In this column, we continue looking at established artists by going through their career, album by album. Last time it was Foo Fighters. Today it’s the turn of one of the most widely sold and critically acclaimed artists of all time – Marshall Mathers, better known as Slim Shady or Eminem.
Note – due to space, I’m sticking to his ‘official’ studio albums and missing out his demo album, Infinity, as well as side projects like 8 Mile and Bad Meets Evil. If you’d rather read more about more obscure records next time, let me know in the comments.
Debate has raged for years over Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers): was he successful mainly because he was white? The answer’s yes – but not for the reason you think. His skin colour locked him out of the profitable gangsta rap market, and rapping about crime or drug dealing would have caused many listeners to accuse him of being inauthentic. He couldn’t even drop the ‘n word’ which most rappers throw around like sweets. Instead, he was forced to invent new ways to shock and outrage middle America. Enter Slim Shady.
The twisted alter ego of his stage name Eminem, Slim Shady said and did everything controversial you ever thought about. He baited politicians, outraged parents, made kids laugh and brought in a whole new demographic to rap music. Marshall Mathers also had another trick up his sleeve so not to alienate more hardcore listeners: his ferocious wordplay and rhyming. Casually dropping multi-syllable rhymes into the middle of lines were nothing to him. When his music first came out, they began describing him as one of the greatest white rappers ever. They quickly dropped the ‘white’.
The Slim Shady LP (1999) – The Blueprint
The story behind Eminem’s first album reads like a movie script: an unknown Detroit rapper gets his break by getting producer Dr Dre to hear his tape, and in a matter of months becomes a superstar. However if the Slim Shady LP is any genre, it’s a horror. While playing Slim Shady, Eminem wasn’t afraid to get cynical, provocative and very, very violent. It’s difficult to know what are scarier – the over-the-top gruesome fantasies, or vivid descriptions of being down and out. Nowhere is his dark persona better show than on Guilty Conscience, where Eminem and Dre trade verses as a devil and angel respectively. In the final verse, Em manages to provoke Dre – the former bad boy of rap – into losing his cool, effectively passing the torch onto his protégée.
The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) – The Masterpiece
This is without a doubt his darkest album. With a front cover of him huddled near the fireplace of his abandoned home, it dealt with subjects like his many family problems, drug use and his ‘corruption’ of teenage youth. He was accused of homophobia and misogyny, and did little to convince people otherwise. Even on his poppier tracks, he set out to offend as many celebrities as possible for the enjoyment of his listeners. However, he proved impossible to pin down. Whenever critics were prepare to write him off after his harrowing song about murdering his wife, he would release something like Stan, a touching and tragic tale of a deranged fan. His incredible wordplay and rhyming abilities were almost a footnote after his song topics. Nevertheless, it remains the best album of his career.
The Eminem Show (2002) – The Political One
After the madness of his last album, Eminem decided he had some growing up to do. That’s not to say it had no sense of humour – far from it – but Eminem was keener than ever to satirise the world at large. He was always a joker, and like Batman’s nemesis, he was skilled at holding up a mirror to society and saying: “You think I’m crazy? You made me this way!” There were still zany moments like Without Me, but the tone on a whole was more mature. He even confronted his troubled relationship with his mother and how rap music can save troubled kids. For most fans, it’s his most personal and powerful album, even if a few weaker songs kept it off the top spot.
Encore (2004) – The Disappointment
Perhaps based on expectations, Encore received rave reviews as usual when it was released, yet listening to it today, it’s hard not to wonder what went wrong. The highlights were his reflective songs – Like Toy Soldiers and Mockingbird – and his anti-Bush rant also deserves a few listens, but everything else verges on terrible. His lead singles still had a juvenile sense of humour but no meaning or purpose. His usually dexterous, quick-witting flow sounded stumbling and amateurish. Most of this was down to his increasing pill addiction which meant he was barely getting two hours sleep a night. If it had been a true encore, it would have been a terrible way to end his career.
Relapse (2009) – The Pretend Comeback
Eminem may have never been subtle, but it was a little on-the-nose to call a record Relapse while as in rehab. Thematically, he resurrected his Slim Shady character and tried to imitate the darker content that had launched his career. However, most songs sounded insincere compared to the passion of his earlier work. Many fans also complained about his constant use of accents. Eminem would later say the last two albums didn’t count as ‘Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing ‘em out.’ Either way, a slight improvement was good enough for fans after a long break from music.
Recovery (2010) – The Real Comeback
His true resurrection came in 2010 when, finally clean, he set out to work out what a ‘grown up’ Eminem album would sound like. The violent skits and songs poking fun at pop culture were gone – in their place were inspirational songs with positive messages. Both Not Afraid and Won’t Back Down were well received and showed how Eminem had changed his outlook. The lyrics were much tighter, although his duet with Rhianna showed he could still put himself in a dark place when needed. It was more earnest than his earlier work, and he still had the technical skills and wordplay to deliver his message well.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013) – The Legacy
Sequels usually suggest creative bankruptcy. Nevertheless, with some of biggest producers in music (including Dr Dre and Rick Rubin) behind him, Eminem could hardly fail. He managed to create an organic-feeling continuation of his most acclaimed song, Stan. He also produced some of the fastest, most intricate rapping of his career in Rap God. At one point, he was rapping an astonishing 10 syllables per second – not good for casual listeners, but music to the ears of his core audience. After seven albums and 16 years, he had reached the point where he could legitimately call himself a Rap God.