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Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity to win an Oscar for Best Original Song, would you show up to the awards ceremony or just stay home and take a nap?
Eminem, claiming that a swanky awards show like the Academy Awards "wasn't his sort of gig," skipped the ceremony and stayed home in Oakland Township, Michigan. (source) When Barbra Streisand read out Eminem's name (now there’s a duet we’d love to hear), he was napping while his daughter Hailie watched cartoons. For a rapper already so accomplished with hit albums, hordes of fans, and a repeat winner of the music industry's top awards, maybe an Oscar was just white noise.
Yet while the Oscar for "Lose Yourself" came in 2002, the win was the culmination of a piecemeal process and decades in the making. The lyrics were written in an afternoon on the 8 Mile movie set, the music had been resurrected from snippets created during the previous year, and the content that fuelled the idea spanned the course of Eminem's lifetime.
Let’s start with some Eminem biography basics: Marshall Mathers was born on October 17, 1972, in St. Joseph, Missouri. His family eventually settled in the Detroit, Michigan, area, but at 18 months old his father had abandoned them; his mother, who he has frequently accused of abuse due to alcohol and drug addiction, raised Eminem.
As a young teenager, Marshall heard the Beastie Boys album License to Ill and was inspired to start rapping himself. Going by the name of "Manix" or "M&M," he began to freestyle battle on the Detroit rap scene with the encouragement of his friend, Proof, and struggled to gain acceptance. Eventually Marshall earned a reputation for his skills, and he and Proof formed the group D12, who Eminem would eventually bring to the national rap scene once he was established as a solid artist.
Eminem's journey through the underground rap scene is largely the inspiration for the plot of 8 Mile, but there were also deeply personal and tragic events that led to the discovery of his true voice. In the mid-90s, Marshall became a father, but he had a falling out with his then-girlfriend, Kim (who would later become a target in a number of his songs), and he was forced to move in with his mother. Haunted by the suicides of his two uncles as a teen and prevented by his ex from seeing his daughter, Marshall began a descent into alcohol and drug addiction that culminated with an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
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At rock bottom, Marshall channeled his depression and burdens into a dysfunctional, psychotic, sociopathic, and hyper-violent-but-playful style of rap aimed at his sources of pain. Through the violent and drug enthusiast alter ego of Slim Shady, Eminem was able to express thoughts from the darkest corners of his psyche when he wrote the tracks that would become The Slim Shady LP.
Once again participating in rap battles, a more confident Eminem placed 2nd in the 1997 National Rap Olympics, a freestyle competition that awards rappers for impromptu performances that incorporate creativity, delivery, articulation, and—most importantly—disses that can persuade the crowd to reward the rapper with applause. When Em placed 2nd, Interscope Records CEO Jimmy Iovine, the same record exec who contracted with Dr. Dre to help him distribute the rap classic, The Chronic, sought him out.
Seeing Eminem's potential, Dr. Dre quickly cut The Slim Shady LP, which became an instant hit. A year later, Eminem would release The Marshall Mathers LP, which brought even more mainstream success, problems, and controversy. Now a fully-fledged rap star, Eminem's personal issues with his family and substance abuse continued, but most notable was the media controversy regarding the content of his lyrics, which were frequently labeled racist, misogynistic, and homophobic.
While Eminem was capable of producing radio hits, the content of his albums was very different from the mainstream, and critics often focused on the songs where he joked about suicide, murder, or rape or fantasized about killing his former girlfriend, Kim, or his mother. Eminem also had the capability of producing songs that were deeply introspective, mournful, or incorporated odd forms of social commentary, but it was clear that many of his songs were used as a platform to settle personal vendettas.
Eminem certainly knew how to continually press buttons and simultaneously captivate young audiences, but while the lyrics seemed shocking, Eminem's delivery was often tongue-in-cheek (subtlety is often something that bypasses parents and the media, no matter who the artist is). Not only that, but the controversy only contributed to his popular ascent. Throughout his career, Eminem has vehemently defended his lyrics, noting that his lyrical flow is purely to purge his own personal demons and that all the lyrics are fantasies, never intended to be literal or taken seriously.
Soon after, perhaps to quell the flood of criticism, Eminem took some steps to clean up his image (or at least complicate matters for his critics). In 2001, he performed his song "Stan" with Elton John, an openly gay singer, at the Grammy Awards. Members of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) protested the performance, citing a lack of apology from Eminem, but others saw Elton John's collaboration as a tenuous endorsement of Eminem's lyrics, as it ended with the two artists hugging on stage. (source)
Going one step further, 8 Mile, released a year later, was a visual documentation of Eminem revealing his softer side. At different points in the film, Eminem defends a gay co-worker, takes the lead in parenting his little sister by singing her a lullaby, stops a fight from escalating into a shooting, and comforts an injured friend. This was not the Slim Shady character listeners had come to know. Instead, it was a caricature of feelings and personality traits often obscured by personal dysfunction and controversy. There were many in the media hoping Eminem's debut film would be a flop, but it earned over $100M at the box office, and while Eminem didn't have to stretch much to play a Detroit rapper, he garnered his share of critical praise.
It was on the set of the movie inspired by his life that he wrote "Lose Yourself," his most commercially successful and inspirational song. Eminem was on an upward trajectory of positive energy, and it translated itself into the biggest rap hit of 2002.
On set and in between filming, Eminem worked with his musical collaborators, the Bass Brothers, in a recording trailer. While Em had scribbled the lyrics on a piece of paper in between shots (the piece of paper actually makes an appearance in the movie during a scene where Em rides the bus to work), the musical track had been compiled and revised for nearly a year. Working on the track during the sessions of what would become Em's third album, The Eminem Show, Jeff Bass said the music "was an old idea we kept banging away at, trying to make it a song…. I picked up the guitar and started playing that little chord progression, not knowing if it was a song or not. Typically, I'll come up with the music part. Em may have a drum beat going, and I'll pick up a guitar or keyboard and put some chords together, see what's feeling good and lay a bass line down. A lot of the tunes on The Eminem Show started like that." ( source)
Despite the fact that the tune was coming together, though, Em was having trouble finding the right lyrics. "We kept pulling [the track] out of the computer and saying, 'We gotta do something with this,'" Bass said. "But we were stuck. It took a long time for him to write the lyrics. But the rhymes weren't flowing easily. Em would come up with words, but they wouldn't be right for the beat." ( source) Once the script for 8 Mile was delivered to Eminem, though, it was clear that he would have to write songs not just from the perspective of Eminem, Slim Shady, or Marshall Mathers, but as yet another persona, B. Rabbit. It was then that he thought of the unused track.
While "Lose Yourself" went on to dominate the radio and earn him an Oscar (in addition to the 13 Grammys he has grabbed), the song represents an intersection of Em's life story. His ability to collaborate with other musicians and his ability to utilize impromptu lyric sessions informs his songs. There is a central theme in “Lose Yourself” about seizing the moment, but the lyrics are fragmented, almost as if Em is grasping for something to say. Somehow he gets the message across, imparting shards of struggle and ambition as he switches personalities between the B. Rabbit character and back to his original self, Marshall Mathers.
If you follow the narrative that has been constructed by Eminem's albums and the character he plays in 8 Mile, it is almost as if Em has simply been sharing his personal diary with listeners. "Lose Yourself" is a cap on the frustrations, anxieties, and setbacks that everyone can relate to. Not everyone grew up as a poor rapper from Detroit, but it's Eminem's unmatched ability to impart raw emotion that gives him the credibility to put together an anthem that tells us to seize the day and live in the moment while using such specific examples from his lives, both real and imagined.