The Marshal Mathers LP
by: Cheo Hodari Coker
“To be or not to be?” That is the question that tormented Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it’s the question that has plagued every MC since hulking Bronx, N.Y., teenager Clive Campbell decided to name himself Kool Herc and help set this rap game off. Is it better to be oneself or to have a separate identity that helps one avoid the pitfalls often associated with the tumultuous world of hip hop and its outrageous trappings?
And the question posed by Marshall (Eminem) Mathers III on much of deeply melodic, lyrically superior follow-up to 1999’s The Slim Shady LP is: Are Mathers’s outspoken, brilliant methods to be blamed for Eminem’s madness?
The answer is a resounding yes…and no. On the album’s bluesy, guitar-tinged title track, Em states quite clearly that he is Marshall Mathers, a sensitive kid trying to come to grips with a rush of sudden wealth and fame after lifetime of poverty and self-loathing. But by the time the beat kicks in and he starts rapping, goddamnit, he’s Eminem, venomous and coiled to strike, flinging barbs at both sides of his family, the press, the Insane Clown Posse, and much of the teen mush clogging the airwaves.
Sadly, many listeners may not be able to get past Eminem’s persona as the comedic shockmeister who gives Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine migraines with tracks like the incediary “Remember Me?” (on which he makes a cold, calculated allusion to the Columbine High School killings, claiming somebody “stole two loaded machine guns and both of my trench coats”). And let’s not forget “Kim,” a misogynistic, profoundly chilling prequel to to Slim Shady’s “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde,” where we hear why Em killed his baby’s mama and her new husband in a manner that would make Quentin Tarantino flinch. The closer you listen, the more you realize that Em is a character that rival Andy Kaufman’s, obnoxious, violent alter-ego, Tony Clifton. The point of Eminem’s act is to piss people off. And beneath the laughter is a lot of soulful pain and pleading for tolerance and acceptance.
“Stan” shows Em at his absolute finest. Over a haunting beat by Mark the 45 King, he spends the first three verses as an obsessive fan named Stan, who, distraught over the fact that he hasn’t received a reply to letters he sent Eminem, drives off a bridge with his girlfriend tied up in the trunk of his car. The way he changes his vocal inflections, his anger rising with each verse, Eminem proves so self-aware, he becomes Stan. Then by the fourth verse, he’s Marshall Mathers, writing Stan back, urging him to calm down, treat his girlfriend better, and remember that, hey, it’s just a song.
It’s tracks like “Stan” and the sum of The Marshall Mathers LP that should forever erase the notion that Eminem is the Elvis Presley of hardcore hip hop. If anything, he’s rap’s Eric Clapton: a white boy who can hang with the best black talent based on sheer skill–enhancing the art form instead of stealing from it. – Cheo Hodari Coker