At the beginning of his recent “Kick Off” freestyle, Eminem discussed his approach to rap battles in depth, explaining that “the main objective is to destroy, completely fuckin’ obliterate your opponent by saying anything and everything, whatever the fuck you can.” This approach has served him well far beyond the realms of freestyling though. Two decades into his career, Slim Shady has still managed to keep it real in the face of competition from rising artists eager to match and even surpass his unrivaled success in the industry. Last year alone, “Killshot” became the biggest hip-hop debut in YouTube history, and the Detroit rapper sold more albums than any other star in 2018, including Drake and Taylor Swift combined.
Eminem has been obliterating opponents like this ever since the release of his breakthrough album, fueled by anger and indignation against those who believed a white rapper could never find success in the hip-hop industry. Defying all expectations, The Slim Shady LP went on to be certified quadruple-platinum in the US, selling over 18 million copies worldwide while earning Em his first two Grammy wins as well.
With all of these accolades, it’s easy to see why Eminem’s major label debut became an instant classic and is still regarded as such today. However, much has changed in the world since February 23, 1999, and with any release this controversial, there’s always a chance that what was once deemed revolutionary has now aged poorly. With that in mind, we’re cleaning out the closet and taking a look at how The Slim Shady LP fares twenty years later in 2019.
When lead single “My Name Is” first blew up on MTV, Eminem tapped into a very specific and yet overwhelmingly powerful demographic; middle class white kids. Hip-hop had enjoyed crossover appeal long before Slim Shady “ripped Pamela Lee’s tits off” in rhyme, but never before had white suburban teens connected with a rap star in quite this way.
Through songs like “If I Had” and “As the World Turns,” whole new audiences were finally being exposed to the hardships that often characterized hip-hop previously for black audiences. Ironically enough, Eminem’s whiteness initially held him back from securing a record deal, but once Dr. Dre vouched for him, Marshall Mathers suddenly found huge success with mainstream fans precisely because he stood out as something different.
On later songs like “White America,” Eminem himself acknowledged that if he was black, he “woulda sold half,” but it’s clear to see that The Slim Shady LP would have still resonated with critics and casual listeners alike, regardless of his ethnicity. “My Name Is” remains one of the best debut singles in rap history, establishing Slim Shady’s boundary-pushing persona with his characteristic humor and dexterity. Follow up release “Role Model” taunts the listener with carnivalesque abandon, and “Guilty Conscience” also slays still thanks to the chilling back and forth between Em and Dre… and that’s just the singles.
Written on a particularly dark day in his life, “Rock Bottom” is a painfully relevant story about the struggle of raising children in poverty, and other deep cuts like “Brain Damage” dive deep into the abuse Em suffered as an adolescent. Sure, the production is somewhat dated on a couple of the weaker tracks, but The Slim Shady LP is still an impressive calling card that retains a great deal of its power.
Early on, Eminem established his prowess as an extraordinary lyricist with the flow to match, spitting razor-sharp rhymes that told a complex and often provocative story. However, these razor-sharp rhymes also cut some listeners deep, generating huge swathes of controversy among religious and parental organizations who worried about the impact that Slim Shady’s music would have on the youth of America.
Billboard editor in chief Timothy White claimed that Eminem was “making money by exploiting the world’s misery” and widespread accusations of homophobia, misogyny, and glorifying violence quickly followed. However, critics at the time were surprisingly accepting of Slim Shady’s more grotesque urges for the most part.
Back in 1999, Rolling Stone admitted that “The bitch bashing gets tired fast,” comparing songs like “My Fault” to a “sorry-ass Bloodhound Gang record,” but their review of the record as a whole is still remarkably positive. Allmusic have gone on to claim since that The Slim Shady LP is “one of the great debuts in both hip-hop and modern pop music” and MTV even described these songs as the “modern day versions of Greek tragedies.”
It’s hard to imagine Eminem’s breakthrough album receiving these kind of reviews today though. If The Slim Shady LP had been released in the post #MeToo era of 2019, then things might have turned out very differently for Marshall Mathers.
Take “97 Bonnie and Clyde” for example. Through the story of this song, Eminem imagines killing his wife and then disposing of the body with his daughter by his side. Not only are the lyrics deliberately disturbing in their hatred against women, but the fact that Hailie was included on the song as a young child would be cause for concern in today’s climate. Hell, even Marilyn Manson refused to collaborate on the track because he felt it was “too misogynistic.”
There have always been those who have railed against Slim Shady for his oppressive lyrics, but it wasn’t until the blogosphere condemned his homophobic slur against Tyler, the Creator last year on Kamikaze that Eminem seemed to be held accountable by the fans too. Collaborator Justin Vernon even spoke out against Marshall in the aftermath, saying that “It is certainly not the time for slurs.”
Tyler is still banned from the UK. Eminem headlined Reading festival last year with a back catalogue of lyrics about raping/killing women, mass homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, abuse of mentally disabled kids…. And don't even fucking talk to me about it being 'his character'. https://t.co/MiLwNi6Qgl
— Roisin O'Connor (@Roisin_OConnor) August 31, 2018
In the past, Eminem would make excuses, arguing that using a homophobic slur is “like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole.” Since then though, he’s apologized for the way he spoke about Tyler, the Creator, something which the Eminem of 1999 would have never done. This clearly speaks to the changing political climate and how controversial artists like him have begun to adapt in response, although it remains unclear whether this will actually affect future releases.
Looking back at The Slim Shady LP, it’s clear that the record as a whole would be crushed under the collective weight of the internet at large if it was released for the first time in 2019. However, the album should still be lauded for breaking convention. While most rappers at the turn of the century were usually preoccupied with gangster tropes, Eminem took a cartoonish view of what he considers a nihilistic world, eschewing materialism in favor of self deprecation.
By subverting the bravado of hip-hop in this way, Slim Shady opened up an entirely new kind of audience, the impact of which continues to be felt in the industry today. Before Kanye West encouraged rap stars to be more honest about their emotions through albums like 808s & Heartbreak, Eminem told deeply personal stories that were uncomfortably real at points, particularly in reference to his love/hate relationship with Kim.
There are plenty who will still take offence to moments when Em thinks about raping a minor or making “a nice bed for Mommy at the bottom of the lake.” As he pointed out on his debut single, “God sent me to piss the world off” and the perversity of The Slim Shady LP still holds the power to do exactly that. In fact, none of the album’s most vile and hateful moments have lost their impact in the twenty years that have passed since they were first recorded.
However, if you can get past the vulgarity and offensive subject matter, then it’s easy to see how The Slim Shady LP would set Eminem up to go on and “completely fuckin’ obliterate” all of his opponents. Like it or not, the greatest selling hip-hop artist of all time got to where he is today precisely because of his unfiltered take on the world. Whether Eminem is still at the top of his game in 2019 is another matter entirely, but a spin of his debut album provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when controversy was deemed as something to actively celebrate rather than condemn.