Pop stars from Elvis Presley to N.W.A to Marilyn Manson have flirted with and even flaunted controversy—but never with the uniform gusto of Eminem. On his 1999 major-label debut, The Slim Shady LP (Number Two pop, Number One R&B), the Detroit-based white rapper was willing to put anybody in his verbal crosshairs, including not only his detractors but himself, Kim, his wife and the mother of his daughter, and his own mother (who later ended up filing a defamation of character lawsuit against him). The following year's doubly venomous The Marshall Mathers LP (Number One pop, Number One R&B) raised/lowered the bar even more, drawing intense protest from gay, lesbian, religious, and women's groups, even as it became the fastest-selling rap album of all time and topped many critics' year-end best-of lists.
Eminem was born Marshall Bruce Mathers III just outside of Kansas City, Missouri. He never knew his father and was raised along with a younger half-brother by his mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs, who moved the family to a predominately black neighborhood on the East side of Detroit when Mathers was 11. Although he was bullied and harassed by other kids on a regular basis, Mathers found a handful of friends who recognized his rhyming skills, and after failing ninth grade three years in a row, he dropped out of school and began competing in local freestyle throw-downs with his crew, the Dirty Dozen.
He released his first solo album, Infinite, on the local Web Entertainment label in 1996. It failed to garner much attention, but the followup, 1998's The Slim Shady EP, so impressed super-producer Dr. Dre that he signed Eminem to his Interscope imprint, Aftermath. The EP was expanded into the Dre-coproduced The Slim Shady LP, which debuted on the pop chart at Number Three in February 1999 and went on to sell three million copies and win Eminem a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Like the EP before it, the album showcased Eminem's maniacal alter ego Slim Shady — a homicidal comedian through whom Mathers enacted his most outrageous and perverse revenge fantasies. The catchy lead single "My Name Is" was a huge crossover success, climbing to Number 36 on the Hot 100 and eventually winning a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. Meanwhile, moral watchdogs loudly protested darker fare on the album like "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," in which Eminem sings lovingly to his baby daughter while en route to dump her murdered mother in a body of water.
The combination of Eminem's unique, nasal delivery (many critics and artists, both black and white, hailed him as one of the best MCs in the world), crossover appeal, and willingness to attack and offend anything in his way without prejudice quickly established the young rapper as a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon—a fact further proven when The Marshall Mathers LP debuted at the top of the chart in 2000 with close to 1.7 million copies sold its first week in stores. It would eventually become one of only a handful of albums to achieve diamond certification, for sales of over 10 million copies.
The monster crossover hit came with "The Real Slim Shady" (Number Four pop, Number 11 R&B, 2000), while the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) led the protest charge, extremely alarmed over a recurring theme of hateful homophobia throughout the album. The debate peaked when openly gay rocker - and outspoken Eminem fan - Elton John performed with the rapper at the 2001 Grammy Awards ceremony (where Eminem won his second Best Rap Album trophy but lost Album of the Year to Steely Dan). Together, Eminem and John performed the song "Stan," a cautionary tale about a disturbed fan taking Eminem's violent Slim Shady fantasies too seriously. The album version of "Stan" drew its disarmingly pretty chorus from the song "Thank You" by English singer/songwriter Dido, whose own career subsequently took off due to the exposure.
In 2001, Eminem also made good on a promise to sign his Detroit crew, D12, to his new record label, Shady Records and the group—six members, including Eminem—released Devil's Night, which debuted at Number One and has sold over two million copies.
In the midst of all his critical and commercial success and the controversy stirred up over his lyrics, Eminem was besieged by lawsuits and run-ins with the law. In addition to his mother's defamation suit, Mathers was also sued by his estranged wife (the girlfriend he "killed" in "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" and again in "Kim" from The Marshall Mathers LP). The couple later reconciled and his wife dropped the suit, but the pair eventually divorced in 2001. Meanwhile, Mathers pleaded guilty to charges of carrying a concealed weapon in a criminal case stemming from a June 2000 incident in which he allegedly assaulted a man outside of a nightclub for kissing his wife. He received two years' probation.
In the summer of 2002, the MC returned with his third album, The Eminem Show, which sold over a million in its first week of release and went on to sell over 10 million copies—making Eminem the only artist in history with two diamond certified albums. On the first single, "Without Me," Em mocked the media storm that followed him wherever he went: "Everybody, just follow me/Cause we need a little controversy/Cause it feels so empty, without me." The single peaked at Number Two on Billboard's Hot 100—Em's highest placement to date—and was nominated for two Grammy in 2003: Record of the Year and Best Male Rap Solo Performance. "Cleanin' Out My Closet," also from The Eminem Show, peaked at Number Four on the Hot 100.
In November, 2002, Eminem starred as himself (renamed "Rabbit") in 8 Mile, a dramatization of his coming of age as an aspiring MC in Detroit, co-starring Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, and Mekhi Phifer. The rapper earned critical acclaim for his acting in the film and even more for its soundtrack and standout track "Lose Yourself," which was Eminem's first song to hit Number One on the Hot 100 and also earned the rapper an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2003.
Eminem returned in November 2004 with Encore, which sold 700,000 copies in its first three days of release and 2.8 million in the first two weeks. On this, Eminem's fourth studio album, on which alter ego Slim Shady takes a final bow, the lyrics are noticeably more restrained, less antagonistic. It did strike notes of controversy, however, notably for anti-war track "Mosh" (which references "this weapon of mass destruction that we call our president") and "Just Lose It," which poked fun at Michael Jackson over allegations of child molestation, plastic surgery, and the incident when his hair caught fire during a Pepsi commercial shoot. The attack angered some prominent African-Americans, notably Stevie Wonder and Steve Harvey, who said on his radio show, "Eminem has lost his ghetto pass. We want the pass back."
A year later, Eminem released a greatest hits album called Curtain Call: The Hits, leading some to think the rapper was retiring, a possibility he bolstered when he told a Detroit radio show "This is the reason that we called it 'Curtain Call', because this could be the final thing. We don't know." In August, 2005, the rapper entered a rehab facility to treat a dependency on sleeping pills. Eminem later credited his former duet partner Elton John for helping him overcome his addiction.
After a long hiatus from recording, Eminem returned in 2009, releasing Relapse in May and Relapse 2 in August. Neither album sold as well as the rapper's career-defining earlier efforts, but both went platinum and re-established him as a force with the pop universe.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.