This week, I found myself digging to the bottom of the CD milkcrates in my closet. Hidden between early ’00s Kompakt CDs and P$C mixtapes with cracked jewel cases was my copy of the 8 Mile soundtrack, an artifact of an interesting time in Eminem’s career, and in music more broadly. In the wake of a local controversy around Chief Keef’s supposed threat to the safety of the Logan Square neighborhood during his epic performance last Friday, I thought about how differently artists can be perceived through different lenses of history. Public perceptions of artists and the statements they make through music can shift suddenly with context, even as the art remains the same.
No one understood that better than Eminem. “Stimulate,” a bonus track from the soundtrack, is a unique moment in his catalog. When it was recorded, the first major phase of Eminem’s career had ended. He had already bum-rushed TRL, a knowing clown mocking the absurdity of his competition with the pop acts of the era. The time of a optimistic, joyous explosion in pop—where the Backstreet Boys, Aaliyah and DMX would all vie for the attention of the nations high schools—was on the way out, and Em was feeling the raw side of fame.
We now know he would go on to deal with drug addiction and creative burn-out. “Stimulate” feels like Em was teetering right at the edge. The aural equivalent of an epic hangover combated with stimulants, there’s a searing creativity to the song and the way his words fold in and out on each other. But there’s also a jagged, depressive undercurrent, an anger that hadn’t yet spilled over into lifelessness. I love my job… he begins, layers of irony wrapped up in each word, dripping in disdain and self-hatred. It’s a highly personal song, with none of the alter-ego play that made his early work an evasive maze of meaning. Channelling his issues at the time, it’s a unique creation that embodied his confidence, insecurity and confusion.