"Call me Tiger, my wood's been everywhere," rapped D.N.A., a fervent Queens MC, at the opening night of Eminem's battle series EmSee: The Road to 8 Mile, sponsored by Red Bull, last night at New York's Bowery Ballroom. The event was billed as a showcase for up-and-coming talent, but the poorly kept secret was that Slim Shady himself was in the house for a surprise set the same day his 17-track Recovery — the follow-up to 2009's Relapse, his first album after five years of depression, drug addiction and being slumped at rock bottom — hit stores.
But first, Em wanted to recreate the kind of fast-paced war-of-words showdowns he'd competed in at Detroit's Saint Andrew's Hall, where the victors from eight cities will meet on August 26th. Two screens behind the stage instructed the crowd to text a word or phrase for the MC to feature in his freestyle in the following round (D.N.A.'s included ice cream sundae, helicopter, broken windows, tape measure, skateboard and Tiger Woods). Judges Just Blaze, Alchemist, and Craig G evaluated the fresh talent, and rap supergroup Slaughterhouse — Royce da 5'9”, Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden and Crooked I — took the stage for a handful of songs including "Sound Off," "The One" and "Microphone."
Then Eminem's moment arrived. "Y'all pulled some feathers outta your cap for this one," announced one of the evening's hosts, Dres tha Beatnik, and the audience ignited as Eminem arrived, opening with "Despicable," a freestyle that leaked online in late April. "Fuck an intro man, let's go… I come around like what goes around/What goes up must come down/Anyone who comes up must go down/Might as well go for the gusto now..."
What's it like to take the stage sober after having been high for so long? What's it like to appear at a small club after selling out arenas? Eminem gave himself less than 10 minutes to find out. Rapping like he had something to prove in his signature aggravated tone on Recovery's "On Fire," Em's energy escalated for his new single "Won't Back Down," which had him bopping back-and-forth, flailing his arms and forefinger for emphasis. Slapping hands with a few fans in the front row, Em finally spoke: "Yo, New York, man, on some real shit, we really didn't get time to rehearse this. We just wanted to come out for y'all tonight because, for real baby, if it was not for you guys, man, I would not be standing up here right fucking now. Honest to God, man, thank you to each and every one of you."
Though his performance was slated for 30 minutes on the lineup, Em left after three songs. The Bowery chanted for an encore, but the MC didn't return. "How much did y'all think you were gonna get for 15 dollars?" Dres tha Beatnik asked. "One more! One more! One more!" the crowd answered.
"I can't believe he didn't come back," a lanky fan said to his friend walking up the stairs towards the exit. "Nah, that's all he had in him tonight," his friend responded. "That's all your boy had."