Words by: Ernest Baker
Attention spans are shorter in 2014. Even the best music seems old in a matter of weeks. Thus, I’m regularly amazed by the consistency with which I still listen to Eminem’s masterpiece, The Marshall Mathers LP. The album came out exactly 14 years ago today and I don’t think a month has passed in the time since that I haven’t listened to it in some form or another.
For me, the best art is what’s most provocative. Greatness is not an accomplishment. Anyone can be great. To push any medium forward, you need to shock, and provoke, and terrorize. By that criteria, it gets no better than The Marshall Mathers LP. Within a minute of the first song, Eminem is "raping his own mother, abusing a whore, snorting coke" and at 11 years old it served as a brilliant introduction to the underbelly of society that figures of authority go to great lengths to shield you from.
The album was so abrasive that I couldn’t even experience it in its full glory at first. When I went to buy it, I got to the register with my dad and the cashier was like, “I don’t think this CD is appropriate for your son," and I had to get the clean version. In the era of CD burners, it was only a temporary setback until I ripped a copy of the explicit version from a kid at school, but having the clean version never upset me anyway. If anything, it was an affirmation of how important the album was. Moments like that—all-consuming, even-the-cashier-is-weighing-in ubiquity—aren't possible anymore.
We've come close, like when I saw teenagers at Best Buy giddily purchasing Nothing Was The Same in OVO shirts, but Drake didn't sell 1.76 million copies in his first week like Eminem did. There's no outlet for any popular artist now that compares to being number one on TRL every day like the "The Real Slim Shady" video was. People I knew who didn't even listen to rap had this album. It cast a blanket over pop culture that was impossible to ignore. There wasn't a service that allowed you to stream millions of songs at any given moment. We barely knew what MP3s were. You kept The Marshall Mathers LP in your Walkman for weeks and maybe occasionally switched it out for Dr. Dre's 2001.
But even after so many listens, the album never feels olds to me. It took a while before I could fully comprehend the scope of what Eminem was saying. In the year 2000, I didn’t know what a Vicodin was. I didn't know what sodomize meant. I didn't realize how insane it was to make fun of the Columbine tragedy right after it happened. Before social media played out scandals within days, Eminem's mocking of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was groundbreaking, but that's difficult to grasp when you're so young.
You get older and those events make more sense to you now than when they happened and you realize how powerful and subversive his music was. And beyond the pop culture references, it's also the personal ones that continue to hit home. I'm close to the same age that Eminem was when he released this album. I know exactly what type of parties he's talking about on "Drug Ballad." I know exactly what type of relationship he's talking about on "Kim." The music's realer to me now than it ever was.
More than anything, the rapping is what really keeps me coming back. There are few moments in any artist's career, including Eminem's, as sharp as some of the shit he pulled off on his sophomore album. Take this sequence on "I'm Back" for example:
Jeez, you guys are so sensitive/
Slim, it's a touchy subject, try and just don't mention it/
Mind with no sense in it/
Whose eyes get so squinted/
I'm blind from smoke in 'em/
With my windows tinted/
With nine limos rented/
Doing lines of coke in 'em/
With a bunch of guys hopping out all high and indo-scented/
Nobody else is rapping like that. Now, then, or ever. I can't get that anywhere else. That's why I'll never get tired of going back to The Marshall Mathers LP to experience it.