Considering he is one of the biggest and most influential stars currently working in the music world, it’s strange to think about people having doubts about Eminem’s viability. The 12 years that have elapsed since the debut of The Slim Shady LP (which was released on this day in 1999) have certainly proven otherwise, but when Eminem first appeared on the scene, most everybody had it in the back of their minds that he would be a novelty act who wouldn’t be able to survive to a second album, even despite his obvious skills and incredible pedigree. A dozen years on, what does The Slim Shady LP tell us?
Back in late 1998, the first exposure most people had to Eminem was via “My Name Is,” the rapper’s introductory single that seemed to be everywhere (though it was a pretty straightforward hip-hop track, it got spins on modern rock radio simply because it was sort of aggro and funny), including in heavy rotation on MTV. The clip was a key factor in introducing Slim Shady to the world, as it touched on just about everything he represented at the time (including violence, chemical dependency, relationship problems and a hatred of boy bands). “My Name Is” rides an esoteric Dr. Dre beat with a fat bass line and a little touch of psychedelia care of some freaky keys. Though some of the pop culture references are now pretty dated (he even refers to Pamela Anderson as Pamela Lee), but it still sounds fresh and sharp (though the actual quality of Eminem’s voice has changed profoundly — the voice coming out on The Slim Shady LP is far more nasal and bright, as opposed to the dark bellow he used on Relapse and Recovery).
“My Name Is” gives way to “Guilty Conscience,” an unusual concept track. The tag-team effort features Dr. Dre as the “angel” side of somebody’s conscience, with Slim Shady filling in as the “devil.” The two argue over how each character should handle a particular situation. It’s sort of amazing it was a hit (though the video did a lot to ease the transition into the mainstream), though it ended up becoming one of the centerpieces of the album if only for the extended vocal spot by Dr. Dre. It’s amazing how much time and effort Dre put into making it clear that Eminem had genuine skills as a rapper and should not be dismissed or underestimated because of the color of his skin. If anything, the pair avoided early associations with the rock world, as Eminem was a genuine MC from the street and not a wannabe like Fred Durst (though he did perform on the Warped Tour that summer).
The rest of The Slim Shady LP is pretty fascinating. The production (handled primarily by the Bass Brothers and Eminem himself) has held up incredibly well. The beats are full of bass-heavy hallucinations and create huge, scary sandboxes that allow Em to play. Though subsequent songs have become bigger or more iconic, Eminem has rarely constructed tracks as powerful as “If I Had,” “Brain Damage” or “Just Don’t Give a F—.”
The latter track (which first appeared in a slightly different form on Em’s The Slim Shady EP) is essentially the album’s raison d’etre, as it lays out a brand of hardcore, streetwise nihilism that has rarely been seen anywhere in hip-hop (or pop or rock, for that matter). Plenty of people have talked about how little they care, but Em sounds genuinely spent. His shouts of “I just don’t give a f—” don’t sound empowering — they sound sad and devastating. In fact, one of the aspects of The Slim Shady LP that really stands out is how often Eminem kills himself in his lyrics. Most of Em’s modern lyrics push the violence outward, but a lot of the savagery on The Slim Shady LP is self-inflected (he drowns himself and ODs on “Role Model,” while on “My Name Is” he promises to “stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids”). There are a ton of jokes on The Slim Shady LP, but it’s the depression that really stands out after 12 years.
What’s your favorite song on Eminem’s first album? Let us know in the comments!