambitious, toxic and unhinged genius strokes would forever change the life of their author, and legions of his loyal listeners.
“I flew coach until The Marshall Mathers LP came out," Eminem explains in his 2008 autobiography, The Way I Am, titled after MMLP’s second single. "You don’t know how famous you are until you’re sitting in coach and people won’t leave you the fuck alone and let you sleep.”
He continues: “I don’t feel like I made music that sold me out. I made pop joints, yes, but my lyrics and flow and command of the beat were always pure hip-hop all the way. I was spitting the same. The only difference was that a whole lot more people were checking me out and supporting my art.”
Recorded during a two-month-long creative binge, during which the faux blond would hole up in the studio for 20-hour sessions, Mathers LP detonated upon impact 19 years ago, selling 1.76 million copies in its first week, making it the fastest-selling rap album in history (a record previously held by Snoop Doggy Dogg’s 1993 Doggystyle) and the fastest-selling album by any solo artist until Adele sold more than 3 million copies of 25 in November 2015. It would spend eight weeks atop the U.S. Billboard 200 and has now sold well over 11 million copies in America and more than 35 million copies worldwide.
Two springs later, The Eminem Show proved the SoundScan darling was no fluke, as the pride of Detroit became the only rap act to record two diamond-certified LPs (10 times platinum) without the aid of the double album and despite bootlegged leaks. Like its predecessor, The Eminem Show would also sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. It debuted atop the charts, set up camp there for five weeks in both the U.S. and U.K., and gave Eminem the first Grammy threepeat for Best Rap Album.
The Eminem Show and The Marshall Mathers LP would be the third- and seventh-bestselling albums of the aughts, respectively, helping Eminem become the bestselling artist in the U.S. between 2000 to 2009. And their relevance endures. This January, MMLP became the oldest Eminem album to be streamed more than 1 billion times. The Eminem Show is approaching 2 billion plays on Spotify and is the most streamed studio album of the 2000s.
The numbers boggle the mind, and the respect is universal. Critics salivated over these CDs, trophies at international award shows stacked up, and Rolling Stone included both in its ranking of the 500 greatest albums of all time. A co-headlining slot on Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s iconic Up in Smoke Tour in the summer of 2000 cranked the momentum.
But what made these records so impactful on such a wide scale, to the point where an Eminem coined word, stan—the title of MMLP’s psychotic obsessive-fan epistolary ballad—has entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
For starters, the production (overseen by a hands-on Dre, still in the throes of his own peak) is crisp and clean, brash and funky, and, in the case of Eminem Show, spiked with familiar classic rock samples and flairs. The hooks are fresh and instantly memorable, be it via their audacity (“Kill You”), honesty (“Cleanin’ Out My Closet”), melancholy (“Stan”), ferocity (“The Way I Am”) or sheer catchiness (“The Real Slim Shady,” “Without Me”).
Most importantly, Eminem himself is a focused, furious tour de force, making the giant leap from battle-rap expert and shock-rap curioso to four-dimensional artist with issues and beefs and razor-sharp points of view that he can package in zillion bite-sized, sneaky-potent punch lines (“Who Knew”) or explore in fully realized conceptual pieces (“White America,” "Sing for the Moment").
Eminem’s headline-snatching lyrical controversies of the day—be it spiteful homophobia, arresting domestic violence or pop-star targeting (Britney Spears, NSync, Moby, et al.)—surely helped sales, but if anything they distracted from the talent and the drive behind the thing.
“Shit was happening so fast and spiraling out of control. I had a lot of rage,” a reflective Mathers told Sway in the aforementioned 2019 interview. “When people say they miss the old Eminem, I feel like it’s probably that. You miss the rage. I don’t have the rage anymore that I used to have, but I still have the exact same passion. Sometimes it doesn’t always come out the right way, and it’s like: ‘What the fuck is that? Take a pause, man.’”
From 2000 through 2002, that rage was coming out in precisely the right way: irreverent (“Marshall Mathers”), unpredictable (“Kim”), personal (“Cleanin’ Out My Closet”), ridiculous (“Under the Influence”), political (“Square Dance”) and hella fun (“Business”). At full stride, Eminem was at once hilarious and dead serious, violent and thoughtful, infuriating and exhilarating, inviting hate and impervious to it.
“There’s nothing you can do to me/Stab me, shoot me,” he dares his haters on “Square Dance.”
Such a creative/commercial run cannot last forever, of course. The Eminem Show’s follow-up, 2004’s Encore, was rushed due to leaks. Its weak tracks are glaring. The inspired sense of purpose is absent, and Mathers later admitted that his drug dependency resulted in one of his weaker efforts. A significant sales dip (Encore “only” went quadruple platinum) reflected the effort.
“I’m cool with probably half that album," Eminem says. "I recorded that towards the height of my addiction. I remember four songs leaked and I had to go to L.A. and get Dre and record new ones. I was in a room by myself writing songs in 25, 30 minutes because we had to get it done, and what came out was so goofy.”
While sobriety helped Eminem course-correct his output—2010’s Recovery was a well-received return to form, and 2018’s Kamikaze reminded that he can still release the Kraken—today the rap god sounds like an artist who knows that sales ain’t ever going to be what they used to be. What’s left to prove?
“I don’t know who I’m competing with [now],” Eminem admits, comparing his MMLP self to his current position. “There’s a lot of great rappers and artists coming up in this generation now. I’m watching it, and I’m loving it, and the competitive spirit in me wants to keep up with the best of the best.” —Luke Fox
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