Each of Eminem's (aka Marshall Mathers', aka Slim Shady's) first two albums establishes itself as a stone classic less than a minute into its opening track. On The Slim Shady LP's "My Name Is," Eminem hilariously illustrates how his music relates to his core audience in the first few seconds, clearing his voice over turntable scratches and a chanted chorus/refrain then taking on the role of teacher to a nation of TV-addled latchkey kids -- Eminem: "Hi, kids. Do you like violence?" (kids: "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!") "Wanna see me stick nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?" ("Uh-huh!") "Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?" ("Yeah! Yeah!") "Try acid and get fucked up worse than my life is?" (" Huh?").
Then, on The Marshall Mathers LP, he confronts the controversy generated by the debut head-on with the rather indelicately titled "Kill You," which opens with an avalanche of broken-home pain, violent fantasy, and hateful spew then, without so much as a pause, immediately provides its own outraged commentary before any self-appointed cultural guardians have the chance: "Oh, now he's raping his own mother, abusing a whore, snorting coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?"
The good news is that the self-professed boogey monster of rap's latest, the immediate million-seller The Eminem Show, also rises to such heights of knowing absurdity. The bad news is that it takes more than an hour to get there.
Only on the album's final full song, "My Dad's Gone Crazy," does Eminem replicate the funhouse-mirror richness that permeates Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers. The song opens with gentle, hearth-like music and an Eisenhower-era voiceover announcing, "Today, we're going to talk about father-and-daughter relationships." Underneath this is the sound of someone snorting cocaine, which is cut off by the entrance of Eminem's own young daughter, the oft-referenced Halie Jade Mathers, who asks, "Daddy, what are you doing?" With Halie's adorably weird "I think my dad's gone cray-zay" providing the recurring vocal hook, Eminem lets alter ego Slim Shady loose. This is the Eminem that so many of us fell in fascination with: the out-of-control rhyme animal, the unleashed id, consumed by a recklessness that makes it possible for absolutely anything to be said at any moment. It's this bravery and complete lack of self-censorship that gives him the gall to identify with the rage of the WTC bombers early in the song then with the pain of their innocent passengers at the end, and so far, at least, this freedom has gone hand-in-hand with the motor-mouth disregard for propriety and correctness that so often gets him in trouble.
Then, at the end of the song, for those still trying to figure it out, Shady gives way to Marshall as Eminem explains his aesthetic in the clearest and plainest terms ever: "My songs can make you cry, take you by surprise/At the same time, can make you dry your eyes with same rhyme/See, what you're seein' is genius at work/Which, to me, isn't work/So it's easy to misinterpret it at first/'Cuz when I speak, it's tongue-in-cheek/I'd yank my fuckin' teeth before I'd ever bite my tongue."
And it's a freedom that instinctually informs his politics, which certainly aren't overtly analytical or well thought-out (though there is a guiding class consciousness at work that is rarely remarked upon), and any progressive tendencies are negated by his well-established, knee-jerk regressive attitudes toward women and gays. But how many other platinum-selling pop stars in the era of patriotism police are willing to state plainly, "No friend of Bush," issue a gleeful "Fuck you, Ms. Cheney!" or a criminally tasteless "I know that you've got a job, Ms. Cheney/But your husband's heart problem is complicating!"? And no one has cut through politics to break down the new era of an unending "War on Terror" like Eminem does for his core listeners on "Square Dance": "Oh, yeah, don't think I won't go there/Go to Beirut and do a show there/Yeah, you laugh 'til your motherfuckin' ass gets drafted while you're at band camp thinkin' this crap can't happen/Assassins hijackin'/Amtracks crashin'/All this terror/America demands action/Next thing you know, you've got Uncle Sam's ass askin'/To join the army or what you'll do for their navy/You just a baby, gettin' recruited at 18/You're on a plane now, eatin' their food and their baked beans/I'm 28, they gon' take you 'fore they take me."
So much of the greatness of both Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers lies in the role "Eminem" plays as the negotiator of a multiple-personality disorder that pits "just don't give a fuck" Slim Shady against cares-way-too-much Marshall Mathers in a constantly shifting, unprecedentedly complex persona play in which deliriously disturbed Shady (the class clown of the mental ward) thrills fans "proud to be out of your mind and out of control" while a really disturbed Marshall (the piss-poor Detroit kid with an absentee dad, drug-addict mom, and serious women issues) pulls the rug out from under the same listeners with scary, agonized glimpses of what "out of control" can really mean. (This is what happens in the opening moments of "My Name Is" and occurs repeatedly throughout his music.) And it's this complexity that is mostly missing from The Eminem Show -- it's less crazed, less funny, less cartoonish, and ultimately less hip-hop.
Eminem may state on the album's lead single that "I've created a monster/'Cuz nobody wants to see Marshall no more/They want Shady," but Marshall is what he gives us here. Despite the title of its best song, The Eminem Show is where this public menace proves how utterly sane he is (and sane, it should be emphasized, is not the same as laudable or responsible) with a plainspoken, confessional, rock- (as opposed to hip-hop-) oriented examination of his private life as it's gone public.
The opening "White America" identifies his primary audience and enemy and once again establishes Eminem as his own truest critic. "Let's do the math/If I was black, I would have sold half," he raps, identifying race as a hindrance early on and a help now and insisting (correctly) that he did as much for Dr. Dre's flagging career as the gangsta icon did to jump-start his nascent one. He also offers the hip-hop quotable "Surely hip hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston/After it bothered the fathers of daughters trying to blossom/So now I'm catching the flack from these activists when they raggin'/Actin' like I'm the first rapper to smack a bitch or say 'faggot,'" which is as unavoidably true and too-infrequently acknowledged as it nonetheless is entirely insufficient to absolve him of guilt. (All that's missing is for Em' to connect the dots and call out white liberal groups for their cowardly refusal to hold black rappers to the same moral standards.)
The other Marshall Mathers diary-entry standouts are the hyperconfessional "Cleaning Out My Closet," a somber rock bellow that deals explicitly with his parents, ex-wife, and daughter, and, best of all, the "Stan" sequel "Sing For the Moment." The latter repeats the "Stan" formula -- a three-stanza structure that builds in intensity, a sampled, recontextualized chorus (the unlikely victim this time: Aerosmith's "Dream On"), and the cultural and emotional functionality of his music as subject matter -- without quite the same genius, but it's still a breathtaking performance. The first verse identifies his audience ("These ideas are nightmares for white parents"), the second meditates on the entertainment climate and his place in it ("I guess words are a motherfucker/They can be great/Or they can degrade/Or, even worse, they can teach hate/It's like these kids hang on every single statement we make"), and the third brings it all home with a passionate testament to the simple, communicative impulse behind his need to grab a mic and spit lyrics ("That's why we seize the moment/Try to freeze it and own it/Squeeze it and hold it/'Cuz we consider these minutes golden").
It's this kind of soul-baring that Eminem is interested in here. When he lightens up and lets Shady out, as on the lead single "Without Me" or the Dre-produced battle rhyme "Business," the songs are remarkably skimpy in terms of content. He seems to have nothing to say outside of an honest, not-arrogant-if-it's-true accounting of a formal mastery apparent to any true hip-hop fan from moment one and still in effect here: "You never even see me blink or get to bustin' a sweat/People steppin' over people just to rush to the set/Just to get to see an MC who breathes so freely ease over these beats and be so breezy/Jesus, how can shit be so easy?"