Today, we continue our discussion of applying Joseph Campbell’s narrative model to the life and work of Eminem. In most of the previous articles in this series, we’ve looked at the accomplishments of Marshall Mathers, and how they’ve impacted the world throughout his career. We’ve already covered his early, meteoric rise, and have now covered six of the ten albums he’s released.
Last time, we looked at a singular moment in Eminem’s career and life, when he checked himself into rehab. The 2004 album “Encore” and the 2009 album “Relapse” are the bookends of this chapter. We discussed The Abyss, the Hero’s lowest point, and how this correlated with Eminem’s four-year retreat from the spotlight.
Now we’ll take a look at the other side of this low period. This is another important transition in the Hero’s Journey that deserves some attention. So first, let’s review this stage according to Campbell.
After defeating the enemy, surviving death, braving the depths of the cave, and finally overcoming his/her greatest personal challenge, the Hero is transformed. They emerge from their previous trials stronger than ever before, and often with a prize or reward to prove it.
The Reward can come in many forms. In the stories we read, it can be an object of great importance or power, a weapon, a secret, knowledge, or insight. It can also come in the form of reconciliation with a loved one. Often the reward will provide enough momentum and motivation to spur the Hero on through the last leg of his/her journey.
In “Star Wars: A New Hope”, the abyss that Luke has to face is the Death Star. More specifically, his ultimate ordeal is losing his friend and mentor, Obi-Wan. And the reward for his strength comes partially in the form of the rescue of Princess Leia. Some may say that she is the only real reward, and it’s true that saving the princess from the dragon (or whatever) is a typical trope. But I’d also like to suggest that another reward for Luke is his new ethereal connection to Obi-Wan. But either way, you get the picture.
When we looked at Eminem’s 2009 album “Relapse”, we discovered that during this time, he was rediscovering how to rap without the assistance of drugs or alcohol. In an interview with Vulture, he said that, “It had been so long since I’d done vocals without a ton of Valium and Vicodin I almost had to relearn how to rap”. While this did affect the quality of “Relapse”, Eminem proved with his next album, “Recovery” (2010) that he had grown from the experience.
The album was criticized by some, who saw Eminem reaching too high for technical proficiency, leaving substance at the door. But to me, it seems like “Recovery” was an album of reinvention for Eminem. He let his Slim Shady persona take a backseat, and adopted a more mature and reflective voice (while still throwing in plenty of punchlines).
Rather than using the public’s criticisms to fuel him, in “Recovery”, Eminem looks more to his own weaknesses, and tries to turn them into strengths. In an interview with NPR, he discusses the therapeutic effect of the album. “When I first recorded the record and dumped it all out, it was a little difficult to listen back to. You know, it just reminds me of how I was feeling and why I would never want to go back to that place.”
After going through rehab and achieving sobriety, Eminem’s motivations changed. He became much less focused on youthful rebellion, and much more focused on redemption and introspection. While some may have found this newly-acquired earnestness a little corny, there’s no doubt that Eminem came by it honestly.
There was also a stylistic shift towards pop from “Relapse” and “Recovery”, that we’ll see again in later albums. This is something else the album was criticized for, but makes less sense to me than any of the other criticisms. Rap has a long history of borrowing samples and cutting them up for their own purposes. There’s a link to jazz here, which also borrowed shamelessly from nearly every genre of music, including pop. In my opinion, paying more attention to the flow of his songs only made Eminem a better artist.
That pretty much concludes our discussion for today. Next time, we’ll look at “The Marshall Mathers LP 2”, and see how it fits into Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.