Lots of great rappers have begun their first albums with a memorable, statement-of-purpose line. Very few, however, manage to compress their essence into seven syllables. "Hi, kids! Do you like violence?": Everything was present, somehow, in the first line of "My Name Is," the first song on The Slim Shady LP. The shock humor, the Whoopee-Cushion whine of the voice, the self-appointed role as cheerful corruptor of youth, the intriguingly off-kilter slant rhyme ("violence" telescopes… read more »
Lots of great rappers have begun their first albums with a memorable, statement-of-purpose line. Very few, however, manage to compress their essence into seven syllables. "Hi, kids! Do you like violence?": Everything was present, somehow, in the first line of "My Name Is," the first song on The Slim Shady LP. The shock humor, the Whoopee-Cushion whine of the voice, the self-appointed role as cheerful corruptor of youth, the intriguingly off-kilter slant rhyme ("violence" telescopes into "vi-lence" to fit the meter); in a split second, Eminem springs into view like paper snakes from a novelty peanuts can.
That song, his breakout hit, is a lurching, rhythmically unstable piece of music; the beat keeps doing a cartoon kersplat, slipping on a banana peel of a keyboard line, while Eminem's rapping seems to be struggling against the very notion of a downbeat. He would later criticize his performance on his early records: "I was always falling off the beat," he lamented to XXL in 2004 — but the odd littered pauses heighten the unpredictability. The video's visual accompaniment — a shot of Mathers jerking spastically in a strait jacket filmed through a fisheye lens — reinforced the vibe: antic, volatile, barely contained. It was one hell of an introduction, and it laid out the first card in the dizzying game of three-persona Monte — Slim Shady, raging id; Eminem, amoral entertainer; Marshall Mathers, the tortured, self-loathing poor white kid behind them both — that was to follow. Eleven years later, this shrewdly-conceived gambit feels exhausted, its thematic bones picked clean by Eminem and by the endless cultural commentators that followed him. Suffice it to say that no one made more vivid or skillful use of the unreliable narrator device in hip-hop, and Mathers earned the fame and notoriety he was gunning for. He also "created a monster," as he would admit on "Without Me" years later, and speculation about his intentions tended the swallow the public discussion. The rap album underneath this psychological circus sometimes seems to be hiding in plain sight.
Musically, it remains a compellingly weird one. They were an odd couple, Em and his benefactor, Dre, and the The Slim Shady LP documents their warring impulses: between Dr. Dre's gut-rumbling funk and Mather's sharp, needling whine; between Dre's sullen reserve and Mathers's burning need for the world's attention. "Guilty Conscience," their duet on The Slim Shady LP, captures their dynamic. In the song, they play two halves of a conflicted conscience. Dre, playing against type, argues for caution while Eminem goads the song's players into brash action — "Fuck that! Do that shit, shoot that bitch!". It's a remarkable song, but the crucial moment comes at the end, when Em turns on Dre and accuses him of hypocrisy. Dre, losing his cool, threatens to kill Eminem, but Eminem sidesteps and shames him. For rap fans, there was no greater sign of Eminem's legitimacy: He got Dre to play the straight man.
For Mathers, this kind of cultural currency meant everything. "Some people only see that I'm white, ignoring skill/ 'cuz I stand out like a green hat with an orange bill," he rapped on "Role Model," hinting at the decades of frustration that led to The Slim Shady LP. Dre's cosign was a blessing and a kind of dare: After years lurking on the sidelines, one fortuitous meeting catapulted Mathers to the center of the rap conversation. It was an absurdly risky move on Dre's part, and Mathers was keenly aware of it. In 1997, he told SPIN magazine, with characteristic bluntness, "I appreciate that [Dre] is basically putting his credibility on the line for me. Because if I come out wack, it could destroy his career." The Slim Shady LP is the sound of that kid rising, magnificently, to the occasion. There was little evidence in his discography up until this point to suggest he was capable of it, but he produced the kind of layered and jarringly indelible pop record that had never existed before. It hasn't been duplicated.