“Curtain Call. n: an appearance by actor or performer at the end of the concert or play in order to acknowledge the applause of the audience,” reveals the legend within Eminem’s greatest hits collection.
Taken literally, it’s an act that epitomises the enigma that is Marshall Mathers and the uncertainty that has surrounded the eight years since his arrival in the public consciousness with the infamous My Name Is.
Recording of course, under the phonetic soubriquet Eminem.
If it is to be the last act of the play and Eminem has made the decision to hang up his mic’ to fully immerse himself in the piles of money he’s amassed, then it’s a fitting way to close years of controversy. Particularly so, when the genre that he has contributed so much to has rarely been in a wealthier state. Hip-hop today is as mainstream as the latest assembly line pop act, but in 1999 that wasn’t necessarily the case.
They say the next prominent genre will always be the antithesis of its predecessor and Eminem’s arrival is a case in point. His immediate commercial success was propelled as an alternative to the bubblegum pop produced by the Mickey Mouse Club and the boy band culture that was destroying the heart and soul of British music, yet filled the airwaves regardless.
My Name Is generated the sales, chart success and publicity while the Slim Shady LP gave this chancer from Detroit credibility with hard-hitting tails of despair in Rock Bottom and, the pre-cursor to the disturbing Kim, ’97 Bonnie and Clyde. This is also the first insight to Eminem’s relationship with daughter Haillie and mother Kim, the track describing the MC taking Haillie to dump his mother’s body in the sea. This fateful triangle is continuous and almost omnipresent throughout all of his albums.
The success of the Slim Shady LP created resentment throughout some circles and inevitably the tension rose to the surface, notably with his mother over the portrayal of her as a drug user, “99% of my life I was lied to / I just found out my mother does more dope than I do” (My Name Is). The intense bitterness between the two culminated in Cleanin’ Out My Closet from The Eminem Show, where relations are very much shut down with the lyrics “Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me? / Well I am dead – dead to you as can be’.
But that’s what happens when parents attempt to sue their kids, his mother even releasing their own diss record – as embarrassing as expectations imagined it to be. In the early stages side issues like that were rarely trumpeted as Eminem’s success opened a door to a fresh crossover market for black music. When Eminem’s mentor and producer, Dr Dre, released his long-awaited follow-up to The Chronic with 2001, Rap’s breach into the mainstream was complete.
Middle American and western European kids were quickly bopping their heads to the sounds of Dre and Snoop on Still Dre. The turn of the century propelled the machine further along with the Marshall Mathers LP hitting the shops in September 2000 and bringing forth unprecedented controversy. Claims of homophobic, violent and misogynistic lyrics were difficult to defend – and that was just after the first track Kill You.
By now the convergence of Eminem’s private and public life had become something of a soap opera, and the birth of the Napster generation fired this internal psychodrama into the public domain, with an ongoing feud surfacing with former co-owner of The Source magazine Ray Benzino. The irony of the situation hasn’t been lost on Mr Mathers. “One of the ways I came up / Was through that publication the same one that made me famous / Now the owner of it has got a grudge against me for nothin’ / Well fuck it, that motherfucker can get it too, fuck him” (Like Toy Soldiers)
There was also a beef with Everlast and a few pops at Fred Durst in the height of the nu-metal era. Not everyone liked his personality, and not everything he touched turned to gold: Slim Shady was just one of six members of the Dirty Dozen (AKA D12), honouring a promise to take the others to fame, which seemed like mission not particularly difficult after the release of Purple Pills in June 2001, but the album was generally as dark as the single Fight Music, which gave Eminem an early opportunity to retort to the critics of the Marshall Mathers LP’s lyrical content: “You motherfuckers wanna judge me ’cause you’re not me / You’ll never stop me, I’m top speed as you pop me”.
But Devil’s Night ultimately failed to reach expectations and sales slowed down as 9/11 changed many people’s worldview. People didn’t want the dark gritty lyrics D12 offered. Eminem went back to the drawing board while the other D12 members grafted with an unlikely collaboration with Gorillaz on 911, a response to the attacks on the Twin Towers.
May 2002 came and brought with it The Eminem Show, an explosive album addressing issues that emerged from the tragedy of 9/11, and Eminem’s unequivocal views towards George W Bush. However, the personal was never far from the surface, with Eminem addressing his weapons offence charges in Soldier while offering a moving ode to his daughter in Hailie’s Song.
The small matter of making records aside, the Eminem empire was beginning to take shape: the clothing line was in operation and he’d even performed live with Elton John in an example of expertly coordinated PR, as gay rights activists were offered some form of appeasement. The world was just about ready for the 2003 release of the staggeringly successful, and another Dre-production, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent. The New York MC’s debut single In Da Club saw a new star born seemingly overnight.
50 Cent’s G Unit brand, motorised by 50 Cent’s ridiculous work ethic, created similar shock waves, but not without provoking the by-now predictable levels of envy and competition. The relationship between Eminem and 50 Cent remained solid, but a seasoned player like Ja Rule didn’t appreciate the new kid on the block
The stories differ depending on who’s telling it, but rumours of stabbings and snitching were finding their way into the public domain through a series of diss records. The beef between 50 and Ja Rule took a nastier twist when Ja Rule proclaimed “Em you claim your mother’s a crack head / and Kim is a known slut / So what’s Hailie gon’ be when she grows up” (Loose Change). Eventually things settled but there was a genuine fear that some inevitable fatality would ensue.
Affiliation to Shady records wasn’t a sure fire route to success as Obie Trice found out with his album Cheers. Despite being one of the best debut rap albums in recent years it flopped. The marketing wasn’t right and the trademark novelty introduction single (as satirised through My First Single on Encore) Got Some Teeth failed to generate enough interest.
Em came back fighting with Encore, his best album to date in autumn 2004, with a full range of emotions in evidence from the anger towards the then newly re-elected President Bush in Mosh, to the heartbreak of Spend Some Time. It felt as if the journey had gone full circle with tracks like Ass Like That being unnecessary distractions amongst its more powerful companions. The Slim Shady character was becoming a joke.
That joke may be what Eminem means in When I’m Gone with the line “Shady made me / but tonight Shady’s rock-a-bye baby”, the death of the alter ego in the way Tyler Durden gets killed off in Fight Club. But the song is as much of a farewell as Say Goodbye To Hollywood was. You can’t judge him by his lyrics because they’re an escape as well as a retreat for Eminem. He’s defended his lyrical content in two ways; “it’s all political / if my music is literal / then I’m a criminal / I wouldn’t be fit to raise a little girl” (Sing For The Moment) but in the same song turns around and says “music is reflection of self / we just explain it / then get our cheques in the mail”.
It’s a conundrum as inexplicable as a hip-hop icon becoming addicted to sleeping pills. But it’s hardly been surprising.
Eminem broke down the racial boundaries in hip-hop. He entered an all-black world and achieved hard-won acceptance. In return he enabled the rap world to infiltrate areas of youth culture previously denied to the MC . Eminem may owe a lot to Dre for launching him and a career that’s earned him millions, made him a movie star and molded him as the poster child for disaffected youth across the world but, for the racial and social boundaries that have been confronted and for highlighting uncomfortable issues, democratic society owes Marshall Mathers III a debt. In six years, Eminem mobilised the marginalised.