Whenever Eminem is in the house at the MTV Video Music Awards, you know fireworks are in store. And after the promise of a triumphant performance, Slim Shady did not disappoint. Going into the night as the most-nominated male with eight nods -- including shots at Best Male Video, Best Hip-Hop Video and Video of the Year for his smash comeback hit "Not Afraid," he blasted open the 2010 VMAs with another of his legendary spectacles.
Though he's performed in public only a few times since beginning his return to form last year with Relapse after almost four years out of the spotlight dealing with a nearly fatal addiction to prescription medication, Marshall Mathers showed few signs of rust as he opened the night's proceedings.
Emerging on the dark stage, wearing a black hoodie and holding a gleaming silver microphone, he stared into the camera and ripped into the redemptive lyrics of "Afraid" on a set that paid homage to the place where it all began, Detroit's gritty St. Andrew's Hall, where a then-unknown Shady first made his name more than a decade ago in the dingy brick-walled basement during epic lyrical battles. Rapping the song's lyrics over a reworked spare piano-and-drums remix, a hungry look in his eye, Em was surrounded by a small audience of fans for the first verse until he turned around and descended the grand staircase onto the soon-to-be-legendary 2010 VMA stage.
Borrowing from the back-from-the-precipice theme of the "Afraid" clip, Shady paid tribute to the record-setting year he's had with Recovery by blowing the song up to mega-status with a full string section, chorus of Taiko drummers and a gospel choir that gave the through-the-fire anthem a soaring, majestic feel.
Backed by his hype man, Mr. Porter (who took the place of Em's best friend and fallen comrade, the late D12 staple Proof), Shady spit hard on the lyrics, "I been through the wringer, but they can do little to the middle finger/ I think I got a tear in my eye, I feel like the kind of my world/ Haters can make like bees with no stingers, and drop dead," punctuating the lines with karate-chop hand gestures and a nimble stroll across the gleaming black stage, which was accented by the glittering lights of a cityscape in the background.
Pointing to the sky, he signaled the night's first big shock, as Rihanna kicked into the chorus of their smash hit "Love the Way You Lie." Wearing a white gauzy dress and a flaming red wig bisected by a silver headband, RiRi did a slow walk toward Marshall as the set turned into a sea of red flames and she locked eyes with her musical foil. The pair ended the performance back-to-back as the music faded, hugging it out before walking off the stage and leaving the audience electrified and primed for the rest of the night's festivities.
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