The Shady side of fame: Eminem's 'The Marshall Mathers LP' turns 20
Eminem shocked the audience with a surprise performance at the Oscars. Then, he reunited backstage with his old friend Elton John. USA TODAY
Twenty years after its release, Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" remains a high water mark for the Detroit rapper, an alternately caustic, shocking, angry, nauseating, thrilling statement from an artist backed into a corner and fighting his way out of it.
"The Marshall Mathers LP" arrived on May 23, 2000. CD sales were at their height: A few months prior, *NSYNC sold a record-breaking 2.4 million copies of "No Strings Attached" in one week, and Britney Spears sold 1.3 million copies of her second album, "Oops!... I Did it Again" just one week earlier.
Neither of those artists were his peers, but they were all part of the same "TRL" melting pot that acted as the focal point of pop music at the time. And both *NSYNC and Britney are mentioned on the album, part of Em's frustration at being "pigeonholed into some poppy sensation" a year earlier, after his major label debut album "The Slim Shady LP" made him a superstar.
Released just 15 months after "Slim Shady," "The Marshall Mathers LP" is Em's reaction to his overnight fame and the way he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Much of the album finds him lashing out: at the media, at his critics and at his loss of privacy, which he would never regain.
But rather than retreating, he pushes the envelope even further, becoming the monster he was accused of being. It made him an even bigger villain, and an even bigger star.
"The Marshall Mathers LP" is the album that cemented Eminem's superstardom and his role as a cultural agitator, and listening to it today there are moments that still send shudders, both for better and for worse.
The album's homophobic and misogynistic content was a focal point at the time and remains one today: "Hate f--s?" he raps on album closer "Criminal," using a derogatory term for homosexuals, "the answer's yes."
In the very next line, he attempts to both address the controversy he knew he was brewing — "homophobic? Nah, you're just heterophobic," he says — and let himself off the hook. He was stirring the pot. Today, as the shock of those moments has worn off, they simply sound dated and embarrassing, especially in the context of today's language.
Yet the album's controversial content also yielded rousing results.
"Kim" — a frantic, pitch-black fantasy about murdering his on-again, off-again wife and the mother of his children, Kim Mathers — remains the darkest track Eminem ever released, yet its distillation of rage and the dexterity of his wordplay make it one of the most effective tracks he's ever recorded.
He both raps as himself and responds as Kim, constructing a chilling house of mirrors, and in one breathtaking 20-second sequence he lyrically lays out a double homicide, suicide situation with the meticulousness of a "CSI" investigator. It's deeply troubling thematically but gripping from a technical and narrative standpoint, a horror movie set to music.
The horror of fame is Em's prison throughout the album, and "The Way I Am" finds him sorting through the newfound responsibility that he didn't ask for, the constant needling of fans and the pressures of managing his career. "I'm not going to be able to top a 'My Name Is'," he raps, although he does so on the very next track, "The Real Slim Shady," which was even more successful.
Another high point is "Stan," a cautionary tale of obsessive fandom that highlights Em's exquisite skills as a storyteller. He spends three increasingly hostile verses rapping as a loner Eminem fan and switches to himself in the fourth verse, only to realize, in real time, the person he's responding to has committed a horrific crime in the name of his toxic allegiance to Em. It's a head-spinner (and makes haunting use of Dido's "Thank You"), and it ironically gave birth to rabid online fan culture which proudly "Stans" its favorite artists. Go figure.
A handful of guests make appearances over the course of the 18-track, 72-minute album, but it's clearly the Eminem show, as his id and his demons, both personal and professional, take center stage. It's a vivid look inside the then-27-year-old's headspace and remains an intoxicating portrait of fame and its trappings.
"The Marshall Mathers LP" debuted huge, selling 1.76 million copies its first week in stores. But the push-pull of his private life and public persona was far from over, and Em was arrested outside a Warren bar just two weeks after the album's release in connection with a dispute involving Kim and an unloaded gun.
The album remained a lightning rod throughout a tumultuous year, right up until Grammy night, when Eminem performed a duet with Elton John as a way to address his accusations of homophobia.
The album was nominated for Album of the Year but lost to Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature," which wasn't the first or the last time the Grammys have gotten things wrong. (Also nominated that year: Radiohead's "Kid A," Beck's "Midnite Vultures" and Paul Simon's "You're the One.")
"The Eminem Show" followed two years later, and though sonically it sounded bigger, it lacked the urgency that makes "The Marshall Mathers LP" so personal.
And it's that personal narrative that makes it so compelling. "The Marshall Mathers LP" is a snapshot of an artist becoming one of the world's biggest stars while kicking and screaming the entire time. Prankster, villain, anti-hero, the new Elvis: "I am whatever you say I am," Em raps. "The Marshall Mathers LP" is the sound of that struggle, and that acceptance.