Way back at the turn of the century, it was a refrain that young Marshall Mathers would hear often. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” went the familiar chorus from critics and parent watchdog groups intent on silencing the raunchy, provocative, and at times, outright offensive rapper.
Now, twenty years removed from his entry to the much-lauded and oft-debated rap game, it’s finally true — in a way.
In 1997, the burgeoning all-star talent that was Eminem was pernicious, obstinate, irreverent, and outright mean. 1997 Eminem meeting 2017 Eminem would be absolutely disgusted with himself.
The viciously sardonic battle rhymer who lyrically eviscerated foes like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Moby, The Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey, Will Smith, Carmen Elektra, and basically anyone who rubbed him the wrong way or who he thought would get him a laugh has grown up. In the course of doing so, while he’s added hip-hop luminaries like Nas, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, and even his idol Tupac (through digital trickery) to his list of accomplished collaborators, he’s also included some names that would garner his elder self a ruthless tongue-lashing from the mean-spirited trickster he once was.
Whereas the old Eminem would have sneered at the possibility of an association with Rihanna, cringed at a collaboration with Hayley Williams of Paramore, and suffered an absolute conniption at the thought of featuring Beyonce on a record, the Old Eminem has softened, working with the aforementioned names and more while presenting a kinder, gentler, more sober version of himself to the world.
Back in the day, Em’s Slim Shady alter ego was the ultimate expression of the burgeoning rap star’s uncontrolled id. Remember, this was the artist who made “I Just Don’t Give A F*ck” not just a song title but a lifestyle ethos. On tracks like “Guilty Conscience,” this was played out by proxy, as Eminem became the metaphorical devil on his subjects’ shoulders, goading them into more and more depraved actions over the protestations of Dr. Dre’s “conscience” character, eventually turning Dre to Shady’s cause by the end of the song.
In “My Name Is…,” the insanely rambling introductory single that brought Eminem to America’s mainstream consciousness, Eminem threatens to rip Pamela Anderson Lee’s breasts off, contemplated impregnating one of the Spice Girls, and even berated his own mother. The trend continued onto The Marshall Mathers LP’s nettling first single, “The Real Slim Shady,” where Eminem doubles down on his obnoxious needling of well-known stars.
“Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records / Well, I do, so f*ck him and f*ck you too!” he crows to begin the second verse, where he crams more insults into the sixteen-bar quote, practically ensuring the awkward VMA encounters he details throughout. “So you can sit me here next to Britney Spears? / Sh*t, Christina Aguilera better switch me chairs / So I can sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst / And hear ’em argue over who she gave head to first,” goes the second verse rant, apparently sparked by Aguileras’ unwittingly annoying him by mentioning his ex-wife during an MTV special.
Of course, these name-calling spats were interspersed between tongue-in-cheek references to casual murder (“Kim,” “Kill You,” “’97 Bonnie & Clyde/Just The Two Of Us”), debauched drug abuse (“Drug Ballad,” “Still Don’t Give A F*ck,” “The Kids”), and Eminem’s coining the now iconic term for an overly-obsessed, self-destructive fan on “Stan.” In short, Eminem was everything your parents didn’t want you listening to in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
That’s not an exaggeration. Speaking from personal experience, I actually owned a copy of the Slim Shady LP for about a month in high school, courtesy of my grade’s bootleg man, who made it his business to download entire albums using Napster and sold them on burned CDs (with labels, even!) for $5 a pop. I owned it for a month, because right around week three, I just happened to leave the disc out on my dresser, and my mom, who considered herself a pretty hip lady then, popped it into the CD player to find out if this Eminem guy was really as bad as the news was saying.
That was how I got Slim Shady LP by Eminem confiscated by own mother, to this day the only album she ever felt the need to ban from the house altogether.
And yet, even she would be astonished at the turnaround Marshall Mathers has completed in the intervening decades — if not a complete 180 degrees, then certainly an extremely tight right turn at the corner of longevity and maturity. For as much flak as I’ve given Eminem for not evolving quite as much as he should’ve since he was seriously still trying to pull off du-rags and fingerless gloves, he’d be unrecognizable to 14-year-old Aaron and his not-quite-as-hip-as-she-hoped mother.
While there have been missteps like “Rap God” and “Berzerk” from The Marshall Mathers LP 2, as well as some unfortunate references to sportscaster Molly Qerim on “Campaign Speech,” the new Eminem has also addressed his various addictions and emotional issues in self-effacing, confessional songs like “The Monster,” “Won’t Back Down,” and “Love The Way You Lie.”
Even more notable, though, is who appears on those songs. The Slim Shady of old would never have condescended to perform alongside Pink, let alone Rihanna, or — gasp — Beyonce as he has in recent years. And while even some of those tracks have more than their fair share of questionable pop culture references and off-color digs at celebrities like Michael J. Fox, the simple fact of the matter remains that these tracks have also been obviously grasps for mainstream approval and crossover appeal.
The rapper who once set out to offend as many people as he possibly could has changed. While still far from “politically-correct,” this new Eminem has certainly become more calculating, more diplomatic, more willing to play ball with the top names of pop music game to ensure sales and critical acclaim. Some of this is undoubtedly the resulting of shifting cultural mores which have rendered his previous subject matter even worse than taboo — social media has made his sort of bullying the domain of the soon-to-be canceled — but there is also an element of recognition there as well.
Eminem, simply put, is a pop star now. Rap is pop, despite the protestations of Q-Tip. This is the way the game is played now. Fanbases are cross-pollinated by carefully-crafted, strategically-marketed, focus-grouped buzz singles and ad placements. Even now that hip-hop is the most popular genre in the US, the biggest sellers are still the sort of pop stars that Eminem regularly lambasted in his salad days.
But now the tables have turned; rather than using insulting them to get attention, he’s now recruiting them to help push his singles to the kids of the kids who grew up on his former alienation and vitriol, and they’re doing the same with him. He’s goet a new album dropping this week (?), and all we know about it so far is that it’s rumored to be heavily anti-Trump, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a lot less prodding at the pop culture establishment. These days, if Eminem were to pen an acerbic excoriation of any big-name pop acts, his own name would have to go at the top of the list.