Mar 15

EMINEM – “The Real Slim Shady”

Popular102 comments • 8,765 views

#864, 8th July 2000

eminem rss 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.



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  1. 61
    Shiny Dave on 1 Apr 2015 #

    Absolutely with that. I was confused about my sexuality at the time – like a lot of asexual teenagers, it would be years before I even felt able to adopt a sexual identity at all (I suspect that sort of epiphany comes easier in the Tumblr era, but I stumbled into it only at about 20, and that courtesy of an IRC conversation with a Cambridge postgrad) – and I’d imagine Eminem did not help. Not that this likely even registered, as I was too busy associating him with the bullying 14-year-old boys I was surrounded by and loathed, which led me towards speaking to more girls, which probably reinforced a loop of presumed heterosexuality. Add to that being bought up in a Mail-reading family in my formative years and I internalised an awful lot of awfulness – even as far forward as 2004 my reaction to Bush’s re-election was that I was glad it was for “the right reasons” of voting on morality, when it was obvious even at the time that “morality” in this context meant homophobia and misogyny in the name of Christianity (and I even knew this from a LiveJournal I read at the time!) – and I can’t help but wonder whether that’d have changed if the game-changing artist of the early 2000s had been speaking to me.

    Or, to be more exact, if I’d known the other game-changing artist of the early 2000s was the one to pay attention to.

  2. 62
    Andrew on 1 Apr 2015 #

    #59 Genius is (reliably) helpful on this – the lyrics listed are the ‘cleaned up’ (after Labi Siffre protested) version, but not the clean radio version.

    These two annotations show the original lyrics (which I can swear I remember hearing more than once back in 1999, not sure when the cleanup happened exactly?):



    Some other annotations for the song also indicate the clean radio lyrics.

    (Genius is amazing)

  3. 63
    wichitalineman on 1 Apr 2015 #

    Without wanting to sound like I’m stirring trouble… I’m intrigued to know why Eminem as a “game changer” has been universally accepted here.

    Is this down to sales figures? Or race? Both feel to me like steps in the evolution of rap. Because he’s the biggest selling hip hop act to date? His time as a genuine phenomenon felt pretty brief, in spite of ongoing Billboard no.1 albums.

    Maybe I’m taking “game changer” to be a bigger term than others here. But it feels like a very big claim. I take “game changing” to mean that everything would have been different without Eminem. Do people really believe that?

  4. 64
    Izzy on 1 Apr 2015 #

    I think you can make a case for there being a ‘game changer’ at some point around the turn of the century, where hip hop becomes the default youth sound, as opposed to just another genre. In timing Eminem just about fits the bill, though the Beastie Boys or Snoop might be better shouts (or any number of others I guess, depending on your angle).

    I’m not sure the theory works anyway – the lack of followers nixes ‘nem’s claim to have changed any game. And I’m not sure that hip hop actually ever did reach default status, except in terms of what you were going to put in a middle eight.

  5. 65
    katstevens on 1 Apr 2015 #

    I was part of the hugely disappointed crowd for Eminem’s Reading 2001 set. He didn’t play a single song I liked from MMLP or SSLP and was mostly just arsing around with D12. The only notable bit was when he started mumbling “big up Aaliyah”, who had literally just died that morning, which pre-smartphones nobody at the festival could have known about. 10,000 metallers wondering why he’s talking about some R&B lass start booing him, Eminem tells them all to fuck off. Things were already bad but went swiftly downhill from there.

  6. 66
    fivelongdays on 1 Apr 2015 #

    If I recall correctly, this would have been around the time when the USA discovered ecstasy. Witness the hilarity as Eminem took a couple of paracetamol in front of an incredibly bored crowd!

  7. 67
    katstevens on 1 Apr 2015 #

    God yes that was excruciating.

  8. 68
    wichitalineman on 1 Apr 2015 #

    Re 64: I think you’re right with the Beastie Boys and Snoop, but I think that only confirms it was an evolution. Rock wasn’t entirely off the map, as a bunnied bunch of soggy Digestives will soon prove.

    Now HERE is a genuine game-changer:

  9. 69
    Ed on 1 Apr 2015 #

    In some ways the Beastie Boys were a bigger cultural force than Eminem, in their day. They made tabloid front pages, for example, which I don’t think he ever did.

    When they first broke, they hit a lot of the same points in terms of homophobia, sexism, and violence, too. Licenced to Ill’s originally planned title was Don’t Be A F******, apparently, until Russell Simmons vetoed it.

    One big difference was that it was always clear they were well-off middle-class New Yorkers playing at being bad boys, whereas he was a working-class Midwesterner driven by desperation and rage.

    And the Beasties spent much of their career apologising for their earlier stupidity, which Eminem never quite did.

  10. 70
    The Muppet on 1 Apr 2015 #

    I think there might have been some in early 2001, around the time of the Grammy’s and when there were protests at shows in London. I remember around the time this was happening I Love 1987 was on TV and I noticed not only how different the Beastie Boys were to how I knew them but also how similar the controversy around them was to what was happening with Eminem at the time.

  11. 71
    Tom on 1 Apr 2015 #

    One interpretation of the grand story of Popular is that there never really has been a ‘default’. (But that particular cookie crew is an odd one to pick given the style they represented is such a clear response to rap.)

  12. 72
    Alfred on 1 Apr 2015 #

    #69: I don’t know: it’s clear to me the manipulation of identities, whether shaped by pathologies or public expectations, is precisely what drives Eminem. In other words, he is “playing at being a bad boy.”

    And if the Beasties had chosen NOT to apologize, would it have mattered? If Eminem apologized, would it matter?

  13. 73
    Ed on 1 Apr 2015 #

    @72 That’s a good point. Wikipedia makes clear how Eminem’s career was going nowhere until he came up with the Slim Shady persona.

    To quote somebody up-thread, though, Eminem’s obsession and derangement do feel somehow different. And I think the fact that he still, at 42, aparently doesn’t have much perspective on his own work is evidence of that.

    Anyone heard the latest album? How does he sound these days?

  14. 74
    lmm on 1 Apr 2015 #

    #63 He really was the game changer: he took rap mainstream when before it had been something for music nerds. We can speculate about the ugly reasons for that, but one way or another it happened. The forthcoming bunny is where that really happens: it felt like it was topping the charts for months, made the sampled artist a name almost in passing. But most of all it was a Game of Thrones-like cultural moment: suddenly everyone, everywhere was talking about Eminem and about rap, even those who’d previously shown no interest in music.

    Eminem really was that important. But admittedly not yet, not on this track. So I hope I’m not stepping too far out of line.

  15. 75
    Tommy Mack on 1 Apr 2015 #

    Alfred @ #72 et al. Clearly he was playing a character. The best defence you could mount for him (the one I internalised when I used to listen regularly) is that he’s playing the bad guy, we’re not meant to think Slim Shady is cool (‘I’ve got genital warts and it burns when I pee: don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me!’) like we were in 1986 with The Beasties – there’s nothing on License To Ill to suggest that any of the Beasties have any qualms or sense of irony about the casual nastiness they’re dishing out and furthermore, they take the role of alpha-bully on every track whereas Eminem only wants to be admired for two things, his prowess as a rapper and his holding it together against the odds for his daughter. I’m inclined to agree with Irvine Welsh in Glue when he says working class musicians would never be allowed to shrug off something like LTI as a mix of tongue-in-cheek and puppyish mischief (he wasn’t talking about the Beasties but a fictitious incident involving a character who becomes a DJ but I did instantly think of the Beasties by way of compare-and-contrast when I read it)

    Tom’s Andrew Dice Clay comparison was unfair, Eminem is more Jerry Sadowitz, a virtuoso offender (with sick flows in place of Sadowitz’s card tricks) amazing and appalling his audience in equal measure.

    I agree though, all this counts for nought if you’re on the end of the homophobic bullying he sponsors. For all the layers of characterisation and self-deprication, you do get the impression that he’s actually a nasty little prick underneath it all anyway. I don’t listen to him much these days and when I do, it’s the epic, paranoid ones, rather than the Zappa-esque sick humour stuff.

    Wichita @ 63: Game-changer? I feel he fits the bill in the sense that he was a force of nature who no-one was expecting but whom no-one could ignore (at least for a bit) once he was here. He sounded completely novel, he came from nowhere (unless you seriously knew your underground hip hop) and he got huge overnight.

    On reflection, game-changer is the maybe wrong word, unlike all the other names mentioned, he generated no imitators* (though I recall the industry hyping every vaguely novel white rapper from Kid Rock to Bubba Sparxxx to Princess Superstar as the new Eminem) He didn’t really change the rest of the game but he made enough noise that the game felt different just for his presence.

    *the most authentically Eminem-ish act I can think of is 2014 critical darlings Sleaford Mods: all the good bits of Eminem with none of the nasty shit, underdog rage directed squarely at more deserving targets.

  16. 76
    anto on 1 Apr 2015 #

    For all the talk of Eminem as the Elvis of rap, I can see more parallels with Morrissey – A similarly pervasive self-pity (but with no shortage of humour), a voice that for some is a head-ache but which upon it’s unexpected arrival turned out to be just the voice so many listeners had been waiting for, the two of them even had easy-to-imitate hairstyles. And then of course there is the relationship with his fans – The Eminem world-view was grimly fascinating, not least for being rooted in a particularly tough reality, but much like the Morrissey worldview, as much as certain people might identify with it, not a wise code to follow long-term (that is, beyond adolescence) – Eminem would of course confront this factor of his success in a later hit, but he had to reach that level of adulation first. Certainly, the music world of 2000-01 seemed to belong to him more than anyone, his talent obvious even to a rap non-believer like me and his compelling blend of dumb and clever ripping through the blandness of so much around it.
    For all that, I would agree with the review here about the track in question. ‘The Real Slim Shady’ is a misnomer of sorts as it seemed overly cartoonish and busy after the stark and rude arrival of ‘My Name Is’. As for the controversy – the anti-woman, gay-mocking tendencies struck me as a lack of education making itself all too public, I never saw any reason for excuses – he was well into his late twenties at this stage and should have known what he was doing (and as far as i know the forty-something Eminem has never renounced such things), if anything it’s an example of the generation I belong to and it’s annoying habit of letting itself off the hook over certain matters.
    My real problem with Eminem was that, even allowing for the fact that he was taking the piss half the time, he was intent on blaming his hang-ups on everyone but himself. He was always quick to offer the sort of defences favoured by gobby people who think the world owes them a living – ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’ (Um..no you’re not, btw I notice this particular claim has been prevalent amongst the Clarkson apologists) or even ‘ I might have an attitude, but I’ll always be there for my kid’ (Er, yeah that is kinda your responsibility, you don’t get a round of applause for changing a nappy) while most dispiriting of all was the way in which a lot of people who should have known better actually started to agree with the ‘society is to blame for me’ line.
    Probably the most interesting pop star on the list for 2000, but by far the most frustrating too.

  17. 77
    Mark M on 1 Apr 2015 #

    In an attempt to slot Eminem back into hip-hop history (where he feels he belongs), here’s a couple of grand guignol rap precursors: the Gravediggaz with the very darkly satirical 1-800-Suicide and a Greil Marcus fave, the Geto Boys’ Minds Playing Tricks On Me.

  18. 78
    Alfred on 1 Apr 2015 #

    #74 “He really was the game changer: he took rap mainstream when before it had been something for music nerds. ”

    In the UK, yes? It’s not the case in America. Rap and R&B had been topping the pop chart for years. Look at Biggie and Puff Daddy’s careers.

  19. 79
    Mark M on 1 Apr 2015 #

    (Alfred got there first, but here’s some figures)

    The 25 bestselling (in the US) hip-hop albums of all time – suggests that, yes, Eminem sold a lot of records, but leans against the idea that (on home territory, at least) in wider sales terms there was before-Marshall and after-Marshall.

  20. 80
    Phil on 1 Apr 2015 #

    I think I only heard this a couple of times at the time & didn’t listen all that closely to the lyrics, but what leapt out at me back then was the suggestion of dissociation in the chorus. “I’m the real Shady, so will the real Slim Shady please stand up” – as it stands it makes no sense, it contradicts itself. The idea that he’s oppressed by the thought that his own identity is fictitious – to the point where he wants a better contender to take it off him – is a lot more interesting than, well, anything else in the rap. Shame he didn’t follow that up. (Or did he? Serious question, I wasn’t really listening.)

  21. 81
    Tom on 1 Apr 2015 #

    The question of whether he made hip-hop mainstream in the UK is interesting, too – it’s more that he WAS mainstream hip-hop in the UK for several years. Hip-hop had been landing singles at #1 for a while – we’ve already covered the two highest selling rap singles in UK history (“I’ll Be Missing You” and “Gangsta’s Paradise” – both sold twice as much as Eminem’s biggest seller) but in the 2000s Eminem sold more than anyone by a distance. If you look at LPs, where 17 hip-hop records have ever topped the UK charts, he dominates again (even D12 get a #1!) but there’s no great evidence that he pulled the rest of the genre up with him – it’s not until this decade that the hip-hop acts who can land #1 UK albums start diversifying much.

    My understanding is that Eminem broke through outside London (and a few other cities where hip-hop had done OK) in ways other rappers didn’t, and didn’t after him. The fact he was asked to perform at Reading and people had some expectation that he’d be good (even if he sucked) is very telling. So yes, more of a game winner than a game changer.

  22. 82
    Shiny Dave on 2 Apr 2015 #

    And, as Tom noted at the end of his review, his particular brand of cis white male entitlement lays the foundation for a definite cultural shift in this century. A hip-hop game winner, a cultural game-changer, and a hell of a lot easier to applaud for the former.

  23. 83
    Rory on 2 Apr 2015 #

    Not sure what to make of this yet. I never paid much attention to Eminem, although he was hard to avoid, and “My Name Is” and at least one bunny are plenty familiar. Somehow I missed this one, though. Musically, it’s a track I could easily see giving a 6 or 7, even though hip-hop isn’t my bag. Lyrically, I’m finding it hard to look past the objections JLucas has raised; any kind of excuse I might make for them feels like a cop-out. The South Park defence has some intellectual appeal, but I don’t really know enough about the man to know if it’s valid (although I’m learning, thanks to all of you), and instinctively it doesn’t feel like such a great defence anyway. (7 + 3) / 2 = 5: My Name is Wish Washy.

  24. 84
    Phil on 2 Apr 2015 #

    #18 – I don’t know what Dido’s parents’ excuse was. But to be fair to Eno, he went to a Catholic seminary whose pupils were expected to take a saint’s name when they left, as a kind of token of graduation. (Catholics are often baptised with a saint’s name – as in James Steven Ignatius Corr – so taking another saint’s name is symbolically quite a big deal.) It was the school of St John le Baptiste de la Salle, and the young Eno couldn’t think of a better saint to honour. And so it was that plain old Brian Peter George Eno became Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, all in one go – it’s one extra name, not three (or seven). I wonder now whether the Pythons had him in mind when they came up with Malcolm Peter Brian Telescope Adrian Blackpool Rock Stoatgobbler John Raw Vegetable Brrroooo Norman Michael (rings bell) (blows whistle) Edward (sounds car horn) (does train impersonation) (sounds buzzer) Thomas Moo… ‘We’ll keep a welcome in the…’ (fires gun) William (makes silly noise) ‘Raindrops keep falling on my’ (weird noise) ‘Don’t sleep in the subway’ (cuckoo cuckoo) Naaoooo… Smith.

  25. 85
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Apr 2015 #

    James and Steven also being saints’ names there, of course…

  26. 86
    Phil on 3 Apr 2015 #

    As are both of mine, but purely by coincidence. The chance that Mr and Mrs Corr just liked the name Ignatius seems slim.

  27. 87
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Apr 2015 #

    I have an uncle Ignatius, as it happens. My point is that the set of saint’s names incorporates a lot of ‘regular names’, and the historical idea of making it ostentatiously sainty, the tradition of naming kids after relatives, and the chance to distinguish from the English and their fucking dull names, all tend to blend together over the long run.

    (also, you mean confirmation rather than baptism)

  28. 88
    Phil on 4 Apr 2015 #

    Ah. That would also make more sense of the Eno story – a semi-symbolic ‘second confirmation’ is much less of a big deal than a ‘second baptism’, which sounds a bit culty even in quotes.

    Dull English names like James, John, Simon, Peter, Andrew, Thomas, Philip, Matthew…?

  29. 89

    also this is eno! even a young teen eno (or teeno as i now think of him) would surely never pass up the opportunity to enjoy the curious consequences a strict adherence to rules could lead to — NEVER NOT HIS SHTICK

  30. 90
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Apr 2015 #

    Oh absolutely, Eno is always a pusher – I think of Teeno as even balder than Roxy-era losing his hair Eno?

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