May 23, 2000 wouldn’t matter as much without January 21, 1999. By that date in the last January of the 20th century, 95 million people watched a highway police chase for murder suspect and American icon O.J. Simpson, then-President of United States Bill Clinton’s sexual deviancies was daily news, and this thing-a-ma-jig called the ”internet” had opened a pornographic Pandora’s box that governments around America were hastily proposing bills to close. America was increasingly becoming a land where excess was mandated, personal indulgences took primacy over collective morals, and people were more interested in watching each other’s lives than the news by the time January 21, 1999 rolled around and MTV debuted Eminem’s “My Name Is” music video, introducing the world at large to a manifestation of all of its darker impulses.
From the beginning, Eminem was an agent of chaos making any listener question their impulses (“Hi kids, do you like violence?”) before shocking them into an answer (“want me to see me stick nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids”). The questions were rhetorical, Eminem already knew. America answered yes with its thirst for violent claymation battles between Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch and Comedy Central’s South Park running joke of a child dying in the years preceding his burst onto the national scene.
The Slim Shady LP was his proper introduction to the world in 1999, a debaucherous playground for Eminem’s crass alter ego Slim Shady to run wild and entice the world with dark fantasies they didn’t know they had. When May 23, 2000 rolled around and The Marshall Mathers LP was released, it didn’t feel like an album, it felt like a shift. For 73 minutes of high caliber lyrical exploits, Eminem, the last great satirist of American pop culture, put America in front of a black mirror the minute we pressed play.
The difference between a satirist and a jester is how close the critique is to the humor; the awe is to the shock. The Marshall Mathers LP was a satirical masterwork that truly shocked by revealing what was surreptitiously always there in many of us. He sneeringly asks “want me to fix up lyrics while the president gets his dick sucked” on “Who Knew,” making the humor inextricable of the analysis by reducing the President’s impeachment trial to oral sex while the deeper critique on the hypocrisy of music censorship in a world where someone’s sex life is a national discussion, operates imperceptibly close. As quick as you shouted in repulsion, you laughed in conciliation.
Satire is snark without skill and Eminem wasn’t only the most dangerous rapper alive, he was unequivocally the best. Always a master technician, Eminem’s uncomfortable imagery is easier to stomach when delivered with stunning penmanship. Take for instance this 8-bar stretch on the gruesome “Remember Me”:
In less than 10 lines, he described the Columbine High School massacre, admonished any connection between his music and the massacre, and did it all using three to four-word couplets for most of it. He didn’t excel to impress, he did so to survive. As a white rapper who went from unknown to Grammy-award winning, triple platinum-selling after his first album, the stigma of past purveyors of Black art like Elvis Presley and Vanilla Ice began appearing in descriptions of Eminem.
“People overall respect the lyrics and they know that I know what I’m doing. They can look past the whole white rapper thing,” Eminem said in an April 2000 interview
The impetus for The Marshall Mathers LP selling 1.71 million copies in its first week — still a record for hip-hop releases — and becoming one of a few albums in the history of music to sell more than 10 million copies was this Incredible Hulk-like drive to be better than every rapper in order to be respected like every rapper. While hip-hop was basking in the genre’s newfound opulence — excess sometimes literally overflowing on the bodies of supermodels in music videos– Eminem was promoting The Marshall Mathers LP with “The Way I Am,” an incendiary attack on the voyeurism and judgment concomitant of fame. While rappers were murdering people on songs to bolster their authenticity, Eminem murdered people on songs to shock people into attention. While hip-hop was fighting for the club, Eminem was fighting for ears.
The artistic zenith of Eminem’s magnum opus is the cautionary tale of obsessive fandom “Stan.” For more than six minutes, Eminem meticulously details the mental erosion of a fan who can’t reconcile the connection they have with an artist’s story and their lack of physical connection with that artist through a series of penned letters. Decades later, the title of the song about a deranged fan who kills himself, his girlfriend, and their unborn child by driving off a cliff, reentered the American lexicon as a colloquialism for extreme love. The Marshall Mathers LP tapped into something intrinsic in all of us, whether we liked it or not.
Critics like Salon’s Eric Boehlert didn’t afford The Marshall Mathers LP the same creative latitude to explore objectively repugnant imagery in the name of art as others have given Quentin Tarantino or Richard Pryor. The homophobic lyrics that led to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) protesting Eminem outside of the Grammy Awards prepared to celebrate The Marshall Mathers LP and, at times, the unrelenting misogyny revoked any artistic license in their eyes. The inconvenient truth The Marshall Mathers LP and its historic success revealed is those critics confuse Eminem’s vile lyrics as infections of society instead of reflections of what society wants.
Eddie Murphy’s 1987 standup comedy film Raw is littered with homophobic rants and was the highest-grossing stand-up comedy concert film of all time decades before The Marshall Mathers LP. Tarantino’s 1994 seminal film Pulp Fiction had offensively cavalier mentions of the N-word by a character played by Tarantino himself and was celebrated with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the 1995 Academy Awards years before The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem himself sold three million records and was awarded a Best Rap Album award for his debut album at the Grammys months before The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem didn’t reinvent the wheel, he just steamrolled expectations with it.
The Marshall Mathers LP was the sort of album that broke through enough barriers until there weren’t any hyperboles on the other side. Eminem was the sentient middle finger with immaculate rhymes; the profane king with the Midas fuck’s; the greatest American satirist since Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde peak.
The Marshall Mathers LP was the first important rap album of the 21st century and still reveals the darker side of a world run by indulgences.