Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
The year 2000 was one of the music industry’s biggest years. While Napster had become a household name as file-sharing became mainstream, the sheer amount of albums sold, artists spotlighted and money made largely trumps every year before or since. While ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached was the year’s biggest seller, 2000’s runner-up resulted in the most discourse. Eminem’s sophomore major label release The Marshall Mathers LP has sold over 11 million copies and, due to both its controversial nature and catchy accessibility, remains one of the most dissected and deconstructed rap albums of all time. Whether celebrated for its impressive lyrics and subject matter or discarded for its overt misogyny and homophobia, it’s become the go-to topic of discussion for rap’s last decade. But the mistake many make when revisiting it is confusing the pop culture snapshot self-awareness of the album for a particular tide-turning manifesto for music. As easy as it is to write dissertation after think piece of the album on its own, it’s important to revisit The Marshall Mathers LP in a proper context.
Not unlike the revisionist history that’s plagued many of Lil Wayne’s most vocal supporters in recent years, much of the Marshall Mathers LP coverage suffers from completely disconnecting the album from Eminem’s earlier work. Not including his 1997 demo tape Infinite that was largely the struggling rapper from beginning to end doing an (admittedly impressive) AZ impression, Eminem as we know him really formed during his days with New Jersey rap outfit The Outsidaz. Nurtured by the vivid absurd imagery and syllable stretching of members Young Zee and Pace Won, Eminem’s artistic voice finally arrived on his official debut, 1999’s The Slim Shady LP. Slim Shady is the rarest of rap debuts, like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and E-40’s The Mail Man, that creates a world all its own, complete with a language and universe that the MC on the mic is our personal guide through. Standing out in 1999’s cameo-heavy rap climate for being entirely self-contained, Eminem slides through all seven deadly sins solo (spare only two guest appearances who only exist inside his head) over the album’s 70 minutes with the demeanor of a stoic. The Slim Shady LP is an nightmare we can’t wake up from, and The Marshall Mathers LP is the Slim Shady character screaming as he invades our everyday life.
Gone is the desolate dystopia of The Slim Shady LP’s Detroit. Instead Eminem brings his same antagonizing villain into 2000’s America, slandering everyone from then President Bill Clinton to boy bands to his mother to the Insane Clown Posse. It’s hard to imagine how label Interscope must have felt hearing the album with the original track-listing before the eventual first two singles “The Way I Am” and “The Real Slim Shady” were added, but the latter’s balance of irresistible catchiness and non-stop celebrity bashing name dropping would ensure it became the inescapable smash that summer. This sudden saturation made Slim’s barbs seem all the more like accusations to some, including Christina Aguilera and Fred Durst who both felt compelled to release statements that they never shared any sort of sexual relationship. Elsewhere, Em refers to himself as “Anti-Backstreet and Ricky Martin” and claims he was “sent here to destroy” 2000’s pop landscape. In recent years, countless re-evaluations state that The Marshall Mathers LP single-handedly “ended” the boy band era, a claim that is flat out untrue. ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached remained a strong seller through-out the year, the Backstreet Boys later had back-to-back weeks in Billboard’s top spot with Black & Blue and the next year saw ‘N Sync’s Celebrity album outselling Eminem’s group D12’s Devil’s Night by a ratio of almost three to one.
But the album is probably best remembered for the controversy stirred by Eminem for using the word “faggot.” With the hindsight of 11 years, it’s pretty clear that the hubbub was intentional from the jump. As much as both he and his fans played the martyr card and referred to his choice of words as “giving you things you only joke about with your friends inside your living room,” it’s pretty clear Eminem deliberately means “faggot” as referring to a “homosexual,” namely the rundown of “fag or lez / homosex-, hermap- or a trans-a-vast-” before the “hate fags, the answer’s yes” line. Further, he knows the seed his use of the word is planting, as on “Bitch Please II” he boasts about “using the ‘fag’ word so freely.” Truth be told, while there was a handful of uses of it in his past, he never really ran “faggot” into the ground like he did on The Marshall Mathers LP, making the fallout and subsequent Grammy duet with Elton John seem like a well concocted media stunt. There’s also “Kim,” the track where he brutally murders his real life wife with no comeuppance, and countless (entertaining, well-constructed but beyond that pointless) allusions to Columbine all over the album that have been touted by many as Eminem making some sort of statement about school shootings.
It’s such attempted injections of a conscience to the album that make so many who revisit The Marshall Mathers LP miss the boat entirely. The only messages Eminem has for the world here are that he doesn’t like what he hears on the radio, Columbine wasn’t his fault and to please not bother him in public. Otherwise, he’s constructing ridiculously intricate rhyme patterns together while attempting to digest what his life has become. The Slim Shady LP is Em’s Shady character calmly explaining his cartoonish harrowing life, whereas The Marshall Mathers LP is Em using Slim to attempt to digest how much his life has changed. Between the slapstick violence and time capsule-like references to LFO and Tom Green, the album boasts some outstanding guest appearances (one could make a case for the blistering onslaught of Sticky Fingaz’ “Remember Me” verse as being the best on the entire album) and the last real visage of Dr. Dre’s production before he dabbled in G-Unit and was lost in a sea of Detox delays. There’s also a tendency to overlook Eminem’s actual rhyming performance, especially the closer “Criminal” which seamlessly weaves almost a dozen innovative rhyme styles into the same song. While the album’s topical nature largely dates it, as time goes by the fury at which Eminem breaks down all that disgusts him makes 2000 seem more and more like another of Slim Shady’s elaborate fantasy lands, rendering it timeless. While Eminem has spent every release since The Marshall Mathers LP stuck in an attempt to remake it, the raw talent and vision on display is enough to make Eminem one of the genre’s few catalog artists who fans still unwaveringly check for today.