Although his message has not been popular with parents of teenagers across America, that has not stopped Eminem from earning sweeping popularity and building upon it. Though his lyrics can be gritty, racy, and loaded with violent overtones, fans of all races have responded to his anger, his expert rhymes, and his unusually personal brand of hip-hop music. Eminem's career grew more rapidly than he could have predicted, and his rise to fame has been marked by a severe level of controversy.
Eminem has depicted his own life experiences in his music. In a July 1999 article for the Washington Post, Alona Wartofsky summarized his appeal when she commented that "a large part of Eminem's meteoric rise can be explained by the appeal of being profoundly expletived up. Both Eminem and his alter ego, Slim Shady, represent the perennial loser, the class clown who's going nowhere fast. The guy who gets beat up in the bathroom, keeps flunking the same grade and can't even keep a $5.50-an-hour job. ...It's not just his white skin and bleached blond hair that set him apart from the hip-hop pack. Unlike most rappers, he's harshly self-deprecating." White kids who were listening to rap before he came on the scene began to listen even harder when Eminem appeared.
Marshall Mathers III was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 17, 1974, and spent his early childhood between there and Detroit. He was raised by Debbie Mathers-Briggs, a single mother. Mathers never knew his father, although his mother contended that the two of them were married at the time of Mathers's birth. Aggravated by having to move and by difficulties making friends, Mathers retreated into television and comic books. He attended Lincoln Junior High School and Osborn High School, where he started listening to LL Cool J and 2 Live Crew. He made friends, and went up against other rappers in contests, quickly gaining a reputation for his skill at rhyming. Mathers failed the ninth grade and eventually dropped out of school before getting a diploma. While working odd jobs, Mathers also worked on the art of rapping. He told Rap Pages in 1999, "I tried to go back to school five years ago, but I couldn't do it. I just wanted to rap and be a star."
Working with different groups that included Basement Productions, the New Jacks, and Sole Intent, Mathers finally went solo in 1997. The album, Infinite, was released through FBT Productions, a local Detroit company. The local hip-hop community did not take to him, but he ignored the criticism and tirelessly promoted himself through radio stations and freestyle competitions across the country. He was finally honored with a mention in the Source 's key column, "Unsigned Hype," and by the end of the year he had won the 1997 Wake Up Show Freestyle Performer of the Year award from Los Angeles disc jockeys Sway and Tech. Mathers also took second place in Rap Sheet magazine's "Rap Olympics," an annual freestyle competition.
His Slim Shady LP in early 1998 not only made him an underground star, it also got the attention of the famed Dr. Dre, the president of Aftermath Entertainment. Dr. Dre signed Mathers to his label, and within an hour after their meeting, the two were reportedly working on Eminem's "My Name Is" single. When Slim Shady finally came out, it debuted as number three on the Billboard album chart. Eminem also appeared on underground MC Shabam Sahdeeq's "Five Star Generals" single, Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause, and on other rap releases. His songs depicted rape, violence, and drug use, and they horrified some people. Some of his lyrics were directed at his own mother, and at the mother of his three-year-old daughter. The song "97 Bonnie and Clyde" has Mathers fantasizing about killing the mother of his child.
Writing for USA Today, Edna Gunderson reviewed the album that was causing the uproar. "The first release on Dr. Dre's Aftermath label is a marvel of entertaining contradictions," she wrote. "The white rapper ... vacillates between rage and apathy in razor-sharp tunes that visit a host of suburban miseries and comedies. He's unquestionably offensive, but the antidote for that venom can be found in the music's stinging humor and tight grooves." Eminem's Slim Shady LP took home a Grammy Award on February 23, 2000, as the Best Rap Album of the Year for 1999. His solo, "My Name Is," won the award for Best Rap Solo Performance.
Mathers defended himself and his lyrics to those who loathed his message, but also to those who were still not prepared to welcome a white rap artist into a field that had been the domain of blacks since its beginnings. Mathers told Source, "I do feel like I'm coming from a standpoint where people don't realize there are a lot of poor white people. He went on to say, "I'm white in a music started by black people. I'm not ignorant to the culture and I'm not trying to take anything away from the culture. But no one has a choice where they grew up or what color they are. If you're a rich kid or a ghetto kid you have no control over your circumstances. The only control you have is to get out of your situation or stay in it." Perhaps because of that, his music resonated with teens worldwide, regardless of their race or economic status.
Eminem's music was certainly unpopular with many people. In the spring of 1999 Billboard 's editor-in-chief Timothy White accused Eminem and the music industry promoting him of "exploiting the world's misery." The harshest criticism came in the form of a lawsuit filed by his own mother. In 1999 Mathers-Briggs filed a lawsuit in a Michigan Circuit Court, charging that her son had made "defamatory comments about her in interviews, including descriptions of her as 'pill-popping' and 'lawsuit-happy' ... [and] claiming emotional distress, humiliation, and damages that included the loss of her mobile home in the summer of 1999," according to Carla Hay, writing in Billboard. Although the outcome of the lawsuit was still pending, Paul Rosenberg, Eminem's attorney, issued a statement saying, "The lawsuit ... is merely the result of a lifelong strained relationship between Eminem and his mother. Regardless, it is still painful to be sued by your mother, and therefore the lawsuit will only be responded to through legal channels."
Eminem's American tour that began in the spring of 1999 met with mixed reviews. According to Jon Dolan in Spin in August of 1999, the tour did not go well in many cities. Fans disappointed at his mere 25-minute stage performance booed him offstage. And a date in San Francisco was "cut even shorter," Dolan noted, "after he leapt into the crowd to beat down a heckler." Yet Dolan also noted that "he delivered Motor City madness that would do Ted Nugent proud ... appropriately ... Slim was playing for his peeps—young, Midwestern hip-hop kids from urban dead zones and their first-ring suburbs."
As he continued to plan for the debut of his album Marshall Mathers LP in the spring of 2000, controversy continued to rage. From his fall 1999 tour of Europe, tongues were still wagging with criticism. In Melody Maker, British writer Peter Robinson remarked that "by far the most distressing thing about the Slim Shady LP is how seductive it is—largely due to Dr Dre's production work, it captivates and thrills, and this is an unavoidably amazing body of work. There are tracks here 10 times better than 'My Name Is,' hence the generous mark at the end of this review. But the spite, the sheer nastiness, is revolting."
The music Eminem released after the turn of the millennium gave continuing evidence of the rapper's talent. Although he continued to stir up plenty of controversy, he also managed to take his career to a higher level of popularity by becoming almost a mainstream figure as his career progressed. More than any other rapper, white or black, Eminem projected his own psychodramas onto a large musical canvas—and his personal demons were apparently shared by millions of music buyers all over the world.
The controversial phase of Eminem's career peaked with the release of The Marshall Mathers LP. The album contained "Kim," a violent rant directed at the rapper's wife that culminated in a fantasy of her murder. The song drove Kim Mathers to a suicide attempt, and enraged listeners like Lynne Cheney, wife of United States vice president Dick Cheney, who told People that Eminem "promotes violence of the most degrading kind against women." Eminem also angered homosexuals with the album's numerous anti-gay slurs ("Pants or dress—hate fags? The answer's yes," Eminem rapped). The rapper added fuel to the fire with several brushes with the law that almost landed him in prison.
Yet Eminem succeeded in dousing many controversies just as it seemed they might get out of hand. He invited openly gay rock star Elton John to perform with him at the 2001 Grammy Awards, and their duet on Eminem's "Stan," a chilling song about a crazed fan, knocked the furor over his anti-gay raps off the radar screen. Eminem and Kim Mathers divorced amicably in 2001. They shared custody of their daughter, Hailie Jade, who would later become a central topic in several Eminem hits.
The problems of Eminem's personal life continued to provide subject matter for his music, and his next album, 2002's The Eminem Show, contained "Cleaning Out My Closet," a virulent expression of frustration against the artist's mother—and a song that became a massive hit, appealing to a vast cross-section of listeners who had struggled with familial conflicts. Eminem poked fun at his own intensity with the title of his own "Anger Management Tour," and some critics hailed a new maturity in the rapper's writing. Pointing to Eminem's unique triple identity, comprising real-life person Marshall Mathers, entertainer Eminem, and thug Slim Shady, Time noted that on The Eminem Show, "the three personalities fit together like a set of Russian nesting dolls."
Eminem's rise to respectability continued with the release of the film 8 Mile in late 2002. A fictionalized story of Eminem's own life, the film paired the rapper with actress Brittany Murphy, and included depictions of the rap duels in which Eminem had engaged as a young man. Becoming both a critical and financial success, 8 Mile spawned a major hit and double Grammy winner, "Lose Yourself," and inspired speculation about the charismatic performer's chances for a future movie career.
The year 2003 saw the rapper once again enmeshed in controversy, after Source magazine released a tape of an early Eminem recording in which he made negative remarks about African-American women after breaking up with a black girlfriend. Eminem apologized for what he said was a youthful mistake. He returned to the studio in 2004 and released Encore, a recording that contained attacks on everyone from Michael Jackson to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide opined that "it sounds as if Eminem is coasting, resting on his laurels, and never pushing himself into interesting territory."
But Encore sold well and generated a hit single, "Just Lose It." Eminem also waded into political waters for the first time with "Mosh," a protest song that attacked President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. Whether Eminem continued to explore political material in a deeply divided America, pursued a film career, or shepherded the careers of other Detroit hip-hop artists, his place in popular culture seemed assured, and he was no longer an outsider.
Rumors of retirement flew, and the 2005 appearance of Curtain Call: The Hits did nothing to dampen them, nor did the turmoil of 2006, a year that saw Mathers re-marrying and divorcing Kim within a matter of four months, as well as the shooting death of Proof at a Detroit club.
During all this, Em did some minor studio work, but soon he dropped off the radar completely, retreating to his Detroit home. He popped up here and there, most notably debuting the hip-hop channel Shade 45 for Sirius Satellite Radio in September 2008, but it wasn't until early 2009 that he mounted a comeback with Relapse, an album whose very title alluded to some of Mathers' struggles with prescription drugs, but also announced that after an extended absence, Slim Shady was back. While not quite a blockbuster, the album went platinum, and Eminem followed it at the end of the year with an expanded version of Relapse (dubbed Relapse: Refill) that added outtakes and new recordings. Recovery, initially titled Relapse 2, was issued in June 2010. The album debuted on top of the Billboard 200 chart, where it remained for five consecutive weeks, while its leadoff single, "Not Afraid," debuted on top of the magazine's Hot 100 singles chart.