In the summer of 2000, a mentally disturbed, gleefully transgressive white guy became the most popular rapper of all time. Eminem was already a star before he released The Marshall Mathers LP, and he spent much of the album wrestling with the implications of that stardom, but that stardom had nothing on what was about to follow. The Marshall Mathers LP became something bigger than an album. It was a cultural phenomenon, a problem to be solved. The Marshall Mathers LP sold 2 million copies in its first week. Within a year, it was diamond. It’s still the biggest-selling rap album of all time. Its edgelord lyrics catalyzed dinner-table fights and Senate hearings. Nobody knew how to make sense of what happened with The Marshall Mathers LP, least of all Eminem himself. But he tried.
Two years after The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem released The Eminem Show, the album where he attempted to grapple with what had happened in his life, and by extension society in general, in the short time that he’d been galactically famous. The hunger for The Eminem Show was so great that it threw the entire music business into chaos. The Eminem Show leaked early, and shock jocks Opie and Anthony played the whole LP on their radio show weeks before it was supposed to come out. So Interscope scrambled, getting The Eminem Show into stores on a Sunday, even though that wasn’t a traditional record-release day. That Sunday was 20 years ago today.
Eminem had devoted his first two major-label albums to his bloodthirsty alter-ego and his government name, so the title of The Eminem Show was a departure. The album had a loose theme of show business — the curtains rising on the intro, the mostly-bare stage on the cover. Eminem got that title from a line on “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” the song where he frantically ripped into his own ex-wife and mother in a way that was clearly and pointedly not a joke. The line is this: “What I did was stupid, no doubt it was dumb/ But the smartest shit I did was take the bullets out of that gun/ ‘Cause I’da killed ’em — shit, I woulda shot Kim and him both/ It’s my life, I’d like to welcome y’all to the Eminem show.” A year earlier, Em had been sentenced to probation for pistol-whipping a nightclub bouncer who he’d seen kissing his then-wife. Eminem knew that we would know what he was talking about on that line. His life had been chaotic, but now the chaos was unfolding in full view of the public.
In retrospect, “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is a fascinating snapshot of what was happening with Eminem at the time. Em wasn’t the first rapper whose private life was public knowledge, but a figure like Tupac Shakur was very different. Pac’s short, intense life was the stuff of a Great American Novel. Eminem, by contrast, was just some guy. In a different reality, his deeply unhealthy romantic life could’ve landed him on Jerry Springer. In our world, the public consumed Em’s various domestic disputes like they were Friends plotlines. This was new. Em’s raw-nerve rap style helped make him famous, and he wasn’t ready to deal with what came out of that fame. So Em ended up lashing out brutally at his mother — “Hailie’s gettin’ so big now, you should see her, she’s beautiful/ But you’ll never see her, she won’t even be at your funeral” — on a song that went to #4 on the pop charts.
Today, that’s normal. We know altogether too much about what’s going on with Drake and Kanye West. In a time before social media, though, Eminem’s whole narrative was the stuff of tabloids, and he could only frame his own story by rapping about it. So he did. A lot. Too much, probably. Part of the Eminem sales pitch, from the very beginning, was that he had no filter. On The Slim Shady LP, Em said a whole lot of crazy, baroquely offensive things, and much of it landed like South Park. The value was the shock; you just couldn’t believe someone said that shit. On The Eminem Show, Em tried to reckon with the effects of all that self-disclosure, to impose some intention on all that chaos, and he still ended up telling his mother that he’s dead to her on a song that was in constant pop-radio rotation. Eminem was too compelling for his own good, and he knew it.
Eminem also knew why he was so compelling, and that’s all over The Eminem Show, too. Eminem came along nearly a decade after white rappers had been essentially laughed out of the industry, and his race was a huge factor in his rise. Whether they knew it or not, millions of white kids had been waiting for a white rapper who wasn’t embarrassing. (The Beastie Boys were out there, but people barely considered them a rap group after Check Your Head. Beyond them, you’d have to dig into the backpack underground to find any crackers who got any respect in the late ’90s.)
On “White America,” the first song on The Eminem Show, Em explains exactly why he’d come into such a position of prominence: “Look at these eyes — baby blue, baby, just like yourself/ If they were brown, Shady’d lose, Shady sits on the shelf/ But Shady’s cute, Shady knew Shady’s dimples would help/ Make ladies swoon, baby — ooh baby — Look at my sales!” Then he just comes out and said it: “Let’s do the math: If I was Black, I would’ve sold half/ I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that.”
With those lines, Eminem was telling us things that we already knew. (If anything, he was underselling things; a Black Eminem wouldn’t have sold anywhere near half as many records as the white Eminem did.) But it was notable that Eminem knew that — that he had some grasp of the pernicious societal forces who had pushed him to such insane fame-levels. Still, Eminem could only understand that stuff through the prism of his own persecution. Eminem believed that he was constantly under attack, that he was public enemy number one for the parents of America, that he was the most hated person in the world. Maybe he was right. But you don’t have to be a licensed therapist to hear Eminem applying the conditions of his fucked-up upbringing to the new reality of his overwhelming success. Eminem wasn’t just hated; he was loved, too. On The Eminem Show, he seemed to regard his fans and his opponents with equal levels of suspicion.
“Without Me,” the lead single from The Eminem Show, was a red herring — one of the few moments on the album where Em sounded like he was having fun rapping. The homophobic taunting on the song has aged horribly, but it’s still funny that Eminem crowed about “nobody listens to techno” on a janky self-produced cartoon-disco beat that was at least 75% techno. (Em had rapped about going to raves on The Slim Shady LP; “Without Me” is what that hath wrought.) In the days before The Eminem Show came out, I spent hours on a road trip with my little brother where we were frantically scanning through stations, trying to hear “Without Me” as many times as we could. We heard it a lot, and we cheered every time it came on again. The song is mostly euphoric rap-virtuoso gibberish, lines that would infest in your ears and nest. When things get too quiet, my brain will sometimes still repeat “I been dope, suspenseful with a pencil ever since Prince turned himself into a symbol” on a constant maddening loop.
That playfulness extends to the video, where Em lampoons the nascent reality-TV industrial complex and licks a giant turd. But even on “Without Me,” Em interrogates his strange new place in the world: “Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/ To do Black music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy!/ Hey, there’s a concept that works!/ Twenty million other white rappers emerge!” Elvis comes up a couple of times: “Little hellions, kids feeling rebellious/ Embarrassed their parents still listen to Elvis/ They start feeling like prisoners, helpless/ Till someone comes along on a mission and yells ‘bitch!'” In the video, Em plays off the fears that he might become an Elvis figure in rap, dressing up in a late-’70s Presley fat suit and eating a sandwich that he’s stashed in a toilet. Today, we’re about to hear the song that Em made for the new Elvis-biopic soundtrack. Maybe that was inevitable, or maybe Eminem is still trolling us. He was right, anyway; 20 million other white rappers did emerge.
The main plot of the “Without Me” video, if such a thing can be said to exist, involves Eminem dressing up like Robin and heading out with Dr. Dre to fight crime. At the end, we see the crime that they’re after: A little kid listening to an uncensored copy of The Eminem Show. It must’ve been a total headfuck for Em to realize that he was basically a reprobate children’s entertainer, but that’s where Em found himself: “I go on TRL, look how many hugs I get.” Despite whatever he may have wanted or intended, Eminem had joined the pop-music firmament. Em had spent his early career fighting for respect as a rapper. Once he reached a certain point, his still-staggering rap skills were almost beside the point.
He could still rap, though. There’s dizzy, twisty, linguistically beautiful writing all over The Eminem Show. If Eminem’s fame was an annoyance, the pure art of rapping still interested him. He put all his abilities on display: stacked-up internal rhymes, fast-bounce cadences, sneaky little hooks. On The Eminem Show, Em was confident enough in his rap abilities to pick a couple of inscrutable fights with Canibus, even though he presumably knew full well that Canibus was an animal with a mechanical mandible coming to damage you. At one point, Em lists off all his favorite rappers, and he includes himself — though he puts himself behind guys like Redman, Kurupt, and Jadakiss, who never sold anywhere near half as much as him. He also spends much of the album finding his own musical voice.
One album earlier, Eminem had been angry about being “in rotation on rock ‘n’ roll stations.” From the beginning, Em was getting alt-rock radio play even though there was nothing rock about his music. He was the beneficiary of racism, pure and simple. But Eminem produced almost all of The Eminem Show, often working with longtime collaborators like Jeff Bass and Luis Resto. Suddenly, his music was full of distorted guitars and classic-rock samples.
Some of the production on The Eminem Show is truly impressive. The deep cut “‘Til I Collapse” deploys Queen’s “We Will Rock You” drums, an icy synth riff, and Nate Dogg’s unearthly-calm chorus with absolute confidence. That song never came out as a single, but it’s endured as one of the best things on The Eminem Show — eight times platinum since the start of the streaming era. But Eminem’s beats are also the main reason that The Eminem Show can’t be considered a classic on the level of Em’s first two albums. Too much of the time, the record sounds like it’s got a stick up its ass.
The Eminem Show is plainly the work of someone who, by necessity, was trying to shut out the outside world. The album’s guests all come from Eminem’s own camp: his friends in D12, his protege Obie Trice (real name no gimmicks), his daughter Hailie giggling all through “My Dad’s Gone Crazy.” On “Say What You Say,” Em’s old mentor Dr. Dre throws a whole lot of shots at Jermaine Dupri. It was mystifying, but it was funny, too: “Over 80 million records sold, and I ain’t have to do it with 10- or 11-year-olds.” Still, Dre is barely present on the album. Em shouts out other rap titans, but those titans aren’t on the album. Instead, Em is on another wave. My sense is that he didn’t want to suck anyone else down into his vortex.
There are moments on The Eminem Show where Eminem sounds like he’s getting used to the idea of being a public figure and acting accordingly. When he goes after family members, he does it sincerely, not in the context of macabre jokes. “Hailie’s Song” is just a heartwarming little ditty that never even looks for controversy. A few times, he tries his hand at politics, sneering at George W. Bush and his Iraq war, though he never fully commits to any stances. (Maybe we were lucky there. Em would later go full politics-guy, and it would be well-intentioned but just unbelievably terrible.)
There’s still homophobia on The Eminem Show, but there’s nowhere near as much. Still, we get a weird little humiliation-porn narrative like “Drips,” where Em practically fantasizes that his wife has cheated with his friend Obie Trice and given him AIDS. Eminem hadn’t figured all his shit out yet. When he finally did figure his shit out, he’d get a whole lot more boring, like the alcoholic friend who detoxes and immediately becomes a drag.
You can hear all the currents at work in The Eminem Show on “Sing For The Moment,” another song that was all over the radio for months. On one level, “Sing For The Moment” is clumsy and obvious. The grating sample of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” feels like a bid for rock ‘n’ roll radio rotation, and Em doesn’t even do anything interesting with that sample. The song is pointedly no fun at all. It’s one more defensive bromide about Eminem’s societal-scapegoat role and his various legal issues. But the rapping is still great, and there’s a genuine goosebump moment at the end.
When Em mentions the kids who don’t have a thing except for a dream and a fuckin’ rap magazine, his voice changes. Doubling up his vocals, he turns from serious to even-more-serious, explaining his whole mission in a few pointed bars: “For anyone who’s ever been through shit in they lives/ So they sit and they cry at night, wishin’ they’d die/ Till they throw on a rap record and they sit and they vibe/ We’re nothin’ to you, but we’re the fuckin’ shit in they eyes.” It gets me every time — maybe because I was one of those kids.
People don’t have to do that anymore. Musicians simply aren’t as famous as circa-2002 Eminem today. Even a monocultural figure like Drake knows that he’s talking to his audience when he makes a record, not to society in general. Eminem did not have that luxury. Everything he said was news. Thanks to a complicated combination of factors, a self-sabotaging gutter-minded white rapper had become the new-millennium version of Thriller-era Michael Jackson. That won’t ever happen again. All that pent-up fury and angst didn’t stop The Eminem Show from selling another 11 million copies — numbers that are utterly baffling today.
While he was working on The Eminem Show, Eminem was also telling his story in a different, more effective way. Less than six months after the album arrived in stores, 8 Mile came to theaters. That was a different wrinkle. Eminem was still baring his soul, but he wasn’t getting into the squalid specifics of his intra-family beefs. Instead, he became a fictionalized, mythic version of himself. He became Rocky Balboa, Daniel LaRusso, a one-man Jamaican bobsled team. 8 Mile remade Eminem as an underdog hero for the masses in ways that even skeptics and parents could understand. In the process, Em managed to become a grand-scale advocate for the transformative power of rap itself. Maybe that was Eminem’s real triumph. Maybe The Eminem Show, one of the biggest-selling rap albums in history, is ultimately just a historical footnote. As footnotes go, though, it’s pretty good.