Eminem’s 1999 triple-platinum major-label debut, The Slim Shady LP, was a shot in hip-hop’s arm, the grand entrance of a hurricane dressed as a Detroit kid with major-league skills and a potential mental disorder. This time out, he’s more funny and much more scary. On The Marshall Mathers LP he hits you with the lyrical complexity and detailed narratives of Biggie, the hilarious, is-he-kidding-or-not button-pushing of Howard Stern, the disaffected angry-white-boy-ness of Fight Club and the fearless, kill-me-if-you-can energy of Tupac. He has a macabre imagination to rival Satan’s and an incredible ability to create new rhyme patterns. He has a frightening proclivity to spit venom one moment and humor the next, and a never-ending slew of jaw-dropping punch lines. He is, simply, better than any other MC in hip-hop except for Jay-Z — yes, better than Beanie Sigel, Pharoahe Monch, Snoop, Common, Prodigy, Xzibit, Redman, Big Pun and all of the Lox. It feels dangerous to think of a white boy nearing the aesthetic zenith of the celebration of black maleness called hip-hop, but just as blacks have to be twice as good to get ahead in life, to get ahead in hip-hop Eminem has had to be twice as ill.
Expect, during this summer of Shady, to hear Marshall Mathers following you around the hip-hop nation, flowing from boomboxes, trucks and lips the same way Dre’s The Chronic, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . and B.I.G.’s Life After Death once did. You may find Eminem popping out of your own mouth, because he’s the most quotable MC alive, both consistently funny and ridiculously far over the top. He rarely uses the same rhyme pattern twice, and he changes his vocal style again and again on Marshall Mathers, often in the space of one verse — he uses six different voices in one stretch of “Criminal.” His feelings on Jennifer Lopez: “I’m sorry, Puff/But I don’t give a fuck if this chick was my own mother/I’d still fuck her with no rubber.” And life in Detroit: “That’s why we’re crowned the murder capital still!/This ain’t Detroit!/This is motherfuckin’ Hamburger Hill!/We don’t do drive-bys/We park in front of houses and shoot/And when the police come, we fuckin’ shoot it out with ’em, too!”
Expect, also, many of these tracks to become the beat of the summer. Dr. Dre and partner-of-late Mel-Man produced much of the album, while Eminem and his Detroit crew, F.B.T., handled most of the rest. The sound shifts between slick, bright, melodic funk that’s so R&B-ish, you can dance to it (“Who Knew,” “The Real Slimy Shady”) and slow, driving, outrageous-bass hardcore raw hip-hop made for cruising in lowriders (“Amityville,” “I’m Back”). Seven years after The Chronic and fourteen after the dawn of N.W.A, Dre is that legendary coach taking a third different team to a national title, still making your head hurt from all the nodding, still crazy dope after all these years.
Finally, this summer you’ll also see Eminem become 2000’s Luther Campbell or Sister Souljah, the rapper attacked in public for supposedly bringing our standards to new lows. His insistent, tiring gay bashing almost begs you to hate him: “I’ll stab you in the head, whether you’re fag or les/Or a homosex, a hermaph or a trans-a-ves. . . ./Hate fags? The answer’s yes.” This may just be grade-school bullshit, as Eminem claims, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. But the man who pronounced that he was sent here to “piss the world off” knows that being hated is essential to his appeal. It creates a boundary between his fans and outsiders, whether they be parents or his much-maligned TRL peer Christina Aguilera.
But there’s too much anger on The Marshall Mathers LP for it to be just a calculated scheme to win fans. Eminem is a kid who was brutally beaten up in school and raised by a mother who recently hit him with a $10 million defamation-of-character lawsuit for saying things like “A mother did drugs, tar, liquor, cigarettes and speed/The baby came out disfigured, ligaments indeed/It was a seed who would grow up just as crazy as she/Don’t dare make fun of that baby/’Cause that baby was me. . . ./How the fuck you supposed to grow up when you weren’t raised?” The album opens with “Kill You,” in which he threatens Mom with guess what.
Things degenerate from there into the mountain of bile reserved for Kim, the mother of his baby and the star of the world’s most public ongoing murder fantasy. The song named after her on Marshall Mathers is the prequel to the previous album’s ” ’97 Bonnie and Clyde” — in which Eminem speaks to his daughter, Hailie, as he dumps Kim’s body in a lake. But where “Bonnie and Clyde” is a clever takeoff on Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us,” “Kim” has Eminem screaming at his ex in an insane stream-of-consciousness hate spew. There’s little humor to blunt the shock of the hellbent animosity of “Kim.” What makes it powerful is that, of course, he doesn’t just hate her. It’s the most harrowing sick-love song since Guns n’ Roses’ “Used to Love Her.”
Eminem could be the Axl Rose of hip-hop, a rage-filled, drug-addled, homicidal, charismatic talent and bona fide megastar. The Marshall Mathers LP is a car-crash record: loud, wild, dangerous, out of control, grotesque, unsettling. It’s also impossible to pull your ears away from.