At the tail end of his career, Eminem is at a crossroads between legacy and longevity. We revisit his meteoric rise from trailer parks to superstardom to make sense of this glaring dissonance.
As someone who fell in love with rap after buying The Eminem Show in 2002, watching Marshall Mathers tarnish his legacy for the better part of a decade has been extremely difficult. His fan base is split between the die-hard demographic that flocks to every release with unwavering adulation, and the former stans that objectively see the sharp decline in his artistry.
Every recent Eminem album seems to be predicated on two things: addressing the backlash of the previous one, while also acknowledging the extent of his responsibility in its reception. He operates with an uncomfortable blend of insecurity and self-awareness, and while some of the slander is warranted, it’s crucial to understand that his fall from grace goes beyond music – a life filled with tragedy and unhealthy coping mechanisms has left him a shell of his former self.
Marshall Before Slim Shady
17-year old Debbie Mathers nearly died during the 73-hour birth of her son, Marshall Bruce Mathers III. He spent most of his childhood shuttling from place to place with his single mother — whom a social worker described as having a “very suspicious, almost paranoid personality” — staying in public housing projects or with relatives for no longer than a year or two at a time. He occasionally wrote letters to his estranged father in California, but they always came back unread, marked ‘Return to Sender’.
When Marshall turned 14, he finally settled down on the East side of Detroit in a predominantly black, lower-class neighborhood, but he had already developed an overwhelming sense of alienation from moving around so frequently; his aloof demeanor, skin color, and small frame rendered him a constant target for bullying. D’Angelo Bailey, who was the inspiration behind “Brain Damage” on The Slim Shady LP, knocked Marshall unconscious at school one day, and he suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage after bleeding out of his ear.
I was beat up in the bathrooms, in the hallways, shoved in the lockers — for the most part for being the new kid. What got me through this phase of my life was rapping. I found something.”
Marshall dropped out of Lincoln High School after failing his freshman year for the third time, but on the weekdays, he would sneak into neighboring Osborne High School with Proof to hustle unsuspecting students for money (the dynamic duo developed a rap version of White Men Can’t Jump). On the weekends, he went to the Hip-Hop Shop on West 7 Mile to participate in open-mic contests hosted by Proof. His opponents at both battlegrounds soon learned to be wary of the fair-skinned MC.
As soon as I grabbed the mic, I’d get booed. Once motherfuckers heard me rhyme, though, they’d shut up.”
In 1996, Eminem recorded his first independently-released album, Infinite, at a small studio owned by the Bass Brothers on 8 Mile Road. Unfortunately, it only sold around 70 copies and didn’t garner much love nor attention from the local radio stations; he was written off as a triple-timing amateur who sounded like Nas and AZ.
After that record, every rhyme I wrote got angrier and angrier. A lot of it was because of the feedback I got. Motherfuckers was like, ‘You’re a white boy, what the fuck are you rapping for? Why don’t you go into rock & roll?’ All that type of shit started pissing me off.”
The Birth of Slim Shady
At a crossroads, Eminem came up with the concept of an alter-ego while sitting on the toilet. This bowel-induced epiphany led to his second project, The Slim Shady EP, which he recorded with the Bass Brothers in the spring of 1997. At the time, he was living with his girlfriend Kim and a newborn Hailie in a crime-infested neighborhood — even a stray bullet through the kitchen window wasn’t enough to pack up and leave — but after a burglar cleaned out their entire place and only spared the couches and beds, they were forced to move into the attic of Kim’s parents’ house. They couldn’t even stand upright in the suffocating crawl space, and had a single mattress on the floor.
Eminem was flipping burgers and washing dishes at a small family restaurant called Gilbert’s Lodge for $5.50/hour, clocking 60-hour weeks to make ends meet after Hailie was born. He ended up taking a separate lease out with some friends, and after running through the competition at local showcases, Eminem took his talents across the country to participate in the annual Rap Olympics in Los Angeles. The night before his trip, he came home to an eviction notice hanging on the door, forcing him to break into his own place and sleep on the floor with no heat, water, or electricity.
The winner of the Rap Olympics got $500 and a Rolex watch, and since he no longer had a home to return to, winning the cash prize was imperative. Eminem was heartbroken after choking in the finals, but an Interscope employee in the crowd was impressed by his performance and asked for a CD. The Slim Shady EP reached the ears of co-founder Jimmy Iovine, who immediately called Dr. Dre after listening to it.
In my entire career in the music industry, I have never found anything from a demo tape or a CD like this. When Jimmy played this, I said, ‘Find him. Now.’”
The Slim Shady LP
Eminem’s major-label debut was released on February 23, 1999, and the world was introduced to his alter-ego. The Slim Shady LP was a polarizing body of work: a white boy from Detroit with a penchant for horrorcore raps and disturbingly graphic depictions of hyper-violence, but it was his sprawling vernacular, multi-syllabic rhyme schemes, and cartoonish flow that had rap aficionados intrigued. Dr. Dre’s new protege seemed to be a diamond in the rough, and we would later learn that glimmer of potential went far beyond his profanity-laced antics or even technical abilities.
The Slim Shady LP went on to sell 5 million copies and got Eminem his first Grammy, but critics were quick to denounce an album filled with murder, misogyny, and homophobia. Society was deathly afraid of the influence he would have on millions of young and impressionable fans throughout the world, and understandably so. Regardless, it was naive to assume that this was simply a case of a degenerate rapper with a sadistic sense of humor.
This album is the result of a man at his wit’s end, singularly driven by a mounting desperation that finally pushed him over the edge and into the abyss — all of his life’s failures and grievances, both personal and professional, had culminated into a cathartic tour-de-force that birthed the alter-ego we love to hate: Slim Shady. In simpler terms, this was his way of exacting revenge on the world that had done so much wrong to him. With absolutely no regard for mainstream appeal or political correctness, he decided to dive headfirst into the shark-infested waters of the music industry. If Marshall drowned, he was hellbent on doing it on his own terms. Slim Shady rapped like the devil incarnate and embraced his glaring flaws with self-deprecating humor and wit.
With the exception of “If I Had,” “Rock Bottom” is the closest glimpse we get into Marshall Mathers on The Slim Shady LP. While the rest of the album centers on the violent escapades of his alter-ego, this song errs on the side of a more easily relatable sentiment, exposing the bare bones behind Slim Shady after the facades and bravado are stripped away. Following the disappointment of Infinite, Eminem binged more than 20 codeine pills, and was found in the restroom lying in a puddle of his own puke. To add insult to injury, he was fired from Gilbert’s Lodge just five days before Hailie’s first birthday (which was also Christmas). With only $40 in his pocket, Eminem wrote “Rock Bottom” that same night.
I feel like I’m walking a tight rope without a circus net
Popping Percocet, I’m a nervous wreck
I deserve respect but I work a sweat for this worthless check
I’m about to burst this Tec at somebody to reverse this debt
Minimum wage got my adrenaline caged
Full of venom and rage, especially when I’m engaged
And my daughter’s down to her last diaper, it’s got my ass hyper
I pray that God answers, maybe I’ll ask nicer
My life is full of empty promises and broken dreams
I’m hoping things look up, but there ain’t no job openings
I feel discouraged, hungry and malnourished
Living in this house with no furnace, unfurnished
And I’m sick of working dead-end jobs with lame pay
And I’m sick of being hired and fired the same day”
Eminem understood how fickle a rap career could be, so he was extremely wary of the commercial success of The Slim Shady LP. With his signing bonus, he bought a modest used ’93 red Camaro for $1,200, and instead of buying a house, he took over the payments on his mother’s trailer in order to have a place to stay in between touring. During his first interview with Rolling Stone, they pulled up to his mobile home to find an eviction notice on the door; it was an eerie reminder of his past, as well as the uncertainty of his future.
The Marshall Mathers LP
Eminem dropped The Marshall Mathers LP in the summer of 2000, offering a captivating look into his introspective side. After being thrust into notoriety at a rocket-like trajectory, his newfound celebrity allowed him to channel a different kind of anger and avoid the cursed sophomore slump. His first single, “The Real Slim Shady,” was merely an extension of the last album, as he viciously attacked pop stars and celebrities with a barrage of insults and rapid-fire rhymes, but the next two singles would encapsulate Eminem’s brilliance in a way that Slim Shady never could.
“The Way I Am” was the first song Eminem produced on his own, and it was a response to Interscope asking him to write another pop song. It begins with the toll of a bell — an ominous sound that acts as an anchor and continues to linger in the backdrop — and the harrowing keys, rumbling bassline, and frenetic snares set a somber, cinematic soundscape that directly opposes the bombastic bounce of “The Real Slim Shady”. This was the antithesis of a radio-friendly single, and his slightly off-pocket flow and aggressive delivery create a palpable tension as he speaks on the pressure of recreating the success of his explosive debut, holier-than-thou critics galloping around on their high horses, and overzealous fans invading his privacy.
His final single, “Stan,” is a disturbing narrative that’s heralded as one of the greatest displays of storytelling in hip-hop. The first three verses are written from the perspective of an obsessed fan; you could practically feel the ink bleeding from Stan’s pen as he wrote those letters, and you were right there on the bridge as he drove his car into a lake with his pregnant girlfriend tied up in the trunk. It’s an incredible feat when you can tap into a mentality that’s so far removed from your own, and he did so with excruciating detail and emotion. Eminem gave an absolute clinic on one of the highest forms of artistry, silencing his critics and reminding young fans to take Slim Shady’s words with a grain of salt.
Eminem performed this song at the 2001 Grammys with Elton John, and it was a visceral moment that still stands as one of the greatest live performances ever. In 2017, the word ‘Stan’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity”.
I loved you Slim, we coulda been together, think about it
You ruined it now, I hope you can’t sleep and you dream about it
And when you dream, I hope you can’t sleep and you scream about it
I hope your conscience eats at you and you can’t breathe without me”
The Marshall Mathers LP sold almost 2 million copies in just the first week of its release and became the fastest-selling solo album in music history across all genres. Though it was more personal than its predecessor, Eminem continued to weave reality and fiction together in a whirlwind of rhymes, seamlessly slipping in and out of his Slim Shady persona while delving deeper into autobiographical elements such as his troubled childhood, struggle to cope with the repercussions of his superstardom, and unstable relationships with his mother and wife.
Eminem’s personal matters were often subjected to extensive public scrutiny throughout his career, and his life began to feel more like a show or a movie — his next album showed us that he understood his role.
The Eminem Show
Em dropped The Eminem Show in the summer of 2002 and effectively cemented himself as the greatest rapper alive. He left Slim Shady on the back burner for this one, proving to naysayers that shock value was never a crutch to maximize publicity and secure sales. This was Eminem at his most lucid and mature, and it was complemented by a distinctly defiant sound — the majority of it was self-produced with heavy influences in rock and roll.
The album’s first single, “Without Me,” had the obligatory Slim Shady bounce, and the rest of the album shifts to a sobering focus on the pitfalls and confines of fame. He had reached unimaginable heights over the past few years, but as he raps on “Say Goodbye Hollywood,” “I’m trapped, if I could go back, I never would have rapped // I sold my soul to the devil, I’ll never get it back”.
“Sing for the Moment” was the first song that he wrote for this album, and he addresses the influence of his music on the youth as well as his trouble with the law (he was literally signing autographs for the cops while getting booked at the precinct). This last verse is among his greatest of all time.
That’s why we sing for these kids who don’t have a thing
Except for a dream and a fuckin’ rap magazine
Who post pin-up pictures on their walls all day long
Idolize their favorite rappers and know all their songs
Or for anyone who’s ever been through shit in their lives
So they sit and they cry at night, wishin’ they’d die
‘Til they throw on a rap record, and they sit and they vibe
We’re nothin’ to you, but we’re the fuckin’ shit in their eyes
That’s why we seize the moment, try to freeze it and own it
Squeeze it and hold it, cause we consider these minutes golden
And maybe they’ll admit it when we’re gone
Just let our spirits live on, through our lyrics that you hear in our songs”
And, as a kid who internalized Eminem’s lyrics and wore it like a suit of armor, that’s exactly what he was for me. I can still picture countless nights in my Koreatown apartment — whenever my parents argued in the living room, the shouting always pierced the thin walls, and I would drown it out by blasting The Eminem Show on my Walkman. Whether it was gung-ho teachers waving picket signs in front of schools, overprotective parents with fanny packs protesting at PTA meetings, or senior citizens in tailored suits reading lyrics aloud at congressional hearings, some people were incapable of understanding that kids like me found solace in the same things that they loved to condemn and demonize.
I seen an interview with Tupac once — he was a huge influence on my life — where he said if you see a rose growing in concrete, you’ll stop and look at it. It could be the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen, and instead of wondering how this rose grows from concrete, all you want to talk about is how the stem leans to the side and the petals are dried up. The fact that the rose is growing from concrete isn’t enough to amaze you, you want to pick out all of the things that are wrong with it.”
8 Mile was released in November of 2002, and it seemed to be just another checkpoint in Eminem’s unprecedented run; the gritty biopic generated $51 million in its opening weekend. He wrote “Lose Yourself” in between shooting scenes and recorded all three verses in one take (while on set), and became the first rapper to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The soundtrack sold around 4 million copies, and the movie went on to gross almost $250 million worldwide.
The Perils of Superstardom & Addiction
Before anything, Marshall Mathers is a kid who fell in love with rap like the rest of us, and his upbringing is firmly entrenched in the culture: he idolized the rap forefathers that preceded him, filled his walls with magazine cutouts and posters, scribbled endless rhymes in piles of loose leaf notebooks, and spent years battling at open mics and lunch tables. But after 2 diamond certified albums, 10 number-one albums (8 consecutive), 15 Grammys, and 220 million records sold globally, Eminem has become a victim of his own superstardom.
Despite his success, devastating loss has punctuated nearly every stage of Eminem’s life.
His uncle Ronnie (who he mentions on “Stan” and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet“) was only two months older than him, and they were an inseparable pair during his early years. Eminem was 11 years old when Ronnie showed him his first rap song, “Reckless” by Ice T, and they spent most of their time together recording tapes. A little less than a decade later, Ronnie committed suicide with a shotgun over the heartbreak of an unrequited love, and Eminem was so distraught that he didn’t attend the funeral, refused to speak for weeks, and stopped writing for an entire year. Tragically, history would repeat itself — his other uncle, Todd Nelson, also committed suicide and shot himself on Eminem’s birthday in 2004.
Eminem first met Kim when he was 15 years old, rapping LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” while standing shirtless on top of a table. The dysfunctional pair fell madly in and out of love for the next two decades: they married in 1999, divorced in 2001, remarried in January 2006 and divorced again April of that same year. In 2000, Kim Mathers attempted suicide by slashing her wrists after seeing Eminem perform “Kim” at the Up in Smoke tour, a song that he promised her not to do live — she sued him for defamation later that year.
In 1999, Eminem’s mother filed a $10 million lawsuit for slander after the release of The Slim Shady LP. He never shied away from publicly attacking her failure as a mother, but after nearly an entire career of making her the center of his violent fantasies and airing out his grievances on wax, Eminem finally apologized to Debbie Mathers on “Headlights,” a heartbreaking song on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 released in 2013.
‘Cause to this day we remain estranged, and I hate it though
‘Cause you ain’t even get to witness your grandbabies grow
But now the medication’s takin’ over
And your mental state’s deterioratin’ slow
And I’m way too old to cry, the shit is painful though
But, Ma, I forgive you, so does Nathan, yo
All you did, all you said, you did your best to raise us both
Foster care, that cross you bear, few may be as heavy as yours
And although one has only met their grandma once
You pulled up in our drive one night
As we were leavin’ to get some hamburgers
Me, her and Nate, we introduced you, hugged you
And as you left I had this overwhelming sadness
Come over me as we pulled off to go our separate paths and
I saw your headlights as I looked back
And I’m mad I didn’t get the chance to
Thank you for being my mom and my dad”
Eminem was in a rap collective called the Dirty Dozen, formally known as D12. They spent their early days sleeping on couches and recording in basements, and formed a group pact on nothing but their word and a firm handshake — whoever made it out first would come back for the rest of them. Eminem delivered on that promise and signed D12 to Shady Records in 2001, and their debut album Devil’s Night went double-platinum. Unfortunately, years of camaraderie can be eclipsed by greed and resentment when money and fame are involved, and Eminem addressed the break-up of D12 on “Stepping Stone” off of his latest album, Kamikaze.
It was never the same, and it’s bothered me since
And the farther we drift apart, the more awkward it gets
Been with you guys thick and thin
But it’s almost as if sometimes we’re not even friends
I honestly wished I ain’t feel so much guilt and y’all didn’t harbor resentment
But it’s hard to pretend that y’all ain’t got none
I just wish I had words, but I guess there just are none for this
To my partners, I can’t say how sorry I am
This is not how I planned for our story to end
I love all of you men”
And most importantly, the death of his closest friend and confidante. DeShaun “Proof” Holton was shot and killed at a nightclub in Detroit following an alcohol-fueled dispute over a game of billiards. In a eerie twist of fate, the music video for “Like Toy Soldiers” predicted Proof’s death two years earlier, as it featured a graphic scene with the late rapper bleeding out on the operating table from a gunshot wound.
I can’t even bring myself back to the place I was when I heard what happened to Proof. I have never felt so much pain in my life. It’s a pain that is with me to this day. A pain that has become a part of who I am. I got in my car at 7 o’clock in the morning to go see Proof in the hospital, and he was just laid out. It was the worst day of my life. I remember thinking, not Proof, not Proof, not Proof… Proof was kind of my rock, you know? His death brought me to my knees.”
They lived on the same block growing up, and when Eminem was on the brink of giving up on rap, Proof introduced him to Paul Rosenberg, who remains his manager to this day. And you could always find Proof right by Eminem’s side at nearly every live performance, donning a suede sweatsuit and bucket hat, controlling the crowd with unrivaled charisma.
He was a brilliant cat who saw things in me that I didn’t see yet, and I guess I was smart enough to understand that he was the dude who could somehow save my life. I had been drowning for so long. Proof was like a hip-hop raft and a true brother from another mother. He had this ability to not only nurture my talent, but to see that diamond in the rough when a million people could be looking at the same thing and just not see it.”
Eminem’s Fight for Sobriety
Eminem maintained his sanity with a debilitating drug dependency, and two years after a failed rehab stint in 2005, he was hospitalized for an overdose on methadone — the doctors said that he had the equivalent of four bags of heroin in his system and was about two hours from dying. Eminem fully recovered by 2008, and Relapse was the first album he delivered in the wake of his newfound sobriety. It was an entire album of Dr. Dre beats, Middle Eastern accents, and violent Slim Shady antics. While it was an enjoyable listen with amazing production and incredible displays of technicality, it wasn’t what we needed after a five-year hiatus. The single redeeming track, “Beautiful,” was a haunting return to form that predicted his decline nearly a decade ago. Ironically, the greatest song on Relapse was the same one that acknowledged his worst fear:
I don’t know how or why or when
I ended up in this position I’m in
I’m starting to feel distant again
So I decided just to pick this pen
Up and try to make an attempt to vent
But I just can’t admit or come to grips with the fact
That I may be done with rap, I need a new outlet”
He released Recovery the following year, and even criticized Relapse in a few verses:
In fact, let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was—ehh
Perhaps I ran them accents into the ground
Relax, I ain’t goin’ back to that now”
Though it was commercially successful and critically acclaimed for its mature and introspective content, his pop-friendly approach felt lackluster. Fans were hopeful when Eminem announced the title of his next album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but it failed to be a proper sequel to his magnum opus. It was a victim to the same muddled and monotonous production as Recovery, and although both albums definitely had a few standouts, they were still a far cry from the standard that he set during his golden years. While he continued to stray further away from the essence of his brilliance, Dr. Dre had moved onto contemporaries like Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem retreated further into his cocoon in between albums.
Four years later, Eminem released a tracklist with features that left fans scratching their heads: Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys, Skylar Grey, and Kehlani. Upon its release, Revival was universally panned by both fans and critics. His mounting frustration reached a boiling point, and Eminem lashed out in a surprise album called Kamikaze.
Once upon a time, Eminem was fueled by criticism in a way that allowed him to channel his anger into brilliant strokes of artistry like SSLP / MMLP / TES, but with his recent efforts of redemption-by-lyrical-miracle-rappity-raps, a glorious return to form like Jay-Z’s 4:44 seems like an impossibility. With nobody in his immediate circle to convince him otherwise, every subsequent attempt to satisfy his fans and silence his critics has been another nail in the coffin.
The vice grip that he once held on the culture is slipping through his fingers, and he refuses to let go and bow out gracefully. He’s steadily brought in new talent to surround and revitalize himself with throughout the years, but the graveyard of artists at Shady Records seem to be a reflection of his own career as of late: D12, Obie Trice, Stat Quo, Bobby Creekwater, Cashis, and Slaughterhouse.
We must remember that he’s already given us multiple bonafide classics — visceral bodies of work born of pain, rage, and drugs. This grim trifecta is a tried and true formula for Eminem, but if drugs can no longer fulfill the unsettling emptiness in his gaze (and his music), then so be it. Marshall Mathers has been through hell and back throughout his life, and his struggle to reconcile with his decline is a sobering reminder that he’s a human being like the rest of us. He is still prone to failing miserably and dealing with the crippling insecurities that follow, and he can still feel like he’s right when the rest of the world says he’s wrong.
Eminem’s spot on rap’s Mt. Rushmore is carved in stone, but he must be wary of chipping away at his legacy.