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American Psycho: Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP at 20…

“I am forever chasing The Marshall Mathers LP. That was the height of what I could do. I just don’t have the rage I did back then.”Eminem, 2017 Vulture interview

“It sounded like something Stephen King would write. It sounded like a horror movie.”Jimmy Iovine, VH1’s Ultimate Albums – Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP

Jan. 20, 2001. The Barker Hangar. Santa Monica, CA. 2.5 miles from the Interscope Records office. 

He emerges wearing denim overalls and wielding a chainsaw. Chemically blonde hair meets the top of a hockey mask. Behind him on stage, an ersatz brick bungalow modeled after an equally weathered home somewhere between 8 Mile and 7 Mile roads in Detroit. The chainsaw blade is inert, but a recording of violent revving plays as sparks shoot skyward from the stage. When the DJ cuts the chainsaw recording, he chucks the prop aside. Mischievous guitar chords, the aural equivalent of a caped cartoon villain tiptoeing behind an unsuspecting mark, sound in concert with thousands of screams. He pulls a microphone from his pocket and lifts the mask.

It’s Marshall Mathers. Slim Shady. Eminem. This is his first nationally televised full-length concert, a private performance of his 2000 Anger Management Tour set taped by In Demand, then the top pay-per-view distributor in the U.S. (You can still watch most of it here.) 

The subtext, which may or may not be obvious to the audience of predominantly white (and probably moneyed) teens, is this: the rock bottom life endured in and outside of that Detroit home spawned the man (Mathers) turned rapper (Eminem) with an alter ego (Shady) who stands before them as a hybrid of horror-movie homicidal maniacs. Swooning girls and guys in Ecko beanies scream ecstatically, not in abject terror. Graphic rhymes about rape, incestuous rape, domestic violence, and gruesome murder are welcome, desired. If the video editor later soundtracked footage of the crowd with hits from *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys — and cut out the seconds where a young woman mouths “suck my dick” — they could’ve gotten away with it.

Eminem At New Jersey Meadowlands Arena

CREDIT: George DeSota/Newsmakers via Getty Images

Today, the image of Anger Management Tour Eminem ranks among the most iconic shots of the best-selling rapper of all-time. The theatrics work out of context, but the serial killer look resonates most in light of how well it encapsulated Eminem’s persona on-record and in the public imagination during the release and reception of his greatest album, 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP. He was the nightmare of suburban mothers, the lyrically sadistic superhero of disaffected teens who hated MTV. Jason Voorhees (hockey mask) and Leatherface (chainsaw) were as fictional as their victims, but you could look Eminem in his blue eyes. The victims of his multisyllabic assaults — his baby mama, his mother, the president, pop artists, Christopher Reeves, Insane Clown Posse, women, gay men — were real. His looks and his lyrics both put him on the cover of magazines (Rolling Stone, SPIN, VIBE) that perpetuated the image. The Source, which made Eminem the first white cover star in its then-12-year history, went with the overalls and chainsaw.

Three days after the Barker Hangar show, the RIAA certified Marshall Mathers eight-times platinum. (It reached diamond-status in 2011 and became the second highest-selling single disc rap album of all time.) A month later, Marshall Mathers won Grammys for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Solo Performance (“The Real Slim Shady”). Practically every Eminem album has debuted at No. 1, and many have won Grammys, but each is either a prologue or postscript to Marshall Mathers.

Twenty years old this week, Marshall Mathers LP is the record the rest of his catalog is measured against. It cemented his place in the pantheon. If you include him in rap’s enduring GOAT conversation, as Zadie Smith did in her 2002 VIBE cover story, you point to Eminem’s incendiary third album with one hand and extend the middle finger of the other.

Eminem’s rhymes and wit were never sharper, his narratives never more convincing. He was a chainsaw with endless fuel, on ecstasy but never on E. Antagonistic and angered, political and politically incorrect, jesting and juvenile — he cut down enemies and innocents like it was an autonomic function. Apart from “Kim,” the grotesque and screaming diatribe, his delivery was never more fluid or in the pocket. Chalk it up to the right combination of THC, pain pills and hallucinogens, the production from Mel-Man, the Bass Brothers, or Dre’s coaching.

“[Dre] showed me how to deliver rhymes over a beat, and he showed me that you stick with something until you have it just how you want it,” Eminem told The Los Angeles Times in 2000. 

Listening to verses of interlocking internal and end rhymes on “Kill You” or even lead single “The Real Slim Shady” is like watching a gymnast solve a Rubik’s Cube while performing a flawless Triple Double during a floor routine. Syllables in each block of language rotate swiftly on their axis, aligning as though they couldn’t be arranged another way. He flips in and out of cadences and character voices without a sidestep, perhaps only as a medaling Rap Olympian can. The following lines from “I’m Back” illustrate the extent of his syllabic intricacy, but nothing rivals listening to him spring from one phrase to the next:

Mind with no sense in it, fried schizophrenic, whose eyes / Get so squinted, I’m blind from smoke in ’em, with my windows tinted / With nine limos rented, doin’ lines of coke in ’em / With a bunch of guys hoppin’ out, all high and indo-scented”