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Producers: Dr. Dre (executive producer), Eminem, Mark and Jeff Bass (executive producers), Mel-Man
Features: Dr. Dre, Royce Da 5'9"
Sales: 5x Platinum
Once Eminem hit MTV with “My Name Is” in early 1999, shit was a wrap.
Overnight, he went from an underground punchline rapper with a taste for the transgressive and a gift for the absurd into a household name.
But it was the album that followed which set the blueprint for his career. The Slim Shady LP was the first domino, the moment that he became an icon to a generation of teenagers who felt abused, abandoned, uncounted—or could, at the very least, identify with some of these feelings. The Slim Shady LP ended up being directly and unintentionally responsible for Em’s thematic approach going forward, the way his work began to curl in on itself in a reflexive, ever-intensifying paroxysm of raw self-interrogation. It set the stage for some of the central conflicts of his career: the tension between fiction and realism, between documentation and glorification, and of course the way his race magnified these conflicts and transformed him into one of the genre’s true superstars.
The Slim Shady LP has a fascination with the things polite, middle-class society knows not to talk about. Everything you weren’t supposed to say, Eminem would say. And it was this that forged such a deep connection with his audience, a sense that he was speaking to something media had otherwise ignored, which made his more absurdist rhymes seem scarily real.
But though he went from obscurity to fame so suddenly, getting to that point was arduous, fraught with struggle and failure, beset by angst and anguish. And a lot of that makes it into The Slim Shady LP. At the very least, this gives reason why the album is what it is: a morbidly cartoonish blend of pulp and shock tactics, the defense mechanism of a person living in society’s brutal, vulnerable underbelly. It’s also darkly hilarious, at moments, deeply sad in others, tinted by juvenilia, and shot through with underclass rage directed upward, outward, inward.
The Slim Shady LP has a fascination with the things polite, middle-class society knows not to talk about. Everything you weren’t supposed to say, Eminem would say. And it was this that forged such a deep connection with his audience, a sense that he was speaking to something media had otherwise ignored, which made his more absurdist rhymes seem scarily real. Songs like “If I Had” and “Rock Bottom” channelled the frustrations of those in a dead-end job well before Kanye’s “Spaceship” launched, the former articulating the mind-numbing boredom at the heart of poverty, the sense of being stuck: “Tired of stepping in clubs wearing the same pair of Lugz.”
A darkness pervades the record beyond its class aggression; the anger points everywhere, including the women in his life (his father is absent, and so spared). Em embodies some horrific characters. In “Guilty Conscience,” he’s encouraging robbery, statutory rape, and murder. On “'97 Bonnie and Clyde” he’s taking an infant child to help dispose of her mother’s body. Even at his most optimistic, as on the borderline-slapstick flight of fancy “My Fault” (Em meets a girl at a rave party who proceeds to swallow a whole bag full of psilocybin mushrooms), the song ends with his character sobbing and praying that this girl he just met come back to life.
What was his at this point—before he embraced 2Pac’s exposed-nerve, autobiographical subjectivity in full, pushing his own story from the underpinning to the main event—was an exceptional gift for writing, an prodigious ability to exercise certain archetypes with seemingly effortless flair.
The song that best captures his worldview, though, is "Brain Damage," which is ironic because it's also one of the most exaggerated, comic book-esque moments. (It ends with the protaganist's brain popping out of his head and getting stuffed back inside.) But it sets up a world where a character is completely alone and unprotected: picked on by bullies, his teachers leave him vulnerable (and add insult to injury by piling on more work), and his school principal joins the bully in beating him down. When he goes home, his mother continues the stream of abuse. The message is clear, for those who feel alone and abandoned: Eminem understands how you feel.
Although Eminem was a locus for all these different ideas, he didn’t invent any of them, of course. Although to the mainstream press—and a substantial portion of white America—he might as well have. What was his at this point—before he embraced 2Pac’s exposed-nerve, autobiographical subjectivity in full, pushing his own story from the underpinning to the main event—was an exceptional gift for writing, an prodigious ability to exercise certain archetypes with seemingly effortless flair. Along with similar rappers like Redman, he was adapting the particulars of an underground movement into a mainstream expression of personality.
He had lyrical style. Although now attention is often drawn—by himself and fans alike—to the effort that goes into his bars, what made him initially so appealing here was how he made it seem as if he’d emerged from the womb just talking like this. —David Drake