Music

No Reason To Pretend: Peak Slim Shady Was Not A Fluke

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No Reason To Pretend is a weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.

When Eminem retired his alter-ego Slim Shady in 2013, he was about 10 years too late. Slim Shady was a crude instrument forged to duel with late ’90s monoculture on a primal, bloody level. A habitual button-pusher, he relished in all things heinous, provocative, and disturbing. He raped, he killed, he pestered, he cursed, and he enjoyed every minute of it, encouraging you to do so too. There was no real defense for the character then and there isn’t one now, but it can’t be denied that he was deeply compelling.

I used to think it was the rapping, which is effortlessly complex (“Family fighting and fussing over who wants to invite me to supper / All of sudden I got ninety some cousins”). But Slim Shady gets by on more than rhymes. Beneath the wordplay is a charming presence with a sharp eye and disarming wit that is relatable even at his most vile and selfish moments. Slim Shady, troll that he was, was genuinely lit.

Those early songs hold up, but the few times Eminem has brought Slim Shady out of retirement in the past couple of years, the results have ranged from awful to boring to utterly immaterial. And what strikes me about the gap between Slim Shady circa 2000 and Slim Shady now is the continuity. Other than contemporary Em’s ashtray of a voice there’s no real difference between a line like “Tip it back then I’m twisting wine bottles / Like what happened to Chris Reeve’s spine column” (“Campaign Speech”) and “Slim, for Pete’s sake, put down Christopher Reeve’s legs” (“I’m Back”). Yet, “I’m Back” works and “Campaign Speech” is a dud. Facts.

To feel out this gap, I talked to director Joseph Kahn about the video for “Without Me”, which he directed. The “Without Me” video is the purest distillation of the Slim Shady persona, so Kahn, who has directed four Eminem videos in total, as well as a D12 video, felt like the best person to talk to. His videos tend to openly embrace the pageantry of pop, literalizing metaphors without flattening them, and “Without Me” — which won four VMAs — captures Slim Shady like no other video has. I went into our conversation thinking that Slim Shady’s decline is a product of over-rapping and Eminem’s fossilization in the pop culture of the late ’90s/early ’00s. But Kahn provides a more succinct explanation: Slim Shady is a battle rapper. And a battle rapper outside of a battle is just a person rapping into the wind, shadowboxing with the abyss.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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In your mind, what’s the legacy of the “Without Me” video?

Kahn: I always imagine it as the encapsulation of the character, peak Slim Shady.

The Eminem Show came after The Marshall Mathers LP, which had videos that were more serious and drab. Was “Without Me” you actively trying to focus more on Slim Shady?

Not necessarily me trying to get into Slim Shady, but Eminem trying to be Slim Shady. I always imagine, when he’s doing the Slim Shady thing, that he’s battle rapping with pop culture and the world around it. When he’s not Slim Shady, he’s battling deeper demons, and those are his serious songs, but when he’s Slim Shady, he’s battling the absurdity of being a white rapper, and at that point, of being the only one. And even to this day, he’s still the one legit one, so I think there’s some interesting perspective there and he’s self-aware of it, that’s he’s essentially a gremlin in the system.

In terms of how the video played out, how did those scenes come about?

This was many many years ago, but ultimately Marshall and I have conversations and we pitch ideas and he throws out ideas and then I take them and put them into a treatment form. But there’s always the brainstorming session that we have before. And there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on on set, where we’ll get on set and just make stuff up. I’ll pitch and idea and he’ll pitch an idea and we’ll just make stuff up. It’s very improvisational.

Before the conversation between you and Eminem takes place, other than listening to the song, how are you preparing for the video?

On “Without Me” I actually didn’t even get to hear the song until Jimmy Iovine invited me into his office and played it there. Because no one really knew how to protect these songs so that they don’t leak, and leaking is always a big problem for singles. So in order to protect it they just had me sit there in the office and write the concept there.

How did you come up with the comic book motif?

I think Marshall came up with it actually. I think the core of the concept was that Dre is Batman and he’s Robin.

And that was the foundation and it just evolved from there?

Yeah, and we just ran with it from there, coming up with more and more ideas. When you have a song like “Without Me,” which is extremely tangential and goes one way or the other, you should be able to come up with a lot of ideas because that’s what’s happening.

In terms of the cameos, like Jenna Jameson and Kiana Tom, how were those coordinated?

I don’t remember how that happened. I don’t know who came up with the idea, I don’t know who wanted Jenna Jameson, I don’t know who wanted any of those people. They just showed up on set, somehow.

Have you seen “Without Me” referenced in other media?

I think Marshall’s style heavily influenced Psy. When I see “Gangham Style,” it’s an interesting evolution off the idea of what Eminem was doing. It’s essentially a rap guy going and obscuring the culture around him in a series of vignettes.

At the time you directed “Without Me” you had also directed videos for lots of other big pop stars. How did that enable you to develop these vignettes where Em was battle-rapping with pop culture?

The tricky thing is when they intersected each other. There is a scene where Eminem beats up Moby and I was working with Moby at time and I think Moby is really cool, like one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met. And it actually concerned me. And I know that Marshall has nothing against Moby. Even though the lyrics are extraordinarily contentious with Moby, I know that personally Marshall doesn’t have a problem with him. It’s just the f*ck-you of battle rap. And I actually called Moby and was like look, “There’s gonna be a scene where you get beaten up. If you don’t like it, I’ll fight not to have it in.” But he said, “No, go ahead, I think that’s hilarious.” So we got Moby’s blessing.

That really adds another layer of absurdity to that scene.

When I like back on that video, I just love Marshall’s acting. It’s really something to watch his performances. That’s what really makes the video more than anything. He’s such an amazing comedic actor. And what’s really amazing about it is that he had just come off 8 Mile and he had just been working with Curtis Hanson. And apparently Curtis had him using a method style on the movie. So when Marshall came out for every vignette, he would stay in character. He stayed Elvis, he stayed Moby, and he would not leave character until he left.

Since Eminem was battle rapping with pop culture and the gap between pop culture and content creation seems to have decreased, would it be difficult to make a video like “Without Me” without it aging instantly?

No, I think the distribution system now is much faster, so you would get the song out faster and I think he did that recently with his Trump diss. I’m pretty sure he went to the studio, mixed it, and then released it within a day or two. And I think that nowadays people have options to do videos super cheap. They don’t have to do the big productions like “Without Me.” They can do a bunch of graphic cards and stuff and people will still watch those videos. But in terms of getting topical music out with videos, I think it’s easier now. In terms of the big spectacle of videos like “Without Me,” I think it’s a little harder in terms of justifying it on an investment level.

In that era how much would a video cost?

I don’t remember, but it was probably a million or something like that. That’s my go-to number.

Would that mean that a lot of footage was shot and it was honed?

No, a lot of footage was shot, but I don’t think we did that extra footage because everything I shot was almost in the video, and I was shooting for the edit, so he would improv things, but we would shape the performances to the camera so that the improv was for a reason, so ultimately it was shot for the edit. I don’t think there were any other scenarios in those scenes that just didn’t make it. We focused in on what the point of the scene was and we came up with the best joke.

Earlier you used the phrase “peak Slim Shady.” Why do you mark “Without Me” as the peak?

It was the version of pop culture that was most relevant at that moment and all his references were released just in time. For instance, we did another video, “We Made You,” that came out a couple years later. I actually think that’s a funnier video. “Without Me” is really funny but “We Made You” is super hilarious and I like a lot of the jokes in there. But I think by the time that song came out the references were a little bit older, so it was not quite as perfectly timed as “Without Me” was. It was still relevant but “Without Me” was right on the money when it was released. And that’s the danger of battle rap. You have to time it out with the subject you’re attacking.

Stephen Kearse is a writer living in Washington D.C., follow him here.

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