Never has the “early, funny stuff” cliche held such weight in pop: we’re at a stage now where the new stars coming through are still heavyweights now, and the sclerotic Marshall Mathers of the mid-10s haunts this swaggering, sparkling kid. But “The Real Slim Shady” is still an Eminem who knows how to tell a joke – though how much he’s joking is open to question – and he’s the most technically audacious and exciting rapper to have hit number one yet. By a considerable distance – take the “Now there’s a million of us…” climax, thirty-seven staccato monosyllables from “just like me” to “not quite me”, a pattern of triple stresses reeled out and back like a man casually doing tricks on a yo-yo. Or the animals – cannibals – canteloupes – antelopes – can’t elope rhyme set, as bravura in its wordplay as anything you’d find on an underground mixtape. Or the entire first verse (”Act like you never seen a white person before…”) and its teetering jenga of internal rhymes. Or the single’s best gag, delivered barely as rap, just as a great one-liner: “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss on his raps to sell records / Well I do / So fuck him and fuck you too”
And then you might take a step back. That sumptuous rhyme set builds to a homophobic punchline, that first verse is the most technically superlative domestic violence gag you’ll ever hear, and Will Smith, like Britney and Christina and Fred Durst and boy bands, is a very, very soft target, even in 2000.
Your response to that might be “so what?” – Eminem’s command of his track is so total, and his presence so strong, that introducing my own sense of morality or discomfort to proceedings can feel a little like cheating. The man is selective in the taboos he breaks, but breaking them is part of his deal. That was certainly the appeal of Eminem on his breakthrough single. “Hi… My Name Is”, where the Shady persona felt like pure id, a mix of horrorcore tropes, grand guignol shock tactics, a real and festering resentment at a shitty childhood poking through… and an odd, self-deprecating streak where Shady is half-pathetic and very much part of a fucked-up world, not simply a response to it.
“The Real Slim Shady” comes on as a sequel, the second in a series of straight-to-video shockers: Slim Shady Goes To Hollywood, maybe. But that’s the problem with horror franchises – the monster is what people pay to see, and the longer the series runs, the more he becomes the hero. In “The Real Slim Shady” his enemies now stop being the world and himself and start being more specific parts of pop culture. Which is where the “soft targets” problem comes in. Eminem is announcing his arrival as a pop fixture – and the success of his first album had made that inevitable – by taking on the weakest of imaginable enemies. He knows his tribe, and their prejudices well, but this stuff is the opposite of shocking. He’s consciously consolidating the audience he’s found. But the arrival of Slim Shady in the real world loses something. In the twisted universe of “My Name Is” he’s a force of chaos, a self-destructive trickster. Here he presents himself as just another cultural commentator, needling away at the entertainment biz’ foibles and hypocrisies. What’s his actual critique of those “little girl and boy groups”? They annoy him, and maybe Christina Aguilera slept her way to the top. It’s less Loki, more Perez Hilton.
That’s not to say he’s insincere about his distaste for pop – and certainly much of his audience, his crowd of mini-Shadys, also felt it for real. It’s not even to say he’s unsympathetic – in Popular terms, the allure of “The Real Slim Shady” is much boosted by the relative lulls on either side of it: however gross or lazy this single is in places, it gets points just for sounding alive and motivated. Pop fans – obviously I am one – can be as brittle as anyone about slights to their chosen music, which is often corny, distasteful, exploitative or just idiotic. Nothing could be more shrill and misguided than insisting everyone like that stuff. And in the case of 13- or 14-year old Eminem fans, you might as well ask them to stop watching slasher movies, or trying to score pot off their older brothers. Or wanking. “The Real Slim Shady” is as pure, as toxic and as well-made a shot of teenage exploitation as “Born To Make You Happy” was.
But there’s something else that’s changed since “My Name Is”, too. The point of Slim Shady is that he’s a nihilist, he doesn’t give a fuck what you think. But strip away the cartwheeling delivery and the Dre production – whose simple, jolly bounce is a hook in its own right, and a great example of how Eminem used sound effects to establish and bolster his comic persona – and what do you have left? Behind the jokes, “The Real Slim Shady” is a surprisingly defensive single, giving rather a lot of fucks, and mostly concerned not just with taking down pop’s star system but with establishing Eminem’s counter-arguments and get-out clauses.
These run along familiar lines – real life is just as fucked up as Shady’s raps, and lots of people are thinking or saying privately what he has the balls to say out loud. (He saves the question of whether any great responsibility goes along with this great power for his next number one.) This is a third role for Shady – not psychopathic id, or biz outsider, but a kind of frustrated everytroll, speaking for a silenced mass who express themselves mainly by buying his records. It’s a persona that’s halfway between the political outsider – Slim Farage – and the shock-tactic comedian – Andrew Dice Shady. And not knowing which way it might tip – into comedy or cultural politics or, in Eminem’s case, something more nihilist and personal – is part of the appeal.
It’s an appeal with parallels – you can look forward to Anonymous but also backwards to punk, and this – plus stardom and proficiency – was why Eminem was such critical catnip. “Half of you critics can’t even stomach me” – but the other half adored him, for his volatility, and the sense that here, at last, was a story we hadn’t seen before, one whose ending we didn’t know. Well, we know it now: not just for Eminem, whose peak and slow decline I’ll have to write about in depth, but for Shady, whose blend of psychopath, critic and everyman once seemed dangerously new and now feels exhaustingly, inescapably, familiar.
“Now there’s a million of us just like me who cuss like me who just don’t give a fuck like me who dress like me walk talk and act like me it just might be the next best thing but not quite me!” Fifteen years on, this seems just as true but far less funny. Eminem didn’t invent trolling, or stay good at it for long, but his signature brand of it has thrived in the Internet century. Wreathed in lulz, self-righteous if challenged, somehow bitter about a culture it has a box seat in, vengeful against mothers, lovers, women who have the gall to speak or fuck or simply be noticed. The real Slim Shadys haunt Twitter mentions tabs, newspaper comments boxes, subreddits, social media from YouTube to YikYak, anywhere axes can be ground. Marshall Mathers no more caused our culture than Elvis caused the sexual revolution, but like Elvis he could feel some crackle in the air and he knew how to draw that lightning down through himself. He was hard to ignore, he has become hard to enjoy.