Today, we’ll be continuing our journey through the life and work of rapper Eminem, in an attempt to view his story through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Last time, we walked through the first two steps of Marshall Mathers’ journey. We looked at where he came from, and who he was before he careened into super-stardom. We also took a look at his Call to Adventure, and how his first two albums, “Infinite” and “The Slim Shady LP” mirrored his journey.
Crossing the Threshold
Now, we reach an unmistakable turning point: the Crossing of the Threshold. This is a turning point in every story that follows a hero’s journey. We see it in Star Wars, when Luke leaves his home and begins training as a Jedi. And again in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo announces that he will take the Ring to Mordor. This is a critical turning point, characterized by a clear shift.
While it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Eminem’s threshold was signing onto Aftermath Records, I want to look at his journey from a different angle. The threshold that Eminem crosses in his journey has more to do with the amount of fame and attention he garnered from the release of “The Slim Shady LP”. That’s what launched him fully into the public eye.
Eminem’s records are full of responses to critics, journalists, and the media. And it all stems from the “The Slim Shady LP”, and the creation of his alter-ego Slim Shady, who could get away with saying what Eminem or Marshall Mathers wouldn’t.
The Marshall Mathers LP
Eminem’s response to the acclaim of “The Slim Shady LP” can be seen in “The Marshall Mathers LP”. The album was released just one year after the world was introduced to the highly-technical, bad-mouthing rapper. “MMLP”, as it came to be known, sold over 11,000,000 copies in the US, going on to be certified Diamond (10x Platinum). For some perspective, that’s more than twice as many sales than “The Slim Shady LP”.
While “The Slim Shady LP” saw Eminem flaunting himself as an outlandish rebel who doesn’t care about anything, “MMLP” revealed a more vulnerable and emotional side. Even the cover art, a picture of Eminem huddled on the floor, expresses this. Despite this, “MMLP” is full of contradictions voiced by the splintered consciousness of Eminem. Theses include songs by Slim Shady (“The Real Slim Shady”and “I’m Back”), Eminem, and Marshall Mathers (“Marshall Mathers”).
In “Marshall Mathers”, Eminem starts the song with a few words addressing his newfound fame. “You know, I just don’t get it / Last year I was nobody, this year I’m selling records / Now everybody wants to come around / Like I owe ’em somethin'”.
In “Criminal”, Eminem addresses the blurred lines he made in “The Slim Shady LP”.
“A lot of people think that what I say on a record / Or what I talk about on a record / That I actually do in real life or that I believe in it / Or if I say that I wanna kill somebody / That I’m actually gonna do it or that I believe in it / Well, shit, if you believe that, then I’ll kill you”.
All of these are examples of Eminem having crossed the threshold into the Road of Trials.
The Beginning of the Road of Trials
The Road of Trials in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, is a period in which the hero must prove him/herself worthy of personal transformation. They are designed to expose the hero’s vulnerabilities, and prepare him/her for the challenges ahead.
We can easily see how “MMLP” differs from “The Slim Shady LP” in this respect. In “MMLP”, Eminem begins to lift the Slim Shady facade, and expresses real pain and anger in songs like, “The Way I Am”, “Kim”, “Stan”, and “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”. But he’s still holding onto some aspects of his Slim Shady identity.
The relationship between Eminem’s different personalities continues through his career. On the one hand, Slim Shady is Eminem at his most vulnerable and expressive. On the other, Slim is a crutch that he keeps returning to, because it led to his fame. And “Slim Shady” is only one aspect of Marshall Mathers. He tells the emotional truth, but there’s plenty of Marshall Mathers that’s left out there. Things that need to be said that Slim Shady is incapable of addressing. We’ll see more of the evolution of Eminem’s relationship with his alter ego as we move forward.
Next time, we’ll continue our discussion of the Road of Trials, and see how Eminem adapts to the growing fame and vulnerability. Along the way, we’ll take a brief look at some of the albums he released during this period, as well as their critical reception.