Throwback Classic: The Marshall Mathers LP

"I'm like a head trip to listen to, cause I'm only giving you things you joke about with your friends inside your living room"

The single most radical quality of The Marshall Mathers LP is timing. If it was released today, The Marshall Mathers LP would be considered tame. That old saw about timing being everything is what makes Eminem's second album one of the greatest rap albums of all time.

Timing is also what makes it an underrated conscious rap album.

When it dropped 15 years ago, much of the conversation around Marshall Mathers was on Eminem's homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. All valid points hardly new to hip-hop heads. Hip-hop had already been under fire for nearly a decade—Eminem was the newest, brightest face on the punching bag.

The pure shook their heads in disgust. Suburban moms pleaded with authorities to ban Eminem from public airwaves. Lawmakers considered banishing Slim Shady to Tomis.

The outrage was understandable. When Marshall Mathers arrived in May of 2000, America was still reeling from Columbine and Y2K and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

On the hip-hop front, the incipient commercialization of rap was already underway. "What else can you rap about but money, sex, murder, or pimping?" That was Ja Rule in a Newsweek interview the same year The Marshall Mathers LP docked at No. 1 in 13 countries. Eminem wanted to rap about Something Else.

Prior to Marshall Mathers, hip-hop had become a bling rap playground. Rather than play along to the game, Eminem brought his own toys. He mixed dark comedy with Grindhouse horror and backed up antisocial sentiment with agile lyricism. Eminem wasn't the first skilled white rapper, but he was the first to showcase full-flight skill that, at times, seemed unrivaled.

"I'm so sick and tired of being admired/That I wish that I would just die or get fired and dropped from my label"

Looking back at the 2000s, Eminem's dark, twisted humor was a bracing antidote to the extravaganza of bling rap. And going against the grain took some gull.

Just listen to the "Steve Berman Skit." Eminem is summoned to Steve's office to review the direction of his album. You hear Dr. Dre's "What's the Difference" instrumental playing in the background.

Steve highlights the difference between Eminem and other rappers. He tells Eminem that the reason Dr. Dre is so successful is because "he's rapping about big screen TVs, blunts, 40s and b--ches," echoing Ja Rule's sentiment. Steve is disappointed that Eminem, on the other hand, is only "rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin."

Steve is wrong on both counts. He's oblivious to the drivers behind Dre's success and he doesn't fully understand Eminem, either.

The Steve Berman skit was a metaphor for a music industry clamoring for more of the same. It also summed up the struggle of going against the grain. Steve simplified Eminem's message and ignored the rest of the conversation he's having on the album.

Steve personified some of Eminem's critics, who also boiled down his message to simplistic terms.

The Marshall Mathers LP was, in fact, a socially conscious album. Although Eminem was mainly exercising artistic freedom and reaching for forbidden apples with a huge helping of self-deprecation, he was also railing against hypocrisy and forcing us to have uncomfortable conversations about celebrity and responsibility.

"I don't do black music, I don't do white music / I make fight music, for high school kids"

We tend to think of conscious rap in terms of the Mos Defs and the Talib Kwelis—rappers who fight the good fight but despise the label. But conscious rap at its core pushes us to be a better society. Eminem was pushing us as a people to be better without explicitly stating that he was pushing us to be better. And he did this on many levels.

On the surface, Eminem seems like a wild rebel swinging at every direction.

Take a closer look at MMLP and you'll notice that Eminem strategically picked his enemies. He targeted shallow, assembly-line teen pop*. The bullied kid raining on the popular kids' parade with a chainsaw.

Eminem took swipes at hallowed institutions, like religion and government. He referenced Bill Clinton's sexual allegations twice, exposing the hypocrisy in the actions of those we hold to the highest of platforms. He repeatedly urged parental responsibility, while reminding us of the power and influence of family members and celebrities on a child's outlook.

On "Drug Ballad," he rattles off a long list of recreational drugs before turning inward: "Before I know it I'll be 40 on the porch telling stories/With a bottle of Jack/Two grandkids in my lap/Babysitting for Hailie while Hailie's out getting smashed." Delivered from a personal viewpoint, the message is much more powerful.

On "I'm Back," Eminem concedes his position of privilege ("Became a commodity because I'm W-H-I-T-E, 'cause MTV was so friendly to me"). The role of race in his success is a topic he'd revisit on The Eminem Show and Encore (for a less palatable reason).

When rap was under attack, Eminem dubbed himself "the new Ice Cube." He stood side by side with the most defiant rap figures he'd grown up admiring, from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg to Xzibit and Sticky Fingaz. By fighting back against codified rap criticism, Eminem was fighting his good fight his own way.

“I'm not Mr. N'Sync, I'm not what your friends think / I'm not Mr. Friendly, I can be a prick.”

The album's best song, "Stan," is a vivid, harrowing account of an obsessed fan. Eminem updated the story on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but the original is still as chillingly captivating today as it was a decade-and-half-ago. Again, Eminem forces us to consider the consequences of celebrity worship.

Looking back at The Marshall Mathers LP now, some of the songs are still unsettling and a few are even unlistenable ("Kim," for instance), but Eminem was also acutely aware of the power of the rhyme. He knew exactly what he was doing. Which is why he peppered the album with disclaimers.

In the aftermath of a world desensitized by senseless violence, growing homophobia and rape culture, it was a prescient soundtrack for the depravity and degradation that would follow.

The Marshall Mathers LP, at its low points peddled sophomoric humor. At its highest, it struck back against societal hypocrisy. In a world full of fake smiles and baby-kissing phonies, Eminem embraced truth in its rawest form.

Rapping is an act of faith. Rap is shaped from attitudes, not the laws of communication. Eminem, like many rappers before him, is counting on the listener to unravel his true message. Great rappers believe in the truth of the rhyme—in the ability of the listener to receive and decode the message. To believe otherwise would be distrustful and patronizing.

Released: May 23, 2000


*Eminem would later work with P!nk and Rihanna (twice), which may seem hypocritical in hindsight, but this is was 1999 and this version of Eminem was anti-teen pop. #kanyeshrug

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Adaso, Henry. "Throwback Classic: The Marshall Mathers LP." ThoughtCo, May. 19, 2016, Adaso, Henry. (2016, May 19). Throwback Classic: The Marshall Mathers LP. Retrieved from Adaso, Henry. "Throwback Classic: The Marshall Mathers LP." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).