Matthews On Mathers is a new feature where Aaron Matthews will reevaluate the Eminem discography within the context of Marshall’s current status as parent-approved pop star. We begin where it began for most people – Eminem’s first major label record.
“My Name Is” hasn’t aged well, but it’s a good place to start. Eminem’s first single marked the first time most people of my age heard of the man born Marshall Mathers. Now, a white rapper wasn’t a new concept when Em first arrived on the scene. Instead, Eminem was revolutionary because he was a white rapper who could rap credibly without the try-hard feel of say, a Third Bass*. He was genuinely hilarious and clever in a way few rappers before him had managed to do.
It’s easy to forget how novel “My Name Is” was when it dropped. In a year when the charts were flooded with boyband pop and MOR alt-rock, Em’s transgressive, multi-syllabic riffs were a new flavour for radio-friendly rap. Em’s actual debut 1996’s Infinite is a mess but serves as an important document of Eminem’s growth. Shady was always a dedicated student of the game, and Infinite captures him as a rapper searching for a persona. Soon, Em crystallized his influences into an original voice by accentuating his nasal tone and developing an offbeat, on-beat flow similar to Masta Ace, and punchlines worthy of heroes Redman and Big L.
The Slim Shady persona that Em honed was inevitably shaped by the early horrorcore of fellow Dtown resident Esham. Not to mention Cage, but I’ll get to him later. But first, we need to return to The Slim Shady EP that formally introduced the titular persona that made Eminem famous and had most of the best tracks off the album. “The Two of Us” lost its brilliantly subversive Grover Washington Jr. Sample to become “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”, a song where Em murders his wife and dumps her in a lake with his baby daughter riding shotgun. Can’t imagine how that got him in trouble.
The EP got Eminem’s name out in 1997, as did his second place finish at the Rap Olympics. He signed with Dr. Dre at Aftermath a year later and the two started to work on Em’s The Slim Shady LP. “Guilty Conscience” sums up the chemistry between the two better than anything else on here. Dre and Em play two sides of a person’s conscience as a narrator takes us through three scenarios of moral crisis. Em amusingly serves as devil’s advocate over the plodding beat until the final scenario, when he turns on Dre for attempting to provide moral advice. Em calls out Dr. Dre for slapping Dee Barnes and rapping about guns while attempting to give someone advice.
Much of the album delves into the controversial subject matter that would eventually become Em’s bread and butter later on, but was enjoyably fresh to most listeners round ‘99. He balances shock value punchlines on songs like “I’m Shady” and “Still Don’t Give A Fuck” with somber, autobiographical reflections struggles on “If I Had” and “Rock Bottom”. The latter side would be developed later on as he explored his 2pac influence further but for now the goofy, druggy Eminem dominates.
Yes, there’s an entire song dedicated to Em apologizing for giving a girl too many ‘shrooms (“My Fault”). “Role Model” encapsulates the early Slim Shady aesthetic backed by Dr. Dre’s creeping bass line and curling guitar riff: Eminem’s elastic, spastic flow combined with a flair for imagery and storytelling. EP highlight “Just Don’t Give A Fuck” holds up well today, as Em devotes his second verse to dissing every other famous white rapper up to this point. A duet with Royce da 5’9 on “Bad Meets Evil” showcases a natural interplay between the two rappers that waited until last year to get another proper showcase.
The drug references and over-the-top violence do get a bit repetitive towards the end of the album but no one was rapping quite like Em in ’99. He was the first rapper to simultaneously transcend race while remaining indivisible from it. It’s just a shame he would never rap as loosely or as freely again. The Slim Shady LP is far from the best Eminem album, but it’s probably his most fun.
*Well, mostly Serch. Nice was fly on his merits. I mean, dude had a cane.