Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Slim Shady LP: Ten Years Later

Feb. 23rd 1999: The Slim Shady LP is released
Feb. 24th 1999: @#$%! Hits the Fan

Eminem hit the pop music landscape like three natural disasters at once: a hurricane (Eminem), tidal wave (Slim Shady) and earthquake (Marshall Mathers). To put it simply, this was the Extinction Level Event (E.L.E.) that Busta Rhymes was screaming about at the end of the last century. The release of The Slim Shady LP launched the career of one Hip-Hop’s most gifted poets, intelligently sarcastic humorists and greatest overall entertainers in one CD (this was the late 90’s, just before the internet and digital downloads would make selling the kind of units this album sold nearly impossible). While the album and the artist “crossed over” in every sense imaginable it does not lessen the effects that this “dirty rotten rhymer” from the Mid-west had on real Hip-Hop heads nationwide.

While Eminem’s rise through the underground (independently released albums, countless collaborations with artists destined to remain local favorites in Detroit, The Rap Olympics, The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column and his ascension to legendary battle rapper depicted in “8 Mile”) is well documented, I was largely unaware of him until I heard his first major label single, “My Name is...” in early 1999. While still a huge Hip-Hop fan a decade ago, living in Delaware, working a lot and trying to finish school and start a career were not exactly conducive to keeping my ear to the street. While I was made aware that Dr. Dre made the questionable decision to sign a white boy from The Source and a new magazine called XXL, I was unaware of just about everything else about Slim Shady (image, voice, subject matter, flow). This relative ignorance about Eminem caused The Slim Shady LP to hit me like a punch in the face, or as Xzibit would say on a later collaboration with Eminem “An overhand right from Riddick [Bowe].” I distinctly remember buying the tape (that’s not a misprint, that’s how I got down until about 2000) at a mom & pop record store and trying to figure out what was going on in the cover photo (“alright, there’s a body in the trunk, but does he have a little kid with him?”) in between classes and then going to my apartment to check it out while I ate lunch before going to work for the afternoon, luckily all of my roommates were out and I blasted the tape in my empty apartment while I prepared and ate a tuna sandwich, bag of pretzels and a lemon-lime Gatorade (yeah, I was a grown-a** man still eating lunch like a 6th grader), and needless to say, my head was blown. I liked the sarcastic tone of the Intro and the unedited version of “My Name Is...” definitely made me pause and realize this was going to be “some next @#$!,” but nothing prepared me for “Guilty Conscience.” While the concept of the record is cool and both Em and Dre are impressive on the first two verses, on the third verse (the one with Grady, the construction worker) when Shady attacks his mentor and breaks character to admonish Dr. Dre’s “Angel” for putting out violent music with NWA and having an almost forgotten altercation with a female VJ named Dee Barnes, the game was irreversibly changed. I was so shocked that somebody would say that to Hip-Hop royalty like Dr. Dre, I nearly sliced my hand open on the can of tuna. I was stunned, who did this guy think he was? Nobody talked to or about Dre like that, he had attained the kind of status afforded to legends like Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane and Rakim and after starting two movements (NWA and Death Row) it was hard to argue he didn’t deserve it. This white dude that looked like he belonged at the X-Games or performing with a rap/rock outfit had the balls to say unbelievably challenging and contrary things and the skills to back it up...I was immediately a fan.

The rest of the album is solid to say the least and largely maintains the momentum started by the first two songs. Between tales from a troubled childhood (“Brain Damage”), glimpses into his chaotic family life (“97 Bonnie & Clyde”), tales of drug use and abuse (“My Fault” and “I’m Shady”), loser anthems that would make Beck jealous (“Rock Bottom” and “If I Had”), manifestos of the Slim Shady persona (“Role Model” and “Just Don’t Give A F**k”) and insane displays of lyrical skill (“Bad Meets Evil” and “Cum On Everybody”) he raised the bar by which all Hip-Hop albums would be judged with a little under an hour of material. Eminem’s version of a “Rap Star” was so different, so ground breaking, so refreshing, that the influence of the man, album and movement quickly expanded beyond Hip-Hop to affect the much larger sphere of pop culture. In a genre where the phrase “Keep It Real” is used as often as words like “and” and “the”, this was the realest thing I’d ever heard. I am a lifetime Hip-Hop fanatic, but I have never moved weight down south, gotten chased through the projects or peeled anyone’s cap back. However, I had been bullied, had jobs/bosses/teachers I hated, been stared down for wearing Public Enemy T-shirts, been mocked as a “Wigger”, and had drama with females and disagreements with my family (these last two in relative short supply compared to Eminem), Slim Shady’s struggle was strikingly similar to my own. Most Hip-Hop heads wanted to be Jay-Z “Big Pimpin’” on the yacht with cases of Crystal and Melissa Ford, but they were Eminem: broke with personal problems, self-esteem issues and a dead end job. He was like a more articulate Kurt Cobain in that he was able to articulate the pain, anger, frustration and confusion of being a young adult at end of the 90’s the way Nirvana did almost a decade earlier.

Amidst all the controversy surrounding his debut album and subsequent releases stemming from criticism for lyrics deemed homophobic, misogynistic and promoting drug use, the aspect of Eminem’s lyrics that are most often overlooked are his ruminations about being a white Hip-Hop artist/fan at a time when this was largely unacceptable. While the burgeoning underground rap scene was picking up steam due to fans growing tired of the “Pop Rap” dominating the airwaves in the late 90’s and artists like Company Flow, Aesop Rock, Cage, Atmosphere and R.A. The Rugged Man (already a vet with a resume going back to at least ’92) gaining acceptance on college radio and putting out music through labels like Rawkus and Fondle’ Em, there had been no real presence of white artists in mainstream Hip-Hop for close to a decade. While the Beastie Boys were widely respected and artists like House of Pain and Third Bass were largely accepted as credible artists, the debacle of Vanilla Ice and his “perfect storm” of stolen beats, wack lyrics, a completely fabricated past and an unbelievably grating personality pretty much made the idea of “White Rappers” about as appealing to record labels as booking Michael Jackson to perform at a “Feed The Children” concert. Eminem passingly addressed these issues on The Slim Shady LP on cuts like “My Name Is..” and “ Brain Damage” but would really explore the issue on future albums and the movie “8 Mile”), however it is clearly significant that his general demeanor of self-doubt and low self-esteem, celebrations of self-destructive behavior and “me against the world” attitude can probably be attributed to spending decades trying to gain acceptance in a subculture that openly wanted nothing to do with him (addressed in much greater detail on later releases like “White America” and “Yellow Brick Road”). However, I am reasonably sure this aversion to white rappers in the 90’s is not really a racial issue because most white Hip-Hop fans (myself included) looked at the possibility of Dr. Dre producing a white boy like “Really, that’s how he’s gonna come back after The Firm, with a white dude? Man, all that Chronic must have got to him.” In much the same way, today’s fan’s look skeptically at female MC’s when there is no reason why a female cannot make a classic album and have a massive impact on the industry, it’s just been so long since it’s happened that it seems very unlikely. Luckily we were all proved wrong, and it should have come as no surprise because it was this same kind of revolutionary thinking that allowed Dre to turn a group with the most offensive word in the English language in their name into mainstream celebrities, make a lanky Long Beach gangster that looked strangely like a canine with a sing-songy flow into one if the biggest pop stars of the decade and release “Grown & Sexy Rap” like “Been There Done That” a full decade before Jay-Z was “Thirty Something.”

The publicity campaign following the release of The Slim Shady LP was a whirlwind of innovative and hilarious music videos, sold out shows in front crowds as varied as traditional Hip-Hop heads to the more rock-centric Van’s Warped Tour, television/radio appearances that were widely discussed (throwing subliminals at Marky Mark on TRL and his conversation with Howard Stern instantly come to mind), winning multiple awards and selling over 3 million records to become one of the biggest stars in America in less than a year on the national scene. Personally, I became one of the biggest “Stans” around, and found myself constantly making statements like “Dude, you gotta hear this guy, he’s just like us!” or “Man, you’ll love this record it’s like George Carlin and Ice Cube rolled into one rapper” some of my friends liked it and some thought I needed psychiatric counseling, but I literally could not stop talking about how much I was feeling “The Slim Shady LP.”

While Eminem became a huge celebrity following the release of his debut album, he did not rest and enjoy the spoils of fame, but continued grinding and released a string of memorable guest verses that immediately turned whatever song he was on into “an Eminem record,” completely stole the show from vets like Snoop, Xzibit, Nate Dogg, Kurupt and MC Ren with two classic verses on Dr. Dre’s undisputed classic “2001” and began work on his magnum opus “The Marshall Mather’s LP.”

Released just over a year after his groundbreaking debut, “The Marshall Mathers LP” took everything on “The Slim Shady LP” one step further: the beats were harder, the lyrics were alternately comically hilarious and deeply personal, the collaborations were bigger and the singles and videos were pop culture “events” that caused Eminem to be mentioned alongside pop-stars like Brittany Spears, N’Sync and Ricky Martin based on units sold and recognition by the general public alone. While most consider this albums’ “Stan” (a chilling series of letters from an obsessed fan told in astonishing detail) to be the rapper’s creative apex, it is an often overlooked lyric from the cartoonish first single, “The Real Slim Shady” that is truly the scariest thing the MC has ever said.

In the third verse, he begins to try and explain his popularity by stating: “In every single person/there’s a Slim Shady lurking.” With this one line he instantly summed up why tens of millions of fans identified with this demented sense of humor, warped morals and propensity for sex, drugs and Hip-Hop. The reason for Eminem’s insane popularity and status of cultural icon is not that he’s some outlandish character that people marvel at like a court jester (Flava Flav, Tommy Lee, Andy Dick) but rather because most people, and especially those that won’t admit it, have the capacity to empathize with an individual’s transformation from an everyday person (Marshall Mathers) into a monster (Slim Shady) from the daily grind of life in contemporary American society. And while the overwhelming majority of people do not act on these impulses (thankfully) they were immensely satisfied to see someone act on their most base instincts and say things they were too scared to say themselves. Most fans, myself included, found it cathartic to listen to this man’s dizzying rhymes about how bad pop music had become, the idiocy of the film and music industry and the rampant hypocrisy in politics/religion/education/gun control/drug laws and sexual politics. While I didn’t agree with everything Shady had to say, I absolutely enjoyed hearing his opinions as opposed to some other rapper talk about his chain or the rims on his car.

“The Marshall Mathers LP” made Eminem an even bigger star and sold 10 Million copies worldwide (an impressive feat even by late 90’s/early 00’s standards) and turned the man into an icon. The release of the critically acclaimed blockbuster “The Eminem Show” in 2002 showcased a slightly more mature MC, and dealt with the trappings of fame and the effects of his career responsibilities on his family, however, these new topics did not detract from the entertainment value of “Slim Shady”, but added to it in a way that has not been seen since Biggie got his grown man on with “Life After Death.” Following the release of his third consecutive multi-platinum and universally respected LP he released the semi-autobiographical “8 Mile” about the battling scene in Detroit in the mid-90’s which was not only a huge hit, but introduce legions of fans to “Battle Rap” and became the “Rocky” for generation-X.

While Eminem’s post-“8 Mile” output has been hit-or-miss at best due the mostly inferior material on his fourth album “Encore,” an extended hiatus, questionable signings to his Shady Records imprint (D12 and Cashis), failure to release material from exciting new talent associated with the label (Obie Trice, Stat Quo, Bobby Creekwater), efforts to fit into today’s musical landscape (collaborations with TI and “Crack A Bottle”), and replacing lyrics filled with satire and social commentary with fart jokes and bathroom humor, it is damn near impossible to argue his impact on the game or the brilliance of his early material.

While the internet goes nuts about “Top 5 Dead or Alive” lists it is hard to argue Slim Shady was not the best MC in the game from the release of “My Name Is…” in early 1999 through the end of 2002 when he introduced the world to Hip-Hop’s next megastar 50 Cent. During this period Biggie and 2pac had both passed away, even though ‘Pac somehow released an endless stream of “new” material and the majority of Jay-Z’s classic material (minus “The Blue Print,” which itself had a verse from Eminem that was just effin’ bananas) came out before (“Reasonable Doubt” and “Vol. II…Hard Knock Life”) or after (“The Black Album” and “American Gangster”) this period. It is hard to keep a straight face and say any of the other commercially viable artists flourishing during this period like Nelly, Ludacris or Ja Rule could even be mentioned in the same sentence as Mr. Mathers. While you can possibly make a credible argument that he’s not “Top 5” it’s difficult to contest his complete domination of the years immediately preceding and following the millennium.

A decade after its’ release “The Slim Shady LP” still bangs like it came out yesterday and in today’s climate of ringtone ready one-hit wonders, tight jeans and autotune, real Hip-Hop heads long for the days when “that white kid Dre signed” dominated the music industry with sick rhymes and innovative song structure that elevated the entire game to the next level.

1 comment:

Brian said...

hell yea man. i enjoyed reading this. he's a pop genius. and your a good writer, man. keep it up.