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.
Looking around today’s popular music landscape for a corollary to the kind of once-in-a-generation controversial shitstorm Eminem whipped up with his 1999 breakthrough record The Slim Shady LP is damn near impossible. Outside of maybe Miley Cyrus — who caused controversy not with the thematic material of her music but the package it was presented in — the closest we probably get is what Odd Future managed to accomplish a few years ago, which makes complete sense. Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, the group’s de facto leaders and most talented rappers, have repeatedly cited the influence of early Eminem on their own violent, personal, misogynistic brand of laughing horrorcore rap. But when Tyler won the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 2011, it felt more like an attempt to cash in on what was essentially a transgressive internet meme than a reflection of the culture writ large, anointing significance to a sliver of truly viral hip-hop in an extremely fractured popular music industry.
And while this may just be a reflection of the generational differences in music consumption, Eminem managed to capture the unwavering attention of a significant block of the nation’s music-loving youth back in 1999 because of his music, aided by his inventive videos which corresponded with the peak popularity of MTV’s influence on the pop charts. He wasn’t making headlines or selling records because of racy performances, outlandish interviews or highly publicized legal trouble. When The Slim Shady LP dropped on February 23, 1999, it sounded absolutely nothing like anything in hip-hop, presenting a hilariously strange alternative to the weirdly glitzy, Puff Daddy-driven, post-Biggie & Pac playing ground that had existed for the previous few years.
If Eminem accomplished anything with his 4x platinum selling Slim Shady LP, beyond becoming one of the patron saints of Total Request Live-era MTV (along with Britney, Christina, *NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys, Limp Bizkit, Blink 182…yeesh), it’s that he produced one of the most enduring pieces of transgressive art the mainstream music culture has ever celebrated.
Granted, at the time, whatever was lumped in with “gangsta rap” had pretty much been considered transgressive art in the eyes of conservatives and other political reactionaries for close to two decades, even though the majority of hip-hop simply provided an extremely honest voice for a large African-American community that had previously been voiceless through circumstances of socioeconomic and cultural immobility. Em wasn’t necessarily using an essentially black medium to make larger comments about the white lower class he had been raised in, although his “white trash” background certainly played a significant part in his lyrics.
More than anything, The Slim Shady LP was a hyper-personal document of Em’s raging Id, fueled by an impoverished Detroit upbringing in predominantly black neighborhoods that featured an absentee father, a pill-popping and manipulative mother, the suicide of his only close relative, and a seriously toxic relationship with Kim, his daughter Hailie’s mother. His lyrics fed off his dysfunctional past, painting deranged, solipsistic creative fantasies more vivid, funny and offensive than probably any chart-topping album of the past twenty years. Em was both a rapping punchline machine with the penchant for cartoonish bursts of violence — sexual, domestic, or otherwise — and a brilliantly talented, technically gifted MC whose personal storytelling abilities betrayed large reservoirs of anger, depression and fear.
When he lashed out to make terrifyingly intricate psychotic threats, they were always thickly veiled with self-loathing rather than the chest-thumping machismo that permeated much of mainstream hip-hop at the time. Even his drug of choice, ecstasy, wasn’t exactly in vogue in hip-hop circles in the late ’90s, and implied a heightened sense of rambunctious craziness. All of this was done under the tutelage of arguably the most revered hip-hop producer in the genre’s history, Dr. Dre, who discovered Eminem (and as a result revitalized his own career) as a struggling white rapper who came in second in Los Angeles’ Rap Olympics freestyle competition after his demo tape made it to Aftermath records. Dre sought to build off the bonkers weirdness of Em’s big label precursor The Slim Shady EP, which sounded drastically different than his first independently released album, 1997’s straight-faced Nas-lite Infinite, and was where Em introduced the world to his psychotic alter ego, Slim Shady.
Em would drop X and hole up in the studio for days on end with Dre during the Shady LP sessions, recording the album with a kind of chemically enhanced, uncorked creativity that seemed to ooze from tracks like “My Name Is,” the slow motion, fucked up joke factory and debut smash that was written and laid down in about an hour. “My Name Is” was a pretty perfect calling card for Eminem. Benefitting greatly from a simple, stuttering funk-sampling beat from Dr. Dre, it quickly illustrated all the hallmarks of Em’s signature style: a sociopathically upbeat cadence, spit-take rhymes littered with pop culture references and cringeworthy misogyny (“My brain’s dead weight / I’m trying to get my head straight / But I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I want to impregnate.”) and angry, violent fantasies, like stapling the balls of a high school teacher who failed him to a stack of paper, or passing along a message to his estranged dad about how Em “slit his throat in this dream I had.”
It was the track, and subsequent video, that got Em heavy rotation on TRL and introduced him to the world as your parent’s public enemy no. 1. When the single “Guilty Conscience” was released, it was pretty obvious Em loved playing the villain, teaming up with Dr. Dre to narrate a series moral dilemmas from the perspective of a good angel (Dre) and a bad angel (obviously Em). Em egging Dre on to give into violence and retribution gave the song its weird manic energy. This culminates when Em enthusiastically encourages a man to colorfully kill his cheating wife caught in the act, and calls out Dre, in a neat bit of fourth-wall-breaking, on his own misogynistically violent past as a member of N.W.A. (“You’re gonna take advice from the guy who slapped Dee Barnes?” Em asks incredulously) when he tries to handle the situation rationally. (Dre eventually agrees they should kill her.)
These kinds of gobsmacking moments are all over The Slim Shady LP, tucked into tightly wound verses that unspooled with a scary kind of controlled focus from Em’s mouth. The most notorious of which is “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” in which Em portrays the brutal murder of Kim, his on again, off again ex, with their daughter Hailie in tow, even walking her through each step of the process in vivid detail. This song provided the dark imagery of the album’s cover, and (along with the rest of the album) predictably put Em in the crosshairs of women’s and parents’ groups, not to mention GLAAD for his repeated use of homophobic slurs. When the single “Role Model” was released, pound-for-pound the album’s best track, it was obvious Em had already prepared for the backlash that would meet his music, and in turn, basically created a song that could serve as a thesis to his entire career.
“Now follow me and do exactly what you see / Don’t you want to grow up to be just like me?” Em asks demonically to the hordes of teenagers devouring his work. “I slap women and do shrooms and O.D. / Now don’t you want to grow up to be just like me?” It was a valid question, one that would seem less important and more repetitive as he career wore on. To the horror of anyone who thought that Eminem was outright damaging to music culture (like say, Billboard‘s editor-in-chief at the time, Timothy White) his penchant for slyly making listeners complicit in his fantasies was probably their worst nightmare. Regardless, when Eminem broke into the public consciousness with The Slim Shady LP 15 years ago, it was obvious he left none of his personal demons unused to craft the fascinating, hilarious and horrifying insanity that coalesced into the album’s dark core. He made sure you knew what that cost him.