The Marshall Mathers of 2002 had undergone massive transformations between his two major label releases, accumulating a reputation for bombastic, nasally rapping that targeted pop stars, political figures, and his own personal family. The Slim Shady LP, perhaps his most raw album to date, pushed Mathers into the MTV limelight. In a way, The Marshall Mathers LP was his response to the sudden celebrity he’d amassed, giving him an even larger soapbox from which to express his unfading hatred of newfound fans. Something should be said about Mathers’ performance with Elton John at the Grammy’s in 2001 and, though both icons were admired for their bravery, Eminem was debatably under even more scrutiny than before from gay rights organizations. But honestly, why would he care? He’d been protested against ever since his first album dropped and kids started claiming that his music made them violent. The Marshall Mathers LP addressed the impossibly dense pressure of apologizing for not apologizing, his disdain over becoming an international celebrity, and finding a way to outperform himself. In 2002, Mathers released The Eminem Show, revealing Mathers’ understanding of himself as a performer and, after starring in his own biopic that would be released in October of that year, his unavoidable role as an iconic character.
Even after the introduction where Eminem audibly walks across the stage and the curtains go up, he immediately addresses middle class, American ideals in “White America,” admitting his love for causing problems for suburban families and people with differing opinions from his own. He sarcastically uses his unique perspective as a white rapper to show an inherent connection between him and the youth of middle America, even pointing towards his popularity on MTV’s Total Request Live. The sound of overhead jets are featured as September 11 had occurred close to year before the release and, well, Mathers is all about confrontation. The psuedo-political nature of “White America” can be seen in other tracks like “Mosh,” and can be labeled as the “news” section of The Eminem Show.
The Obie Trice snippet on “Without Me” shows the rap game knowledge Em learned from Dr. Dre, putting the new artist on blast while delivering his largest single from the record. The single is his comeback track and raises the middle finger to Dick Cheney, the FCC, and MTV just in the first verse alone. The music video is a departure from the darkly obsessive “Stan” and introductory single “My Name Is,” as Eminem is finding ways to be nothing short of a nuisance, playing Robin to Dre’s Batman. Just from the single, Eminem reveals his desire to return to causing controversy and leaving artists on edge once again. After his beef with artists like Ja Rule and ICP, Em showed he was able to handle his own, even calling out artists like Moby and members of NSYNC just to prove his verbal prowess. He seemed tounge-in-cheek about actually feuding with anyone, though, and it makes his character just that much more obnoxious and colorful. Clearly in the vein of pure entertainment, “Without Me” and “My Dad’s Gone Crazy” are autobiographical snapshots of Em’s life as both a performer and, more personally, as a father.
Even the “business” section of The Eminem Show is all about reconstituting the hip-hop genre, calling for a new world order in which Em and Dre are the heros. And why not? Even a track like “Business” is difficult to dismiss because Eminem spits with the undying conviction and complete confidence of a seasoned rap veteran without anything to lose. His interest in hyper-violent reality is present in “The Kiss” skit, in which Eminem and his buddy Dave are staking out a house where the infamous Kim is supposedly with a new love interest. The real twist is that Em already “killed” Kim on the eponymous track on The Marshall Mathers LP and dragged her body into the beginning of “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” from The Slim Shady LP. In fact, didn’t he “kill” her for the cover artwork of that album? Her recurring role in Eminem’s performance seems more like an embodiment of every personal problem he has, and he aims his aggression primarily toward her, probably because he hates mentioning his mother (and don’t even get him started on his deadbeat father).
The record really feels like a farewell with tracks like “Sing For The Moment” and “When The Music Stops” where Em puts a huge emphasis on the importance of exceeding himself and the impossibility of doing so successfully. Even “Till I Collapse” seems to be delivered in a sort of vague desperation where, once the track is over, Eminem will grow too old or become out of touch with everything he’s worked so hard to accomplish. But just when Eminem finishes the record, walks offstage, and turns off the light, the recognizable wheeze of his perverted character Ken Kaniff runs off a quick parody of “Without Me.” The Eminem Show is a perverse display of Mathers as an entertaining personality and, sadly, it does end.
For many Eminem fans, The Eminem Show is the last incredible piece of work that Mathers has, or ever will, produce aside from his contributions to the 8 Mile soundtrack. By 2002, he’d become the voice of a young generation and was one of a few white rappers that wasn’t a Beastie Boy to reach an acceptable level of authenticity based solely on his skillful rhyming. Mathers is at odds on The Eminem Show, because he’s risen beyond being the underdog and has honed his skills dutifully, but he still has no real opponents to demolish. It’s the sound of Mathers at his sharpest, directly on the verge of drug addiction and slowly transforming into another pop icon for younger, hungrier MCs to target. The Marshall Mathers of 2002 was a beautiful genius and should not be forgotten amongst lukewarm radio jams like “I’m Not Afraid” and “Love The Way You Lie.”