As far as first impressions go, few made more out of them than Eminem. The first time I discovered the very angry white rapper who grew up in a working-class and predominantly black neighbourhood of Detroit, I watched Eminem show off his multi-syllabic rhyme schemes at the 1997 Rap Olympics. It was an impressive performance, but at the time, you could make a laundry list of battle rappers—Chino-XL, Supernatural, Canibus—who couldn’t break through the ceiling and become more than just a rapper with the best punchlines.
Today, Eminem is known as one of the best-selling rap artists in history, but almost two decades ago, when Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine first heard his demo tape and signed him to Interscope Records, it seemed improbable that a white guy with a few angry bars could vault to such great heights. Eminem released his third mainstream studio album The Eminem Show 15 years ago, which wrapped up a three-album run that ranks among the best we’ve seen from a mainstream artist.
Everyone was unsure about The Slim Shady LP, Eminem’s highly anticipated debut on Interscope, when it released in February 1999. Back when lead singles and their accompanying music videos actually mattered, “My Name Is” was a controversial choice. Eminem opens with a verse asking the audience, “Hi, kids! Do you like violence? Wanna see me stick nine inch nails through my eyelids?” The song became a template that Eminem would use to success with the subsequent lead singles (“The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me”) on his next two albums.
It also highlighted the struggle of enjoying Eminem’s music and lyrical talent, considering the misogyny and homophobia that was at best done for shock value, and at worst came from a place of misplaced anger. In the first verse of “My Name Is” alone, Eminem raps about figuring out which Spice Girl to impregnate, brags about ripping Pamela Lee’s tits off, and says he smacked her so hard her clothes are knocked backwards like Kris Kross.
This was the persona that Eminem chose to display on his records, and it was easy for every audience to write him off, and with reason. But move past the problematic and gimmicky parts of The Slim Shady LP, and there was the type of songwriting that combined Eminem’s lyrical ability and Dr. Dre’s production, which rivaled anything else that mainstream hip-hop was producing at the time.
“Brain Damage” is a horrifying tale about the angst of childhood, and it explained how Eminem became so deranged and crazy (once again blurring the lines between performative and reality, the real-life alleged bully from the song DeAngelo Bailey sued Eminem for $1 million after.) “If I Had” and “Rock Bottom” are honest looks at growing up poor, and the tolls of dealing with depression. “Just Don’t Give A Fuck” sees Eminem return to his battle rap roots. He’s just straight spitting bars here, and the song deserves a shoutout for having the best Marty Schottenheimer reference in rap history.
Once he had established himself with a formula that worked, Eminem doubled down on his follow-up—The Marshall Mathers LP—which followed more of the same blueprint from The Slim Shady LP. Today, the word ‘stan’ is evoked whenever someone goes beyond a reasonable line of fawning over a particular celebrity. In 2000, “Stan” was an innovative song concept, and Eminem’s own response to a part of his fanbase that took his lyrics too literally. It was a song that proved Eminem had a conscience and a particular self-awareness to the impact of his records.
In retrospect, The Eminem Show stands out among Eminem’s first three mainstream studio albums. It remains his most complete and personal work to date. It showed the type of progress and maturity that many of us might have have expected or even demanded from an artist that was selling millions of records worldwide regardless of the quality of his music.
“White America” was his most direct response to a segment of the suburban population that chose to identify him as the main cause on the rise of teenage rebellion. “Cleaning Out My Closet” had Eminem venturing deeper into the troublesome relationships in his life, from his father who abandoned him during childhood, to his ex-wife Kim, and his complicated relationship with his mother.
Throughout the album, Eminem veers more towards using music to express himself personally, punching through the gimmicky approach that dominated his first two mainstream records. “Sing for the Moment” and “Hailie’s Song” remain some of the best work he has ever put out. The Eminem Show was the height of Eminem’s artistic career, but it was also the beginning of the end. Two years later, Eminem released Encore, which sold over $21 million copies worldwide, but the album sounded like it was from an artist with nothing more to say and was simply recording for the sake of doing so.
In recent years, Eminem has gone through a bit of a rebirth, but the height of his career—the movie 8 Mile aside—remains the complicated and intricate workings of his first three albums. It was truly a one-of-a-kind run that holds up almost two decades later.