Aaron Matthews doesn’t want to sit next to Carson Daly or Fred Durst.
On his second go-around, Eminem wanted to get personal, balancing the Slim Shady persona with Marshall Mathers. Putting himself under the microscope, he weighs influence and impact, evaluating and manipulating his own image of the media. It established the template for the next phase of his career: the self-loathing reclusive pop star who’s perceptive enough to understand why his music sells. And this time, he perfected the formula, going 10x platinum and introducing an entirely new audience to rap.
Recorded with frequent collaborators the Bass Brothers, with the aegis of Dr. Dre and Mel-Man, the album is laser-focused and crisply mixed. Admittedly, the beat sounds early Aughts clunky now, but “Kill You” finds Em in the best lyrical form of his life. Contrast his energetic, multi-syllabic delivery on the first verse to the dead-eyed focus of the “Recovered” version. Em’s verse on “Roman’s Revenge” might be technically flawless but there’s none of the demonic wit he demonstrated on his second record.
“Oh, now he’s raping his own mother, abusing a whore/snorting coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?”/You god damn right BITCH, and now it’s too late/I’m triple platinum and tragedies happen in two states/I invented violence, you vile venomous volatile bitches/vain Vicadin, vrinnn Vrinnn, VRINNN! [*chainsaw revs up*]/Texas Chainsaw, left his brains all/dangling from his neck, while his head barely hangs on/Blood, guts, guns, cuts/ Knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts
“Stan” was the obvious crossover success. Hell, it even won Elton over with its looped strum, melodic bass line, Dido chorus, and the tale of a crazed Eminem fan whose detailed letters went unanswered until Stan decides to re-enact “97 Bonnie & Clyde” with his own wife. It remains emotionally resonant because of Em’s attention to detail (a signed Starter cap for Stan’s little brother, self-referential allusions to his Rawkus work) and a kinetic pairing of sounds and music. We hear the pencil scratching as Stan writes to Em and rain sound effects on the third verse as Stan calls Em from his car.
Not everything holds up. I’m not sure if anyone ever needs to listen to “The Real Slim Shady” again (though “Will Smith doesn’t have to cuss to sell records/but I do, so fuck him and fuck you” is still funny and shockingly perceptive). It’s a carbon copy of “My Name Is”, a string of shock value verses over a bouncy, radio-ready Dre prescription. Playing MMLP again today, it’s striking how dated the references are — even for their time. He’s still referencing the OJ trial on “The Real Slim Shady.” It’s a formula Em would follow for the each successive first single off his following albums. He’s acknowledged it too on his pitch-perfect parody of this tendency, “My First Song”. Yet he needed to drop “The Real Slim Shady” first before he could release a song like “The Way I Am”, where he actively questions his success and the scapegoating of violent music for the Columbine shooting. Quite astutely, Em points out that the shooting received greater media coverage because it occurred in an upper class city.
On “The Way I Am” Eminem forecast his current status as veteran pop rapper fully assimilated in the major label system — even “Lose Yourself” has become a bar band staple. He’s long been canonized. The verses on “The Way I Am” are also written entirely in anapestic tetrameter, ala Dr. Seuss, an incredibly intricate system of alternating emphases. The song serves as a harbinger of a style he took on in later albums, showing off ever greater technical virtuosity for the sake of show. Here the intensity of the verse structure serves the frustration Em feels towards his success. On “I’m Back”, he mocks the notion that he influences his listeners, putting his hand into the heads of degenerates to check for his influence; if they feed into his work, they’re innocent victims that he controls.
Though he’s certainly more introspective on this album, there are only brief mentions of his life before Eminem. He briefly touches on his childhood on “Who Knew”, asking listeners to read up on how he used to get “peed on, be on free lunch, and change school every 3 months”. Later on, Em would wrestle with the issue of his upbringing more explicitly on records like “Yellow Brick Road”, where he reminisces on the difficulties of growing up a hip hop head during the Afrocentric era. The second half of the album starts to drag as the Bass Brothers & Em’s simplistic beats take over from the Dre production. “Amityville” is the closest this record comes to horror-core, bolstered by a sad feature from Bizarre, a fat man in a shower cap who raps about calling his dad a fag at his funeral and giving his mother cunnilingus. The D12 feature on “Under The Influence” is similarly underwhelming.
“Bitch Please II” unites Slim with Dre, Nate Dogg, Xzibit and Snoop over a peppy, horn-driven Dre beat and aptly showcases how Em fit into Dre’s 2001 sound with a crass, hilarious verse. “Kim” remains one of the most striking songs, a vicious and slightly ridiculous story track where Em tracks down his ex wife and drives her around berating her until ultimately killing her. That Led Zeppelin break never hit quite as hard, and backed with a chunky guitar riff and pounding piano, the production perfectly sets up his shout-rap tale. “Kim” encapsulates his relationship with his ex wife better than any other song; Em shouts “I SWEAR TO GOD I HATE YOU” and immediately follows with “OH MY GOD I LOVE YOU!/how the fuck could you do this to me?” Though he already killed her on the last album, “Kim” takes the excoriation of his wife to the next level by letting the listener hear her: an incredible intention to detail is conveyed in Em’s shout rap delivery, and his dialogue with Kim renders the tale even more disturbing.
The Marshall Mathers LP presents Eminem as the new Millennium’s self-aware star, the most conflicted, confrontational performer in pop. It’s also probably the last time the Slim Shady persona felt fresh and funny. The turn of the new millennium Eminem engaged with the world around him and ridiculed the sensational nature of American culture and constructed reality of pop music. He’d retreat further into his own hall of mirrors on the next record, but for now he was content to balance shit talk about ICP with his searing self analysis.