Eminem Named a GQ “God of Rock
Friday afternoon in the suburbs of Detroit, and Marshall Mathers is sitting in an office at the back of his industrial-size recording studio, where he logs nine-to-five days every week like he’s a working stiff. He looks as low-key as he does onstage—no fashion logos or excessive jewelry, just a gray T-shirt, camo shorts, a military-style cap, and a necklace with a diamond pyramid. He precisely lines up a bottle of water and a sixteen-ounce can of Red Bull.
The rapper better known as Eminem is 39 now. That he’s funny shouldn’t shock you—his raps have always been full of back-of-the-class barbs—but his deadpan delivery and the fact that he never cracks a smile means you can quickly find yourself missing the joke. That he’s first and foremost a major hip-hop fan—one of the biggest rap nerds I’ve ever met—won’t surprise you either. Music was his salvation. He is, after all, the whiteboy who twisted rap into his own image, thereby offering a lifeline to kids just like him. Turned out there were fucking millions of them. And there still are. His most recent album, Recovery, was the best-selling album of 2010 and arguably the strongest work of his career.
The current Mathers narrative revolves around his triumph over a nasty addiction to prescription meds. It’s not a touchy subject: Within minutes, he introduces the topic, explaining how he used to drink and pop pills to get through his concerts. “I’m very much a creature of habit,” he says, picking up his Red Bull. “If I’m used to waking up in the morning and having one of these, I could do it every morning for the next ten years straight until I find something else to move on to. So if I’m used to taking a Vicodin when I wake up in the morning because I’m hungover from drinking or taking pills…” He trails off. “The bigger the crowd, the bigger my habit got.”
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Mathers says you can trace the arc of his addiction by listening to his albums: He was more or less sober writing the white-trash party that was The Slim Shady LP (1999); he credits experimentation with drugs for taking his music to unexpected places on The Marshall Mathers LP (2000); with The Eminem Show (2002), he struck the perfect balance—a potent mix of punch-line raps and intensely biographical material. Then the balance tipped: His fourth album, Encore, was his weakest, and it took him two years to complete because of his addiction to pills. “Five or six songs leaked from the original version of Encore,” he says. “So I had to go in and make new songs to replace them. In my head I was pissed off: ‘Oh well. Songs leaked. Fuck it. I’m just going to take a bunch of fucking pills and go in there and have a party with myself.’ I’m sure the more pills I took, the goofier I got.”
He’s a little hazy about that time, when he was taking, by his own account, somewhere between sixty and ninety pills a day, including Valium, Vicodin, Ambien, and Seroquel (used to treat schizophrenia). “Ambien,” he says, “ate a hole through my brain.” He thinks he went to rehab in 2005, but don’t hold him to that. Like I said, it’s a little hazy.
Rehab was not a safe space for Eminem. “Look,” he says, “every addict in rehab feels like everyone’s staring at them. With me? Everyone was staring at me. I could never be comfortable. There were people there that treated me normal. Then there were a bunch of fucking idiots who aren’t even concentrating on their own sobriety because they’re so worried about mine. They’re stealing my hats, my books—it was chaos. Everything was drama in there. And at the time, I didn’t really want to get clean. Everybody else wanted me to. And anyone will tell you: If you’re not ready, nothing is going to change you. Love, nothing.”
He left rehab pissed off and heavily burdened with what he calls “woe is me”—and started popping pills again. It nearly killed him. “I came to in the hospital and I didn’t know what the fuck happened,” he says. “Tubes in me and shit, fuckin’ needles in my arms. I didn’t realize I had [overdosed]. I wanted my drugs—get me the fuck outta there! I think I was clean for two weeks. I was trying so hard—I was trying to do it for my kids—but I just wasn’t ready.”
What finally got him clean after a second relapse wasn’t his kids or his coma or even hip-hop. This time he really thought he was going to die. “I had a feeling in my arm that was weird, man,” he says. “Like, it really freaked me out. So I went to some people I trust and said, ‘Look, I know I need help. I’m ready now.’ I got a room in the same hospital where I overdosed, and I detoxed.”
He came out that time and lost himself in the music again, the same way he had when he was 12, after years of bouncing from school to school. “I’m just this shy kid,” he remembers, slipping into the glowering, rapid-fire intensity of his best rhymes. “And I get thrown into a classroom with more people I don’t know, and I’m going into my shell and I’m worried about how my shoes are bummy as fuck and I’m wearing Salvation Army clothes, and these kids are behind me and they’re making comments and whispering, and I don’t really know that they’re talking about my clothes but I feel like they are, and they’re talking about my haircut. I don’t even know how to speak up for myself, because I don’t really have a father who would give me the confidence or advice. And if you’re always the new kid, you never get a chance to adapt, so your confidence is just zilch. You’re thrown out there to the fucking wolves. Hence when N.W.A starts saying Fuck you to the police and to everybody—’Fuck you who doubted me’—holy shit, I want to say that.”
Rappers aren’t supposed to cop to having feelings, much less battling addictions or getting professional help, but if you own any of his self-hating, mommy-baiting, ex-wife-excoriating music, you know that Mathers built his career on saying things about himself that his peers simply wouldn’t about themselves—like how the very thing that made him a music prodigy, and continues to push him, also made him a junkie.
"The thing sobriety has taught me the most," he says, "is the way I’m wired—why my thought process is so different." He’s talking about obsessiveness, the way he clings to routines: "I’ve realized that the way I am helps with the music. Sporadic thoughts will pop into my head and I’ll have to go write something down, and the next thing you know I’ve written a whole song in an hour. But sometimes it sucks, and I wish I was wired like a regular person and could go have a fuckin’ drink. But that’s the biggest thing about addiction: When you realize that you cannot—for fuck’s sake, you can not—fuck around with nothing ever again. I never understood when people would say it’s a disease. Like, ‘Stop it, dickhead. It’s not a disease!’ But I finally realized, Fuck, man—it really is.”
The first album Mathers made after cleaning up was Relapse, in 2009, five years after Encore, the longest period of his twelve-year career without a release. He was feeling giddy and elated after freeing himself from what he calls the cage of addiction, and the album didn’t go over well. He took a lot of shit for the goofy punch lines and some pretty silly shtick (like that vaguely Middle Eastern accent). While recording 2010’s Recovery, “I would hear people saying this and that about Relapse,” he says. And it got under his skin. “Certainly I’m not going to sit on the Internet all day and read what Sam from Iowa is saying about me,” he says. “But I’m a sponge. I’ve always been a sponge.”
And what Mathers soaked up was that for Recovery he needed to get back to who he’d been—the angry loner fighting for respect. “On an emotional level, I want my music to connect with the same kid who I was,” he says. “So it was like, ‘Okay, let me get serious. Because I feel like I’m being wrote off right now, and I’m kind of on my last leg.’ I felt like the underdog again.”