Back in the ’90s, the hip-hop scene was mostly focused on East and West Coasts. On the West Coast, Tupac was blurring the lines between a rapper and a poet, Snoop Dogg wrote funky hits every single day and who could forget the mack daddy himself, Dr. Dre, who was cranking out hit after hit.
On the East Coast, Notorious B.I.G. sought the crown to be the best there ever was, Nas made a little-known album called Illmatic that everyone and their mother will tell you is the greatest hip-hop album ever made (disclaimer: it’s not) and the Wu-Tang Clan was busy rocking and shocking the nation with its tough style.
In the midst of all of this, one angsty, Midwestern teenager was finding his voice as a rapper, working on his craft tirelessly day-in and day-out while trying to survive incessant bullying. He transferred schools nearly every year and lived a turbulent domestic life that affected his mental health for years. After releasing an EP that caught the attention of Dr. Dre and making a raw debut album, Marshall Mathers, known by his stage names Eminem and Slim Shady, finished the ’90s in style with The Slim Shady LP.
My first experience with this album was years after it came out; my parents actually had the common sense to not allow their child to listen to an album with three swear words on three tracks of the album. Despite this, I knew who Eminem was as a kid growing up near Detroit. His more “radio-friendly” hits, if there’s such a thing, were popular in my area, especially among kids who loved to hear Eminem be funny and weird but innately talented. For many of us growing up in Michigan, Eminem was our introduction to a lot of things — our city’s identity, pride for our city and, most importantly, hip-hop.
If you ask anyone in Michigan who their top five rappers are and Eminem isn’t at least in the top three, you’re not talking to someone who’s from Michigan. He’s truly ascended from a rapper or musician to an icon, and that is why people from Michigan worship him as nothing less than the second coming. And when I was a kid, I could never understand why until I was old enough to give The Slim Shady LP a listen all the way through. Oh boy.
I knew Eminem was funny, but I didn’t know he had a sense of humor that was darker than a tar pit, which I could appreciate at times, and at others, drop my jaw in astonishment. I still can’t help but laugh at some of the absolutely awful things he says and blush at others.
To say this album is raunchy is a huge understatement. With lines like “I try to keep it positive and play it cool / Shoot up the playground and tell the kids to stay in school” not even being the darkest of the lines on this album, I can see why Dr. Dre would pull Eminem aside in the booth and urge him to reconsider the lyrics on his records throughout his career.
Eminem’s rhymes might have been controversial on this album, but he showed that he was gunning for the crown with his wit, wordplay and renowned internal rhyme scheme, which have been dissected countless times by now. However, these skills were still developing at this point. Some of his lines fall flat, like on “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” where, at one point, he makes a string of unintelligible baby noises to make everything rhyme, which just sounds lazy.
This album had a lot of things that I enjoyed, but what’s most impressive to me is how nonchalant a lot of these songs feel, especially since they’re about really serious subjects. In that sense, I felt like something clicked with me when I listened to this album. On the song “Brain Damage,” he raps about being viciously beaten by a bully so bad that he suffers brain damage, something that actually happened in real life, and when he tries to get out of it by seeking salvation from a teacher, she simply replies, “Nah, that bully wants to beat your ass and I’ma let him.” Eminem has a charm about him when he uses his wit and tendency to over-dramatize. When he does touch on serious subjects, the listener can have a good laugh about the whole thing, then take a step back and think “Why am I laughing at this?”
It’s important to remember where Eminem came from. Not too long ago, Detroit used to be the murder capital, and unemployment rates were astronomical to say the least. It’s an industrial city built by the hardworking hands of its inhabitants. Pair all of that up with the fact that the nearly sunless winters last for about six months and you’ll begin to understand why this album can get bleak at times. However, Detroit doesn’t quit when things get tough, and neither did Eminem. This album is a reflection of his ability to rise above all of the hardships in his life and his surroundings, and look back at it with a good laugh.
Despite its flaws, I love this album now as much as I did when I first heard it. It’s the blueprint of Eminem’s career, the start of something legendary, the commercial introduction of a man who put Detroit on the map. I could also see how this took him from an underground rapper to a star. But it wasn’t everything. While I thought he had skills, I still didn’t understand why some people practically put his albums just under the bible in terms of prophetic works. I began to see why he would connect with so many of my peers, but I didn’t capture the full picture. Eventually, I had an epiphany when I finally sat down with another one of his albums, but that’s a story for another time.
Spencer Lee is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column, “Spencer’s Soapbox,” runs every Tuesday. He is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan.