Eminem burst onto the scene in early 1999 as the American Culture Wars of the ’80s and ’90s reached a critical mass. President Clinton had just been subjected to an impeachment trial for lying about Monica Lewinsky, and in those less-troubled days before 9/11 it really was a wearisome event that dragged on and on, even for a ten-year-old like myself who purposely shunned cable news. The “Would somebody please think of the children?” refrain of The Simpsons‘ Helen Lovejoy (the reverend’s wife) perfectly satirized the frequent hysteria of a ridiculous era in which keeping children safe from the evils of society and protecting the institution of the American family was often given the most attention. It’s not hard to explain why. The economy was booming during the late ’90s and there weren’t any wars left to be fought, or so many claimed in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The presidential election of 2000 proved pivotal, as preserving the integrity and health of the American family emerged as the dominant issue, since times were good and the critical issues of the 2012 election cycle like the economy and foreign policy were more or less trivial. It pains me to write that. Not only did we elect someone who was ignorant and couldn’t express himself well, but somehow our country was idiotic enough to think that anyone could do the job and that really critical components of governance weren’t important. (Remember when the national debt was supposed to be completely over and done with by 2010?) Somehow enough people believed that it didn’t matter who was president, a mistake we paid the price for over the next eight years and, as the sobering HBO film about Sarah Palin reminded me recently, we thankfully didn’t repeat. Bush was a charming and genuinely nice guy, while everything about Gore was so comically boring it bordered on parody.
It’s with a distinct bitterness that I write all of that. I was twelve (nearly thirteen) when the 2000 election occurred, so I didn’t get a say. (I didn’t get a say four years later, either.) I hated that when we were young we were just supposed to shut up and take it. (I think my generation greatly resents that our elders flat-out fucked up this world and had the nerve to send us the bill.) But like it or not, I came of age during the Dubya years, and Eminem actually proved to be an important voice and a significant source of empowerment for my generation for the first half of the ’00s. The majority of rap music has always been bought by suburban white teenagers, but Eminem was someone white people could really identify with. Hip-hop rhetoric has always been popular with white kids because of its outlandish and exaggerated manner, but Eminem introduced a unique brand of satire, with disturbing, moody, hilarious, ominous, cartoonish and downright dark narratives that went beyond mere superficial shock.
No, with Eminem it was always personal. He had his own rags-to-riches story, certainly, but he never promoted a gangster image or lived the thug life, which by 1999 had gotten stale. In fact, gangsta rap had gotten so tired that rap was no longer about being a gangster en route to riches — frankly, it was just about being rich. Case in point: Cash Money Records, most famous for songs like “Back That Azz/Thing Up,” the music video of which proved to be inexplicably popular on MTV’s (inexplicably popular) TRL — then again, lots of black women shook their behinds and rappers threw money at the camera, so maybe it’s not that inexplicable after all — and “Bling Bling,” which popularized the term. Hip-hop had blossomed during a golden age in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but by the turn of the century rap had become just like everything else in the entertainment industry: corporate, sterile, and almost entirely inorganic, mass-produced on a Hollywood assembly line.
When Eminem announces his presence for the first time with those distinctive scratches that open “My Name Is,” it’s both a new beginning and a throwback to the more turntable-based hip-hop from the golden age that had gone out of style when Eminem’s mentor Dr. Dre dropped his groundbreaking solo debut The Chronic in 1992. The Chronic‘s contributions were many, but most notably Dre replaced samples with live instrumentation as he built each song, resulting in a fuller, more direct sound that used turntables much more sparingly. There’s also considerably less bass on pre-Chronic hip-hop recordings. Try listening to rap from before and after The Chronic. It’s like night and day. Dr. Dre was the first to key into using the lower registers, from what I can tell.
That’s why it’s so jarring to hear “My Name Is,” Eminem’s Dr. Dre-produced debut single, place turntables in the foreground while simultaneously using that really thick bass Dre productions are famous for. Dr. Dre produced The Slim Shady LP‘s two subsequent singles, “Guilty Conscience” and “Role Model,” as well, which are both excellent, not to mention they expand upon Eminem’s twisted sense of humor. The rest of the tracks are handled by the Bass Brothers under Dr. Dre’s supervision (he’s credited as an executive producer — on hip-hop albums, it’s common practice for producers to produce select tracks), but it’s all first-rate, and that, combined with Eminem’s considerable skill as a highly literate MC, makes The Slim Shady LP one of the best debuts in recent memory.
Eminem’s success would bring him considerable controversy, but there’s a reason why he appealed to so many of us. That Eminem was white did probably make him easier to relate to, but it was his stories, and how effectively (and often humorously) he presented them, that won us over. I remember the Culture Wars were just really suffocating, but Eminem was like Elvis to kids like me in the late ’90s and early ’00s. After 9/11, other issues besides the Culture Wars nonsense understandably moved to the foreground, and ever since Eminem followed up The Marshall Mathers LP in mid-2002 with The Eminem Show, his edge has been noticeably duller. Now you know why: the Culture Wars have faded over the past decade, and so has Eminem.
The Eminem Show was pretty good, but unlike his first two albums, it hasn’t aged as well. In retrospect, it’s much easier to understand why. I actually still to this day have never listened to 2004’s Encore — I hated “Just Lose It,” its lead single, which landed with a spectacular thud. And then, in 2005, he vanished, releasing a very cleverly titled greatest hits album called Curtain Call. His disappearance created a black hole in the music world, as the industry itself collapsed in the latter half of the 2000s. It was actually quite stunning how Eminem went from being the hugest pop star on the planet — The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show both eventually went diamond, and “Lose Yourself” was a worldwide #1 hit and even won the Oscar for Best Original Song — to being completely passé when he released “Just Lose It.”
And he hasn’t been relevant since. His recent Relapse and Recovery comeback albums were met with a collective shrug — like I said, he’s passé now. He was a moment in time and it’s over. At least his first two albums are worth their weight in pop-culture gold.