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Eminem Reborn: The Second Coming of Marshall Mathers

Sober and as big as ever, the rapper reflects on a life devoted to hip-hop

Eminen, Hip Hop

Eminem accepts the Best Hip Hop award onstage during the MTV EMA's 2013 in Amsterdam, Netherlands on November 10th, 2013.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

MAYBE IT’S THE HAIR. YOU CAN’T REALLY SEE it under the plain black military scout’s cap he’s wearing this afternoon, but for the first time in half a decade or so, Eminem has reclaimed the Slim Shady platinum-blond look that he cast aside after beating a near-fatal pill addiction. Post-rehab, his emotional dial seemed slightly stuck on “grim determination,” but now, despite looming, beyond-final deadlines for his eighth studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, he’s in a disarmingly playful mood. In the course of a long conversation, he breaks into a Yoda impression, raps part of “My Name Is,” laughs, smiles, makes fun of himself — all stuff that people assumed was behind him.

He’s taking a break from mixing the album in his warehouselike studio complex in a Detroit suburb, where old-school video games line one wall (Mortal Kombat is the only one that actually seems to be in operation), TMZ and Judge Judy play on the front-lounge TV, and compilations of current Marvel comic books are supplied for in-bathroom reading.

Eminem sprawls on an ergonomic chair in manager Paul Rosenberg’s office, with a bottle of water and a can of diet Red Bull at his feet. He’s wearing a crisp white T-shirt, below-the-knee cargo shorts, and blue and white low-top Nike Air Max Is with tags still on them. There’s a silver chain around his neck. He’s crazily fit, with huge biceps that almost don’t match his thin, still-unlined face — he’s 41, but doesn’t look it. On the wall above his head is a huge print of the Paul’s Boutique album cover; a life-size, giant-tongued bust of the head of Venom, the Spider-Man villain, has a place of honor at Rosenberg’s desk.

After a couple of hours, Rosenberg comes in with six different mixes of the new song “Rap God” for Eminem to choose among. A look of genuine agitation crosses his face — he thought he was almost done for the day. Then Eminem throws his hands up in mock exasperation and bolts from his chair. “That’s it,” he says, offering an evil smile. “I’m going back on drugs!”

What did it feel like to look in the mirror and see that blond hair again?
Like I relapsed on drugs. It was a little creepy. I certainly had some dark times with that shit, mostly due to taking a lot of pills and fucking drooling on myself. It was a shitty time, and I think getting sober and putting my hair back to its regular color was me washing my hands of it. Dyeing it back probably would have been bad for me a year or two after that. But I’m more comfortable in sobriety now. It made sense once the songs started coming together, so I just said, “Fuck it.”

You sound less intense on this record than you did on Recovery, maybe happier, maybe more your old self.
I feel like maybe I got too happy or too jokey or too giddy on Relapse [the 2009 album before Recovery]. Everything was a joke: accents, funny shit, shock-value shit, all that shit I just kind of ran into the ground. And then Recovery was, “Let me try to get serious for a minute, let me get back to making songs that actually feel something.” But afterward, doing the Bad Meets Evil EP [a collaboration with Royce da 5’9″] really started to open my mind up. It gave me the feeling again of making music with no restraints. I’m hoping that that’s what this new album is, having fun with the music. Not to say there’s going to be no serious moments, but trying to find the right balance.

And presumably your recent life has been a lot less dramatic than the period before Relapse and Recovery.
On this record, I’m not coming off of an overdose, you know? And I didn’t just lose Proof, one of my best friends that I’ve ever had. Those periods of time were pretty fuckin’ brutal, and those were things on Recovery that I needed to address that I think were probably therapeutic for me. You know, I miss Proof every day and love him and wish he was here all the time. But that was just a different time period.

And are you actually happy these days?
I’m as happy as I can be, I guess.

One of the first times we saw you back with the hair was Brent Musburger’s interview on ESPN in September. You acted spaced-out, and people didn’t get that you were screwing around.
I knew we were about to show the “Berzerk” video, so I was doing what I call the Berzerk face. The whole song to me feels like vintage Beastie Boys. And you know the “Pass the Mic” video where Ad-Rock is making that face, kind of not looking in the camera? I was doing my own version. So I thought it would be funnier because maybe no one would know what I’m doing.

I’ve only heard you talk about Licensed to Ill before — did you follow the Beasties to Paul’s Boutique and beyond?
When Paul’s Boutique came out, I was one of the fans who didn’t get it. It took me years to realize how fucking genius it is. I felt bad for sleeping on it. Obviously, yes, there was something about Licensed to Ill — you had the Zeppelin samples and their vibe. You had Run-DMC, who were so cool, with the attitude of “Fuck you if you don’t like us.” Same as the Beastie Boys. “Fuck you. We fucking curse. We spit beer. We throw it on our fucking fans.” And obviously as they got older their views and things changed, as all of ours do. You can be mad at their shit for not sounding like their last shit, but if it did, then they didn’t grow as artists. Same with me.

You worked with Rick Rubin on parts of the new album, and there’s some throwback hip-hop production on there. What’s that about for you?
One of my favorite new things to do is experiment with older break beats and sounds, retro shit, and try to make it current. I was headed in that direction before Rick got involved. It’s the nostalgia of it, when hip-hop was fresh and new..

It was being invented on a day-to-day basis, basically.
Yeah. Damn near every new song that came out was groundbreaking. Listen to LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” — some of them sounds, man! When you bring it back now, some kids might be, “What the fuck is that? Where did that come from?”

The first hip-hop song that you got into, Ice-T’s “Reckless,” is nearly 30 years old but its beat still sounds insane.
You could take that beat today and probably throw Drake on it and it would be fucking crazy.

On the new song “Legacy,” you set up your early story almost as a superhero origin: You got your powers from hip-hop.
Absolutely! Hip-hop saved my life, man. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been even decent at. It’s the only thing I’ve ever known how to do. I don’t know how to do anything else. I think they have a word for that — what do they call it? Idiot savant?

I mean, you’re too good at too many things to really bean idiot savant.
Thanks, man. I mean, that’s open to interpretation.

Besides LL Cool J’s autobiography, you never really read books, but comic books were a big deal for you growing up.
It’s more about admiring comic-book art. I liked that fantasy world, fuckin’ bizarre shit. Some people say that some of my songs have been cartoonish. My problem is when I read something, unless I wrote it — and half the time when I did write it — I can’t process it. I don’t know if I have the attention span to sit and read a sentence. As I get into that sentence, that might trigger a thought, and I go off and start thinking about something else and then I’ll read the next sentence, and then I have to go back because, wait, what did I just read? And then I have to read one paragraph 10 fucking times. So I don’t read.

You keep referencing Thor on this album. Is he your favorite superhero?
Spider-Man is still my favorite. But Thor was on my mind because he had a movie coming out. And he has all sorts of weird hang-ups and language barriers. Thor seems like he feels out of place in this world, and I can relate to that.

“Survival” suggests that you’re never retiring. Is that your current thinking?
As far as hip-hop goes, part of me feels like I could keep going as long as I wanted. Eventually I might want to get into just producing. Part of me feels like one day I would want to be behind the scenes, just making music. So regardless, whenever I set the mic down, I always want to have something to do with music. It passes the time [laughs]. That’s an understatement. Kinda takes up all of it. But everybody gets days where you’re “Fuck, man, I don’t even want to do this anymore.”

You almost died from your methadone overdose. Do you have lasting physical effects from the drug stuff and the overdose? Is there anything that persists or anything to worry about?
I don’t think so. I know I probably shaved a few years off my life. I was definitely lucky. I think my OCD is getting worse, though.

Is that a self-diagnosed OCD, or has a doctor actually said you have OCD?
It’s self-diagnosed. I could cop out and say it’s from music, but it’s not that. Once I got sober, I started noticing shit about myself. Like, if I ran on the treadmill, if I had it in my mind that I needed to burn 500 calories, I hit that exact number. Part of me wonders, “Do I do it because I’m OCD or because I don’t want to be a quitter?” But then I sit there fucking with the drums on the mixing board for two hours, going, “Fuck, that snare is not right.” Now, I don’t know if it was always there and it was just always repressed with drugs.

Are you OCD about cleanliness? You need your house to be just right?
Not really.

So maybe you don’t have it. 
I don’t know if any other rapper is going, “Yo, we need a .1 dB up on that high hat” — that’s, like, the least amount of decibels you can go. Most people probably would not even hear a dB. But I’m sitting there: “No, it’s gotta have the exact right relationship with the snare and vocals.” That’s where I get carried away. Someone’s gotta literally come pry the fucking album from my fingers, because I’m still tweaking. And probably no one hears the difference.

Do you think you’ll ever do a full-blown tour again?
It’s a good question. I’ve been doing dates here and there, and that seems to be working out well. It gives me time to, obviously, be a dad but at the same time record. I just don’t know if the tour life is for me anymore. I’m not going to say definitely I’ll never tour again. It’s still fun for me to be onstage and shit, but for the most part, I’d rather be in the studio making new music.

You’ve made it clear again and again that you don’t actually have a problem with gay people — so why, in 2013, use the word “faggot”? Why use “gay-looking”as an insult on “Rap God”?
I don’t know how to say this without saying it how I’ve said it a million times. But that word, those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin’ or whatever, I never really equated those words…

To actually mean “homosexual”?
Yeah. It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole. So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people. And, not saying it’s wrong or it’s right, but at this point in my career — man, I say so much shit that’s tongue-in-cheek. I poke fun at other people, myself. But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I’m glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves. And I don’t know how else to say this, I still look at myself the same way that I did when I was battling and broke.

I kind of thought you were doing it because when you’re rapping as Slim Shady, part of your mission is to annoy people.
Well, look, I’ve been doing this shit for, what, 14 years now? And I think people know my personal stance on things and the personas that I create in my music. And if someone doesn’t understand that by now, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to change their mind about it. Have you heard “Same Love”?

Have I heard what? “Same Love,” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis?
What song is that?

It’s, um, the gay-marriage song.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard Macklemore’s whole album.

What do you think of it? He’s probably the most successful white rapper since you.
Uh, he’s really dope. Macklemore is, yeah, he’s dope.

You won respect in part by being technically amazing — I’m not sure everyone in hip-hop sees him that way yet.
I think there’s very technical shit that he does. He’s a really good songwriter, too. Conceptually, the shit he does is pretty fuckin’ incredible.

How did you end up pushing your flow on “Rap God” as far as you did?
If I feel I’ve pushed myself to the furthest extent that I can, then it’s done. But if it’s not, here’s more. And nothing ever sounds as good as it does in my head. So when I say a rhyme or whatever, you should hear it in my head! If it was up to me and I was just recording demos, I’d tell a story here and there, but mostly it’d be just technical all the time. If I put a record out and it’s got some kind of hook on it but there’s no lyrical aspect to it, that’s fucking terrible. That’s corny, to me.

Is that why you hate “My Name Is” so much? You feel you weren’t really being an MC on that?
I feel there were some technical aspects to that record. I don’t want to toot my own horn or anything like that.

I think you recorded it your first day, ever, with Dre.
Yeah, it was spur-of-the-moment, it came together so fast, and it was organic, I guess — I hate that word. The rhymes were funny, but there was still some kind of MC’ing aspect to it.

So you don’t hate it anymore.
I ended up hating the record in the early days, because I always looked at myself as an underground MC. I remember having conversations with Royce before we made it: “Yo, man, we’re not the type of artists to go gold.” All I wanted to do was make enough money to not have to work a regular job, have a decent house, be able to support my family. So I was shocked that “My Name Is” was successful. I probably felt, “I’m just rapping on there!” I’m just going [raps], “Hi, my name is — my name is — my name is — chika chika Slim Shady. Hi — “

That’s it!
That’s it. It was an introduction to the world, but I didn’t know it was an introduction to the world.

On the other hand, that opening — “Hi, kids” — shows a kind of awareness of what you were aiming for.
I mean, I knew who I was aiming at. With D12, the whole concept was to say the illest shit you can think of. So on the record I’m saying pretty much the same shit, but now I know that I’m a bad influence: “Hi, kids!” I’m aiming right at your kids, but never in a million years fathoming that it could even actually happen.

You were actually experiencing poverty when you wrote the Slim Shady EP and LP. You were in that place. And then, within a year, you were what you were.
It didn’t make any sense.

They should make a movie about it.
[Smiles] Be a good movie, wouldn’t it?

How early did the substance abuse start?
Early in my career, when shit started happening so fast. I think it was more liquor than anything. I was using it as a crutch more for anxiety to go onstage. I never used to need it when I would perform in clubs around Detroit — it’d be a couple hundred people at most. But now you’re going to fucking 10,000 people — “Holy shit! What the fuck is this?” It was to take those feelings away. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have become an addict if I never got famous. I obviously have those addictive traits. But it was more about “I need this to go onstage — I can’t handle this many people looking at me.” Then what happens is you’re doing that fucking six, seven days a week. Now your body is starting to become dependent on the chemical, and you’re getting even more anxiety at the thought of not having it. It was just too much at once. Dragged around from this place to that place and I’m signing autographs and shit. I didn’t understand it.

You didn’t like being stared at even before you were famous.
It’s more about “Does this person want to fight me?” The paranoia of it. I always joke that it’s a hell of a career choice for somebody who doesn’t really like attention.

In the face of all that, you managed to make a second major-label album, The Marshall Mathers LP, that was a pure classic. What was your mindset at that time?
I remember the frustration of people at the label feeling that I didn’t have the right first song. I would feel like, “What do you mean this ain’t the right record? How many people I gotta appeal to?” And then there was all this negative attention for the same rhymes that I said when I was an underground artist, when I was nobody. Now that I’m somebody, I’m getting flak, so…

I’m gonna say worse shit on purpose.
Yeah! I don’t understand what the fuck all this shit is, so now I’m gonna say it more. Fuck you. Because you’re trying to destroy me and you’re trying to take away my livelihood, so I’m going to destroy you. I’m going to do everything I can in my fucking power to piss you off and insult you and make you feel how you’re making me feel right now. So fuck everybody! But at the same time, I wanted to make my music feel right.

And I learned a lot of that shit from Biggie and Tupac. Being a student of hip-hop in general, you take technical aspects from places. You may take a rhyme pattern or flow from Big Daddy Kane or Kool G Rap. But then you go to Tupac, and he made songs. His fucking songs felt like something — “Holy shit! I want to fucking punch someone in the face when I put this CD in.” Biggie told stories. I wanted to do all that shit. My goal in my head is to be technically able to satisfy every underground or every great rapper there is and also be able to try to incorporate it into a song, and make the song feel like something.

You revisit “Stan” on this LP with “Bad Guy.” The original was a leap forward, both on a storytelling level and because you come out from behind the curtain and show you’re not really Slim Shady.
That was tripped out for me too, because in the beginning you’d meet people that would think, “Yo! You’re Slim Shady, man! Do something crazy! Cut a bitch’s head off! Where’s your chain saw, dog?” But also it was fun for me to be able to interpret Dido’s words. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to let people know that you need to sift through what’s on this record. Because there is truth to a lot of this shit — but there’s a lot of shit that is so fucking ridiculous, how can you really get mad at it?

You know “Stan” has long since entered the lexicon? People say, “I’m an Eminem Stan” or “I Stan for Katy Perry.”
Wow, that’s crazy. Oh, that’s funny.

It’s a little scary because Stan is insane.
Right….And Stan’s dead! He actually died on that record. But I always had his little brother in the back of my mind. He just needed time to grow up. And come and kill me.

There’s a lot of intense self-examination and self-criticism on this album — and it continues the battling-personas game from the original Marshall Mathers LP. What led you along that path?
Look, I know what people say and how they feel about some of the language I use, topics I rap about and stuff I present. Sometimes I’d rather just say something about myself that I already know you are thinking and get the jump on you. Anyway, the lines between the personas are getting blurred. The other day Slim Shady burnt my breakfast. He totally did it on purpose.

One of your addictions was to sleeping pills. Did you have a lifelong problem with sleeping at night?
I don’t think it happened until my career started, till I got signed with Dre. I was just thinking about one night when I was out in California, and I’m not sleeping because I’m writing, I want to do my best and impress Dre. It was in the beginning stages of developing a drug problem and probably a drinking problem, because had I not went to pills I know I would have been a full-blown alcoholic. I started to get the sleep problem in the first place when I was feeling the pressures of having to be places at a certain time to perform — and be up to par on every single thing that I did, because everyone is watching. And in my fucked-up head was, “They want you to fail, Marshall. They’re watching you. They’re waiting for you to fail.”

Do you sleep well now?
For the most part, I think so. I have nights every now and again where I’m just laying there in the bed and thinking, “I gotta get up. I gotta get this idea down for a song.” I still use a pen and a pad because if I get an idea I gotta write it down right away. And I don’t trust a phone — what if I lose the phone or if it fucking deletes on accident or whatever? For this entire couple of years that I was working on this album I was walking around with a pen and pad, whether I needed it or not.

The new song “Rhyme or Reason” — which samples the Zombies’ “Time of the Season”- suggests that the real problem in your life was that your dad wasn’t around.
At this point it’s a little more tongue-in-cheek than that. It’s more in keeping with the idea of going back to old themes and topics. It’s just saying, “Maybe if my parents would’ve been a certain way I wouldn’t have been so fucked up.”

At the same time, wasn’t some of that anger you had directed at this huge missing thing in your life?
I think it was more about bouncing around a lot [between neighborhoods]. I was probably more angry about that, always feeling shitty cause of that. But I don’t know if it’s necessarily still anger at this point. It’s more thinking, “The hook is saying, ‘What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?'” Obviously I gotta say something.

You’ve never spoken to your dad. Wouldn’t it give you closure to at least tell him to his face what you think of him?
Part of me maybe sometimes feels that. But it’s not really anything that I think about a whole lot. And, I mean, I’m OK.

You rap about forgiving your mom on “Headlights.” Is some of that just getting older and seeing things differently?
Yeah, you start getting different perspectives on certain things. Lots of people go through lots of things and don’t have this or don’t have that in their lives — and I guess it’s just what you do with it. Um, I will say this. I love her because she’s my mom. I will always love her because of that.

Kendrick Lamar, who has a feature on the album, called out practically everyone in hip-hop on his “Control” verse. It would be weird for you to do that now, right?
The type of career I’ve had, would I seem like a bully or something trying to do that? Or would I just sound like an idiot if I said it? Back in the day I was certainly very much where he is as far as “Let me say this, and I don’t give a fuck what happens.” I was quite a bit more reckless.

You’re intensely protective of your kids’ privacy. Do you regret making the world curious about all of that by making Hailie and Kim and your mom characters in your songs for so many years?
Shit, hindsight is 20/20. At that time, that was how I dealt with things. I didn’t really think about the consequences or what was right or wrong or whatever. Sometimes I feel, yeah, maybe I did give people too much, let people in too much, said so much personal shit that I wish I didn’t. But you never know how many people you’re going to reach. Obviously, now I know I’m famous. In my head, those are the kind of demons that I fight against, like, “Fuck, man, how famous am I? I shouldn’t say this, I shouldn’t say that.”

You’ve said you don’t think you’ll ever fall in love again. Isn’t that kind of sad?
Well, I don’t know, man. I mean, I don’t know if I can or can’t or whatever. Right now all I do is rap, and between that and just being focused on my career and being a dad, I’m pretty much just a lab rat. But maybe one day I’ll figure that part out.

You said earlier that you’re as happy “as you can be.” You have this intense, productive but somewhat enclosed life. You work, you’re a parent, and that’s basically it. Is that enough?
I’m not gonna just be, “Oh, I’m so fuckin’ happy, I’m this happy guy!” But I’m able to do what I love doing. There’s some parts I don’t love, but I’m living the dream I tried to fulfill, as far as being able to do hip-hop. I’m content for right now. I know the perception is that I don’t go out much or I don’t do things. But I am able to do some regular, everyday things. It’s not what I’d like it to be. But if I do something or go somewhere, I just don’t announce it. I’m not in this for attention — and I know that probably sounds ridiculous — but all I ever really wanted to do, my ultimate dream, was to be respected by other MCs, my peers, to have KRS-One go, “Yo, that’s crazy.”

Mia Farrow, for some reason, tweeted not long ago, “I’m OVER Eminem.” Would you care to respond to that?
[Pauses] I’m over me too.

In This Article: Coverwall, Eminem

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