He has been called a legend in the making. A lyrical genius. A tortured artist. His lyrics have been described as brilliant, vulgar, dynamic, and disturbing – all of which are true. In addition to selling over 220 million albums worldwide, he is the best-selling artist of the 2000s and one of the leaders in a music industry dominated by African Americans. I’m talking, of course, about Marshall Bruce Mathers III, better known as Eminem.
Who is Eminem? He’s always been a controversial figure among fans and critics alike. It’s best to start from the beginning.
Mathers grew up in an unstable home. His mother, Debbie Nelson, was 17 when she gave birth to him, and he never met his dad, Marshall Mathers Jr. The younger Marshall moved with his mother every few months, living in-and-out of public housing in the Midwest, on and off welfare programs. They eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan, when Mathers was 11. Mathers was a loner as a kid, frequently getting bullied by older kids in his neighborhood and at school. He showed a creative streak as a kid, enjoying comic books and art, but at age nine, Mathers listened to his first rap CD, given to him by his uncle Ronnie. This inspired him to pursue a dream of being a rapper. Ronnie would commit suicide years later, devastating his young nephew (referenced in some of Eminem’s later songs).
Mathers frequently fought with his mom, in addition to dealing with the problems of poverty and urban unrest in Detroit. When Mathers was 14, a runaway named Kim Scott began living with him and his mother; this eventually led to an on-and-off relationship (their daughter Hailie Jade Mathers was born in 1995).
Mathers failed 9th grade twice, and then dropped out of school to focus on a hip-hop career. Despite his dismal grades, he was always good at English, sometimes even reading a dictionary to draw inspiration for his lyrics. Mathers would participate in underground rap battles in Detroit at night, while working different odd jobs during the day to provide for his mother. In these rap battles, Mathers would attempt to claw his way to the top, even though he was constantly discriminated against for being white. Mathers, who by now was known as Eminem, eventually gained an underground following in the early 90s before recording his first album Infinite on an independent label.
Infinite was a commercial failure, selling less than 2,000 copies and was rarely played on radio stations, even in Detroit. At the time, Mathers and Kim were attempting to raise their infant daughter in a very violent neighborhood, frequently getting robbed at night. Mathers worked a number of jobs to try to raise funds for his rapping career and trying to keep his family afloat. In March 1997, Mathers was fired from his job and was forced to move Kim and Hailey back to his mother’s mobile home.
Mathers soon developed a violent, mischievous alter ego (Slim Shady) in order to give his rap style more of an aggressive edge. He released The Slim Shady EP in the spring of 1997, eventually gaining the attention of hip-hop magazine The Source. After participating in a nationwide rap battle in L.A., Mathers got attention once again – this time from Jimmy Iovine, CEO of Aftermath Entertainment, founded by gangsta rap legend Dr. Dre. When Dre heard Eminem’s mixtape, he was blown away. They soon met and began a long collaboration that ended up catapulting Eminem to stardom.
Mathers released The Slim Shady LP in February 1999; it eventually went triple platinum and became one of the best-selling albums of the year. Featuring hits like “Role Model” and “My Name Is,” The Slim Shady LP established Mathers as an up-and-comer in the hip-hop scene, although he had many detractors. During a radio interview, Mathers said, “My album isn’t for younger kids to hear. It has an advisory sticker, and you must be eighteen to get it. That doesn’t mean younger kids won’t get it, but I’m not responsible for every kid out there. I’m not a role model, and I don’t claim to be.” Such words have defined his career.
Eminem’s next CD, The Marshall Mathers LP, sold over 1.7 million copies its first week, and ended up attracting even more polarizing reviews. Some praised his inventive rhymes, verbal energy, and lyrical flows, while others attacked him for promoting sexism and homophobia in his lyrics. The CD ended up winning Eminem his first Grammy and has some of his most memorable songs, including “Stan,” “The Way I Am,” and “The Real Slim Shady.” Lyrical themes prevalent on the album include Eminem verbally attacking the haters of his previous work, as well as his own dealing with his newfound pressures of fame and money.
In 2002, Mathers enjoyed an insane amount of success. In addition to his best-selling album The Eminem Show, Mathers starred as a semi-autobiographical version of himself in the film 8 Mile. He won the Oscar for Best Rap Song for “Lose Yourself” and had his CD certified 10 times platinum by the RIAA. The Eminem Show was the highest-selling CD of 2002.
Mathers continued to tour relentlessly in support of The Eminem Show and 2004’s Encore before taking some time off and contemplating a retirement from rap. With an unsure future, he released Curtain Call: The Hits in 2005 and remained ambiguous in interviews about whether he would retire or not.
During this time, Mathers began developing a serious addiction to prescription drugs, especially vicodin and valium. Introduced to these drugs during the filming of 8 Mile, Mathers later admitted that he began taking the pills to “feel normal” and he began gaining weight and losing sleep. In December 2007, Mathers overdosed on methodone and nearly died after collapsing in his bathroom. He got clean – but only for three weeks. Eventually, Mathers went to a rehab counselor and he started working out and running every day. He officially got sober in April 2008.
Mathers went back in the studio to record 2009’s Relapse, but it was not nearly as successful as his previous works, and he later spoke disparagingly of the CD. In 2010, Recovery was released, followed by his most recent album, 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
When you think of Eminem now, you don’t just think of the multi-million dollar performer and rapper. He’s had his share of ups and downs, including two divorces from Kim Scott, a couple lawsuits from his mom, and numerous defaming allegations from gay rights and womens’ groups. It’s hard not to pay attention to Mathers’ headline-grabbing life.
So what makes Eminem so popular, especially among my age group? For starters, he’s honest. People my age are into speaking their own opinions and aren’t into censorship. Even though his lyrics are profane and raw, there’s something in them that speaks to people like me. A lot of people my age come from broken homes and can relate to what a guy like Eminem is saying. Also, he doesn’t just rap about dope, girls, and fast cars like the majority of other rappers. Listening to Eminem is an intense, visceral experience. He raps about real life struggles and issues that he faces, going all the way back to the commercial failure of Infinite in 1995. And he loves his daughters. (In addition to his biological daughter Hailie, Mathers has custody of Alaina, daughter of Kim’s twin sister.)
Now 40 years old, Mathers has cleaned up his life and continues to utilize his talent in the game of rap. I admire his strength and perseverance; frankly, it’s quite amazing that a white welfare kid from Detroit could make it in hip-hop. And despite his aggressive lyrics, Mathers presents himself well in interviews and is open and candid about his life, proving that at least some celebrities are willing to be transparent. He seems to have been humbled by his recovery from addiction, and he’s made the right steps into becoming a productive citizen as well as an amazing rapper. He’s even attempted to reconcile with his mother, and has removed a tattoo that depicts Kim negatively.
So who is Eminem? Is he a gay-bashing misogynist who hates his mother? Is he a tortured artist battling his subconscience? Or is he just Marshall Mathers, a white kid from Detroit?
To quote the man himself, “I am whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am? I don’t know, it’s just the way I am.”