Eminem's first three albums (I am not counting Infinite on here due to its minuscule success, impact and bearing on the Eminem story), upon which my main focus will be planted for this post, are truly up there with the finest ever to be released and sold as 'hip-hop' albums. From his controversial, vulgar and heretic beginnings on The Slim Shady LP through to the grown-up angst vs. school boy vernacular of The Marshall Mathers LP up to the fully-realised, politicised and at points idealised wonder of The Eminem Show, I intend to look at the journey made in the late '90s and early '00s by one of the period's only real mainstream stars to do what all 'yoof' icons should do: scare the shit out of parents.
First Run - On the early singles and first album Eminem pushed his nihilistic rhetoric to the fore. Constant cursing and fore-fronting filthy themes, even playing the bad cop to Dr. Dre's (yes, Dr. bloody Dre) good cop on 'Guilty Conscience', Eminem was seemingly trying to make all of those controversial icons before him, such as Alice Cooper, Johnny Rotten and Keith Richards, seem like The Osmonds. Mindless homophobia and sexism pervades the whole period and was, to some, its root problem. I, however, think that there were three rather deliberate reasons that Eminem went down this route.
The first is obvious, in that he had a deliberate plan to be as bathed in taboo as humanly possible, but was also in the rap game and therefore could not dare go down the race route - leaving two other vanguard cultural taboos. The second reason I feel Eminem pushed the homophobic/sexist agenda was that it made business sense: controversy sells and, as a poor kid from Detroit, money was no doubt a driving force behind launching his career in such a way. The third reason is slightly less black and white, if you'll excuse a rather crude pun on my earlier point. Eminem, to me, of all of the rap stars of his time, had the most intellectual awareness. In relaying this misdirected anger to his audience, he was rather cleverly relaying the thoughts of many bored, disaffected youths in the age of hyper-consumerism and displaying the way in which they frivolously projected their own anger and despair onto any weaker outlet (as adolescents pretty much always have done and always will do). This zeitgeisty approach in turn ignited the perfect response in the older generation - the free love hippies of the baby boomer generation - in that it caused them to stir and try to condescendingly 'protect' their children from this menace in much the same way their parents had to them when Hendrix, Jagger and Lennon were trying to 'corrupt' them (Anthony Bozza's Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem argues this point with more virulence and in more depth than I have the capacity or wont to here).
Throughout his early run Eminem was vilified and made into the satanic monster he had arguably clearly wanted to be, but would strike back at his adversaries in the most eloquent, sardonic and aggressive of fashions.
The Tricky 2nd Album - Not so it would seem for Slim Shady (his creative death would come later, particularly on Encore, a rather shoddy attempt at Beastie Boys-esque frat rap). The Marshall Mathers LP is, to my mind, as good a hip-hop album as there has ever been. At times a passionate plea and cutting comment on the nature of celebrity ('Stan', 'The Way I Am'), at others a humorous, drug-fuelled social parody of the late '90s ('Drug Ballad', 'The Real Slim Shady') and at others just straight hip-hop 'bangers' with more balls than a billiards table ('Bitch Please II', 'Who Knew?'), The Marshall Mathers LP shifts and shudders around through various shocking skits and utter rhythmic and lyrical realisation.
During this period, the whole Aftermath stable of rappers and producers were enjoying a high old time both creatively and commercially. Dr Dre's collaboration-heavy 2001 was a worldwide smash hit and a fine album, Xzibit burst onto the scene as a new and exciting force with his unrelentingly catchy lead single 'X' and Snoop Dogg was seemingly ubiquitous with an array of guest spots and hits of his own - his star will seemingly never fade. Eminem had reached what may now be looked back upon as his zenith. Unbeknownst to most at the time, between here and 2003 would be Eminem's magnum opus. He was startlingly churning out groundbreaking material a la The Beatles during the time of Revolver and Sgt Pepper's... and never again would things get so good after one last wonderful triumph...
The 3rd Way - On 2002's The Eminem Show (seemingly, during this first period of Em's musical career, an album which didn't reference him or his persona didn't exist), Eminem went to town like never before. Devoting a whole song to berating his mother (and, beyond her, pious, middle class American soccer mom's everywhere) on 'Cleaning Out My Closet', letting rip on the state of American politics post-9/11 in a polemical fashion ('Square Dance') and going to town, back-to-back, with his compadre (another crappy pun for you) on most of their nemeses ('Say What You Say'), made The Eminem Show that man's most personal and introspective work to date. The sheer awe-striking lyrical dexterity throughout the album is something to behold in itself, but is best displayed in a microcosmic format on the incomparable 'Say Goodbye Hollywood' - a song of such power and resonance that it may well be his finest comment on the idiocy of believing in celebrity culture (there are quite a few), all the while referencing Billy Joel. (Indeed, the classic rock reference points do not stop there, with 'Sing For the Moment' sampling Aerosmith's classic 'Dream On' and 'Till I Collapse' sampling 'We Will Rock You' by Queen). As it was, The Eminem Show was also the album that won Eminem critical applause aplenty. That older generation that had seen him as a menace and a punk suddenly seemed to be gushing over him, the irony of which was no doubt not lost on him.
Say Goodbye Hollywood
All in all, the first 3 albums and run of singles from Eminem's career between 1999 and 2003 can be considered among, if not as the greatest ever achieved by anybody in hip-hop. That his more recent output is sketchier and not as consistent is by-the-by when one considers the magnitude, scope and genius of his work during this period.