Can It Be It Was All So Shady Then? – “The Slim Shady LP” Revisited
Editor’s Note: This is something I wrote that appeared one year ago somewhere else to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the release of The Slim Shady LP. To commemorate the One-Year anniversary of that piece, I’ve thrown it up here. Enjoy!
“A lyricist without a clue / what year is this?”
This week marks ten years since the retail release of Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP. At a time when mainstream hip-hop was divided into the separate-but-equal territories of Shiny Suit Jiggy Millionaires and Coffee House Campfire Favorites, Slim Shady stood out as a depressing remorseless cavalcade of the grotesque that just happened to be incredibly catchy and well produced. Its content saw it become the first album to be shipped in large amounts to major retailers such as Best Buy and Target in an explicit and clean version upon its debut. It also became one of the most influential rap records of the following decade.
Debuting at number 2 behind TLC, whose “Fan Mail” became the first time a major label artist since Pearl Jam released an album without a video or single to support it, it arrived to mixed reviews and eventually moved 5,000,000 units. It’s a feat in itself that this record even got released, let alone label support and a chance to become a hallmark of the genre. In a music climate where many acted like they forgot about Dre, a battle-rapper from a region that didn’t sell who ran with artists who never got their albums released seemed like a longshot in itself. Not to mention the post-Vanilla Ice mindset that saw every white rapper in his wake attempt to obscure their whiteness in an effort to be taken seriously. Still, this was the pre-Viacom BET era when labels were still willing to take chances on larger regional artists whose unique style, seemingly beyond any frame of reference on a national level, translated into platinum records. If there was ever a time this would work, it was now.
The buzz Em had at this time caused as much apprehension as it did anticipation. While plenty of rap releases at the time namedropped sex, drugs, and violence, the subjects hadn’t really ventured into such self-reflexive territory. Em wasn’t a dealer, he was a user and in the least glamorous way possible. He murders his wife, loves his daughter, disregards the standards of the world around him and still loathes every minute of it. His reasoning is never touched upon, and the listener is left with the tragic portrait of a sociopath who is beyond any hope of remorse, rationality or ego. It connects to the worst aspects of all of us, and still finds a way to make us laugh.
While many reviews at the time wrote a lot of the content off as meaningless shock value that would age poorly (as the OJ/Kurt Cobain references from Em and his contemporaries did), but what makes so much of it hold up is Em’s stoicism. While the beats and his delivery vary thoughout the record, the vocal tones seldom change, allowing the despair of Detroit poverty to seem as much of an everyday accepted reality as throwing obese women off of diving boards and tying a rope around one’s penis in order to swing from trees. A product of the Clinton-era, Em’s emotional disconnect makes songs like “97 Bonnie and Clyde” and “As the World Turns” more haunting now than their initial release.
While he claimed Detroit, his rap style was influenced more than 20 miles away by rappers from the Garden State. Em’s always claimed his favorite full-length of all time was Redman’s Whut thee Album?, and the tremendous contrast between his Infinite Nas/AZ impressions and being a naughty rotten rhymer can be linked directly to his affiliations with Pace Won, Young Zee and the Outsidaz who took him in and embraced him as a cross-country D12 transplant. The drug-riddled tales of pulling fat chicks and brutalizing anyone impeding on their lifestyle carried through his tours with Shabaam Sahdeeq through New York’s hardest battle circuits. This translated to an attention grabbing guest-appearance gauntlet comparable in the late-90s only to Canibus whose pedigree seemed far more likely to reach rap superstardom. Still, despite Can-i-Bus’ failure, Interscope slated The Slim Shady LP for a first-quarter ‘99 release and premiered the “My Name Is” video in the Friday Night after-midnight hours of a then unhosted grandfathered block of video programming unceremoniously dubbed “Yo! MTV Raps.” Eventually it made its way into the After-Hours rotation, and people began to take notice.
On the album, Dre allowed Em to take a great deal of liberties with standard rap bylines. Several times Em builds both his storytelling arches and desolate descriptions far past the verse-chorus-verse 16-bar boundaries. Such uninterrupted flows worked both to paint Mr. Mathers as an incredible lyricist as well as beat the listener into an unrelenting submission. He heightens the uneasiness until it’s time to move-on, often with a purposely anti-climactic final bar allowing no space for closure and the nightmare to continue.
Such a nightmare is, in retrospect, exactly what makes it such a radical departure for the genre. At a time when every member of every label had to spit a verse on every song within an 80 minute album, Eminem kept the focus solely on how the world looks through his eyes. Even the two guest appearances both appear as an antagonist and vessel for Shady’s continued desecration of everything around him. He’s the worst part of the Average Joe that nobody wants to talk about. Basically, he’s Skee-Lo without the dreams. While the drug-use was a red-flag to media watchdog types, the most depraved aspect of the album is how little their use seems to blame for the Slim Shady character’s behavior. Regardless the protagonist’s sobriety, the environment is just as cruel and reality remains a steady stream of rejections. Even the happy moments are plagued with so many ultimatums and circumstances that the inevitable tragic end is openly acknowledged and accepted. The writing is similar to Common’s Resurrection in a Sense that shows someone who didn’t think anything was going to come of them baring their soul, yet decided to as a last futile attempt to connect with the world around them. Em begins this record on a mission from God to piss the world off and closes it still not giving a, well, you know. While he would forsake the unique world he created in favor of bringing his character into a 2000 American Pop Culture vacuum and offering a newly cynical approach to the world around him, The Slim Shady LP stands as a bold statement of late-90s alienated apathy and unacknowledged imagination.