Born Marshall Mathers in the Kansas City suburb St. Joseph, Eminem spent his childhood between Missouri and Michigan, settling in Detroit by his teens. At the age of 14, he began rapping with a high-school friend, the two adopting the names "Manix" and "M&M," which soon morphed into Eminem. Under this name, Mathers entered battle rapping, a struggle dramatized in the fictionalized 8 Mile. Initially, the predominantly African-American audience didn’t embrace Eminem, but soon his skills gained him a reputation, and he was recruited to join several rap groups. The first of these was the New Jacks, and after they disbanded, he joined Soul Intent, who released a single in 1995. This single also featured Proof and the two rappers broke off on their own to form D-12, a six-member crew that functioned more as a Wu-Tang-styled collective than a regularly performing group.
As he was struggling to establish his career, he and his girlfriend Kim had a daughter, Hailey, forcing him to spend less time rapping and more time providing for his family. During this time, he assembled his first album, Infinite, which received some underground attention in 1996, not all of it positive. After its release, Eminem developed his Slim Shady alter ego, a persona that freed him to dig deep into his dark id, something he needed as he faced a number of personal upheavals, beginning with a bad split with Kim, which led him to move in with his mother and increase his use of drugs and alcohol, capped off with an unsuccessful suicide attempt. All this Sturm und Drang was channeled into The Slim Shady EP, which is where he first demonstrated many of the quirks that became his trademark, including his twitchy, nasal rhyming and disturbingly violent imagery.
The Slim Shady EP opened many doors, the most notable of them being a contract with Interscope Records. After Eminem came in second at the 1997 Rap Olympics MC Battle in Los Angeles, Interscope head Jimmy Iovine sought out the rapper, giving the EP to Dr. Dre, who proved eager to work with Eminem. They quickly cut Em's Interscope debut in the fall of 1998 -- during which time Marshall reconciled with Kim and married her -- and The Slim Shady LP appeared early in 1999, preceded by the single 'My Name Is' Both were instant blockbusters and Eminem turned into a lightning rod for attention, earning praise and disdain for his violent, satirical fantasias.
Eminem quickly followed The Slim Shady LP with The Marshall Mathers LP in the summer of 2000. By this point, there was little doubt that Eminem was one of the biggest stars in pop music: the album sold by the truckload, selling almost two million copies within the first two weeks of release, but Mathers felt compelled to tweak other celebrities, provoking pop stars in his lyrics, and Insane Clown Posse's entourage in person, providing endless fodder for tabloids. This gossip blended with growing criticism about his violent and homophobic lyrics, and under this fire, he reunited his old crew, D-12, releasing an album in 2001, then touring with the group.
During this furor, he had his biggest hit in the form of the moody ballad 'Stan'. Performed at the Grammys as a duet with Elton John, thereby undercutting some accusations of homophobia, the song helped Eminem to cross over to a middlebrow audience, setting the stage for the ultimate crossover of 2001’s 8 Mile. Directed by Curtis Hanson, best-known as the Oscar-nominated director of L.A. Confidential, the gritty drama fictionalized Eminem's pre-fame Detroit days and earned considerable praise, culminating in one of his biggest hits with the theme 'Lose Yourself' (available on the 8 Mile soundtrack), which won Mathers an Oscar.
After all this, he retreated from the spotlight to record his third album, The Eminem Show. Preceded by the single 'Without Me', the album turned into another huge hit, albeit not quite as strong as its predecessor, and there were some criticisms suggesting that Eminem wasn't expanding his horizons much. Encore, released late in 2004, did reach into more mature territory, notably on the anti-George W. Bush 'Mosh', but most of the controversy generated by the album was for behind-the-scenes events: a bus crash followed by canceled dates and a stint in rehab. Rumors of retirement flew, and the 2005 appearance of Curtain Call: The Hits did nothing to dampen them, nor did the turmoil of 2006, a year that saw Mathers re-marrying and divorcing Kim within a matter of four months, as well as the shooting death of Proof at a Detroit club.
During all this, Em did some minor studio work, but soon he dropped off the radar completely, retreating to his Detroit home. He popped up here and there, most notably debuting the Hip Hop channel Shade 45for Sirius Satellite Radio in September 2008, but it wasn't until early 2009 that he mounted a comeback with Relapse, an album whose very title alluded to some of Mathers' struggles with prescription drugs, but also announced that after an extended absence, Slim Shady was back.
While not quite a blockbuster, the album went platinum, and Eminem followed it at the end of the year with an expanded version of Relapse (dubbed Relapse: Refill) that added outtakes and new recordings. Recovery, initially titled Relapse 2, was issued in June 2010. The album debuted on top of the Billboard 200 chart, where it remained for five consecutive weeks, while its leadoff single, 'Not Afraid', debuted on top of the magazine's Hot 100 singles chart.
2010 also brought Eminem back together with Royce da 5'9" under the Bad Meets Evil moniker. In turn, June 2011's Hell: The Sequel marked the release of their first EP as a duo and -- barring the previous month's release of key EP track 'Fastlane' as a single -- was their first batch of new material since a 1999 double A-side. After an intense period of recording, Eminem released his next solo album - the nostalgically themed set of new material entitled The Marshall Mathers LP2, which was released in early November 2013.
After centering himself with the confessional 2010 release Recovery, Eminem entered his forties while watching his beloved city of Detroit literally go bankrupt. The cover here displays this descent with an updated picture of the rapper's teenage home, first featured on the MM LP of 2000 but now boarded up, and yet this 8 Mile child cares much more about the present than the past, as this vicious, infectious, hilarious triumph is no nostalgia trip, just the 2013 version of Marshall the experienced maverick on a tear, dealing with the current state of events and kicking up dust with his trademark maniac attack while effortlessly juggling his over-40 wisdom with stuff you'd slap a teenager for saying.
Key cut "Rap God" is the quintessential track as it blasts out homophobic cut-downs and other inexcusable lyrics, because Marshall's the "Dale Earnhardt of the trailer park," but "I still rap like I'm on my Pharoahe Monch grind," and suddenly his Stan Lee-like origin story begins to take shape.
Marshall is a super villain so familiar with hate and depression, he's powered by all shades of anger. Be it pissing off the neighbors (rocking the house with a some Beastie Boys and Billy Squier samples on the Rick Rubin-produced party starter "Bezerk") or being threatened by critics (and his biggest ever, too, as "Bad Guy" revisits the MM LP character "Stan" via his revenge-obsessed brother Matthew), it all feeds into his super nova, and it’s a unique spectacle when it explodes. It does so gloriously on the stately arena rap anthem "Survival," which injects the listener with martial beats and a pre-game pep talk worth hearing. "Asshole" takes the decidedly low road to destruction, slapping girls "off the mechanical bull, at a tractor pull" while using controversy to make the front page, then offering the idea that he's "white America's mirror, so don't feel awkward or weird," because there's no sense in leaving the sewer if you don't crawl out enlightened.
Love it or hate it, nourishing his same old murder fantasies is what drives Eminem to make the vital music found here, and yet there's room for polished and clever frivolity on the album. The grand "Love Game" with Kendrick Lamar whips a Wayne Fontana "Game of Love"-sample into a thrilling swagger cut, while "So Far…" re-edits Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good" so the Madden and MP3 generation can also understand the sweet irony of mansions filled with Kool-Aid-stained couches. Silly, manipulated voices and all, "The Monster" with Rihanna offers insight with its "I get along with the voices inside my head" attitude, then "Headlights" ups the game and offers mom an apology, referencing his earlier hit "Cleaning Out My Closet" and explaining it as an angry and irresponsible moment. Funny thing is, most of the best moments on MM LP2 are just as angry, and just as irresponsible, but like "Closet," this is the tortured soul and self-reliance ninja known as Eminem at his very best.
With Recovery it becomes obvious that Eminem's richest albums aren't necessarily his most structurally sound, which isn't much of a surprise when considering the rapper's full-on embrace of flaws and contradictions. This lean, mean bipolar machine began life as Relapse 2, but when Shady decided he wasn't really Shady at the moment and that he was no longer keen on Relapse -- or the last two albums as he states on “Talkin' 2 Myself” -- it became Marshall Mathers time again, so damn any 11th hour issues. This results in an album where a shameless but killer Michael J. Fox punch line (“The world will stop spinnin’ and Michael J. Fox‘ll come to a standstill” from “Cold Wind”) is followed by a song with another, less effective MJF joke (“Make like Michael J. Fox in your drawers, playin' with an Etch-A-Sketch”), although that song is the lurching heavy metal monster “Won't Back Down” with P!nk, and it could be used as the lead-in to “Lose Yourself” on any ego-boosting mix tape.
Following an apology for your recent work with a damnation of critics and haters is just sloppy; taking off the skits and then overstuffing your album by a track or two is undermining what's good; and the beats here are collectively just a B+ with only one production (the so good “So Bad”) coming from Dr. Dre. Add to that the detractor idea that being privy to the man's therapy sessions just isn't compelling anymore and the only persuasive moments remaining are the highlights, but fans can feed on the energy, the renewed sense of purpose, and Marshall doing whatever the hell he wants, up to and including shoehorning a grand D12-like comedy number ("W.T.P.," which stands for "White Trash Party") into this emotionally heavy album.
It’s fascinating when Em admits “Hatred was flowin’ through my veins, on the verge of goin’ insane/I almost made a song dissin’ Lil Wayne” and then “Thank God I didn’t do it/I’da had my ass handed to me, and I knew it” before sparring with said Weezy on the Haddaway-sampling “No Love.” When the recovery-minded “Going Through Changes” gets back on the wagon by sampling Black Sabbath’s very druggy “Changes” it’s a brilliant and layered idea that’s executed with poignant lyrics on top. Add the man at his most profound (the gigantic hit “Not Afraid”) and his most profane (“You wanna get graphic? We can go the scenic route/You couldn’t make a bulimic puke on a piece of corn and peanut poop” from “On Fire”) plus one of thickest lyric booklets out of any of his albums and the fans who really listen are instantly on board. It may be flawed and the rapper’s attitude is sometimes one step ahead of his output, but he hasn’t sounded this unfiltered and proud since The Marshall Mathers LP, so to hell with refinement -- bring on the hunger and spirit of 8 Mile.
Eminem placed himself in exile shortly after Encore wound down, a seclusion initially designed as creative down-time but which soon descended into darkness fueled by another failed marriage to his wife Kim and the death of his best friend Proof, culminating in years of drug addiction. Em none too subtly refers to that addiction with the title of Relapse, his first album in five years, but that relapse also refers to Marshall Mathers reviving Slim Shady and returning to rap.
Relapse is designed to grab attention, to stand as evidence that Eminem remains a musical force and, of course, a provocateur spinning out violent fantasies and baiting celebrities, occasionally merging the two as when he needles one-time girlfriend Mariah Carey and her new husband Nick Cannon. Strive as he might to make an impact in the world at large -- and succeeding in many respects -- Relapse is the sound of severe isolation, the product of too many years of Eminem playing king in his castle in a dilapidated Detroit, subsisting on pills, nachos, torture porn, and E! Daily News.
As he sifted through junk culture, he also tweaked his rhyming, crafting an elongated elastic flow that contrasts startlingly with Dr. Dre's intensified beats, ominous magnifications of his thud-and-stutter signature. Musically, this is white-hot, dense, and dramatic not just in the production but in Eminem's delivery; he stammers and slides, slipping into an accent that resembles Paul Rudd's Rastafarian leprechaun from I Love You Man and then back again. His flow is so good, his wordplay so sharp, it seems churlish to wish that he addressed something other than his long-standing obsessions and demons. True, he spends a fair amount of the album exorcising his addiction -- smartly tying it to his never-abating mother issues on "My Mom" -- but most of Relapse finds Eminem rhyming twitchily about his old standbys: homosexuals, starlets, and violent fantasies, weaving all of them together on "Same Song and Dance" where he abducts and murders Lindsay Lohan, suggesting more than a passing familiarity with I Know Who Killed Me.
The many, many references to Kim Kardashian's big ass and minutely detailed sadism can get a wee bit tiring, Relapse isn't really about what Eminem says, it's about how he says it. He's emerged from his exile musically re-energized and the best way to illustrate that is to go through the same old song and dance again, the familiarity of the words drawing focus on his insane, inspired flow and Dre's production. That might not quite make Relapse culturally relevant -- recycled Christopher Reeve jokes aren't exactly fresh -- but it is musically vital, which is all Eminem really needs to be at this point.
Eminem took a hiatus after the release of his first motion picture, 8 Mile, in late 2002, but it never seemed like he went away. Part of that is the nature of celebrity culture, where every star cycles through gossip columns regardless of whether they have a project in the stores or theaters, and part of it is that Marshall Mathers kept busy, producing records by his protégés D12, Obie Trice, and 50 Cent -- all hit albums -- with the latter turning into the biggest new Hip Hop star of 2003. All this activity tended to obscure the fact that Eminem hadn't released a full-length album of new material since The Eminem Show in early summer 2002, and that two and a half years separated that album and its highly anticipated sequel, Encore.
As the title suggests, Encore is a companion piece to The Eminem Show the way that The Marshall Mathers LP mirrored The Slim Shady LP, offering a different spin on familiar subjects. Where his first two records dealt primarily with personas and characters, his second two records deal with what those personas have wrought, which tends to be intrinsically less interesting than the characters themselves, since it's dissecting the aftermath instead of causing the drama. On The Eminem Show that kind of self-analysis was perfectly acceptable, since Eminem was on the top of his game as both a lyricist and rapper; his insights were vibrant and his music was urgent. Musically, Show didn't innovate, but it didn't need to: Eminem and his mentor, Dr. Dre, had achieved cruising altitude, and even if they weren't offering much that was new, the music sounded fresh and alive.
Here, the music is spartan, built on simple unadorned beats and keyboard loops. Some songs use this sound to its advantage and a few others break free -- "Yellow Brick Road" is a tense, cinematic production, yet it fits the subject matter. Eminem has decided to chronicle what's happened to him over the past two years and refute every charge that's made it into the papers. This is quite a bit different than his earlier albums, when he embellished and exaggerated his life, when his relationship with his estranged wife Kim turned into an outlaw ballad, when his frenetic insults, cheap shots, and celeb baiting had a surreal, hilarious impact. Here, Eminem is plain-spoken and literal, intent on refuting every critic from Benzino at The Source to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who gets an entire song ("Ass Like That") devoted to him. While the album is a little long, it's worth a listen to hear the moments that work really well, whether it's full songs or flights of phrase.
"My Band," the debut single from D12's sophomore album, D12 World, is the group's greatest moment and a great introduction to the way they work.
Very little else on D12 World is as exciting as "My Band," the catchy explanation of what this group (or band, or whatever you want to call it) is, and one of the best productions to ever come out of Shadyville. It's also the tamest track on D12 World, an album that's proudly sick in the head. D12 are B-list players in the world of Shadyville (addressed on "My Band" when a fan asks, "Where's Obie and Dre?"), but they're the Three Stooges meets Andrew Dice Clay with that Detroit horror-show edge, which makes them like nothing else in the rap world. ICP might trade in the same sickness as the group, but D12 have better skills and more street cred, and they also have Bizarre. He's Kool Keith on earth, smoking Newports, carrying a blowup doll, and owning every track he appears on. His grotesque masterpiece is "Just Like U," a horrific exchange between parent and child that's so disgusting the edited version of the album totally drops it. Bizarre declares, "When Mos Def hear dis/He probably suffocate me," but it's hardly the only track that would make a humanist's stomach churn. "Get My Gun" and "Bitch" are just as irresponsible, but the group must not be sick enough to repel the socially conscious hero of the moment, Kanye West. His production work on the title track gives the album another highlight, while Dr. Dre is at the helm for the quirky and dark "American Psycho II," killer track number three.
Eminem rules the first two songs, and sporadically pops up throughout the album, but don't expect any of the usual reflection. His raps are concerned with his relationship to D12 and Hip Hop in total or they focus on his numerous beefs, most prominent being his one with Benzino. That's hard to relate to unless you have a beef with Benzino yourself, but fans who look at D12 albums as updates on the soap opera that is Eminem's career should eat it up. The album feels more slapped together than their debut -- and there's a dry spell in the middle -- but since Eminem spends a lot of time in the background it does do a better job of developing the careers of Swift, Proof, and mostly Bizarre. Check it for his raps and the excellent "My Band," but leave your taste and morality at home.
It's all about the title. First time around, Eminem established his alter ego, Slim Shady -- the character who deliberately shocked and offended millions, turning Eminem into a star. Second time at bat, he turned out The Marshall Mathers LP, delving deeper into his past while revealing complexity as an artist and a personality that helped bring him an even greater audience and much, much more controversy.
Third time around, it's The Eminem Show -- a title that signals that Eminem's public persona is front and center, for the very first time. And it is, as he spends much of the album commenting on the media circus that dominated on his life ever since the release of Marshall Mathers. This, of course, encompasses many, many familiar subjects -- his troubled childhood; his hatred of his parents; his turbulent relationship with his ex-wife, Kim (including the notorious incident when he assaulted a guy who allegedly kissed her -- the event that led to their divorce); his love of his daughter, Hailie; and, of course, all the controversy he generated, notably the furor over his alleged homophobia and his scolding from Lynne Cheney, which leads to furious criticism about the hypocrisy of America and its government.
All this is married to a production very similar to that of its predecessor -- spare, funky, fluid, and vibrant, punctuated with a couple of ballads along the way. So, that means The Eminem Show is essentially a holding pattern, but it's a glorious one -- one that proves Eminem is the gold standard in pop music in 2002, delivering stylish, catchy, dense, funny, political music that rarely panders (apart from a power ballad "Dream On" rewrite on "Sing for the Moment" and maybe the sex rap "Drips," that is). Even if there is little new ground broken, the presentation is exceptional -- Dre never sounds better as a producer than when Eminem pushes him forward (witness the stunning oddity "Square Dance," a left-field classic with an ominous waltz beat) and, with three albums under his belt, Eminem has proven himself to be one of the all-time classic MCs, surprising as much with his delivery as with what he says.
Plus, the undercurrent of political anger -- not just attacking Lynne Cheney, but raising questions about the Bush administration -- gives depth to his typical topics, adding a new, spirited dimension to his shock tactics as notable as the deep sentimental streak he reveals on his odes to his daughter. Perhaps the album runs a little too long at 20 songs and 80 minutes and would have flowed better if trimmed by 25 minutes, but that's a typical complaint about modern Hip Hop records. Fact is, it still delivers more great music than most of its peers in rock or rap, and is further proof that Eminem is an artist of considerable range and dimension.
It's tempting to dismiss D12's debut album, Devil's Night, as exploitative juvenilia, similar to how fellow Detroit hardcore rap acts such as ICP and Esham had been treated in the past. In fact, it's hard not to dismiss this album as shock rap because that's exactly what it is -- there's no denying it. As witty as Eminem may be -- and he's by far the most creative member of the group -- the countless forays into theatrical perversity far outnumber the more literate moments. But to dismiss the album strictly because of its themes would be unfortunate.
As challenging as it may be for many to stomach the constant and incredibly explicit sex, violence, and drug references, there is a stunning album lurking beneath that deserves recognition. Functioning as the album's executive producer and as the producer for most of the album's beats, Eminem has done a wonderful job crafting this album and its foreboding feel. Influenced by the style of sparse beats Dr. Dre employed on Eminem's past solo hits, the troublemaking MC's beatmaking steals the show here, particularly on the album's standout moment, "Purple Pills." In fact, Eminem's beats often contest the couple equally impressive tracks that Dre contributes.
Besides the remarkable production, Eminem also showcases his songwriting genius on several of the song's hooks, bringing a catchy pop-rap approach to hardcore lyrics. Yet no matter how accomplished this album is from a production and songwriting angle, it's impossible to look past the disturbing lyrics, especially those of Bizarre, and also Eminem's moments of unnecessary instigation. This album is obviously targeting those with a taste for perversity. If that means you, then you'll love this; if that doesn't mean you, then the album is still worth investigating, if only for Eminem's show-stealing performance as not only an MC but also as an adept producer and songwriter.
It's hard to know what to make of Eminem, even if you know that half of what he says is sincere and half is a put-on; the trick is realizing that there's truth in the joke, and vice versa. Many dismissed his considerable skills as a rapper and social satirist because the vulgarity and gross-out humor on The Slim Shady LP were too detailed for some to believe that it was anything but real.
To Eminem's credit, he decided to exploit that confusion on his masterful second record, The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem is all about blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, humor and horror, satire and documentary, so it makes perfect sense that The Marshall Mathers LP is no more or no less "real" than The Slim Shady LP. It is, however, a fairly brilliant expansion of his debut, turning his spare, menacing Hip Hop into a hyper-surreal, wittily disturbing thrill ride. It's both funnier and darker than his debut, and Eminem's writing is so sharp and clever that the jokes cut as deeply as the explorations of his ruptured psyche. The production is nearly as evocative as the raps, with liquid basslines, stuttering rhythms, slight sound effects, and spacious soundscapes.
There may not be overpowering hooks on every track, but the album works as a whole, always drawing the listener in. But, once you're in, Eminem doesn't care if you understand exactly where he's at, and he doesn't offer any apologies if you can't sort the fact from the fiction. As an artist, he's supposed to create his own world, and with this terrific second effort, he certainly has. It may be a world that is as infuriating as it is intriguing, but it is without question his own, which is far more than most of his peers are able to accomplish at the dawn of a new millennium.
Given his subsequent superstardom, culminating in no less than an Academy Award, it may be easy to overlook exactly how demonized Eminem was once his mainstream debut album, The Slim Shady LP, grabbed the attention of pop music upon its release in 1999. Then, it wasn't clear to every listener that Eminem was, as they say, an unreliable narrator, somebody who slung satire, lies, uncomfortable truths, and lacerating insights with vigor and venom, blurring the line between reality and parody, all seemingly without effort.
The Slim Shady LP bristles with this tension, since it's never always clear when Marshall Mathers is joking and when he's dead serious. This was unsettling in 1999, when nobody knew his back-story, and years later, when his personal turmoil is public knowledge, it still can be unsettling, because his words and delivery are that powerful. Of course, nowhere is this more true than on "97 Bonnie and Clyde", a notorious track where he imagines killing his wife and then disposing of the body with his baby daughter in tow. There have been more violent songs in rap, but few more disturbing, and it's not because of what it describes, it's how he describes it -- how the perfectly modulated phrasing enhances the horror and black humor of his words. Eminem's supreme gifts are an expansive vocabulary and vivid imagination, which he unleashes with wicked humor and unsparing anger in equal measure.
The production - masterminded by Dr. Dre but also helmed in large doses by Marky and Jeff Bass, along with Marshall himself - mirrors his rhymes, with their spare, intricately layered arrangements enhancing his narratives, which are always at the forefront. As well they should be -- there are few rappers as wildly gifted verbally as Eminem. At a time when many rappers were stuck in the stultifying swamp of gangsta clichés, Eminem broke through the hardcore murk by abandoning the genre's familiar themes and flaunting a style with more verbal muscle and imagination than any of his contemporaries. Years later, as the shock has faded, it's those lyrical skills and the subtle mastery of the music that still resonate, and they're what make The Slim Shady LP one of the great debuts in both Hip Hop and modern pop music.
If Eminem's Curtain Call: The Hits really is his final bow and not merely a clever denouement to his series of Eminem Show and Encore albums, it's a worthy way to retire. And even if he stages a comeback years from now, there's little question that the first five years of his career, spanning four albums plus a soundtrack, will be his popular and creative peak, meaning that the time is right for Curtain Call -- it has all the songs upon which his legend lies. Which isn't necessarily the same things as all the hits. There are a few odds and ends missing -- most notably one of his first Hip Hop hits, "Just Don't Give a F***," plus 2003's "Superman" and 2005's "Ass Like That" -- but all the big songs are here: "Guilty Conscience," "My Name Is," "Stan," "The Real Slim Shady," "The Way I Am," "Cleanin' Out My Closet," "Lose Yourself," "Without Me" and "Just Lose It." They're not presented in chronological order, which by and large isn't a problem, since the sequencing here not only has a good, logical momentum, alternating between faster and slower tracks, but they're all part of a body of work that's one of the liveliest, most inventive in pop music in the 21st century.