Written by Insanul Ahmend (@Incilin)

Follow @ComplexMusic

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

PAGE 1 of 2