Even at the peak of his popularity, when he was raising hell on MTV, inspiring bottle-blond dye jobs in middle schools across the country and selling more records than any other artist of his generation, Eminem never got good at being famous. He’s still awkward in interviews, still lives in his native Detroit and maintains the same core group of friends he’s had for most of his adult life. Two of his best albums, 2000’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” and 2002’s “The Eminem Show,” were largely about either rebelling against the spotlight or reflecting it back on those who deigned to wield it. And on latest single “The Monster,” featuring Rihanna and released Oct. 28, the rap megastar’s discomfort with stardom remains front and center.
“I wanted the fame, but not the cover of Newsweek/Oh well, I guess beggars can’t be choosy,” he rhymes. “Wanted to receive attention for my music/Wanted to be left alone in public, excuse me.”
“I remember it felt like shit was just flying by me and nothing really seemed real,” Eminem says, recalling the media frenzy of his early years, during which he tangled with, among others, GLAAD and Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “When I was making records, I would just take my frustrations out about that. I mean, fuck, here it is 2013 and I still don’t really have a total grasp on it yet and understand it.”
The price of fame is just one of a handful of favorite topics that Eminem, now 41, wrestles with once more on new album “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” due Nov. 5 on Aftermath/Interscope. He’s dubbed the project a “revisitation” of the first “Marshall Mathers,” taking the opportunity to re-examine “themes and chapters that I felt like I hadn’t closed.”
With its invocation of his seminal breakthrough album — which, at 10.8 million copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, is also his best-selling (“The Eminem Show” is a close second at 10.3 million)-Eminem knows his eighth solo LP is likely to be subjected to intense levels of scrutiny. But he’s never been the type to shy away from a challenge. Asked whether he’s worried that people will take the project the wrong way or compare it unfavorably with its predecessor, he displays a convincingly Zen-like detachment.
“I kind of just make what I make and however people take to it is how they take to it, or don’t take to it,” he says. “I knew that it would have to match a certain intensity and vibe and feel in order to call it [“The Marshall Mathers LP 2″]. I want to say I’m confident that I’ve done that, but it’s up to the listener to decide.”
The idea of taking a trip down memory lane first came to him after recording “Hell: The Sequel,” his 2011 collaborative EP with fellow Detroit rapper and old friend Royce Da 5′ 9″. On a creative streak after the project had finished, he recorded a handful of solo songs that friends, including manager Paul Rosenberg, said reminded them of the old days.
“He was messing around with a few things and I told him some of the delivery and vocal tones he was using felt reminiscent of his older stuff,” Rosenberg says. “That planted the seed in his head.”
Eminem adds, “One of the things I thought might be cool to try to accomplish was to see if I could bring it back and remind people of the first time they ever heard me on a record. I wanted to try and recapture that nostalgic feeling.”
As effective as nostalgia may have been for the creative process, it was of little solace to Rosenberg and Interscope, who faced the task of marketing the sequel to the 14th-best-selling album in the history of SoundScan in a radically changed industry environment. To approximate the omnipresence that Eminem enjoyed in the era of “Total Request Live” and Tower Records, his team crafted an aggressive and forward-looking campaign that relied heavily on strategic partnerships.
The most important of those was with Activision, the videogame producer whose “Call of Duty” line of first-person-shooters has become one of the most lucrative entertainment franchises in the world. The company had licensed music from Eminem for previous installments of the game, and Rosenberg approached it in the spring with the prospect of a partnership that would go much deeper.
As part of a multifaceted deal, the terms of which weren’t disclosed, Eminem and Interscope licensed the “Marshall Mathers LP 2” song “Survival” for use in Activision’s upcoming holiday tent-pole “Call of Duty: Ghosts” and relevant marketing materials. The song had its world premiere, before any details about the album were announced, at a “Call of Duty” event in Los Angeles in August. A video for the track, financed by Activision and featuring Eminem in front of a backdrop of in-game footage, was released the following month.
“We know from our own research that our fans have a really strong affinity for Eminem — there’s a lot of overlap there,” Activision chief marketing officer Tim Ellis says. “Aligning the two brands is something we think will continue to serve us well into the future.”
Beyond the “Survival” deal, Interscope and Activision conspired to unite their formidable forces at retail. The two parties coordinated the release of the album and the game for Nov. 5 and have arranged nationwide midnight sale campaigns at Walmart and Best Buy.
The partnership’s biggest coup, though, is at Game Stop, where all copies of “Call of Duty: Ghosts” will come with a code to download “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” and an exclusive song at $8.99 — three dollars off the standard-edition iTunes price. The previous installment in the “Call of Duty” series, 2012’s “Black Ops II,” set a record with $500 million in first-day sales, and with more than 4,000 stores nationwide, first-week foot traffic for “Ghosts” at Game Stop alone is estimated to be in the millions.
“People in the music industry ask me all the time, ‘How do we get into Game Stop?'” Activision VP of music affairs Tim Riley says. “We know that people who buy a lot of games are the same people who buy a lot of music, but this is the first time we’ve been able to get a deal like this done.”
With “The Marshall Mathers LP 2″‘s official first single, the Rick Rubin-produced “Berzerk,” Rosenberg and Interscope turned to another pair of partners to maximize the song’s exposure. The track was featured in a Beats headphones commercial that aired during MTV’s Video Music Awards in August that included snippets of the official music video. The ad, in addition to serving as the world premiere of “Berzerk,” also marked the official announcement of the album, revealing its title, release date and the involvement of executive producers Rubin and Dr. Dre for the first time.
“Keeping that a secret was a modern miracle,” Rosenberg says of the ad. “Pulling it off meant telling a lot of people ‘no,’ which doesn’t always make your partners happy, but we really believe in the element of surprise. That we were able to give people all of that information in a 15-second spot like that really helped us make a big splash.”
In addition to the deal with Beats — in which Eminem’s label bosses and longtime co-conspirators Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre have an ownership stake — “Berzerk” was named the official song of ESPN’s “Saturday Night Football” (broadcast on ABC) for the duration of the season. Eminem made a rare live TV appearance on the program in September to premiere the video for the song during the matchup between Michigan and Notre Dame. His slack-jawed interview with Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger caused a social media sensation, and sparked arguments about whether his nervousness was an act or not. (“I feel awkward,” Eminem told Musburger.) Viewership that night totaled 8.6 million, according to Nielsen, more than doubling the season average.
Digitally, marketing efforts surrounding “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” have been equally aggressive. A newly relaunched Eminem.com offered exclusive pre-order bundles more than a month before the iTunes presale. A bundle of the deluxe CD and a lithograph signed by Eminem priced at $500 sold out in a limited edition of 500. So did bundles that included a CD and hoodie ($76) and a CD, T-shirt and unsigned lithograph ($68). Driven largely by Eminem’s 77 million Facebook fans and nearly 16 million Twitter followers, Rosenberg says pre-orders for the album from Eminem.com alone were up to 10,000 units eight days before release date.
“We’ve really figured out how to engage the fan base online in a way that seems to be working,” he says. “If you have the right people coordinating it and you plan everything out, the steps that you make toward a record can be very powerful.”
A less likely, but reportedly effective contributor to the presale figure was Waze, the fast-growing traffic and navigation startup that Google acquired for $1 billion in June. Interscope used the app to place virtual ads called “pins” at the locations of music retailers nationwide. Whenever one of Waze’s 30 million users drives by an Eminem pin, clicking on it displays a full-screen ad for the album including a link to the pre-order.
“One of the things we wanted to do for this campaign was ‘never-been-done-befores,'” Interscope head of digital marketing Brooke Michael says. “Most people may not think of music when they think of Waze, but we saw it as an opportunity to engage with millions of captive users in a unique way.”
November marks five-and-a-half years into the second act of Eminem, who, in the years following 2004’s “Encore,” famously ended the first by self-immolating on Vicodin, Valium and Ambien. In 2006, best friend and lifelong confidante Proof was gunned down in an altercation outside of a Detroit nightclub. The tragedy turned a long-simmering romance with prescription drugs into an all-consuming affair, and he spent days on end in a hazy stupor, emerging either cruel or incoherent on the occasions when he could get out of bed. Rock bottom was his bathroom floor, where his kids found him after an accidental methadone overdose two days before Christmas in 2007. Doctors later said he had been just two hours away from death.
“When he wasn’t sober, he was just so unfocused and not himself that it was difficult to connect with him,” Rosenberg recalls. “There were times when you literally couldn’t have a normal conversation with him. And when you can’t have a conversation with someone or connect with them on a human level, you feel like you’ve lost them. It was horrible.”
The lost years ended formally on April 20, 2008, when Eminem finally got sober with the help of a rehabilitation counselor, whom he still sees, though lately on a less frequent basis. But the artist who came out on the other side of addiction was changed. “Relapse,” his 2009 album and first attempt at recording after getting clean, was a bleak and discomfiting glimpse at how dark things had become. Under the cover of trusty alter ego Slim Shady, the album was unrelenting in its exorcism of Eminem’s most ghoulish demons.
A year later, he took another first step toward the light with the companion album “Recovery.” Part return to form, part new chapter, the album featured him fashioning hits out of inspirational anthems including “Won’t Back Down” (featuring P!nk) and “Not Afraid,” which gave him his fourth career No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. On album cut “Talking to Myself,” Eminem attempted to make amends, like any good 12-stepper, for being less than himself in years prior.
“Them last two albums didn’t count,” he rhymed. “‘Encore’ I was on drugs, ‘Relapse’ I was flushing ’em out.”
“Things are a little more calm for me now,” Eminem says. “There was a time when everything was kind of flying by the seat of my pants and I kind of didn’t know what was happening to my life. That certainly did get the best of me, with drugs and the pressure of all that shit. I’m at a different point now, but I still want to rap with the same energy and intensity and passion as before because, at the end of the day, this is what I love.”
“The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” title notwithstanding, is as much a continuation of the Eminem story as it is a return to signature themes. For every throwback song or reminder of his humble origins — including “Legacy,” which features the singer Paulina doing her best impression of Dido circa “Stan” — there’s one that explores yet uncovered sonic or thematic territory. “The Monster” sports a synth-based buoyancy that borders on dance music, “Rhyme or Reason” samples the Zombies’ ’60s psych-pop standard “Time of the Season” and “So Far…” finds Eminem, who has been a dad for the duration of his career, officially rapping like one: “What the fuck I got to do to hear this new song from Luda? Be an expert at computers?” he complains.
This Eminem is a pop oddity, a rap rabble-rouser who became a global phenomenon, self-destructed, survived and, somewhere along the way, grew up. The existence of an eighth album from someone who once ruthlessly ridiculed anyone older than 35 is no less a cause for celebration among his core fan base, which has proved remarkably resilient.
In 2009, after a five-year absence (and a year after MTV gave into its reality TV identity by finally pulling the plug on “TRL”), “Relapse” sold an impressive 609,000 copies in its first week. The next year, Recovery fared even better, selling 741,000 first-week copies and going on to become the best-selling album of the year.
“His songs really cut through all demographics,” says Interscope vice chairman/head of marketing Steve Berman, who made a famous cameo on the first “Marshall Mathers LP.” “Working on a project like this is such an awesome opportunity, and responsibility, because there are so many different people that relate to Eminem’s music and what he’s talking about.”
Eminem will perform Nov. 2 on “Saturday Night Live” and again the next night at the YouTube Music Awards, where he’s nominated for artist of the year. In February 2014, he’ll embark on a four-date tour of Australia and New Zealand, supported by J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, the latter the latest in a line of Dr. Dre protégés that includes Snoop Dogg and Eminem himself.
“What he’s doing right now, it’s pretty fucking incredible,” Eminem says of Lamar, sounding genuinely excited. “He seems like this kid that’s just full of life and happy to be here. The impact he’s had over just the last couple of years…it’s been really fun for me to watch.”
As for whether there will be a “Marshall Mathers LP 3” in 2026, don’t bank on it.
“I hope not,” Eminem says. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing as far as whether I’ll still be making music — I’d like to keep doing it as long as I still have the passion for it. But I hope to always be involved in hip-hop in one form or another. Because when it comes down to it, this is really all I know.”