The CD goes into the player. The disc spins and the display reads “20 tracks”. You press play. For the next 28 seconds, the sounds of a show curtain going up filled your speakers with a light and soft playful tune as an audience cheers for the owner of the footsteps that you hear walking across the stage. The man taps the microphone and clears his throat. A moment passes as the music dies down and the track changes…
Eminem starts the first song on his third studio album, “The Eminem Show”, by yelling "America”, followed by the lyrics, “We love you. How many people are proud to be citizens of this beautiful country of ours? The Stripes and the Stars for the rights that men have died for, to protect. The women and men who have broke their necks for the freedom of speech the United States government is sworn to uphold. Or so we’re told.”
He draws you in with a lull and then hits you hard with the opening of “White America”. Regardless of what you say, starting an album like that is going to wake people up and make them listen.
If you’re reading this and you aren’t familiar with Eminem/Em/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers (I’ll likely use all of those names at some point in this piece, so … now you know. And really, how can you NOT know who Eminem is? But just in case…), this album might need a little bit of context.
This album was released in 2002. Em’s first album drew a lot of controversy with the drug use, lyrics against his mother, and the violence against his wife, Kim. (Listen to the song, “Kim” and you’ll know what I mean). After that, he followed it up with “The Marshall Mathers LP”, another Em classic where he reacted to the blowback from the release of the first album. In 2001, America would have a lot happen, like the Election of 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush and, most notably, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th. The impending war and policies that the government wanted to implement heavily influenced this album.
Back to the song.
“White America” is basically a song about the backlash Eminem received from White America for doing rap and the impact it’s had on kids that look like him.
“White America! I could be one of your kids. White America! You know Eric looks just like this. White America! Erica loves my shit. I go to TRL, look how many hugs I get.” (By the way, TRL was a show called Total Request Live, hosted by Carson Daly, where the top 10 music videos, by popular vote, were counted down daily. Only the top, most popular artists were invited to come onto the show live where Times Square would be packed with adoring fans hoping to get a glimpse of the artists through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the studio. Look it up. I mean, after you read this.)
White kids were being influenced by Eminem, who was a vulgar rapper and you can imagine this didn’t fly over well in the traditional conservative suburban homes.
“All I hear is, ‘Lyrics, lyrics, constant controversy, sponsors working ‘round the clock to stop my concerts early, surely hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston, after it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom.”
“White America” was a great song to start the album, ending traditionally, “I’m just playing, America. You know I love you.”
“Have you ever been hated or discriminated against? I have. I’ve been protested and demonstrated against. Picket signs for my wicked rhymes, look at the times. Sick is the mind of the motherfuckin’ kid that’s behind.”
“Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is a much simpler song. The beat is brought down and Eminem seems to shift his persona to himself, Marshall Mathers. This is the song where he decides he needs to get a few things off his chest including his father’s abandonment, which he reflects on his fatherhood to daughter Hailie. Also, an incident where he was glad he “took the bullets out of that gun.” - about an incident where he was charged with pistol-whipping John Guerra after he was allegedly caught kissing his wife, Kim, outside of a nightclub.
If it isn’t an issue with his wife that he’s focusing his wrath, it’s his mother. She was dissed on Eminem’s first album. In response, his mother, Debbie Nelson, would put out a song of her own, “Dear Marshall”. In “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”, Em claims that his mother used drugs, would make false claims accusing people of theft, and claim that he was a victim of Munchausen’s syndrome [by proxy] where he was “made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t”.
We all had to look it up.
For me, this was the first Eminem album that I bought. I bought it because of an interview Em did where he talked about how personal the album is. Good rap is about great technical skills. The way Em bends and manipulates words and phrases is why Eminem is one of the greatest rappers alive. This album is a glorious mix of his technical skill, vocabulary, applied with these stories about his life. It’s why “The Eminem Show” is, in my opinion, Eminem’s best album.
A mellow beat with what sounds like an accordion, “Square Dance” is a political statement influenced by the impending war in the Middle East and the new George W. Bush Presidential Administration.
“Let your hair down to the track. Yeah, kick on back. The boogie monster of rap, yeah, the man’s back with a plan to ambush this Bush Administration, mush the Senate’s face in, and push this generation of kids to stand and fight for the right to say something you might not like. This white-hot light that I’m under, no wonder I look so sunburnt. Oh no, I won’t leave no stone unturned. Oh no, I won’t leave, won’t go nowhere. Do-si-do, Oh yo, ho, hello there, Oh yeah! Don’t think I won’t go there. Go to Beirut and do a show there. Yeah, you laugh til your motherfucker ass gets drafted, while you’re at band camp thinking that crap can’t happen. ‘Til you fuck around get an anthrax napkin, inside a package, wrapped in Saran Wrap wrapping. Open the plastic and then you stand back gaspin’. Fuckin’ assassins hijackin’ Amtraks, crashin’. All this terror, America demands action. Next thing you know, you got Uncle Sam’s ass askin’ to join the Army or what you’ll do for their Navy. You just a baby, getting recruited at 18. You’re on a plane now, eating their food and their baked beans. I’m 28, they gon’ take you ‘fore they take me!”
That’s the 2nd verse and it speaks for itself. With references to anthrax by mail sent to politicians and news anchors following the 9/11 attacks and the prospect of a draft to fight in this new war, it would appear to me that Em was against the war or he was at least offering his thought on how this was impact so many young people in 2002 and 2003. This was an excellent piece of social commentary for the time.
As we’ve all been told, being famous is difficult. In exchange for an extremely well-paying job, celebrities give up so much of their humanity. Their sleep, their privacy, their anonymity, and their sanity are just non-existence once they become famous and go “all Hollywood”.
This sentiment is echoed in the song, “Say Goodbye Hollywood”. In verse 1, Eminem discusses the aforementioned assault. In verse 2, Eminem talks about the pressure he feels from life, in general, and how he is thankful that he has a daughter to keep him grounded. With this, he talks about this constant fear of being the type of father that his dad was. In verse 3, the pressure of celebrity catches up with him. “Everywhere I go, a hat, a sweater hood or mask”, referring to the attention fans demand from him in the form of autographs.
As much as we might look at a rapper like Eminem and think, “How can their life be sad or bad? They’re rich! They have everything they want!” This is the kind of song that just reminds you that celebrities are just people. People with public-facing jobs. They live and breathe just as you and I do and a song like this works to re-humanize him.
Not all of this album is heavy or emotional or political.
“Guess who’s back? Back again? Shady’s back! Tell a friend!”
Just as we switch from Eminem to Marshall, Eminem shifts to Slim Shady in the upbeat track “Without Me”. I don’t even know what to say about this song. True to form, Shady just says, does, and mentions whatever will get a reaction. It’s Slim Shady… if you don’t know what that means yet, this song answers the question.
“A tisk-it a task-it, I'll go tit for tat with anybody who's talking this and that shit. Chris Kirkpatrick you can get your ass kicked worse than them little Limp Bizkit bastards, and Moby
You can get stomped by Obie, you 36-year-old bald-headed fag blow me. You don't know me, you're too old let go it's over, nobody listens to techno! Now let's go, just give me the signal I'll be there with a whole list full of new insults, I've been dope, suspenseful with a pencil ever since
Prince turned himself into a symbol.”
I’ll add this bit here: As a fan of music, movies, and the written word, I do not believe in censorship. If lyrics are explicit, you’re going to get all of it. Eminem, along with many other rappers, use words, terms, and language that I don’t personally use, but, in respecting the artist’s freedom of speech, I won’t censor.
I’ll bring up one more song. I feel it wouldn’t do this album nor Eminem proper justice if I didn’t mention “Hailie’s Song”. Anyone with children that they love will understand the emotional thread that this song is sewn with.
“Some days I sit, starin’ out the window, watching this world pass me by. Sometimes I think there’s nothing to live for. I almost break down and cry. Sometimes I think I’m crazy. So crazy! Oh so crazy. Why am I here? Am I just wasting my time? But then I see my baby. Suddenly I’m not crazy. It all makes sense when I look into her eyes!”
Eminem transforms into another form - Hailie’s Dad. I’m sure nearly all parents have had those moments where they just felt lost in life, but something as simple as a smile from your son or a laugh from your daughter shines enough light of your darkness to make you forget about the shadows, even if just for a moment. Throughout Eminem’s career, the only consistency is his love and devotion to his children. It always comes back to them.
People have always said a lot about Eminem, but to me, he’s a skilled lyricist and who likes that he’s made it, but is still just a man, with a family and that’s far more important to him. Say what you will, but you have to respect that. And respect him. And I do. This album cements all of that and more. That’s why it’s one of my favorites.