CHICAGO — Some of the biggest names in hip-hop have played Lollapalooza over the years, from Snoop Dogg to Kanye West, Common and the Roots. But when [artist id="502642"]Eminem[/artist] took the stage on Saturday to close out the second night of this year's festival, it literally felt like everybody in the house was trying to cram into the sprawling South field to catch a glimpse of the reclusive rap superstar.
With 90,000 in attendance on a steamy, muddy day, it looked like at least 60,000 or more of those bodies were packed in as far as the eye could see to get a glimpse of Em's Lolla debut. And he didn't let them down during a hit-stuffed 90-minute set that touched on every era of his decade-plus career. He had some help, of course, in the form of Bad Meets Evil cohort Royce Da 5'9," hook-mistress Skylar Grey and surprise guest Bruno Mars.
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With a blockbuster movie-like fanfare fit for a king and a shout of "I'm back y'all," a super jacked Eminem took the stage in black cargo shorts, a white T-shirt and black hoodie, bouncing on his feet like a boxer ready to pounce. Feeling the massive crowd's energy, he charged into "Won't Back Down," as apocalyptic video of nuclear explosions filled the massive screen behind him.
In keeping with the series of big festival shows he's been playing this year in place of a proper tour, the rapper put his catalog on shuffle, playing bits and pieces of songs like "3 A.M.," whose low-end retained that chest-thumping, ominous Dr. Dre rumble, even in short form.
Nimble and focused, Marshall Mathers crisscrossed the stage and played off hype man Mr. Porter during "Square Dance," with each man weaving seamlessly in and out of each other's lines. Like most of the tunes, the rubber-band snap "Kill You" had the crowd singing along to the murderous chorus gleefully before the tune ended abruptly with a startling shotgun blast.
With a giant heart beating on the screen, Em raised hopes that Lil Wayne might drop in for the doomy keyboard and rapid-fire rhymes of the Recovery track "No Love," but with road dog Weezy busy rocking his own crowds, like so many of Shady's illustrious musical kin, the Young Money millionaire was there in spirit only.
The years haven't dulled the edge of the parental strife story "Cleanin' Out My Closet." But when it came to "The Way I Am," the tune had an even sharper edge, with the minor key backing track sounding more sinister, along with a sharper bite in Shady's no-apologies delivery.
The rapper quickly changed into a Bad Meets Evil T-shirt for a hookup on the low-rider anthem "Fast Lane" with partner Royce, but nobody was expecting what came next. In typical Lolla fashion, rumors of a major guest star ran amok all day, with whisperers whispering that Em's rap consigliore, Dr. Dre, might make a surprise appearance.
But it was Mars who waltzed out strumming guitar to croon the chorus on Shady's latest hit, "Lighters." The crowd did their part by holding up their Bics, cameras and phones to create a glowing, waving sea of light, as Mars brought a feathery pop sheen to the harder-edge, lightning-quick interplay between Em and Royce.
Alas, there was also no Hayley Williams when the first strains of B.o.B.'s "Airplanes, Pt. II" rolled around, with a backup singer handling the chorus instead of the Paramore singer. And though Dido was there on tape only for the still-spooky stalker tale "Stan," Em upped the drama by delivering the voice of his obsessed fan in a soft, creepy near-whisper.
With bits of Aerosmith, massive arm-waving choruses and a seductively detached persona, Eminem proved that he belongs on the stage at Lollapalooza alongside the illustrious group of rock legends that have graced it in the past. Especially since he held the rapping-along-to-every-verse crowd in the palm of his hand, even as he mocked them for getting wasted to his sobriety-celebrating Recovery album.
Aware of how important true friends are, Em also paid tribute along the way to his best pal, Proof, as well as hip-hop hook king Nate Dogg with a run through "'Till I Collapse."
For a man known to sometimes say unkind, murderous things about females, Eminem had no complaints from the very attentive women in the house when he dedicated "Love the Way You Lie" to all the ladies who've been in dysfunctional relationships. In fact, the camera frequently zoomed in on sweat-soaked, moon-eyed girls right up front who were happy to help fill in for a missing Rihanna on the chorus.
Since she was already in the area after performing an intense, cathartic solo set earlier in the day on a side stage, it was no surprise that Skylar Grey came out to sing her angelic chorus on "I Need a Doctor."
Em then brought it home with a flurry of hits, ending the set with a quick run through "My Name Is," "The Real Slim Shady," "Without Me" and "Not Afraid." By the time the lights went down after a heated "Lose Yourself," there was no doubt that Eminem came, saw and conquered his Lollapalooza debut.
MTV News is in Chicago for Lollapalooza 2011! Stick with us all weekend as we cover the bands you love and the bands you will love soon.