Like The Slim Shady LP before it, Eminem’s fourth and arguably most enduring album The Eminem Show is receiving a very big, very deluxe reissue this week on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. Curiously, no such celebration was staged for The Marshall Mathers LP two years back, incidentally giving us some insight into the Detroit rap god’s feelings about his own body of work; his suggested preference for his 2002 opus is a sympathetic one. Essentially, the last Eminem LP worth considering, The Eminem Show is the apotheosis of the Marshall Mathers project, conceived at a perfect moment where the artist had ascended to the ranks of celebrity, but had yet to totally succumb to the vapidity of the lifestyle. Which is to say that Marshall still reads as authentic on this record, his creativity yet to be totally stymied as it would be a few years later (a byproduct of intensifying struggles with addiction he archly dismisses here) and, debatably, ever since.
Though indeed his fourth LP generally, The Eminem Show was the rapper’s second album since going Hollywood, recording sessions for both this project and the previous Marshall Mathers LP split between Detroit and L.A. Still in the “underground M.C.” mindset by his own admission, but at this point completely submerged in the depths of commercial youth culture, largely dictated by MTV at the time. He had also quickly been made into a favorite media villain, a role he had angled for from the early days of his career and inherent to the Slim Shady persona that was ultimately legitimized by then second lady Lynne Cheney, who infamously called a senate hearing in response to the lyrical content on Marshall Mathers LP. She would, of course, eventually be shouted out on iconic lead single “Without Me” (“I know that you got a job Ms. Cheney / But your husband’s heart problem’s complicating”) and her husband electrocuted in effigy in its Joseph Kahn-directed video, and so would a number of disparate celebs of that moment — from Moby to Chris Kirkpatrick — united in their opposition to Slim Shady. Of course, some of these antagonisms were more legitimate than others (the Kirkpatrick call out mostly inspired by the satisfactory way his last name rhymed with “get your ass kicked”), but Eminem reserved the same level of venom for all his targets, bringing a scorched earth, battle rapper mentality to his attacks on TRL scenesters and opportunist politicians alike. The Eminem Show still manages to provide some low-stake anarchic thrills in this way, even as many of the album’s targets have faded from cultural memory (the Canibus diss on Iraq War protest track “Square Dance” requires some now esoteric knowledge to parse), and cemented him as a superstar beyond the world of rap by positioning him as in conflict with anyone and everyone.
Yet for all of his jabs at the FCC and potential government censors, The Eminem Show is obviously still a move toward sanding down the artist’s less radio friendly tendencies, with Mathers taking on production duties almost in full for the first time, though still overseen and assisted by Dr. Dre (who receives solo credit on three tracks) and the Bass Brothers. While not a massive aesthetic shift from what had been cooked up on the previous Dre-helmed albums and lyrically still plenty nasty, The Eminem Show steps away from the horrorcore influence that informed his output up till that point, steering more toward bouncy pop-minded, G-funk beats and channeling his fury into a court jester type performance (Kahn’s aforementioned “Without Me” video goes as far as to cast Dre and him as a sort of Martin & Lewis combo). The unguarded rage that characterized earlier projects does still burst through, but it’s mostly cordoned off to the politically-minded “White America” and “Square Dance, and the ferocious “Cleaning Out My Closet,” a breathtaking (and uncomfortably catchy) rundown of Mathers’ abusive mother who had attempted to sue him for $10 million dollars just a few years prior. Eminem’s ability to intertwine his recent, bleak reality with his new unreal Hollywood lifestyle proves unique and enthralling to this day, even as, or perhaps because, it’s music that would never get Top 40 play now. And while he never could quite nail this balance between popstar and punk outsider again (his career stalling out for some years after before a Very radio-friendly reinvention brought him back at the end of the 2000s), The Eminem Show remains its ideal execution, and at least a neat snapshot of the bizarre cultural tensions underpinning the time of its release.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.