In the late ‘90s and early 2000s Australians generally did not – could not – develop an interest in hip-hop in the same way most Americans would have. We didn’t have the context or history that introduced us to the surrounding African American culture and the music that came from it. Down here, it was exclusively attributed to either recommendations from friends or whatever made its way onto the radio, and at that time, it wasn’t that much. My first definitive memory of hearing and really loving a rap song was Nelly’s Country Grammar. I was about 12.
As a young Australian girl growing up in a completely non-diverse, Jewish community in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, I had no exposure to rap. None. I didn’t know anyone who liked rap. There was no rap in my household. And besides, I wasn’t a rap kid, I was a rock chick.
My first introduction to Eminem came from the radio. My parents would always switch the radio station when rap came on, and that was extremely appealing to a young kid about to enter her teen rebellion years. I remember being quite scared by Stan, but when I later heard (the censored versions of) songs like The Real Slim Shady, The Way I Am, D12‘s Purple Pills/Hills, Without Me etc., and saw their hilarious videos on MTV, I was immediately intrigued. My parents hated it, and that made me like it even more.
I don’t remember when or why I bought The Eminem Show, but it would’ve been after hearing Cleanin’ Out My Closet and Without Me on the radio. I don’t think I listened to Slim Shady LP or Marshall Mathers LP in full for some time after I heard The Eminem Show.
Eminem knew he was accessible to an audience who otherwise weren’t exposed to rap, and he was right. “See the problem is, I speak to suburban kids, who otherwise would never knew these words exist,” he says on White America. “Surely hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston after it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom.” Replace Boston with Bondi and that’s me to a tee. I’ve just shot my credibility in the foot, sure, but his words were totally true. I’m forever grateful for fitting into that otherwise-humiliating stereotype, because it was the gateway that would eventually lead me to the rest of the hip-hop universe.
For years I never really delved any further into rap. I was still deep into my journey through rock, indie, metal, punk and grunge; The Eminem Show was an anomaly in my collection of CDs by Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, Smashing Pumpkins and The Pixies, Deftones, Pearl Jam, Marilyn Manson, etc. Aside from fringe connections to rap like Massive Attack and Rage Against The Machine. This meant that The Eminem Show was pretty much the only rap album I listened to, on repeat, for probably four years before I delved into anything else, and even then the next hip-hop album I became completely obsessed with was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. It’s not necessarily my favourite hip-hop album ever, but I think I know The Eminem Show better than any other; I certainly can’t recite any other from start to finish like I can this one.
So, interestingly enough I never had any context with which to interpret Eminem or to compare him to anything or anyone else within the world of hip-hop, largely including his own earlier music. It was years before I came to really learn about and appreciate where hip-hop comes from culturally and racially, before I could really learn to understand and love old school rappers and conscious rappers. Musically, too, it was the production and hooks and choruses that made Eminem more accessible, and subsequently it took me a minute to enjoy boom bap and other areas with simpler production and beats.
The production, the hooks, the catchy melodies and pop sensibilities are what made this album easier to engage with as a young kid, especially one living so far away from rap’s origins. You’ve got the dark, understated beats that build White America; the solemn bass line and thin counter-melody that laid foundations for Cleanin’ Out My Closet and Soldier; the twisted bluesy tango of Square Dance, the twitchy scratches and saxophone hook on Without Me, and so on. Similarly, it were these musical elements that helped really catapult Eminem to mainstream superstardom. Sure, the more pop-heavy hooks and certain subject matters have drawn criticism for being cheesy, but even these are usually forgivable on The Eminem Show. As evidenced on Hailie’s Song and the ridiculous My Dad’s Gone Crazy, as well as the numerous predecessors to Lose Yourself, like When The Music Stops and Til I Collapse, even the cheesiest voiceovers, pop hooks and inspirational choruses are excusable when the verses are so lyrically solid and the rhythms are just so fucking catchy.
Yes, it was violent and misogynistic, and it used homophobic slurs. Yet to be perfectly frank, I was never offended by Eminem. To me, so much of Eminem’s extreme lyrics were more comedy than anything else, and I still stand by that idea. The hyperbolic violence and over-the-top sexism felt more funny than actually offensive. I didn’t pinpoint exactly what it was until years later, but I believe that his offensive lyrics feel more acceptable because it was essentially comedy. Comedy has long been able to get away with much more than any other medium when it comes to being crude and shocking, and Eminem, who is wickedly funny, even today, gets away with a lot because of how funny it is; certainly more so than many of his more serious contemporaries.
Contrastingly, the album also demonstrated some Eminem’s realest moments. Cleanin’ Out My Closet told the dark, aggressive tale of his upbringing, exposing exactly what he lived through as a kid with an absent father and a drug-addicted mother. Hailie’s Song is poignant and heartfelt, and we hear about the challenges he faces as the father of a young girl, while dealing with a difficult relationship and, y’know, also being a global rap superstar and all that. “This boulder on my shoulder gets heavy and harder to hold, and this load is like the weight of the world… Should I just give up or try to live up to these expectations?” he asks, baring his vulnerable side with a kind of rawness he had previously hidden by being the class clown.
One thing I really love about this album is how smart and interesting it was that Eminem used exaggerated caricatures and characters to tell his stories. Alter ego Slim Shady reappeared on Without Me, but many other tracks simply presented us with hyperbolised, extreme versions of his personality. We had the darkly violent Soldier, the malicious antihero on Superman (“Leap tall hoes in a single bound” – come on, that’s a hilarious line), the anti-Bush hillbilly on Square Dance (“Do-si-do, oh, yo, ho hello there, oh yeah, don’t think I won’t go there, go to Beirut and do a show there! *machine gun fire*), the rap Batman and Dr Dre’s Robin on Business, the demented dad on My Dad’s Gone Crazy. These were all extensions of Eminem’s personality, and the songs still discussed the issues that were very relevant to Marshall Mathers, but by giving them that extra push into the sensationalised and semi-fictional, he could get away with being even more offensive and violent. Fuck, that’s smart. By bringing all of these twisted personalities and characters to the fore, he delivered a spectacularly diverse, clever album, one that I discover something new about on every listen, even today.
Of course the album isn’t all perfect. Funnily enough, my least favourite moments on the album are all the guest verses (and Drips), which is surprising and rare for a rap record, but I was just so enchanted by Eminem’s own lyrical prowess that the guest verses felt really unnecessary and out of place.) Some of the cheesier songs definitely feel a bit lame these days, but overall this album still feels as fantastically enjoyable and brilliantly written as it has every single time I’ve listened to it over the past 13 or so years. Diverse, offensive, aggressive, and seriously just one of the downright laugh-out-loud funniest albums ever. It was my first ever hip-hop album, and for a long time, the only hip-hop album I owned. Hundreds of hours reading, learning and listening later, my understanding of hip-hop has obviously expanded thousandfold, but I’ll never stop enjoying the hell out of this brilliant record, the record where it all began for me.