FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Eminem, “The Eminem Show”

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, religious 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. It was so far removed from my vision that I was barely aware of it at all, let alone holding an opinion or desire to learn about it.

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 true. I’m forever grateful for fitting into that otherwise-humiliating stereotype. It’s led me here, after all.

Aside from fringe connections like Rage Against The Machine and massive Attack, it would be years before I delved any further into rap. The Eminem Show was an anomaly in my collection of Led Zeppelin, The Pixies, Deftones, Pearl Jam and Marilyn Manson albums (in fact, his Marilyn Manson collab would’ve been a major factor in drawing my attention).

Aside from fringe connections to rap like Massive Attack and Rage Against The Machine, there was nothing. This meant that The Eminem Show, and to a lesser extent The Marshall Mathers LP, was the only rap album I listened to.

And I listened to it on repeat. For years. I probably didn’t get into hip-hop properly until My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped in 2010.

It’s not 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.

For years I never had any context with which to interpret Eminem or to compare him to anything else within the world of hip-hop. It was years before I came to really learn about and appreciate where hip-hop comes from culturally and racially, before I came to understand its language, subculture, importance and scope. Musically, too, it was the production and hooks and choruses that made Eminem more accessible, and it took me a subsequent minute to enjoy boom bap and other, simpler, forms.

The production, hooks, catchy melodies and pop sensibilities 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-melodic foundations of Cleanin’ Out My Closet and Soldier; the twisted tango of Square Dance, the scratches and saxes on Without Me.

Sure, the pop-heavy hooks and singing bits have drawn criticism for being cheesy, but I still lapped it all up. As evidenced on Hailie’s Song and the ridiculous My Dad’s Gone Crazy, as well as the numerous motivational predecessors to Lose Yourself, like When The Music Stops and Til I Collapse, even the cheesiest moments were excusable when the verses are so lyrically solid and the rhythms are just so fucking catchy (the same can potentially be said when it comes to excusing his extreme violence and misogyny, but that’s another article for another day).

In spite of the violence and aggression, this album didn’t offend me. Though today some of his earlier work is a tad harder to digest, this album often felt comedic more than actually offensive.

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.

Thinking back, I also often feel like his subject matter is secondary to wordplay – the topic itself doesn’t really matter, the focus is more on having fun with words and language.

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. My least favourite moments on the album are all the guest verses (and Drips), which is pretty rare for a rap record, but I was so enchanted by Eminem’s own lyrical prowess that the guest verses felt 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, demented, dramatic, and just one of the downright hilarious rap albums ever, it was my first ever hip-hop album, and for a long time, the only one. 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.

Image: Interscope