Eminem’s ‘The Slim Shady LP’ Turns 20
Twenty-odd years ago, Marshall Mathers crawled out of the industrial skeleton of Detroit to introduce himself to a world that was simply not ready for his arrival. At the time, hip-hop had just become a commercial juggernaut — making EPMD’s Parrish Smith’s notion from earlier in the decade seem positively quaint: “Rap has been around long, making mad noise you see/Still I haven’t seen one rapper living comfortably.” Newly flush with cash, the rap community was determined to keep cultural appropriators on the outside.
With the possible exception of the Beastie Boys, white rappers were “white rappers” — novelty acts that were propelled forward largely for their ability to conflate mimicry and tribute. They loved the culture, as it related to b-boy trappings, but neither possessed nor could articulate the anger, frustration and hopelessness that hip-hop’s constant boasting effectively masked.
They were not artists, but played them on TV, and were treated as such by a music community already burned by the musical gentrification of blues, jazz and soul.
That all changed in 1999, upon the release of The Slim Shady LP — a perfectly imperfect body of music, overwhelmed by its blonde-haired, blue-eyed protagonist who was so verbally skilled he was impossible to ignore.
Although he himself was battling a commercial nadir, it was still a gamble for Dr. Dre: taking a chance on a Garbage Pail kid with a limitless vocabulary and a nihilistic view of the world. A battle-rapping wasp who told grim stories about how badly his life sucked without sparing himself from humiliation. Radio-unfriendly music for hardcore rap music fans that had only existed in abstract.
There was no blueprint, no grand plan for chart success. Eminem rapped about killing his mother and other women, date raping underage girls, using and abusing drugs. He hectored Dr. Dre about his own personal failings while providing a how-to guide for self-harm.
“Follow me and do exactly what you see,” he intoned on 1999’s “Role Model,” and, for the first time, the white fan migration toward him didn’t displace the black audience. He didn’t avoid the topic of race, nor did he pander to the hip-hop journalism illuminati who were side-eyeing him.
Eminem was not the “invisible man” that Ralph Ellison wrote of (nor could he be), but one could argue that he was nearly transparent. When he rapped, “How the fuck can I be white?/I don’t even exist” on “Role Model,” the notion went largely unchallenged.
Dre’s production work is unfussy and unmemorable — save for the earworm loop of “My Name Is.” It possesses many of the signatures of West Coast funk-rap: hollow drums, slapping bass and spare piano riffs. It’s just turned down to four. One can imagine that Dre stood behind the board, watching Eminem’s in-booth self-flagellation and did his best to stay out of the way and let Mathers’ story unfold.
The album went on to sell 18 million copies and spawned a grip of videos and sold-out tours. It provided a global platform for a polarizing artist who lit a path that, two decades later, no one had the balls or creativity to follow.
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