"Coachella, can I take you back to a time when I was actually dope?"
Eminem knows how to have a good laugh about himself, so when the rapper yelled those words from the Coachella mainstage Sunday night, it was with good combo of bravado and self-awareness. It followed a few minutes of "mean tweets" (introduced by a pre-taped Jimmy Kimmel) that viciously laid into the hip-hop icon in mid-career. His answer came in the form of "My Name Is," his breakthrough single from 1999 that introduced Em as a searing voice for pushing buttons and boundaries.
He's still ready to do damage, opening his show with a video of a King Kong-sized Slim Shady stomping through city streets, smashing cars, flipping off the citizenry and generally wreaking havoc. But his songs of defiance and doubt were never about hooliganism, and reached for ever-deeper meaning of the most personal kind.
Eminem arrived onto a stage dressed to look like a fading Detroit factory (with the "313" area code prominently painted onto a water tower) which he'd eventually set aflame, later rising again as a landscape of imagined urban renewal in depressed middle America. He snarled the lyrics on the dangerously playful "Kill You" while stumbling across the stage, bouncing to the beat in his white tracksuit, then he was searching and threatening on "The Way I Am." With a full band and strings behind him, the beats and melodies supporting the raps were usually played live, not sampled (including his "Sing for the Moment" tweak of Aerosmith's hit "Dream On").
Eminem doesn't do long tours these days and came prepared to make his Coachella set a special event. Beyoncé didn't show up to perform their duet on "Walk On Water," which might have been anticlimactic a day after her own soaring Coachella set. Filling in was singer-producer Skylar Grey, who also stepped in for other missing collaborators on "Stan" (Dido) and "Love the Way You Lie" (Rihanna), ably filling the gap with her own biting vocals.
Friend and collaborator 50 Cent landed like a boxer stepping into the ring, bouncing hard and taking the lead on a trio of tough raps: "Patiently Waiting," "I Get Money" and "In Da Club." Dr. Dre emerged to recreate the classic producer-rapper collaborations that made Marshall Mathers a star. He turned up just as Eminem rapped crazily, "Dr. Dre's dead, he's locked in my basement. ..." The show immediately shifted into Dre's Nineties episode, with Eminem taking Snoop Dogg's lines on "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang." For a rap star who rarely appears on stage anywhere, Dre manages to bring it with confidence and muscle every time out at Coachella, which has become his only live venue: headlining two shows with Snoop in 2012, performing at last year's N.W.A reunion during Ice Cube's set and now with Eminem.