20 Years of Eminem’s Slim Shady
Let’s table “My Name Is,” the first and most famous single from Eminem’s breakthrough Slim Shady LP, for a moment and pretend it’s not up there with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Purple Haze” or “I Want You Back” as an instant icon’s quint-essential arrival cue.
In exactly four minutes, “My Fault” sums up everything gifted, gripping, and reprehensible about Eminem. Marshall Mathers set a new standard for unreliable narrators in all media of literature but pop music simply wasn’t prepared for him, and perhaps even fewer people 20 years on are equipped to hold the words “So what you had your little coochie in your dad’s mouth” inside their brain without wanting to puke like the woman Eminem is addressing in the song. But nevertheless, his creepy protagonist is a fall guy inside the auteur’s own endlessly groundbreaking comedy, which also builds an extraordinarily well-defined character with a new-wave blonde hairdo who’s given time to flip out on shrooms about how she’s 26 and unmarried before the reveal that she was talking to a houseplant.
Eminem knows the language and emotions of fucking up repeatedly in horrifying ways, which is a big reason he’s one of the most important white males in musical history: joking or not, he never lets his own ugliness off the hook. Especially not when even his battles with his conscience make for half the entertainment. It’s hard to say whether The Slim Shady LP doesn’t date “well” or not; we are better off for having him and his woman-beating producer Dr. Dre addressing the immorality of drugging and potentially sexually assaulting a 15-year-old on “Guilty Conscience” than not. Eminem’s music may serve an audience looking for entertainment first and its thought process second, so plenty of innocent people are indeed violated, humiliated, and killed in inappropriately comedic ways on this record, but it’s never ever thoughtless or lazy.
And on “My Fault” especially, it grapples with pain. The singles “My Name Is” and “Role Model” mocked artistic responsibility, daring kids to drown themselves or stick nine-inch nails through their eyelids, but because “My Fault” is a story, Eminem makes sure it contains people; the protagonist’s fear is palpable even if the sobbing at the end is a little pat. Another story that defines this masterwork is the unforgettable “Brain Damage,” in which Em himself is the school-age victim of a real-life bully he actually names (D’Angelo Bailey, who ended up unsuccessfully suing the rapper), and presents a convincing amount of fear and trauma among jokes like a denied request for after-school detention because the teacher wants him to get beat up.
In case I’m making it sound like Eminem’s moral compass was always functioning, there’s plenty of straight-up idiocy, like the sexually violent slapstick he inflicts on two different fat women in “As the World Turns,” an unfortunate side effect of the boundless imagination he can’t rein in. Even more unfortunate is how our collective ear is his blender; the unconscionable jokes fly by as quickly as the verbiage worth wasting brain on. There’s something about the way that Eminem portrays just about every one of his own characters that dampers the cruelty of say, the would-be homophobia of “Ken Kaniff,” the equally tiring and uproariously stupid caricature of a gay Eminem fan who on future releases goes on to remove his penis from one Insane Clown Posse member’s mouth to put it back in the other’s because he “was sucking it better” and lament that a soft-shoe routine went better in “Gay.A.” He just doesn’t try to disguise how dumb he is sometimes. Revels in it. It’s not noble, but he’s convincingly convincing that he’s not actually going to “rip Pamela Lee’s tits off.” Where his N.W.A-bred mentor helped popularize the unfortunate gangsta fantasy-as-lifestyle that has kept rap misunderstood to this day depending on what class x race privilege you enjoy, Eminem has done more than just about anyone to make it attractive to write shit so crazy you should not actually attempt to live it.
What Marshall Mathers has vaulted into the foreground is absurdity; one of The Slim Shady LP’s very last lines is the tautology, “to all the people I’ve offended / Fuck you, too.” And while “My Name Is” introduced him as the guy willing to insult his mother’s breast size on an international smash single, the oft-discussed “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” took the cultural imagination to the true depths of the sick comic mind. Even Marilyn Manson at his cover-story, silver-breasted peak reportedly wanted nothing to do with the Grover Washington-cum-Will Smith horror flip, in which the real-life Mathers brought his real-life, then-infant daughter Hailie into the studio to giggle and gurgle all over a song where she’s baby-talked into helping dispose of her murdered mother.
The entire song is jaw-dropping in both its brazenness and creative parameters but “Mama said she wants to show you how far she can float / And don’t worry about that little boo-boo on her throat” is an indicative couplet. Even though Hailie is now old enough to tell the press any day now how fucked up it was for Eminem to involve her in arguably pop’s darkest-ever joke, Marshall Mathers has made such a career of repping his love for his daughter that you could almost credibly make the insane conclusion that he wanted to involve her in what he knew was his masterpiece.
Eminem’s proper debut album broke rules that most music fans didn’t even know existed, and he’d go on to release something even better and more shocking just one year later. But few artists of any medium can claim to have broken boundaries to the extreme that Eminem did as a complete unknown for the very last time on The Slim Shady LP, even fewer can say that their dicey moral gambles worked, and still fewer can say that they said something new and incisive about their own toxic masculinity in doing so. He would go on to claim honest-to-god social-justice turf by ungracefully taking on the first amendment via homophobia and misogyny on The Marshall Mathers LP, and weighing the unfortunate blessings of his racial privilege on 2002’s “White America.” But in 1999, Eminem threw his pathos and darkest fantasies into the air and left the conclusions to us. In hearing it, we learned incredible new things about what rap could be. We also learned horrifying new things about what men could be.
As R. Kelly gets carted off to a 25-years-in-the-making prison sentence, thank Eminem’s guilty conscience that he tried to unbottle his own toxins into his art.