Today, The Slim Shady LP turns fifteen years old. It wasn't the peak of Marshall Mathers' career, certainly; he would only refine his style with time, while becoming a more potent artistic phenomenon. For Em, The Slim Shady LP—what would have been an easy career highlight for the average artist—was just a beginning.
When Eminem burst onto the scene with his debut record, it was a very different era in hip-hop history. It can seem difficult to understand if you weren't there how refreshing, how unconventional he really seemed. Of course, there were definitely precedents to his style—from Young Zee to Masta Ace, he was not apart from history, and was very much a part of an existing lineage. But he had a unique enough sensibility, combined with a deft, brutal wit, that he had become his own center of gravity the second he "made it."
This style, of course, didn't just arrive fully-formed; he'd already released Infinite and the Slim Shady EP, and spent years battling on the freestyle circuit. But by the time he was introduced to a mass audience, his sound had solidified. And on came the controversy.
To celebrate the arrival of Slim Shady's explosion on the hip-hop scene, here are a few snapshots of what it was like to experience Eminem's arrival, his record, and the events around it firsthand.
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The Slim Shady LP
Hearing/seeing Eminem for the first time was really confusing for me. Back then I was at the tail-end of my Nirvana obsession. I had long, greasy blonde hair because I thought I was Kurt Cobain, and I wore ripped jeans and a lot of plaid. I liked some hip-hop, but Black Star, A Tribe Called Quest, and Gang Starr had not primed me for what was coming next. Who the fuck was this nasally, bug-eyed white guy rapping about Nine Inch Nails and impregnating Spice Girls? I didn't get it, and I didn't like it... at first. I thought it was corny. Within a month, Eminem was my favorite rapper, I knew every word to "Just Don't Give A Fuck," and I went to the barber and—no lie—brought in a picture of Em and asked if they could make my hair like that. Yeah, I was a poser, but the Slim Shady LP was a pretty big turning point in my life. —Jacob Moore
"'97 Bonnie and Clyde"
Growing up smack dab in the middle of New Jersey (Trenton, to be exact), and being a fan of more than what Philly's Power 99 would play during the day, I had to look towards the college radio scene for my weekly dose of underground hip-hop. For a while, that hunger was satiated by the Thursday night "Vibes & Vapors" program on Princeton University's WPRB. Not to say that that was my alternative to Stretch & Bobbito, but this was the only place where I'd be able to hear Company Flow, Mos Def, and other acts that ended up changing the shape of underground hip-hop.
One Thursday night, I got my Maxell cassette ready to go, but I was greeted by a new voice: DJ Starchild, who repped Jersey but also did his thing for the Philly scene as part of the Substitution crew. His specialty was jungle and drum & bass (another love of mine), and on this particular Thursday night, he was filling in for the Vibes & Vapors crew. The thing is, Starchild didn't carry a lot of hip-hop wax on him, but he did have a promo single from a then-mostly underground MC named Eminem.
I remember listening back to this tape and remembering Eminem flipping "Just The Two Of Us" during the hook, telling a tale about a car ride with his baby girl... only the horrific story he's relaying to her also involves the body of his baby's mother in the trunk. Em's love/hate relationship with Kim is now "old news," but for this, the first time I'd ever heard an MC named Eminem spit, it was a pretty damn disturbing. It was an aural car wreck from which I couldn't turn my attention. And I was hooked from then on. It was the 180 degree turn from Will Smith's ode to fatherhood in "Just The Two Of Us" (which had made a shitload of noise on the radio and MTV around the same time), with a beat that contained what felt like a depressed children's toy melody that gave way to Eminem's playful banter with his child; it was a twisted horror film on wax. You could obviously smell the stench of "not giving a fuck" emitting from the speakers, and you could obviously see the talent that Em contained.
Hip-Hop wasn't encountering talented artists who were showing their inner demons quite like this, making Eminem one of the most important figures in the modern rap scene. I always would wonder what Hailey thinks when she listens back to "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," though.—khal
Few rappers were as attention-grabbing, as explosive and animated and unpredictable, as Eminem was in 1999. Despite the album's February release, "Guilty Conscience" didn't fully crack national radio waves until summer, but it wasn't until I saw the video—a classic tale of good versus evil—that the song really came to life. Fast forward to the third and final verse, and Em's twisted genius presents itself in all its depraved glory.
Em: You gonna take advice from somebody who slapped Dee Barnes?
Dre: What you say?
Em: What's wrong? Didn't think I'd remember?
Dre: I'ma kill you mothafucka!
Em: Uhh-ahh, temper, temper/Mr. Dre, Mr. N.W.A, Mr. AK/Coming straight outta Compton, y'all better make way/How in the fuck you gonna tell this man not to be violent?
In 1991, Dre assaulted Dee Barnes, a television host for Pump It Up, after she interviewed Ice Cube, who had recently left N.W.A. for a solo career. Dr Dre, feeling some type of way, believed the interview portrayed the group in a negative light, and did the only thing he thought right: beat Barnes within an inch of her life. It's a sad, ugly part of rap's history, and one Eminem, ever the student of hip-hop, alludes to in "Guilty Conscience" to find fault in Dre's argument (who, for the purpose of the song, is supposed to symbolize good). Dre responds, but quickly gives in: "Cause he don't need to go the same route that I went/Been there, done that, aw fuck it, what am I saying?/Shoot 'em both Grady, where's your gun at?"
The lesson? Maybe we are not as decent and strong-willed as we tell ourselves we are, maybe it's all an act, a front to mask the deep, dark insecurities hidden inside. I was only 14 then, and life was still just coming into view, but the message has stayed with me ever since. It's a terrible thing, to be confronted with such a bleak reality at such a young age, but maybe that's the purpose of great art: getting you to face life's nasty truths—and grow the fuck up. —Jason Parham
"Bad Meets Evil"
It’s hard to convey in writing how good of a rapper Eminem is. I can tell you he’s breathtakingly skilled; I can break down the dizzying elasticity of his flow patterns, point out the intricacies of his wordplay; at a certain point, however, the superlatives become meaningless, and you really just need to listen to The Slim Shady LP.
When I first discovered the album in high school, I used to play the eight-bar verse at the end of "Bad Meets Evil" on loop. No other rapper I was listening to at the time—maybe no other rapper ever—could fit that much interesting material into such a small space. The verse is only twenty seconds long, but Em is darkly funny, and he manages to cram in a few wicked punch lines. My favorite is the closer: "And when I go to hell and I’m getting ready to leave/I’ma put air in a bag and charge people to breathe." Even the more banal things he says are wonderfully imagined. He doesn’t just threaten to burn your house down; he warns you that he "won’t leave you with a window to jump out of," a line that conjures the strange mental image of somebody attempting to jump out a window that is quickly being swallowed by the surrounding wall.
When I started listening to the radio, it was late 2002, the height of the TRL-era. Eminem was the biggest artist in the world, and "Lose Yourself" was on the radio at least twice an hour. The explicit version of The Eminem Show (purchased by my progressive mother) was the first CD I ever owned. When you grow up with an artist so firmly entrenched in your conception of the mainstream, it can be hard to remember why they became famous in the first place. I never have that problem with Eminem, though. Listening to him trade verses with Royce Da 5’9 on "Bad Meets Evil," it’s clear who the star is. —Henry Green
I was the perfect age to be completely blown away by Eminem on his arrival. A sophomore in high school when "My Name Is" first hit the airwaves, I—like many of my classmates—had worked on memorizing every single line (and making it appear like there was no work involved) from that song and his "Forgot About Dre" verse within days of their arrival. It was a different atmosphere then—every rapper seemed larger than life, impossibly distant, viewed through a pop culture lens that made them seem less real, less accessible, than they do now. Em jumped immediately into a pantheon of then-current stars: Jay, Redman, DMX.
Although his technical abilities were celebrated right away, that wasn't what really appealed. It was his sense of humor. His technical abilities were all put in the service of jokes that were a combination of cut-to-the-bone truth-telling and can-you-believe-he-just-said-that shock. He was saying the things you couldn't say, whether that was an honest expression of just how fucked up poverty and society were, or if it was just which celebrity had which STD.
Revisiting The Slim Shady LP today, it's lightweight shocking how incredibly dark the album was. At the time, Em's persona felt so cartoonish—no doubt emphasized by the darkly comic music videos that felt like a perfect complement to his animated rap style—that the depleted, toxic environment that created the man who appears on record seemed secondary. His bitterness, of course, was balanced by his humor and his talent and, most importantly, his pathos for the listener, who would identify with his alienation and obtain some therapeutic value therein. But listening to it front to back today, as an adult, it becomes clear how much anguish was balled up inside.
And it's why "My Fault," a brief ray of slapstick sunshine, feels like such a refreshing moment. It's not a happy song, nor does it suggest any kind of redemption or escape; it ends with the protagonist trying to wish a dead woman back to life. But its dark humor, carried by a catchy sing-song hook and upbeat funk courtesy the Bass Brothers, still feels like a moment of sincere levity amidst a mess of damaged acidity. From the peculiar details of Midwest bacchanal banality ("I went to John's rave with Ron and Dave/And met a new wave blonde babe with half of her head shaved") to the way jokes are delivered with straightfaced urgency ("Dave, pull up your pants! We need an ambulance/There's a girl upstairs talking to plants!"), "My Fault" captures one of the things that was most captivating about Slim Shady LP-era Eminem: He was hilarious. —David Drake