At 15 Years Old, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP Still May Reign Supreme
The problem with an incredible work is often following it up. In Hip-Hop, for every Doggystyle, there’s a Doggfather, for every Black Album, there’s a Kingdom Come, and for every Stankonia, there’s well,…wonder.
Although he had been plugging away in Hip-Hop starting in the mid-1990s, Eminem skyrocketed to fame in 1999. After stacking some standout appearances and mind-melting freestyles on compilations, the Detroit, Michigan MC caught the attention of Dr. Dre. For Dre, that aforementioned challenge of following-up greatness was ever at play. The esteemed D-R-E had a decade of dominance, from N.W.A. to The Chronic to Snoop Dogg, and so on. But after some Aftermath Entertainment pump-fakes, and a misfire with the star-studded Firm, Dre’s iron-clad hit-making reputation was giving way, especially in the face of a new crop of Electro-influenced producers (Timbaland, The Neptunes, Rockwilder). Eminem turned out to be music’s godsend.
On 1999’s The Slim Shady LP (and in their subsequent work on 2001) Eminem reinvigorated Dre. The mid-thirties producer sounded and acted young (if not immature) again—a decade removed from his antics alongside Eazy-E. Moreover, after grinding his gears in Gangsta Rap, G-Funk, and R&B, Eminem represented a challenge for Dre. He was not a West Coast artist. He was not a gangster. And he wasn’t even Black. Rap’s latest ‘Great White Hope’ was unlike his predecessors (Marky Mark, Everlast, MC Serch), and out to prove so immediately. Race was off the table, as Eminem would fight to make his calling card skills, not identity. The challenge proved inspiring. Aftermath Entertainment scored its first album to carry the “classic” moniker. The Grammy Awards christened the work with “Best Rap Album,” and Eminem suddenly contended at the top of the genre, creatively and commercially—with Dre once again being Rap’s Walt Disney of character-development.
Fifteen months later, Eminem was back. At a time when Nas, Snoop Dogg, and Jay Z (three of Em’s new-found peers) were struggling to stay consistent in releasing great works, Eminem showed no trepidation in stepping to the plate again. By present standards, this comes as a curiosity—given both Em and Dre’s penchant for hiatuses. At a time before serialized albums were the norm, or concept works were in vogue, Eminem cleverly followed up The Slim Shady LP with The Marshall Mathers LP. Self-aware, Eminem recognized the characterization (perhaps caricaturization) of his major label debut. The first album afforded Eminem the ability to be violent, demonic, a stylized homage to guys like Brotha Lynch Hung, Masta Ace, and N.W.A. M.M.L.P., in its name alone, stated that this was the man behind the artistry. Suddenly a superstar, this was Em’ void of makeup, but refusing to tone any of it down either. He was still pill-poppin’, still womanizin’, still angry, and still self-proclaimed “meanest MC” in the world.
Released 15 years ago today (May 23, 2000), The Marshall Mathers LP is arguably the most consistent follow-up album of the 2000s. In that conscious effort to share more of himself, Eminem injected the issues.
“Kill You” cleaned out the closet of Em’s home-life, just as the album got underway. However, unlike Tupac, Ghostface Killah, or other artists known to be heartfelt, Eminem used rape, drugs, suicide to illustrate his opinion on new-found fame. Angry and anxious, Eminem was finding the balance with what he’d been to those 12″/self-released fans, and what he would be to the Shady Records faithful.
“Remember Me?” is another standout. Notably, Eminem and Dre used a five year-old scathing diss against Dre (as well as Death Row, Snoop Dogg, and Tha Dogg Pound) called “A.W.O.L.” by RBX. Re-recorded, The Narrator (on his second tenure with Dre, and first with Aftermath) would use the same bridge, same anger, same angst, allow this time, he allowed Eminem to re-purpose that moxy to his baby-mother, critics, and maternal figure.
“Who Knew,” one of the six Dre productions, addressed the growing accusations that Rap music caused violence in schools. Eminem attacked the politicians and social critics who accused his music of influencing mass-murder, suicide, and profanity. In his moment, the 27 year-old stood his ground on a fight, in solidarity with Ice-T, Tupac, Marilyn Manson, and others. In the moment, while standing up for artistry, Eminem also made a Lenny Bruce-like case for freedom of speech. Exonerating himself for some of the senseless crimes dominating headlines, Marshall was not above having a laugh at the expense of the dead (Sonny Bono, Giovanni Versace) or the paralyzed (Christopher Reeve). Love him or hate him, Eminem was using his microphone as more than an amplifier on M.M.L.P.
Eminem knew how to party still. Songs like “Drug Ballad” and “Bitch Please II” had club-aimed beats. However, these songs were anything but radio-friendly. Instead, sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll was still part of Em’s persona. He made music to make it, and programmers at video and radio simply had to compromise or miss out. Following Rap’s mainstream union in the “Shiny Suit Era,” Eminem was something out of the early ’90s. This was music that had to be hidden from parents, even if parents had no choice but to know all about the foul-mouthed funnyman rapper from Motown.
While peripheral Rap listeners may not have appreciated “Kill You” or “Criminal,” “Stan” was the record the world heard. Produced by 45 King (an iconic 15-year DJ/producer not unlike Dr. Dre), the song incorporated melody, story, and suspense in a way that made it cinematic. Like other album moments, the song was deeply aware of Eminem’s fame, sales, and isolation. From the perspective of a crazed fan (played by Tiger Beat cover-kid/actor Devon Sawa), Eminem hits the chinks in his own exterior. Slim Shady LP Symbolism, such as the ’70s Chevy Monte Carlo, was at play—perhaps alluding that Em’ used to be Stan at a time not long ago. The song (an impetus in the career of Dido and her hit “Thank You”) was seemingly beloved by all. The record challenged Hip-Hop as merely party music, putting a story-driven single back on radio. The record’s structure crossed into Pop, complemented with Dido’s own parallel hit. When Elton John joined Eminem on stage at the 2001 Grammy Awards to perform the record, the song took on another significance, closing the wedge in Rap’s long-perceived homophobia. Did it stop Em from using gay-slurs though? Nope. It’s just part of who he was.
“The Way I Am” chronicled this. Eminem explained his life, his attitude, and his wishes. Before Kanye West would make anthems addressing fame and paparazzi, Eminem directed his anger at the flash-bulbs, the critics, censorship, and the total mainstream. Angry, the self-produced song is a jewel in Eminem’s catalog. In 15 years, a lot of the record has seemingly not aged a day. The antithesis of a traditional single, Eminem distributed his thoughts right into the mainstream—something that Jay, ‘Ye, T.I., Lil Wayne, and seeming ever rapper since has aimed to do.
The Marshall Mathers LP remains the pinnacle of Eminem’s career. This album is the very essence he aimed to channel when he sat with cross-legged musical yogi Rick Rubin in 2013. This is the album that helped define genre, spit in the face of convention, and get a diamond-certified response in tow. This is the album that every artist over the last 15 years hopes to end up with, in creative control, in impact, and in accolades.
The Grammy Award-winning (“Best Rap Album”) M.M.L.P. is the product of Tupac’s All Eyez On Me self-awareness and studio fury. This album has the auteur cohesion of a Dre-helmed work. Eminem brought his earliest homies with him (Bass Brothers, D12). He had far-reaching collaborations (Sticky Fingaz, RBX, 45 King) and it excited the world in theory, on paper, and especially once they pressed play.
On its 15th birthday, is there a better, more enduring or original album in the 2000s than The Marshall Mathers LP? What is your favorite moment on this works?