Saturday, January 15, 2005

Eminem Unleashed


In a few short months, Eminem has gone from being one of the most heralded emcees in independent hip-hop to one of the most provocative, controversial rappers in contemporary pop music. The overnight success of his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, literally rocked the rap world, making him one of the biggest music success stories of 1999. But Eminem is more than the latest rap artist to blow up. He's spent the last several years paying his dues, and his lyrics, which cover topics such as poverty and single parenthood, reflect a rough upbringing. His unlikely acceptance by the pop mainstream has made some wonder how his popularity will affect the future of hip-hop music.

Before he had the world singing along to "My Name Is...," he was Marshall Mathers, a poor kid growing up in Warren, Mich. "It's like the real, stereotypical, trailer park, white trash," Eminem told Rap Pages earlier this year. As a child, he and his mother moved constantly, staying at relatives' homes in places as disparate as Warren and Kansas City, Mo. As a result, Marshall found it difficult to make friends, and he retreated into his comic books and television. "I didn't really start opening up until eighth grade, going into ninth," he said.

When Mathers was 12, his mother finally settled down on the east side of Detroit. There, he attended Lincoln Junior High School and Osbourne High School, hanging out with friends and listening to artists like LL Cool J and the 2 Live Crew. He battled against other rappers at his high school, and quickly gained a reputation as a nimble rhymer. But his penchant for skipping school led him to fail the ninth grade. After dropping out of high school, he held down several odd jobs, while continuing to work on his craft. "I tried to go back to school five years ago," he said, "but I couldn't do it. I just wanted to rap and be a star one day."

Mathers rapped in several groups such as Basement Productions, the New Jacks, and Sole Intent, before deciding to go solo. In 1997, he released an album, Infinite, through a local company called FBT Productions; it was met with derision from the local hip-hop community. "I was getting a lot of feedback saying I sounded like Nas or Jay-Z," he admitted. Despite the criticism, Eminem continued to promote himself through shows and appearances at radio stations and freestyle competitions across the nation. His perseverance garnered him a notice in the Source's influential "Unsigned Hype" column. Later that year, he won the 1997 Wake Up Show Freestyle Performer of the Year from L.A. DJs Sway and Tech, and earned second place in Rap Sheet magazine's "Rap Olympics," an annual freestyle rap competition.

In 1998, Eminem put out The Slim Shady EP, which contained the original version of "Just Don't Give A " "Slim Shady is the evil side of me, the sarcastic, foul-mouthed side of me," he said during an interview with the Source. The EP made him an underground star, and Eminem was invited to appear on underground MC Shabaam Sahdeeq's "Five Star Generals" single, Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause, and other rap releases. At the end of the year, Eminem put out a popular 12-inch, "Nuttin' to Do/ Scary Movies," with fellow Detroit rapper Royce the 5'9".

Meanwhile, a copy of The Slim Shady EP made its way into the hands of Dr. Dre, the legendary creator of The Chronic and N.W.A., and current president of Aftermath Entertainment. Dr. Dre quickly signed Eminem to his label, and the two began preparing The Slim Shady EP for a full-fledged release, adding songs like "My Name Is " and "Guilty Conscience." Early in 1999, Eminem made the world take notice with his charismatic video for "My Name Is..." parodying everyone from Marilyn Manson to the President of the United States. Shortly afterward, The Slim Shady LP debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Album Chart. Its sensationalistic depiction of rampant drug use, rape, sex, and violence horrified some; equally disturbing was Eminem's various four-letter-word insults directed at his mother and songs like "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," where Eminem fantasized about killing the mother of his child.

In defense, Eminem claimed that he was just speaking his mind. "I do feel like I'm coming from a standpoint where people don't realize there are a lot of poor white people," he explained in the Source. "Rap music kept my mind off all the bulls--t I had to go through." His cynical take on life struck a chord with millions of rap fans, and drove The Slim Shady LP to double-platinum-plus sales. He began to tour, including a solo jaunt with the Beatnuts and Mixmaster Mike.

While most in the hip-hop community greeted Eminem with open arms, others took a more cautious approach, wondering why rock stations across the country who never played rap music added "My Name Is " to their playlists. Was it because Eminem was the first "legitimate" white rapper to gain widespread popularity? "I'm white in a music started by black people. I'm not ignorant to the culture and I'm not trying to take anything away from the culture," he said in his defense. "But no one has a choice where they grew up or what color they are. If you're a rich kid or a ghetto kid you have no control over your circumstance. The only control you have is to get out of your situation or stay in it."

Throughout the year, Eminem has continued to record for other artists, making appearances on Sway and Tech's This or That compilation, DJ Spinna's Heavy Beats Vol. 1, Missy Elliott's Da Real World, the Soundbombing 2 compilation, and Dr. Dre's highly anticipated sequel to The Chronic, Chronic 2001: No Seeds. And in June and July of 1999, the rapper took to the road with the Warped tour, filling in for Cypress Hill, who decided to forgo the tour in favor of recording its next album.

After wrapping up his touring commitments, Eminem took a short break before returning to the studio to record the follow-up to The Slim Shady LP. During the break, he basked in the glow of his many awards, including the MTV Video Music Best New Artist Award for "My Name Is " and the Grammy award for Best Rap Album.

As hectic as 1999 was, 2000 shaped up to be even more of a roller coaster ride. The millennium year saw the release of his third album, The Marshall Mathers LP, which promptly sold 1.76 million copies its first week out, an amount second only to 'N Sync.

Then came the controversies, which included being sued by his own mother, an arrest for pulling a gun at a nightclub, his wife's suicide attempt, almost getting banned from Canada, an impending divorce, a boycott by the members of GLAAD, getting sued by his wife, and his lyrics being cited in a Senate hearing on violence in the entertainment industry.

Despite all these distractions, Eminem still managed to stay in the No. 1 spot for an astonishing eight weeks, and he collected three MTV Music Awards: Video of the Year and Best Male Video for "The Real Slim Shady" and Best Rap Video for his collaboration with Dr. Dre on "Forgot About Dre."

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