Well, he’s done it again. On Wednesday, April 5, Eminem filed to divorce his wife, Kim Mathers, after only three months of marriage. This is a recurring pattern in Eminem’s career. The couple first married in 1999 and split in 2001. Of course career repetition isn’t anything new for Eminem either. In fact, nothing that Eminem had released lately has been wholly original.
When Eminem, born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, first burst onto the scene in 1999 with his hit single “My Name Is,” his audience was unsure of what to make of him. “What’s his name? ‘Eminem?’ You mean like the candy?” “Wait, if his real name is Marshall Mathers, but his rap name’s Eminem, who’s Slim Shady?” The song’s overly sarcastic and ludicrous lyrics caused people to think that Em’s staying power was limited—he was just a one-time novelty act, similar to Sisqo and the “Thong Song.”
A hit single featuring Eminem on Dr. Dre’s 2001, “Forget About Dre,” released in late 1999, erased all suspicions. Five months later, The Marshall Mathers LP arrived, critically hailed early on as a musical masterpiece. Eminem had arrived.
With the Marshall Mathers LP we finally began to understand the phenomenon that was Eminem. “Slim Shady” was the alter-ego, unafraid to pan the idiocies of the MTV class, both artists (Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera) and its own brand of pseudo-celebrities (Tom Green and Carson Daily), delivered over a comical beat and with a mocking, yet impressively fluid, flow. “Eminem” was the rapper himself, who eschewed typical rap fare, and discussed offensive issues without fear of sounding overtly violent and explicitly gory. In the words uttered by his A&R rep, Steve Berman, in the prelude to “The Way I Am,” “I can’t sell this album. [Dre]’s rapping about big screen TVs, blunts, forties and bitches. You’re rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin.” Lastly, we were able to see the raw side, Marshall himself, expressing his own emotions, whether they be against fans (“The Way I Am”) or his then- wife, Kim (“Kim,” “Kill You”).
What was so amazing about Eminem was that not only was he a white rapper, he was a very talented white rapper, on a par with some of the legends of the genre. Not only were his lyrics intricately structured and full of ideas not usually found in rap, but his delivery continued to improve. Throughout his first few albums, listeners could hear his flow evolve, from the hesitant and choppy verse in The Slim Shady LP, where he seemed almost to be freestyling, to the smoother rhythm of his complicated rhyme structure which later mesmerized and enthralled. He started developing different voices for a “Marshall” or “Slim Shady” tracks. Particularly entertaining was his come-on tone in “Superman” and his teen girl exuberance in D12’s “My Band.” Of course, the excellent production value and keen yet sparse sampling, under the direction of Dr. Dre, certainly contributed to both his legitimacy as an artist and the overall quality of his work.
Just as his voice evolved, his records did as well. The Slim Shady LP indicates in his name alone that Eminem was hiding behind his alter-ego, the world not yet ready for the man himself, only his character. His follow-up effort, The Marshall Mathers LP strives to open Eminem, to reveal his true core, the Marshall that lies beneath. Only with The Eminem Show do we see Em balancing both his doppelganger and his true identity, being comfortable in his own skin and star status. And it is with this third album that he was at the top of his game, only to be followed up by his pinnacle, the release of the film 8 Mile, with its smash hit “Lose Yourself.” All the elements that Eminem had developed over the past four years had coalesced into the quintessential power rap song. The varied delivery, careful construction of rhyme, and masterful production value placed Eminem on a pedestal that he could never achieve again (or hasn’t since).
Eminem’s rise and evolution could also be seen through the prism of his rivalries, or “beefs.” At first, Eminem’s rivals were the likes of the Insane Clown Posse and Everlast. Having such trivial (and, more importantly, white) artists as rivals demonstrated that Eminem had a long way to gaining street cred. His confrontations with women’s rights groups and organizations like GLAAD over his misogynistic and homophobic lyrics in his second album only furthered his image of a white boy gone rebellious, but not a typical urban star. Only when aging rapper Benzino and Murder Inc. has-been Ja Rule began throwing punches did Eminem’s arrival seem clear. Ja, who, at the time, was on top of his subpar game, was so clearly outplayed by Eminem that he has since ceased to be relevant at all. Additionally, with the help of many of the black artists signed to Shady/Aftermath Records (50 Cent, Obie Trice, D12), Em was able to play the game of feuding crews and give legitimacy to his own sound.
Eminem was also able to channel the deep personal drama that was his life into his music, which gave fans a closer look at the man behind the lyrics and infused his songs with deeper emotion. His life-long conflict with his mother, everlasting tensions with Kim, and his undying love for his daughter, Hailie Jade, were all themes commonly found in his lyrics. Unfortunately, by the time his most recent studio album, Encore, was released these subjects carried the stench of unoriginality. In fact, this seems to be a common theme in the most recent part of Eminem’s career: a recycling of common areas already explored.
As evidenced by the album titles, Eminem was constantly changing his focus from record to record, from Slim Shady to Marshall to Eminem. However, the fourth album was just a continuation of the last, the Encore to the Eminem Show. The songs themselves lacked that spark of creativity ever present in his previous material. The album creates a sharp distinction between the Slim Shady side of his personality and the Eminem/Marshall, taking each to its own detrimental extreme. Additionally, the album featured delivery that evoked a sense of storytelling, on songs such as “Mockingbird” and “Like Toy Soldiers.” The style is disarming, either so sublimely subtle in its rhyme scheme as to be seemingly absent, the apex of technical skill where the rhyme is so engrained as to be invisible, or, it could be seen as actually genuinely missing from the songs. The delivery seems almost too smooth, and it also comes at the expense of his songs.
With the release of his greatest hits compilation, Curtain Call, the same theme is explored and recycled without any innovation. Again we have the motif of a show, the curtain call following the encore. The first single released from the album, “When I’m Gone” features the same storytelling gimmick that comes across as either too professional or too lazy. The other two new songs on the album, “Fack” and “Shake That” also fall into the categories of being too sharply defined. “Fack” is Slim Shady at his worst, as dirty and explicit as ever. Eminem co-opts the voices used in “Superman” and “My Band,” if only to attest to the notion of reprocessed fodder. “Shake That,” featuring Nate Dogg, is simply a club track, not worthy of being released on an album with much better music. The very idea of Eminem releasing of his greatest hits suggests the end of an era, the final resting place of a career arc that quickly descended to its artistic nadir, even if not its popular one.
The news and implications of Eminem’s recent marriage and subsequent divorce, events that once again mirrored an earlier episode, perhaps can best be summed up by Stephen Colbert (on news of Em’s marriage in January): “Tip of the hat to Eminem for reuniting with his muse. The guy lost his edge when he stopped writing lyrics about pistol whipping his wife and hiding her body in the trunk of a car. So here’s to five more years of great songs, once the second honeymoon period is over—in about a week.” How true it was. And how true we hope will be.