Words by Paul Cantor
15 years ago, Eminem was probably standing in a dimly lit bathroom, popping ecstasy pills over a dirty sink, staring at his pasty white face in the mirror. With a well-received major-label debut, The Slim Shady LP, already under his belt, public interest groups haranguing him, and a Rolodex of vapid celebrity friends growing thanks to his enduring popularity on MTV’s TRL, the only thing standing between the Detroit emcee and legendary status happened to be standing right there in front of him—Marshall Mathers himself.
While that’s a hypothetical scenario, the premise is very real. On Em’s second major-label album, The Marshall Mathers LP, released 15 years ago on May 22, 2000, it was time to prove to fans, critics, the hip hop community at large, and even his naysayers that even though he’d become a pop star, he wasn’t just a blonde-haired goofball in the game for a short stay. Rather, he was a deranged white boy from 8 Mile, with serious issues to work out and an oddly-sadistic sense of humor with which to do it. To that effect, he went above and beyond the call of duty, crafting not just the finest, most-complete album in his own catalog, but one of the greatest hip hop records of all time. A career-defining work, MMLP sold 1.7 million copies in its first week and—due to its shocking thematic overtures—earned him nearly as many enemies as it did allies.
True Eminem fans know that the leaps from Infinite to The Slim Shady LP to The Marshall Mathers LP were not gargantuan. He was not suddenly a different rapper on his second proper record, but thanks to the success of “My Name Is” and “Guilty Conscience”—both of which played on MTV practically around the clock—there were finally, after years of toiling away in the underground, far more people paying attention. But, the album was released in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, which caught Em in the crosshairs of Lynne Cheney (Dick’s Cheney’s wife), who was warring with pop musicians over their lyrical content, and took a magnifying class to almost everything he said.
The focus on Eminem’s lyrics was not without merit. Hindsight may be 20/20, but tracks like “Kill You,” “Who Knew,” and “Remember Me,” among others, feature an inordinate amount of misogyny and homophobia. “Kim,” for example, finds him actually fantasizing about killing his then-wife Kim Mathers, and throwing her in the trunk of a car. But it’s art, and art can be anything. And while the shock value was controversial, it’s undeniable— these songs were and still are really fucking good. As are the more creatively adventurous tunes like “Stan,” written from the perspective of an emotionally disturbed fan, and the autobiographical “The Way I Am” (based on a line from Rakim’s 1987 “As The Rhyme Goes On”). For hip hop, which at the time was still mired in its post–Diddy Republican rap phase, Em was putting in groundbreaking work.
Eminem and Rakim from their 2002 Mass Appeal cover story
The Marshall Mathers LP was also a high-water mark for Dr. Dre, who did not handle the bulk of the production on Em’s debut (those duties fell to Detroit-based producers Bass Brothers, who also produced half of MMLP), and who was years removed from shaping the sound of an LP from start to finish, as he’d done with the likes of N.W.A and Snoop Dogg. Armed with a team of live musicians and co-producer Mel-Man, Dre crafted a sparsely arranged soundbed over which Em performed all manner of verbal gymnastics. While other rappers were content to rhyme in standard-meter 2-bar couplets, Em matched his syllables, melodies and vocal inflections to the internal syncopation of Dre’s beats. Listen to how picks up the pace as the instrumentation builds on “Marshall Mathers,” or how he explodes into the chorus on “The Real Slim Shady.” With the greatest rap producer of all time behind him, Eminem’s voice— a nasal, whiny squeal— was actually the most pronounced instrumental of all.
The LP’s lasting legacy is less about what it meant to Eminem than to the listeners whose ears it fell upon. Back then, rap was in the midst of a major crossover phase, and while the large subset of suburban kids who consumed the music certainly had artists who spoke to them, they’d never really had anyone speak for them. The brilliance of The Marshall Mathers LP was that its angst and utter rejection of industry-induced phoniness represented something a lot of people could identify with. On every single track, you could hear that Eminem was at odds with everything, even himself—and it made for the craziest and most entertaining of albums. He peeled back his layers and showed his scars, earning him lifelong devotion from a nation of loners and outcasts, in addition to the screaming teens outside TRL’s Times Square studio. It was one of those rare occasions when a born loser—white trash straight out of a Michigan trailer park—got to win. Sadly, it might have also been one of the last.