Eminem struggled for years to get noticed in his hometown of Detroit, releasing an album called Infinite in 1996 that failed to garner any attention. (It’s now out of print. Only about 1000 copies were made.) When the album flopped, Kim, Eminem’s girlfriend and mother to his newborn daughter Hailie, decided to move on without him, refusing him custody. Eminem overdosed on Tylenol in an unsuccessful attempt to end his life in response. It wasn’t long, however, before he achieved a creative breakthrough in the creation of his alter ego, Slim Shady. He recorded a demo tape called The Slim Shady EP and traveled to Los Angeles to compete in the Rap Olympics in 1997, where he placed second.
Representatives from Interscope Records at the event obtained a copy of The Slim Shady EP for CEO Jimmy Iovine, who played the tape for Dr. Dre, one of rap‘s most legendary producers. Dre was suitably impressed, and agreed to work with Eminem on his major label debut, The Slim Shady LP. The Slim Shady LP was a huge hit, selling three million copies in 1999 alone, and the pump was primed for the gushing success that would follow. The Slim Shady LP was largely through the perspective of Eminem’s over-the-top alter ego, Slim Shady, whose deadpan delivery deceived many listeners thanks to his extreme, exaggerated vocabulary and pitch-black humor. To those not in on the joke, Eminem came across as shocking, confrontational and downright offensive.
On a song called “Role Model,” he seemed to see this controversy coming:
I came to the club drunk with a fake ID / Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me! / I’ve been with 10 women who got HIV / Now don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me! / I got genital warts and it burns when I pee / Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me! / I tie a rope around my penis and jump from a tree / You probably wanna grow up to be just like me!
In this instance, his sarcasm is very clear, but even today it’s hard to discern whether he’s serious or not in the fantasy “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” where he disposes of Kim’s corpse and takes his daughter for himself. (The album cover chillingly alludes to it.) Eminem’s second album, The Marshall Mathers LP, is, as its title suggests, more personal, and, as its cover suggests, even darker than its predecessor. Thematically, it addresses the new challenges and dimensions fame has brought him, and it’s more from the perspective of Eminem as Marshall Mathers than Eminem as Slim Shady. The album’s lead single, “The Real Slim Shady,” found him updating everyone on who Slim Shady really was (still not sure why that was necessary), and was a logical place to start the promotional push, which by the album’s release in May of 2000 had generated a massive amount of hype.
“The Real Slim Shady” was a ridiculous satire of the TRL era that basically took a giant dump on the entire music industry. (It’s kind of dated now, but I still enjoy it.) Business was booming: *NSYNC had just sold a record 2.4 million copies of their second album No Strings Attached in the last week of the previous March alone, and Britney Spears’ second album Oops!… I Did It Again (are you kidding me with that title?) sold 1.3 million copies the week before The Marshall Mathers LP debuted. Sterile, corporate pop acts like *NSYNC and Britney Spears were selling like crazy at the time, and their success became embedded in Eminem’s subsequent stardom that summer since “The Real Slim Shady” referenced them so constantly. Eminem had slyly become a pop superstar in his own right, and his album sold close to two million copies in its first week en route to going diamond.
Eight days after the release of The Marshall Mathers LP, the first season of Survivor premiered on CBS. It became a phenomenon over the course of the summer of 2000, with a staggering 52 million viewers tuning in to watch the finale that August, creating a reality TV frenzy that has ceased to abate. (It has basically taken over cable, sadly.) I bring this up for two reasons: the first is that once Survivor arrived the music industry was no longer focused on being one of the ten most requested videos on TRL. (TRL, whose popularity I never understood in the first place, had more or less defined what was popular. Once television became besieged by reality TV, that one-hour show hosted by Carson Daly on MTV from 3:00 to 4:00 PM — or somewhere around there — faded to irrelevance.)
The second reason why I mention the explosion of reality TV is that The Marshall Mathers LP was perfect for the reality age, as rarely is art this self-aware. It’s a documentary of sorts, but like a reality TV show, is considerably warped and distorted, with real people unfairly — depending on your point of view — cast as characters in a chaotic narrative. The most troubling song of the new century is “Kim,” a prequel to “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” — the same clip is played at the end of the former and the beginning of the latter — that depicts Eminem murdering Kim and her husband — she married after leaving Eminem, apparently — and stepson in a hypomanic frenzy — he refers to his thoughts as “racing,” and his mother indicated in her book that he has struggled with bipolar disorder for most of his life — that is nothing short of disturbing.
What gives the song considerable weight is that there is undoubtedly some truth to his horrific fantasy. He and Kim had, at best, a rocky relationship, and he’s probably had the most publicly hostile marriage — they later married in June of 1999 — in recent memory; Kim saw Eminem perform the song in Detroit that July and slit her wrists afterward. She managed to survive that, but she sued Eminem for defamation and divorced him in 2001. Someone letting us into their world through their art like that just before the dawn of the reality age was, as far as I know, altogether new. (Yes, I know MTV’s The Real World was the first reality show. But Survivor was when reality TV absolutely exploded.)
Nowadays, everybody’s letting us in: we have “celebrities” like Kim Kardashian who do nothing but let us in, though I’m not included in that “us,” it should be noted; LeBron James “took his talents to South Beach” on a ridiculous hour-long television special called The Decision a couple years ago on ESPN; and you can keep track of pretty much any celebrity on Twitter. Social media, reality TV and the 24-hour news cycle has changed everything. But Eminem manages to do something entirely different: he actually lets you share his mind. Every nook and cranny is exposed, and not everything is easy to hear. The Marshall Mathers LP is a rare instance of art and life blurring into a meta-cognitive image… in perfect focus.