MANCHESTER, TENN. – Loud, banging explosives went off a couple of times during Eminem”s Saturday night set at Bonnaroo, the end-cap to particularly violent songs in his set list like “Kill You.” Red, flashy scenes of blazing matter and bombs glowed behind the rapper and his full band on screens, like early visions of doomsday. He defiantly claimed he “Won”t Back Down” to his rivals, and performed darkly in front of the burning house from “Love the Way You Lie.”
Eminem envisions himself a villain, as he raps in Drake”s star-studded “Forever”; at times over these last 12 years, he”s wanted the world to think he wanted it to burn. He”s stepped on the toes and fingers of gay rights, women”s and parents” groups, nurtured some nasty murder fantasies in song, has been sued by his own family and suffered tabloid fatigue due to his relationship with on-and-off again ex-wife. He”s pissed off more than his fair share of public figures with his in-verse disses.
But he”s also a multi-award-winning Grammy artist, a former and recovering drug addict and one of the most in-demand rhymers in hip-hop. In addition to becoming a self-described baddie, Eminem has turned into quite the deconstructionist, too, to the point of almost-parody.
“Weighing in at 175 pounds… the undisputed, most diabolical villain in the world… Slim Shady!” Em said in the usual intro to “Crack a Bottle,” a party track so juvenile, I thought it was a joke the first time I heard it.
“Are we having fun or what?” hypeman and D12 cohort Mr. Porter asked unironically of this vile villainry.
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Eminem incorporates fewer of those old “Kim” songs and doesn”t bring up Hailee much in the set. For such an in-your-face styler, he doesn”t particularly look anyone in the eye, as he suggests in aforementioned “Lie.” The headlining show was impersonal, but also an expansive and respectable medley of unavoidable urban and pop hits through years. He doesn”t need to hit the intimate hot-buttons, like “When I”m Gone,” because he has the heavy angsty strains of “Airplanes Part II” or “8 Mile”s” “Lose Yourself.” And he nails them.
Em spent most of the set pacing back and forth across the expanse, end to end pointing and occasionally tipping his hat or adjusting his baggy camouflage shorts. He sported a Bad Meets Evil t-shirt, alluding to an appearance from Royce da 5″9”; it manifested for “Fast Lane,” the first single from forthcoming duo’s record, and radio-loving track “Lighters” typically featuring Bruno Mars.
A female backing vocalist handled the hooks all night, from absentees like Mars and Rihanna. Dr. Dre”s “I Need a Doctor” got a play, but the famed producer and Skylar Grey were nowhere to be found. And Em couldn”t help himself, and added fuel to rumor-fire that Lil Wayne might show up: he led a call-and-response for Weezy — who performed at the festival the night before – but to no avail.
Still, he sated the crowd with sample-heavy staples like “Stan,” “Sing For the Moment” and “Like Toy Soldiers.” On the former, he slow-burned on that bitterness, but kindly replaced “Remember when we met in Denver” with “at Bonnaroo” and lifted his tee up on the lyric, “I even got a tattoo of your name across the chest.” As heavy as that track gets, he kept the blaze under his black hat (like most attendees, you gotta rest on your reserves sometimes). And some of the earliest bangers like “My Name Is” and “The Real Slim Shady” were given only a touch-and-go treatment.
But Eminem seemed to give the most sincere time and effort to his least villainous songs. “Not Afraid” was triumphant, perhaps due to crowd buzz; “Cinderella Man” had the rapper punching at the ground, swirling around Mr. Porter and windmilling his arm like a rocker. It”s no surprise those songs were both culled from latest album “Recovery.” It”s what the bad guy sounds like when he”s feeling better.