If the 20 years gone by since Eminem’s first album has shown us anything, its that in hip hop, controversy still reigns king. Back in 1999 however, rap music coasted on its newfound bankability and increasing exposure, until The Slim Shady LP.
It wasn't until two years later in the midst of Eminem frenzy, around 2001, when I first heard the album at the tender age of nine. I had fallen in love with what became the fastest selling rap album of all time in The Marshall Mathers LP. So as an impressionable young kid I thought I’d give his prior stuff a listen based off the cartoonish aesthetic of “My Name Is.”
A few years later in the midst of my teenage angst, I returned to The Slim Shady LP. It was something I could identify with - and not just with the ones that got heavy play on Much Music. There was also the mind expanding, perfect rhymed and agitating power to deep cuts like “Still Dont Give a Fuck” and “I’m Shady.”
The timing of the album cannot be understated. Considering Britney Spears …Baby One More Time and Backstreet Boys Millennium were two of the top albums in its leadup, The Slim Shady LP juxtaposes the contemporary pop scene brilliantly. The contemporary pop landscape is portrayed as pastel, vapid, and numbing with Eminem exposing all that is wrong, fake, and hypocritical in society, “I don’t get pissed, yall don’t even see through the mist, how the fuck can I be white, I don’t even exist.”
There are few that don’t know the story of Marshall’s come up from poverty and mastering the mechanics of freestyle rap battling with near algorithmic efficiency, but how many of you actually heard 1996’s Infinite? It was released to little success, disposed of by Detroit radio stations, and still sounds unpolished to this day. But it showed a lyrical diamond in the rough and enough so to catch the attention of a second phase Dr. Dre, hungry to restart his career after his fallout with Death Row.
They clicked immediately and throughout the course of 1998, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Bass Brothers (the financiers and producers of Infinite) booked out a studio in the middle of Detroit and fostered one of the most iconic partnerships in modern music. Though much of the material on the album were treatments of music Em had already been creating with Bass Brothers, Dre’s direction and influence on the overall record in the capacity of an executive producer and kingmaker should not be understated. Still, he takes the production credits on the album’s incredible three singles; the scathing shit talking track “Role Model,” the timeless “My Name Is,” and “Guilty Conscience” a situational concept record featuring Shady and Dre in a twisted version of shoulder angels.
One could go on to talk forever about the lyrical genius, the rhyme patterns, the multisyllabic lines, the beats – things that can be said about all great albums. But what made Eminem uniquely brilliant, or even one the greatest of all time, was his story telling ability. While The Marshall Mathers LP represents one of the most poignant responses to American fame ever, The Slim Shady LP is looser fare filled with strange concept songs that cease to show up elsewhere in the Eminem catalogue. “Brain Damage” retells passages from Eminem’s childhood including getting beaten up by the principal before getting yelled at by his Mother. “My Fault”takes us to a dirty house party where Eminem is caught dealing with the fall out of giving a partygoer an entire bag of mushrooms. In the span of two songs Eminem could go from painfully funny to threateningly outspoken.
Though quickly established as a great rapper the moment people heard him, The Slim Shady LP marks the beginning of Eminem as a great artist. The tone of the album is bookmarked with loud claims that shout “Fuck Society,” with even a fair warning via “Public Service Announcement,” and a unilateral declaration of independence from “Still Don’t Give a Fuck.” In between was nothing less either: lines like “My favourite colour is red, like the bloodshed of Kurt Cobain's head when he shot himself dead” show zero fucks given especially in reaction to cries of “too soon.” What the haters saw was a vile, venomous, volatile, vicious lyrics, others saw music deep and profound that not only pushed the limits of free speech but also included real insights into depression, solitude, and volatility.
His shots at materialistic celebrities, provoking of politicians and gays, and ramblings of rape and murder were all so blatantly outlandish, so outspoken and outrageously vivid that it bordered on comical. And even though hopefully Marshall Mathers didn’t actually mean it, Shady said it to upset you. Some didn’t see that and Eminem became the centrepiece for a debate about both the necessitation and dangers of censorship. He was saying these things tweece to make you doublethink all your preconceived notions about right and wrong.
20 years later released in a new edition with a cleaner master, Eminem’s raw talent and Dre’s sensibility for groove makes The Slim Shady LP still a great listen with material that hasn’t lost its potency decades later.
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