The Marshall Mathers LP:
Time for Reinvestigation?
IT might not be the album of his that gets the fond recollections….
of The Slim Shady LP but, in terms of its stature and legacy; I feel The Marshall Mathers LP is a superior listen. Whatever you think of Eminem; you cannot deny what a talent he is. In February 1999, we received The Slim Shady LP and, from its violent and distrusting cover; one knew they were not going to experience an ordinary album. Trailer-park trash and over-the-top violence were all included in this theatrical piece from ‘Slim Shady’ – the alter-ego of Eminem (which, in turn, is the alter ego of Marshall Mathers III). Critics reacted with a mix of mock-horror and genuine amazement: others went for revilement and moral outrage. That album separated and divided critics but, putting retrospective acclaim into the mix, that L.P. was a huge triumph. The lyrics concentrated on domestic violence, anger felt by Eminem and fighting against poverty – the man behind Slim Shady grew up in poorer climbs and had to work his way to success. It is understandable Eminem would spit and rally against an older life – the fact he reserved so much venom for women was baffling to many. At the time, Eminem claimed not to hate women at all – he was angry at them sometimes but it was all part of his persona. Anyone who looks at the album’s reception could see critics reacting to the quality and confidence of the lyrics: the controversy and alarm of the subjects addressed. Regardless of any negative reactions; The Slim Shady LP has been placed on many critics’ ‘Top 100 Albums Ever’ lists and, at the time, did very well on the end-of-year lists (1999). Standout hit My Name Is won Best Rap Solo Performance at Grammy Awards; the album sold 283,000 copies in its first week – debuting at number two on the Billboard 200 charts (behind TLC’s FanMail). The disaffected youth felt the album articulated their sense of frustration and confusion.
Eminem, through Slim Shady, represented an anti-hero unafraid to vocalise his inner-demons and violent fantasies. Eminem ended the 1990s with a stunning album that created a huge stir and marked him as one of music’s leading lights. Whether you agreed with his attitude and songs; there was no denying how talented he was – and is to this very day. He leapt into the '00s with his record, The Marshall Mathers LP. If Eminem’s earliest albums was the artist known as ‘Eminem’ projecting one persona – and Slim Shady being a cartoonish and exaggerated form of Eminem – then Marshall Mathers was the eponymous album in many ways. Take away the ‘III’ in his name and it is the twenty-seven-year-old Missouri artist at his most personal and electrifying. Two months ago; the album marked its seventeenth anniversary: it seems amazing it was released that long ago. The reason I wanted to write this piece is that Eminem is taking to the stage at Reading and Leeds very soon. He will, no doubt, perform songs from across his career but one wonders how many of The Marshal Mathers LP’s songs will be included. To me, it is the height of Eminem’s career and a record we need to hear more of in this day – THAT is, perhaps, the real reason for creating this feature. Rather than being retrograde and conceding: the American artist strove forward and released an album ever more venomous and urgent than its predecessor. It might seem foolhardy celebrating an album that has so many burdens and issues. One could say The Slim Shady LP was a fictionalised version of Eminem – not someone who would ever realistically espouse the same questionable values of his alter-ego. If that is the case – shady logic from Slim Shady – then how could one rationalise and pardon The Marshall Mathers LP?! In fact, me not doing the maths right, this was Eminem’s third album. One could argue he had not really decided on an identity at that point – three different monikers in as many records. That seems symbolic and appropriate for a young man who, one suspected, as recent as a few years before was moving between towns and homes. If The Slim Shady LP was the promising rapper focused out and attacking: The Marshall Mathews LP was more introspective and investigative.
Having had fame thrust upon him; many would forgive him for creating and creating a ‘safe’ and mainstream album. How could an album that garnered a lot of criticism from certain reviewers have connected so much with the public?! The record sold nearly two-million copies in the U.S. (in the first week) and was, at that point, the fastest-selling studio album by any artist in American history. The album won Best Rap Album at the 2001 Grammy Awards and lost out on the biggest prize to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature – two more-different albums one cannot possibly imagine! The Marshall Mathers LP has sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. – over 32 million around the world. The second part of The Marshall Mathers LP was released in 2013 and did not perform as well as its 2000 predecessor. What attracts me about The Marshall Mathers LP is its sheer scope and quality. I will address the controversy surrounding the album but the songs themselves are extraordinary. I listen to a song like Kim – a track about his then-girlfriend, Kim – that ends with Marshall Mathers strangling his lover. They argue and shout. Eminem screams throughout and launches a tirade of abuse against her – feeling they would be together forever but knowing she was going to leave him. It is one of the most intense and shocking songs in music history. One can only imagine how Eminem got into the mindset to perform the song in the studio. It would have taken immense mental preparation and rest – the sheer physicality of the track would flaw most singers. Dr. Dre produced most of the album’s first-half. One can hear his touch and guidance on songs like Kill You and Stan. The songs came together through creative binges: Eminem embarked on a two-month-long residency in a studio where he blocked out the rest of the world – keen not to be distracted and feeding off the isolation of the studio.
Songs would often sprout from overheard conversations and chance moments – Kill You was penned when Eminem, heard the track playing in the background as Dre was on the phone; Eminem went away and wrote the lyrics as the two joined to finish the song. Stan is that brilliant story of an obsessed young fan who does not hear back from his idol. Badgering and belittling the star for ignoring his fans and leading him on – a brief nod or conversation warranting harassment, it seemed – that leads to the troubled fan driving his girlfriend into a river. Eminem/Slim Shady was, as he explains, busy, but replies to the fan’s letter. The opening-half is the narrative from the fan as he chides and scorns the singer. That is switched after as Eminem takes to the microphone and offers caution to the fan – who seems suicidal, homicidal and unnervingly attached. It is a brilliantly written and realised song that went to number one in eleven countries. That famous sample of from Dido’s song, Thank You, gives the song its edge and uniqueness. One expects that exert to lead to the chorus of Thank You – thankfully, it is a beautiful bridge between verses. That said; the two work well together despite the fact, one suspects, they were never in the studio together. Skits like Steve Berman sees the artist hauled into a record boss’ office to be eviscerated for the album’s content – and the fact nobody is going to buy the record. The Way I Am and The Real Slim Shady look at identity and authenticity. The former is an unapologetic explanation of Eminem’s raw and untamed vocals; the fact he courts controversy and seen as a pariah among some critics. The latter calls out those who imitate the American rapper – harking back to his previous incarnation – and weak imitations. It was another huge hit and incredible highlight from the album.
Amityville, with its refrain “Mentally ill from Amityville…”, is a hypnotic track which features form the input of the Bass Brothers. Those Trip-Hop beats give the track a real swagger and danger; Eminem’s vocal commanding and astonishing throughout – the lyrics consistently impressive and memorable. The entire album is the commingling and peak of Eminem’s powers. The compositions are inventive and kaleidoscopic: ranging between genres and putting samples in; heavy beats and guitar riffs sitting with more traditional Hip-Hop/Rap sounds. It is an infectious and peerless work from an artist who was venting his frustrations and creating a work of art in the process. Many would say, on the flip-side, how can anyone admire an album that seems to promote violence against women?! On The Marshall Mathers LP; one discovers tales of murder, rape and threats. Nearly every song features some form of brutalism and criminality. It is a stark and black album that spews blood and guts from every verse. One could overlook the weaponry and murder rages – aimed at critics and contemporaries. Hip-Hop has always been marked by a certain songwriting inspiration. It is not unusually discovering heavy and hard-hitting songs in this genre – often, artists would boast and brag about violence. That is a different issue but it is the seeming misogyny and attitude to women that repulsed many at the time. There is homophobia and racism and, in an album that is meant to inspire and represent Rap/Hip-Hop; should we really ignore the obvious flaws?! To exacerbate this; former Senate chairman Lynne Cheney decried the album and the degradation against women. She highlighted songs like Kill You as especially worrying and culpable. That number boasts about rape (against one’s own mother, no less) and murder. Cheney argued there should be an age limit on the album – so it does not find its way into the hands of young and impressionable listener.
That song gathered more approbation as Eminem was scheduled to perform in Canada in 2000. He was banned because of his attitudes to women and advocating violence against women – other suggested he should be allowed to perform and arrested for hate-crime offences. Eminem argued he was being persecuted and merely exercising his right to free speech. Perhaps the morals and tolerance levels differed between the U.S. and Canada – the more polite and moral-heavy nation finding little merit in Eminem’s brand of music. A 2001 and 2004 study by Edward Armstrong discovered the majority of songs on The Marshall Mathers LP contained violent and/or misogynistic values/lyrics. Throat-slitting, drowning and rape; murder, shooting and beating. Maybe, in order to top the competition, Eminem felt it necessary to go full-throttle – never had an album of this kind contained so much hate, violence and bloodshed. Eminem predicted some of the furore that would be generated in cuts like Paul – an exasperated friend leaves a message on Eminem’s answerphone to say he’d heard the album and, lost for words, hangs up – and he knew how it would be received. At a time when we sexism, racism and discrimination are as rife as ever: should we really be talking about an album like The Marshall Mathers LP in fond terms?! Retrospective reviews have heaped praise on the record and stripped some of the self-righteousness and hysteria experienced in 2000. Sure, there are questionable and loose morals throughout the record; the author could have toned down the cuss and disgust on some songs. The fact is that Eminem was not suggesting people go out there and kill. He was not sending subliminal messages and saying everything you hear on the album is his views. It is, like previous albums, a mix of fantasy and truth. Before the album was released – and the years after – Eminem did not commit murder and go out beating women on a nightly basis. He is, as you will see in interviews, quite humble, shy and reserved. A fiercely intelligent man; it is a stark contrast to the man we hear on the album. Albums made by Dr. Dre and his contemporaries, around the time, contained braggadocio and boast: the promotion of a lavish lifestyle and sporting bling. Dre is no more a reviled figure nor is he any less controversial (in person) than Eminem. Both artists are morally aware and conscientious but Eminem chose not to follow the standard path trod by peers at the time. He wanted to project something that reflected the anger he felt in the wake of The Slim Shady LP’s release – and the fame he accrued from that. Depending whether you agree with the lyrical content and themes contained on the album: few can deny what the album was going to sell big and get some great reviews. It has gone on to be one of the most influential records of the time and, according to many at the time, was the most important record of that era. Eminem has, in my view, not topped The Marshall Mathers LP.
It arrived at a time when the young rapper was finding his sound and having to live under the constant scrutiny of the media. Because of that, he either had to step-up or take a step back. Attacking the problem and spewing through the microphone; it is an incredible response from Marshall Mathers III. It is an album I go back to time again and feel we should hear more of today. Aside from artists like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé; there are few artists that can throw so much into an album and keep their messages on-point and inspiring. So much of today’s Rap and Hip-Hop is defined by lazy lyricism, clichés and old messages – the boasting and arrogance; bragging about wealth and success. Few albums stand out. Aside from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.: I have not heard an album this year that really goes for the throat. The world is in a more perilous and confusing time than ever. We need someone like Eminem to step up and get both barrels out. When he takes to the Reading and Leeds stage next month; it will be interesting to see how many of The Marshall Mathers LP’s songs make it into the sets. Whether Eminem makes another album will be another fascinating consideration. He will never reach the heights he did on his 2000 masterpiece so, because of that, we need to preserve the record and realise what an accomplishment it was. The recurring homophobia and misogyny still causes criticism but, strip away lyrics that certainly were not endorsed by the man behind the album – who is, as we know, not someone who beats women and has, since the album’s release, has stated he is not homophobic – and you have one of the finest albums of the past twenty years. Its sheer range and quality is deserving of a new audience and fresh ears. If one is impressionable enough they will hear the album and follow it to the letter – they should not be let near music and out in the world. The Marshall Mathers LP is a mesmeric album from a man who ensconced himself in the studio and wanted to create something worthy of his hype. He certainly did that but, with it, went on to release one of the most-talked-about and important albums…
IN the history of music.