Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
On May 28, 2002, The Eminem Show was unleashed upon the world. And the swift cultural embrace (five straight weeks at #1) and widespread success of the album ended up being one of the last moments of the musical monoculture. Everyone from Entertainment Weekly to the notoriously stingy Pitchfork loved it, and it became that year’s highest selling album (7.6 million units sold).
It was fitting that it entered a popular culture in flux, since it was born of a musician in transition. Eminem started out as a homophobic, misogynistic, bile-spewing provocateur, and is now a fame-averse father and supporter of same-sex marriage who has overcome addiction (and somewhere in between hugged Elton John). The fulcrum of that evolution was The Eminem Show, which found the Slim Shady persona fading into the background as Marshall Mathers explored problems as, dare we say, a mature person would. So how does it hold up a decade later?
The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) remains Eminem’s masterpiece, but The Eminem Show is his most personal album. It found the MC focusing his vitriol inward for the first time: Instead of prodding and provoking, he was figuring out why everything was prodding and provoking him. The record is chock full of war themes and deadly serious militaristic beats as Em raps about his own battles: with fatherhood, fame, his mother and, well, groupies. Album opener “White America” is a screed against conformity and censorship, and the mentions of democracy and the White House immediately signaled that this was a (slightly) different Eminem.
Eminem, “White America”
Things got lighter with the bouncy Dr. Dre-circa-2001 “Business” and the dis track “Square Dance.” “Soldier” closes out the unassailable (and, at the time, surprisingly serious) first five tracks of the album — a run that saw no gimmicky pop takedowns, just furious rhymes dismantling internal and external conflicts. The biggest curveball of that opening salvo was “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” in which Eminem got introspective without sounding completely psychotic for once. (It’s also notable for being probably the only dis track aimed at the disser’s own mother.)
Eminem, “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”
Eminem plumbed similar emotional depths on “Hailie’s Song,” and despite the whiny, remedial singing, the one-two punch of personality and a singalong chorus helped him stick the landing.
These inward-looking moments may not be as poignant as “Stan” or as much of a mindf**k as “Kim,” but they showed Eminem could strip away the characters, the winks, the sensationalism and still turn out a catchy hook with some killer rhymes. And because he dropped the charade, he sounded purposeful and direct throughout the album.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he cleared his system of all the outrageousness and of-the-moment pop culture slams. Case in point: first single “Without Me,” whose “nobody listens to techno!” proclamation now invites winces. Oh and hey, remember Osama Bin Laden?
Eminem, “Without Me”
Eminem also went back to the chauvinist well for a pair of tracks: the filthiest of the filthy “Drips” (featuring some legendary genitalia-centric verses) as well as womanizing ode “Superman.” But the thing about “Superman” — and Eminem songs in general — is that the polished lightness of the music and Em’s knack for magnetic hooks serve as the implied wink-and-nod that makes it easier to swallow the more off-putting lyrics.
It’s easy to forget that in 2002, Eminem was still at the top of
his THE game when it came to rapping. After stalling three-quarters of the way through, The Eminem Show closes out with some of his most furious lyrical exercises to date. On “Say What You Say” he teamed up with Dr. Dre to deliver a Mobius strip of a chorus, and Eminem sounded as invigorated and intense as ever on the Nate Dogg-assisted “‘Till I Collapse.”
The album closes out in virtually perfect fashion with another curveball: “My Dad’s Gone Crazy.” Having Eminem’s effortless, playfully obscene rhymes run circles around his daughter Hailie’s adorable yelps may have been a stroke of genius. It may have cost Hailie a few years in therapy too. But at least it was for a good song.
The Eminem Show is Eminem’s most introspective and nuanced work, the result of a supremely talented MC maturing and expanding thematically. But he may have run out of things to say after this and “Lose Yourself”. Its follow-up Encore was warmly received and sold 3.5 million copies in 2004, but the rhymes felt stale. Then there was the roundly panned (even by Eminem himself) Relapse (2009), which was more shtick than substance. (It’s worth noting that this Eminem “bomb” still debuted at #1 and went double Platinum.)
Eminem then accepted his role as one of hip-hop’s elder statesmen, grooming acts like Yelawolf the way Dre groomed him. A more grizzled, less poppy Eminem returned with the solid Recovery in 2010 and last year’s Hell: The Sequel with Royce da 5’9”, which served as a grittier, more rhyme-heavy counterpoint to Jay-Z and Kanye West‘s lavish Watch The Throne. Though he’s gloomier these days, Eminem’s sense of purpose thankfully seems to have been rekindled.
But a decade ago, The Eminem Show straddled the line between caricature and drama, between “serious” issues and dick jokes, between the personal and the universal. It was playfully dark the way that Kill Bill was cartoonishly bloody, and because of these dichotomies, it has held up surprisingly well. Though popular culture was about to splinter into countless niches, in 2002 Eminem removed the funhouse mirrors, ditched the parlor tricks and said exactly what he wanted to say on The Eminem Show, and we all listened.