Written by Insanul Ahmend (@Incilin)

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Last week was the 13-year anniversary of Eminem’s classic debut album, The Slim Shady LP. The album marks the moment when a man born Marshall Bruce Mathers III went from a self-described “corny-looking white kid” to a pop star on his way to becoming the most famous (and infamous) rapper in history. Today, Eminem has so many awards, accolades, and record-breaking moments it’s too cumbersome to count them all, but rest assured TSSLP is where it all began.

Although his sophomore set The Marshall Mathers LP is his best-selling album and widely considered to be his magum opus, TSSLP is still an album worthy of re-exploration. For many, the legacy of the record remains the humor of “ripping Pamela Lee’s tits off” and raping fat chicks with a “Go-Go Gadget dick," but what’s often forgotten is the darkness rooted in Em’s real life.

Em recorded The Slim Shady EP in 1998, prior to hooking up with Dr. Dre and Interscope Records, but after dropping his underground album Infinite. The EP was the moment when he discovered his Slim Shady alter-ego, found his voice, and became the artist he still is today. Some of the EP’s songs—including “Just Don’t Give A Fuck”—later made the TSSLP. But perhaps even more significant was the EP’s cover art: an image of Eminem punching through a mirror.

 

Contrary to popular belief, the overarching theme of Eminem’s music isn’t anger or Americana or an oedipus complex (though all of these certainly factor in). Em’s most important theme has always been his own duality.

 

Mirrors have been a recurring theme in Eminem’s work—he raps in front of the mirror in the opening scenes of 8 Mile, he wanders into a house of mirrors in the video for “Not Afraid,” and he punches a mirror in the third verse of “My Darling.” So what’s the reason for this image? Contrary to popular belief, the overarching theme of Eminem’s music isn’t anger or Americana or an oedipus complex (though all of these certainly factor in). Em’s most important theme has always been his own duality.

All the mirrors are a reflection of his different personas: Eminem exists somewhere between Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers—somewhere between a witty wordsmith with an expansive imagination and a soul-baring artist who’s willing to expose the intimate details of his life.

That’s why TSSLP is both hilarious and terrifying. We never know which persona is speaking—we’re stuck in the midst of a narrative without a reliable narrator. Em’s entire catalog has this same kind of tension, and over the years we’ve learned how to parse the meaning in his intricately wrought rhymes. But nowhere was that through-the-looking-glass tension more potent than it was on The Slim Shady LP.

Complicating all this was the musical context into which the album was released. In the late ’90s most rapper’s rhymes took place in Any Ghetto, USA. DMX sounded like he was robbing cats two blocks away from where Jay-Z was hustling. Southern acts like OutKast and Cash Money offered a change of scenery, but the same worldview applied—even if the musicality and slang were different.

Meanwhile, Em created his own world in the trailer parks, suburban living rooms, and “laundry mats where all the white trashy blondes be at” that were, quiet as kept, the natural habitat of many rap fans. In the process Eminem became the most insular of superstars—a rap star whose music didn’t exist in the usual rap landscape. Shady lived in Shady’s world. And in 1999, everyone knew how to listen to rap, but we didn’t know how to listen to Eminem. He was that original, and that’s what made him so vital—then and now.

 

What made TSSLP so special was the way Marshall flipped both sides of the coin. He seamlessly mixed cartoonish violence with autobiographical detail, pop culture with drug culture, story-telling songs with battle raps. But this lead to a problem when the album first came out: Listeners had no way of knowing when Em was joking and when he wasn’t.

 

What made TSSLP so special was the way Marshall flipped both sides of the coin. He seamlessly mixed cartoonish violence with autobiographical detail, pop culture with drug culture, story-telling songs with battle raps. But this lead to a problem when the album first came out: Listeners had no way of knowing when Em was joking and when he wasn’t.

This dilemma was especially acute on the album’s lead single, “My Name Is.” Surely Em didn’t really staple his teacher’s nuts to a stack of papers or stick nine-inch nails through his eyelids. Those lines were all in good fun—a dark, twisted sort of fun, but fun nonetheless. How funny is a song—a pop hit and MTV smash at that—that features multiple suicide attempts? Before TSSLP that kind of therapeutic catharsis just wasn’t possible.

Elsewhere in TSSLP, on “Cum On Everybody,” Shady rhymes, “I tried suicide once and I might try it again/That’s why I write songs where I die at the end.” The suicide attempts are told in a jovial manner but maybe they ought to be taken more seriously: Prior to recording TSSLP Em was so fed up that he actually attempted suicide but failed. Many years later, he nearly overdosed on prescription pills. As Em later rhymed, “A lot of truth is said in jest.”

Even though Em was willing to offer up so many details about his life, it’s the unanswered questions that are the most frightening. Did his English teacher really want to have sex with him in junior high? (The line was later edited out due to sample clearance issues.) Did he really dream of slitting his father’s throat? Did he really try to commit suicide at the tender age of 12? Back in 1999, when Em was still a fresh face whose life story hadn’t yet become part of hip-hop folklore—or been immortalized in the bio-pic 8 Mile—we really didn't know what to believe. Nor could we stop listening.

RELATED: Top 100 Eminem Songs of All Time

 

Nearly every character in Em’s world is as demented and disturbed as himself. Only in Shady’s world would a teacher utter words like, “Nah, that bully wants to beat your ass and I’ma let him.” Only in Shady’s world would a child get beat up by a bully, get caught by the principal, only to have the principal help the bully and not the victim. And of course as soon as he starts tripping on mushrooms with a girl, she confessed that she was raped by her father.

In fact, there’s nobody more menacing in Eminem’s music than mom and dad—and never is Em more terrifying than when he casts himself in the father role. These psychotic parental themes come to a head on TSSLP's centerpiece, “’97 Bonnie & Clyde.” Although it wasn’t a single, the song was the record’s defining moment. Maybe that’s why it was depicted on the album cover: Those legs sticking out of the car’s trunk presumably belong to Kim. This song was important enough to inspire a prequel, “Kim,” which appeared on The Marshall Mathers LP the following year.

The song—which originally appeared on The Slim Shady EP as “Just The Two of Us” but was changed slightly due to sample clearance issues—follows Em and his baby daughter Hailie as they go on a car ride to dump his wife’s dead body in the ocean. The record featured actual vocals from Hailie. Em later explained that when he took Hailie to the recording studio, he had to tell Hailie’s mother that he was taking her to Chuck E. Cheese.

On an album loaded with hyper-violent fantasies the most disturbing song of all doesn’t involve any graphic scenes whatsoever. The darkest moments are left to the imagination, which makes them all the more disturbing. The whole song is delivered in a muted, detached tone better suited for exhausted parents singing lullabies.

 

Hearing the record today—after listening to Em for over a decade—you can finally appreciate it for what it is: An inventive rap record told with an acute sense of detail. And what makes it all the more impressive is that it’s a conversation between him and his daughter that reveals more plot, character, and setting than any storytelling song this side of The Notorious B.I.G. In other words, sheer genius.

 

At this point, we all know Em that didn’t actually kill Kim, but we also know they have an explosive relationship that often brings the worst out of each other. Did he really think about killing her? Sure, but in the words of the great philosopher Chris Rock, “If you ain’t seriously thought about killing a mothefucker, you ain't been in love... If you haven't bought a shovel, and a bag, and a rug to roll their ass up in, you ain't been in love.”

Shady is one of the few rappers who could weave a tale so wicked, put his daughter’s vocals on it, and then play it for his baby momma (Wouldn’t you know, Kim flipped out when she heard it).

Hearing the record today—after listening to Em for over a decade—you can finally appreciate it for what it is: An inventive rap record told with an acute sense of detail. And what makes it all the more impressive is that it’s a conversation between him and his daughter that reveals more plot, character, and setting than any storytelling song this side of The Notorious B.I.G. In other words, sheer genius.

“Is Eminem really crazy?” is a question that isn’t asked much anymore. We’ve grown used to Shady’s concoction of reality meets over-the-top fabrication that once made him seem psychotic. He might not have been your typical gangsta but he seemed so unhinged you still wouldn’t push him to the edge.

Nowadays, the shock has worn off. Though it wasn’t the case back in 1999, by now we all have a sort of Eminem filter hardwired into our music consciousness—all we need is the occasional app update for each new batch of material. We understand that his pain is real, his life was a hard one, and his sense of humor are is just as sick and twisted as his multi-syllabic rhyme patterns.

Prior to The Slim Shady LP, Marshall Mathers had lived a life filled with abuse, drugs, and neglect—a life as rotten as a corpse in the trunk. He got his revenge by murdering every beat Dr. Dre and The Bass Brothers threw his way and created a rap masterpiece. And by February 1999, he was just looking for a place to dump the body. On America’s doorstep is where it landed—and nothing has been the same since.