Eminem appears in concert in London tonight and tomorrow and it’s a big deal whichever way you look at it. Not only is the 41-year-old about to become the first rapper ever to headline at Wembley Stadium, but it’s so long since he’s visited that the last place he played, the London Arena in 2001, doesn’t exist any more.
Most rappers fade pretty fast, their initial power diluted by too many guest spots and a lack of effort when it comes to promoting their work. Fifteen years since his breakthrough, The Slim Shady LP, the man born Marshall Mathers is as big as ever. Only Justin Timberlake sold more albums in the US last year.
When painkiller addiction led to a weak 2004 album, Encore, followed by a greatest hits collection and a long silence, it looked like it might be all over. But in this decade he’s back on top, making some of his best work, and now we’ll finally get to see him perform it live. Here’s why the man who hates everything is worthy of your love.
HE GOT SOBER
Between 2003 and 2008, Eminem was not in a good way, taking Valium, Vicodin and Ambien virtually non-stop. He gained more than five stone in a pill binge that culminated in him missing Christmas Day 2007, having been hospitalised after an overdose. “They said I was about two hours from dying,” he said. “I was taking so many pills that I wasn’t even taking them to get high any more. I was taking them to feel normal.”
The foundations for his addiction were laid early on. On his 2009 song, My Mom, he claims that his mother used to crush Valium into his food as a child. Addict meetings didn’t help — he says he was asked for autographs even there — but a combination of personal counselling, running and regular phone calls from celebrity sponsor Elton John means he can now count himself sober as of April 20, 2008. The new, healthy Eminem no longer suffers from writer’s block and is as lyrically sharp as he’s ever been.
HIS NEW ALBUM IS UP THERE WITH HIS BEST
The Marshall Mathers LP 2, released late last year, boldly links itself to his finest album, the original Marshall Mathers LP from 2000. The comparison is deserved.
A mostly minimal production allows his startling rapping to dominate. All we can do is hang on and try to keep up. “Now I think the fact that I’m differently wired’s awesome/’Cause if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be able to work/Words like this and connect lines like crosswords,” he says on Legacy, one of many songs that look back at his rough life. Multiple parts rhyme, line by line, making complex internal connections — it’s like having a tightly woven net of words thrown over your head. On the six-minute Rap God he seems to use the entire dictionary, barely taking a breath as he definitively proves his assertion that he’s a hip hop deity.
When Michael Boyd was artistic director of the RSC, he named Eminem among the inheritors of Shakespeare. Making a slightly lowlier comparison, Elton John has said: “Eminem does for his audience what Bob Dylan did for his: he writes how he feels. His anger, vulnerability and humour come out.”
Impressive company for self-professed white trash from Detroit.
HE’S A TRUE ENTERTAINER
You may be unlikely to see Eminem crack a smile but that doesn’t mean he isn’t funny. It all depends on your tolerance for being offended. His sick sense of humour has seen him in hot water with the long list of celebrities he’s dissed, from Michael Jackson to Christopher Reeve and Christina Aguilera.
He justified his nastiness on The Real Slim Shady in 2000: “I’m only giving you/Things you joke about with your friends inside your living room/The only difference is I got the balls to say it/In front of y’all and I don’t gotta be false or sugarcoated at all.”
Indeed, his deliciously vile alter-ego, Slim Shady, is his role-playing get-out clause for behaving at his worst — he still gets called homophobic, despite Elton’s defence. But he can be the butt of jokes too. He was in on the gag at the MTV Movie Awards in 2009, when Sacha Baron Cohen’s gay Brüno character flew through the air on faulty wires and ended up straddling the apparently furious rapper’s face in a thong.
HE’S AN UNDERDOG
And we all love one of those. As a white rapper, he started out with a severe handicap in his field — Vanilla Ice hadn’t so much opened the floodgates as ensured they remained closed for years to come. Even after his success, comparisons to Elvis Presley were meant unflatteringly, for his appropriation of black culture.
His image goes against prevailing trends in other ways too — he dresses plainly and refrains from materialistic braggadocio in song. The rage he frequently displays does not glorify violence, but comes from a place of pain. His bleak childhood in the poorest part of Detroit and doomed marriage have been detailed unflinchingly in song. He may be one of the biggest stars in the world but no one can look at his life and envy it.
HE HASN’T SOLD OUT
A lot of rappers seem to think that being good at one thing means you’re great at everything, hence all the business moguls with their clothing lines and extracurricular tat taking time away from what they ought to be doing. Eminem hasn’t got into trainers or headphones.
Even with acting, many rappers’ favourite second career, there’s been nothing since 8 Mile in 2002, the thinly veiled depiction of his own early life that was well enough received to earn him plenty more onscreen work had he wanted it. And when he finally did an advert in 2011, at least it was for a Detroit-based company, Chrysler, and paid powerful tribute to his home city.
HE DOESN’T FORGET HIS OLD FRIENDS
He’s still based in his home town, albeit in what interviewers usually refer to as a “compound” rather than the tired looking childhood home on Dresden Street that appears on the cover of both his Marshall Mathers albums. He has talked of having only a small number of close friends, mainly members of his pre-fame six-strong rap group, D12.
His best friend and D12 member, Proof, was shot dead in 2006, which was a major contributing factor to his painkiller years. Even today, as he comes to Wembley, he’s booked another Detroit rapper as his support act, Danny Brown.
HE’S SAID SORRY TO HIS MUM
Those who have come off worst in his songs are his double-ex-wife Kim Scott (they’ve been married twice) and his mum, Debbie Mathers, who raised him alone after his father left early in his life. Both have sued him for defamation in his lyrics. The song Cleanin’ Out My Closet in particular, from 2002, is a ruthless, shocking assassination of Debbie’s parenting skills.
However, on his most recent album, the song Headlights sees him attempting some kind of closure and coming to an understanding of her limitations. “I hope you get this message that I’ll always love you from afar,” he raps. Is he softening in his forties? A little, perhaps. He has said that his teenage daughter Hailie is his chief motivation for remaining clean. But as he takes to the London stage at last, it should be obvious that his lyrical fire still burns with a fierceness that makes him one of the greatest of all time.
Eminem plays Wembley Stadium (0844 844 0444,eminem.com) tonight and tomorrow