Eminem has built his career around the idea that he has two sides — the sly, potty-mouthed battler Slim Shady and the more serious, more inspirational Marshall Mathers.
Even in his debut as Super Bowl pitchman last week, Eminem balanced his dueling characters, with his bratty, cartoonish Claymation turn for Lipton Iced Tea and his Gen X statesmanlike repping of his hometown Detroit’s comeback for Chrysler.
In a way, the Chrysler spot taps into Eminem’s personal comeback as well, one that could be cemented Sunday night at the Grammys, where he holds a night-leading 10 nominations, including nods in all of the top categories — “Recovery” for album of the year and “Love the Way You Lie” in both song of the year and record of the year.
“Recovery” was the top-selling album of 2010. “Love the Way You Lie” was No. 1 for seven weeks, the year’s second-longest run behind Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” while “Not Afraid” also hit the top spot. As far as intangibles, Eminem’s successes come after a near-fatal accidental methadone overdose in 2007, publicized stints in rehab for drug addiction and four years of writer’s block.
For almost any artist, all those signs would add up to a Grammy sweep. But Eminem isn’t just any artist.
“It feels good to have your work respected again,” he told Rolling Stone in October. “Winning awards is cool, but at this point, I’m in it for the sport.”
And whether he wins at this Grammy sport will be determined more by how the music industry feels about him than his music.
If the industry rallies around Marshall Mathers, he’s going to be in for quite a golden night, maybe even challenging the record of eight Grammy wins in a night held by Michael Jackson in his “Thriller” year and Carlos Santana after “Supernatural.” If it holds a grudge against Slim Shady, he could be in his seat for quite some time. (For those who think “Recovery”-era Em has put aside his Slim Shady ways, they need only look to the album’s expletive-filled opening track, “Cold Wind Blows,” for a continuation of his ongoing beef with Nick Cannon and Mariah Carey. “Take a look at Mariah the next time I inspire you to write a song,” he taunts.)
Grudges aside, Eminem also faces some tough competition, especially in the album of the year category, where he’s up against Lady Gaga’s zeitgeist-shaping “The Fame Monster,” Lady Antebellum’s country comfort “Need You Now,” Katy Perry’s pop smash “Teenage Dream” and what many see as a dark-horse contender, indie-rockers Arcade Fire’s surprise No. 1 “The Suburbs.”
“I think he’s going to win,” says Allison Hagendorf, host of Fuse’s “Top 20 Countdown” and a former major-label exec. “Everyone is rooting for him, even people who weren’t fans of him before. He’s more vulnerable, but still has credibility. He’s humbled now, more likable and more approachable.”
It’s those kind of emotional changes among the Recording Academy’s voters that will be needed for Eminem to win one of the top Grammy prizes that have so far eluded him. In 2001, the year he was protested by gay and lesbian activists for what they called “hate-filled” and “homophobic” lyrics, his “The Marshall Mathers LP” famously lost album of the year to Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature.” In 2003, he was shut out by Norah Jones. In 2004, his smash “Lose Yourself” lost to Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” for song of the year and Coldplay’s “Clocks” for record of the year.
No wonder he’s telling friends that he expects to walk away empty-handed Sunday night. “He doesn’t think he’s gonna win anything,” Shady Records rapper Royce da 5’9” told MTV. “He wouldn’t bet me, though. But I think he honestly thinks he’s not gonna win. Which I think is ridiculous.”
New York songwriter Claude Kelly, who is nominated for best R&B song for co-writing Fantasia’s “Bittersweet,” thinks the idea of an Eminem shutout is pretty ridiculous, as well.
“I think this is his time,” says Kelly, who has collaborated with many of the artists up against Eminem in the top categories, including Bruno Mars, co-writing “Grenade” with him. “He’s going to dominate a lot of the top awards.”
Hagendorf says that Grammys or not, Eminem’s “Recovery” is already victorious. “It’s one of the best comebacks in music history,” she says. “For a while, it looked like he was never coming back. ... The alcohol, the drugs, he was a mess. He wasn’t really focused.
“Now, he has the biggest-selling album since 2007,” she continues. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
Kelly, who describes himself as a huge Eminem fan because of the rapper’s skill and risk-taking, says he believes “Recovery” will win because it is a return to form. “He’s gone back to his original formula,” Kelly says. “It’s not for shock value, but because he wants to be brutally honest about what he’s going through. I think ‘Love the Way You Lie’ reminds me of ‘Stan’ in that way.”
“And you know America loves a comeback,” Kelly adds.
That’s true. Whether the Grammys will show Eminem some of that love remains to be seen.
THE 53RD GRAMMY AWARDS
8 p.m. EST Sunday, CBS. (Preshow starts at 4 p.m. on grammy.com)
LIVE FROM THE RED CARPET: THE 2011 GRAMMY AWARDS
6-8 p.m. EST Sunday, E!