So much more than hair bleach and vodka.
Upon revisiting Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP, there’s one facet in particular that never ceases to amaze. The development of Em’s signature sound, forged through the combined efforts of Dr. Dre and the Bass Brothers, two uniquely different stylistic entities. The former spent his formative years as an integral piece of the Death Row movement, ushering in a crisp and hard-hitting brand of G-Funk in which samples were interpolated through live musicianship; even his transitionary work in launching the Aftermath movement contained strands of The Chronic DNA, which would eventually blossom into the urban gothic soundscapes of 2001. Yet when tasked with handling six out of eighteen of the album’s tracks (fourteen, if you deduct the skits), Dre and Eminem came to discover a strange yet alluring hybrid, drawn from both of their respective strengths.
Consider The Slim Shady LP for a moment, a natural successor to Infinite in many regards. The further Em’s persona seemed to shift into a mean-spirited satirist, the more difficult it became to find suitable sonic backdrops; how can one be simultaneously zany, menacing, and genuinely poignant in one fell swoop? Yet somehow, Eminem and Dr. Dre (and Mel-Man, we mustn't forget the guiding hand of Mel-Man) achieved the formula as early as opening track “Kill You,” an unconventional instrumental driven by an unsolicited Jacques Loussier sample. Though said sample ultimately led to a ten-million-dollar lawsuit, I daresay it might have been worth the trouble. Em took to the minimalist guitar arpeggio like a man possessed, shocking the world with a violent evolution of the Slim Shady persona; a gleefully misogynistic, self-loathing, intellectual Leatherface. Playing out like the infamous home invasion Clockwork Orange scene, Eminem channels Alex DeLarge through his performance, effortlessly tiptoeing over screams and signature Dre percussion. Though “Kill You” made people uncomfortable upon its release - I still remember the full-page Newspaper spread warning parents about Eminem’s unstoppable rise - it might have cause full-fledged meltdowns in today’s social climate.
Eminem - "Marshall Mathers"
And yet, chalking the success of The Marshall Mathers LP up to mere shock value dismisses much of the project’s artistic merit. Much has been put to paper about the brilliance of “Stan,” itself standing as a hallmark in hip-hop storytelling. Yet it’s the underappreciated gems that help lend the album its timeless quality, particularly those blending Em’s noted love of hip-hop historicism with his uniquely animated persona. For that reason, the RBX & Sticky Fingaz collaboration “Remember Me” has aged particularly well. Backed by a creeping, bass-driven instrumental, RBX bridges the gap between The Chronic and Dre’s new Aftermath guard with a maniacal, free-flowing verse; which self-respecting MMLP fandoesn’t recite the words “banned from TV” with his exact cadence? To this day, there are many who crown Sticky Fingaz as the lone rapper to have outshone Em on his own track. From the opening cries of “No, No, NO!” to the twisted multisyllabic onslaught, Sticky comes through with a defining performance, the perfect mirror image of Em’s own sadistic brilliance. By the time Slim closes it out with an imagery-laden depiction of the Columbine shooting, Dre himself comes through to deliver the final nail in the coffin.
The cycle continues as MMLP pushes forward through two of the strongest songs of his career. First, the darkly comedic biopic that is “Marshall Mathers,” a title track of sorts set to the tune of a Deliverance-esque campfire guitar jam. There’s something folkloric about his self-depiction throughout, that of a bratty, ghoulish manchild prone to mischief and scathing social commentary. Only Em can dexterously tongue twist “talking about I fabricated my past, he’s just aggravated I won’t ejaculate in his ass,” and aim the diss at his mother’s attorney Fred Gibson. Prior, he’s flitting between conjuring devilish imagery of walking headless Rottweilers and airing out his ever-growing list of real-world foes. To this day, “Marshall Mathers” stands as one of Em’s definitive tracks, pairing the macabre whimsy of Shady with the real-world introspection of Eminem, a combination that helps set him apart from his contemporaries steadily grounded in their own reality. Many rappers have come to embody alter-egos, but Eminem’s handle on fictitious worldbuilding is but one of many tools in his authorial kit.
As for “Bitch Please 2,” the mere fact this one even exists makes for a compelling narrative in itself. A sequel to a Dr. Dre-produced Xzibit, Snoop Dogg, and Nate Dogg collaboration originally released on Snoop’s 1999’s No Limit Top Dogg album. Yet the sequel popped up on Em’s sophomore studio drop, bringing back all of the original’s contributors for another go-around. This time around, Dre revamps the haunting banger, dropping the opening verse while simultaneously validating his new protege; this is the “Up In Smoke Tour” incarnate. The track also marks the lone collaboration between Uncle Snoop and Big Slim Dogg, which further imbues “Bitch Please 2” with a sense of mysticism. Xzibit and Eminem’s chemistry has been well-established through subsequent collabs like “Don’t Approach Me” and “My Name,” but the foundational elements were laid down here. In the greater context of the album, it’s somewhat of an aberration, teetering at the midpoint between 2001 and MMLP; like “Remember Me,” however, “Bitch Please 2” serves as a welcome reminder that Eminem is a crucial part of the Aftermath lineage, capable of hanging with the boys in and around their wheelhouse.
Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, & Nate Dogg - "Bitch Please II"
Nineteen years later, many have concluded that The Marshall Mathers LP is Eminem’s crowning achievement. A fair argument, and one worthy of exploration. You’ll likely find ardent defenders of Slim Shady LP and TheEminem Show, perhaps even Relapse, given the recent outpouring retrospective appreciation. Yet Em’s sophomore album marked a milestone in his career, ushering in the development of a sound he’d carry forward for the years to come, across Devil’s Night, The Eminem Show, and the 8 Mile Soundtrack. Technically brilliant, delightfully mean-spirited, and adventurous in both thematic and musical execution, there’s no shortage of reasons why The Marshall Mathers LP is held in high esteem across the board.