The temporary return of Slim Shady at the BET Hip-Hop Awards
That was the point. It was the alter ego of a Detroit-galvanized, rock-bottom bad seed born Marshall Mathers. Mathers begat Eminem, who himself conceived the maniacal Shady, who spurred Mather's evolution from consecrated underground battle champ to international icon.
For a sub-generation who went from Wu-Tang to Rawkus Records, Slim Shady offered another possible detour. He was capable of being both hard-core and humorous, serious and scatological; the dirty rotten rhymer on underground Soundbombing collaborations and Missy Elliot deep cuts. Along with Jay-Z, Eminem effectively shattered the arbitrary divides that had heretofore cleaved underground rap from the mainstream.
Even those who don't find the latter claim true have to admit that the two, at the very least, caused kids to question what exactly was so bad with mainstream rap. After all, Eminem was on Interscope and was arguably more lyrical and more entertaining than anything simmering in the subterranean.
A decade later, Eminem's "Recovery," the most commercially successful rap album of 2010, served arguably as a flash point for some of the problems ailing major-label rap. Although artistically uncompromising efforts still slip through the cracks (Waka Flocka Flame, Rick Ross, Big Boi, the Roots), rare is the album that escapes from the major-label world that doesn't sound intensely focus-grouped.
For all its marketability, "Recovery" was the sort of record that Slim Shady would've slandered. There were awkward guest spots from huge pop stars (Rihanna, Pink), beats as colorless as the assembly line in "Modern Times," and ultra-serious fauxlosophizing from the newly sober Eminem. It was about as fun as an unchaperoned trip to Ken Kaniff's house.
So it's a rare treat when we see flashes of vintage Slim Shady, who even a decade and a half old remains one of the most vivid and charismatic characters in hip-hop history. Granted, hearing Eminem's 12-step pop pumping out of L.A. Fitness speakers is mind-numbing, yet he was still able to flip the switch and kick spellbinding destruction raps in one of the "freestyle" give-and-take cipher segments at Tuesday's BET Hip-Hop Awards.
Internet consensus has proclaimed the Shady Records 2.0 squad the best of the bunch. After all, this is what these guys were built for. But despite superior performances from every member of the crew, Eminem reminds everyone why he once represented a generation of kids who walked like him and talked like him -- a reality still salient with the rise of the heavily Shady-indebted Odd Future.
Rhyming over a classic East Flatbush Project instrumental, Eminem head-fakes with some "lyrical/spiritual/miracle" class of '99 mockery, than lets loose a frenetic gulf-stream of references to Casey Anthony doing porn, puke being lukewarm, and Michael Vick.
What's more memorable than the lyrics is his return to his old elastic flow. Sometime around the middle of the last decade, Eminem became obsessed with rigid displays of technical prowess that siphoned out the spontaneity, the pauses, the gesticulations. His voice shifts from fury to goofball levity in half a bar. Like all the best things that have been well rehearsed, you forget how much they must have been rehearsed it. It was fun, and that's not a word that's been associated with Eminem/Shady/Mathers since he told Moby that no one listens to techno (clearly, he didn't anticipate Deadmau5).
Even if Shady was always a construct, whoever was rapping her ought to stick around. It's the most real Marshall Mathers has seemed in a while.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: Shady Records roster. Credit: Dial M for Berlin