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Eminem on the Road Back From Hell

Rolling Stone's 2010 look inside the very private world of hip-hop's reclusive genius

October 17, 2011 3:55 PM ET
rolling stone 1118 eminem
Rolling Stone Issue #1118
Photo by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

Upon arriving at Eminem's recording studio – an anonymous gray hit factory in suburban Detroit – a first-time visitor will be met at his car by a large, possibly armed man named Big 8, who will have been watching from an alley across the street. "Can I help you, sir?" he'll ask, in a tone that does not suggest an eagerness to help. Only after you have proved to not be a threat will you be escorted past the security cameras and heavily reinforced metal door and into the place Eminem calls "my second home."

Inside, Big 8 is all smiles. The studio is a grown-up play land: Punisher comic books, lucha libre masks, a popcorn machine. A large painting of Biggie and 2Pac graces one wall, while a plaque leaning against another celebrates Eminem's status as SoundScan's Artist of the Decade: 32 million albums sold in the past 10 years, trouncing runners-up the Beatles. A dozen years into his career, he remains one of pop's most bankable stars – a rare feat for any artist, and, for a rapper, almost unprecedented.

After half an hour, Eminem emerges from the vocal booth, where he's working on tracks with Dr. Dre for Dre's long-awaited Detox. He's dressed in black cargo shorts and a gray T-shirt, and a diamond crucifix hangs from his neck. His features are delicate, nearly feminine, and his hair is a deep, natural shade of brown. He bears little resemblance to the foulmouthed, bleached-blond Slim Shady who once made it his mission to terrorize America.

"What up, man," he says softly by way of introduction. "I'm Marshall."

It's a rainy afternoon in October, three days before Eminem's 38th birthday. He sits in the cluttered studio office, at a desk strewn with over-the-counter pharmaceuticals – Aleve, 5-Hour Energy – and Ziploc bags of minipretzels. Much has been made of the rapper's volatile temper, not least by Eminem himself (he once spent two years on probation for felony weapons charges after an altercation outside a bar), but in conversation he's thoughtful and polite, albeit not in a way you'd mistake for friendliness. There's little evidence of the prankster you hear on his records, and when discussing his personal life, he has a tendency to retreat, gazing at the floor and covering his mouth like a football coach hiding his plays.

Our conversation is interrupted by frequent bathroom breaks. Eminem loves Diet Coke, which he guzzles obsessively from a soda fountain in the lobby. At one point, he fills a 16-ounce cup nearly to the brim, then sets it down next to another full cup he'd forgotten he had. He's a chain drinker, in other words, and as a result he pees constantly. Asked why he prefers fountain drinks to cans, he turns serious. "There's aspartame in the cans," he says. "They say it's been known to cause cancer, so I cut that shit out. There's no aspartame in the fountain."

A few years ago, an artificial sweetener would have been the least of Eminem's worries. For much of the period from 2002 to 2008, he was addicted to a dangerous cocktail of prescription medication, including Ambien, Valium and extra-strength Vicodin. He tried rehab in 2005, then fell into an even deeper tailspin the next year, following the shooting death of his best friend, DeShaun "Proof" Holton. It wasn't until he nearly died from an accidental methadone overdose at the end of 2007 that Eminem finally decided to get clean. Last month, he celebrated two and a half years of sobriety.

His latest album, Recovery, deals with addiction and his struggles to conquer it. It is, by his standards, surprisingly positive. Released in June, it sold 741,000 copies in its first week – Eminem's sixth consecutive Number One – and will probably end up the bestselling album of 2010. It has also spawned two Number One singles, the inspirational "Not Afraid" and the Rihanna-featuring "Love the Way You Lie," which topped the charts for four weeks straight. In September, he cemented his return with a series of shows with Jay-Z at baseball stadiums in Detroit and New York. All in all, it's a remarkable comeback for a man who might not have lived to make another album.

Yet for all Eminem's triumphs, it's sometimes hard to tell if he's enjoying himself. By his own account, he lives a pretty solitary existence. He has a 15,000-square-foot fortress in the Detroit suburbs that he bought from the former CEO of Kmart, where he lives with 14-year-old Hailie – his biological daughter with his two-time ex-wife, Kim – and two adopted daughters: eight-year-old Whitney, Kim's daughter from a previous marriage, and 17-year-old Alaina, the daughter of Kim's twin sister. Before our interview began, he made it clear that he preferred not to discuss his family. Still, from the few glimpses he offers, a picture emerges of a devoted, protective father trying to focus on the two things he loves most: his children and his work.

Well, that and video games. Eminem is a vintage video-game fiend. The studio lobby is filled with arcade classics: Donkey Kong, Frogger, Space Invaders. His interest grew after seeing a documentary called The King of Kong, about a mild-mannered engineer named Steve Wiebe and his quest to capture the world Donkey Kong record. (Two of Eminem's machines are autographed by Wiebe.) He says he's also trying to break Wiebe's record, and on one of his Donkey Kong games, all six high scores belong to MBM – Marshall Bruce Mathers.

The bad guy in The King of Kong is named Billy Mitchell, a loudmouthed jerk not entirely unlike a certain white rapper. Cocky and snide, he's an ideal dramatic foil for the sweet, modest family man Wiebe. "It's a perfect contrast," Eminem says of the pairing. "A hero and a villain." Just which of those two he himself wants to be is one of the many things Eminem is trying to figure out.

Congratulations on your success with Recovery. Has it surprised you at all?
I'm a little surprised. I was certainly more confident in this album than the last one. It feels good to have your work respected again. Winning awards is cool, but at this point, I'm in it for the sport.

What's been the highlight so far?
The shows with Jay-Z. Just being onstage in front of that many people, being able to command the crowd but not having to fall back on old crutches like drugs and drinking. You do get nervous – anybody who says they don't is lying. But hitting that stage now, I want to feel those nerves. To look out and actually see girls crying and shit, it's overwhelming. But not like it used to be, where I felt like I needed to [mimes drinking from a bottle].

Does fame feel different this time?
It feels like I have a better grasp on it. A lot of the problems I had with fame I was bringing on myself. A lot of self-loathing, a lot of woe-is-me. Now I'm learning to see the positive side of things, instead of, like, "I can't go to Kmart. I can't take my kids to the haunted house."

Your past few albums were produced mainly by you and Dr. Dre. On this one you worked with several new producers.
It was just time for fresh blood. There's so many talented producers I always wanted to work with, but I was never sure if it would gel. I think it was a fear of failure. Like, "What if I bring these guys out, and I don't come up with anything?" So I just stayed in my element, where I was comfortable. But I was talking to my boy Denaun [Porter, of D12] one day, and he said, "Yo, man – you gotta get off your island." I don't mean to keep going back to it, but when I got clean, I started doing things I wouldn't otherwise have done.

Your music also seems more serious now.
Around the tail end of [2004's] Encore, the songs started getting really goofy. "Rain Man," "Big Weenie," "Ass Like That" – that's when the wheels were coming off. Every day I had a pocketful of pills, and I would just go into the studio and goof off. When I went to Hawaii with Dre for [what became Recovery], there was a turning point lyrically. I was sitting in the car listening to these older songs of mine, trying to figure out, "Why doesn't the new stuff hit me like it used to?" That's when I started to get away from the funny shit and do songs that had some emotion and aggression to them again.

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