Eminem and Sleater Kinney
24 February 1999
The Slim Shady LP
How skilled must Eminem be that even those of us who preach tolerance and respect forgive him his misogyny? After all, this is the man who, on “My Fault”, from his first major-label release, The Slim Shady LP, mocks a girl who will suffer a fatal overdose by the song’s end, an overdose for which the song’s narrator is responsible. Among his other taunts, he says, “Susan, stop crying / I don’t hate ya’ / The world’s not against you, / I’m sorry your father raped you / So what you had your little coochie in your dad’s mouth? / That ain’t no reason to start wigging and spaz out”. Even more disturbingly, in “As the World Turns”, he fantasizes about slicing off a woman’s right nipple before he uses his “gadget dick” to “fuck that fat slut to death”. I know it sounds harsh, but, keep in mind, he kills her in couplets, so, as the kids (and Dylan) say nowadays, it’s all good.
At the time of Slim Shady’s release, I joined the hordes of fans and critics alike who celebrated Eminem as a vital new voice in pop music. This was when Christina, Britney, the Backstreet Boys, and Limp Bizkit ruled the charts, and Em’s eventual claim that “I’m only giving you things you joke about with your friends inside your living room” wasn’t too far off. These self-serious pop stars needed to be taken down a notch. What’s more, the comeuppance should be harsh and public. Em was our guy.
His songs skewered pop culture—the Spice Girls, Pamela Anderson, O.J.—and his videos were shiny. They were excuses to play dress up, to visually take the piss out of the celebrities that he couldn’t get to in the songs. There he is as Marilyn Manson. There he is as Johnny Carson. And that patented thumb wave can only be then-President Bill Clinton. The videos were eye candy, the equivalent of getting up early for Saturday-morning cartoons for kids who now vegged out to TRL after school. The irony, of course, is that in no time at all, he was as big as those who he so openly disdained. If he was able to keep his street cred, it was only because of the muscle he had behind him: Dr. Dre.
Actually, only two songs from The Slim Shady LP credit Dre as the sole producer. Unsurprisingly, they were the two lead singles (“My Name Is” and “Guilty Conscience”, the latter on which the good Doctor also raps). Listening now, I am struck by how restrained the production is. Long stretches of “My Name Is”, for example, feature only the barest of beats and a bass line that only be described as “bored”. Elsewhere, there’s more going on—in “Role Model”, say—but, throughout, the album puts Eminem’s voice front and center, which is precisely where it should be on this, his introduction to the world.
But featuring his voice so prominently also proves to be one of the album’s many limitations, for in 1999, Slim Shady hadn’t yet discovered just how many different looks his voice had. He’s pretty much one note here—the few variances he does employ reserved for caricatures of nay-saying teachers and the like—which ultimately grates on this overly long record (more on that below). At times, the rhymes carry the day—growing up near Kansas City, I was always infinitely amused by the pairing of “naughty rotten rhymer” with “cursing at you players worse than Marty Schottenheimer”—but they are hardly redemptive. Compare any song from Slim Shady with a song like “Stan” from its far-superior follow up, The Marshall Mathers LP, and you will see just how much Eminem developed as a rapper in only a year.
The second problem with this record is that it is simply way too long. Never mind the skits—which are immediately dispensable, and an album feature that should have been done away with across the board after De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising—there are really only eight, maybe nine, songs here that reward a second listen. Everything else is either too stupid, too offensive, or, worst of all, too uninteresting. In this way, Eminem is just as guilty as the pop princess who records an album as a kind of single-delivery system. I don’t even know if the chaff can be called “filler”. Someone thought it was worthy, but that person was wrong. In the days of compact discs, I would have said that the “skip track” button was designed for albums like this. Today, I’ll just say that only a handful of these songs are worth importing to your iPod.
The album’s final flaw brings us back to where we started, which is to say that I once sloughed off the casual violence toward women as harmlessly amusing, and I now find it disgusting. This is the flaw that proves fatal. I don’t mean to go all Tipper Gore here, and I am fully aware that my perception is influenced by the fact that I am, obviously, 10 years older than I was when I first heard the record, and that age has brought with it what some would call stuffiness and what others would call maturity. (The last year has also seen the arrival of my first child, a son, which is a point that should not be underestimated.) Stuffy though it may be, my strongest reaction to my recent re-listen of The Slim Shady LP was that I don’t have to subject myself to such hatred.
Somehow it’s more disappointing here than it is on subsequent albums (save his most recent). Later, when Eminem more formally introduces us to his estranged wife and his pill-popping mother, the objects of his anger are at least specific. It’s less about all women and more about these two. But without that specificity, his barbs are at best juvenile, and at worst psychopathic.
Fairly or not, Slim Shady suffers in comparison to Eminem’s later work. Marshall Mathers succeeded where Shady failed in demonstrating that style can trump content when it’s inspired enough, and that Oscar for “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile was well deserved. The Eminem Show had its moments, but, for the most part, Eminem has been treading familiar ground for the past eight years (when he’s been treading at all). His new album—the appropriately titled Relapse—is all but unlistenable (or so I thought, until he rhymed “pneumonia” with “bologna”), which further casts Slim Shady in doubt as we wonder if he was ever that good to begin with.
The answer is that, yeah, he was good. Just nowhere near as good as you remember. Kirby Fields
23 February 1999
The Hot Rock
With all the critical attention heaped on Sleater Kinney after the release of the anthemic Dig Me Out, it seemed that the band had successfully resuscitated the waning riot grrl movement and would become its strident standard bearer into the new decade. But The Hot Rock effectively put an end to that idea. The opening track, “Start Together”, suggests that this was no accident: “Everything’s changing”, Corin Tucker sings. “Not the one you wanted”, the title track’s refrain runs, “not the thing you keep”.
It’s as though Sleater Kinney wanted to be sure they wouldn’t be graded on a curve by fans who were just grateful to see women rocking out. The album offers no shout-along choruses. Instead, it features overlapping vocals that alternately intertwine and cancel each other out. Propulsive riffs are replaced by subdued, sinewy guitar lines that occasionally wind themselves into intractable knots. The songs eschew the more overt feminist themes explored on previous albums and focus more on relationship entropy, with lyrics revolving around nautical metaphors of sinking ships and failed captains.
The seductiveness of difficulty for its own sake and for surrender seems to hang over the record, particularly the single “Get Up”, which opens with this spoken-word exhortation: “And when the body finally starts to let go / Let it all go at once / Not piece by piece”. With The Hot Rock, the band seemingly flirted with the idea of letting it all go, devolving their established approach to retreat from success and spin intricate and insular odes in obscurity. But then a few years later, they were on tour with Pearl Jam. Rob Horning