Call him, for Monday night at least, the worst-kept secret in showbiz.
When Eminem took the stage as the covert headliner of the "Red Bull Emsee: The Road to 8 Mile" freestyle battle, not a single person in New York City's sold-out Bowery Ballroom looked surprised. Groggy after a protracted set by Slaughterhouse, sure. Wild-eyed after one too many caffeinated cocktails, definitely. But surprised that Slim Shady was pacing the tiny stage at just past midnight on the release day of his seventh album? Not in the slightest.
The show's name gave it away; even hip-hop neophytes know Marshall Mathers from the movie 8 Mile and its Oscar-winning anthem "Lose Yourself" (who knew rhymes about upchucking mom's spaghetti could be so galvanizing?). The hip-hop freestyle battle is Eminem's hallowed ground, the fast-paced front where he rose to infamy in Detroit two decades ago, and now, more than ever, he wants to get back to those roots.
As much as anyone with 11 Grammys can be an underdog, Eminem needs to return to the rabid street hype of his earlier days. Recovery is the hopeful follow-up to last year's tepidly received Relapse, which didn't spawn any singles as mammoth as "My Name Is" (off 1999 debut The Slim Shady LP), "The Real Slim Shady" or "Stan" (off 2000's The Marshall Mathers EP), or "Without Me" (off 2002's The Eminem Show).
But Eminem didn't battle at Bowery; too bad, as he would've incinerated the more hapless first-round bozos. He waited in the wings as eight local amateurs were siphoned through three rounds of hip-hop fray; crowd favorite Cicada, a clean-cut kid who howled like a bloodcurdling Asher Roth, was eliminated early by judges Craig G, Alchemist, andRecoveryco-producerJust Blaze. The second freestyle round culled topics via text messages from the crowd, many members of which were obviously stoned ("Obama" was a reasonable prompt,"mushroom cloud" and "suspension bridge," not so much). Contestant DNA swept this Mad Libs round with quick wit; soon after, he carried the entire night. He'll compete in the Emsee finals in Detroit.
After the battle was won, the Slaughterhouse quartet of Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, Crooked I, and Royce da 5'9" dispelled break-up rumors and pounded through a long set, the highlight being "Sound Off" ("I am the general, bow now/ Fuck saluting!" got a bigger roar than anything DNA dished).
But even they seemed restless for the headliner.
Eminem stormed the stage without pause after Slaughterhouse's set, first with a blistering revisit of "Despicable," the freestyle he recorded as promo for Recovery's sing-song lead single, "Not Afraid," which is harder-hitting in the verses than the kumbaya chorus suggests.
Ripping off his nylon jacket, pulling his baseball hat low over his eyes, and slapping the hands of a hysterical front row, Em was magnetic. He quickly ran through two more Recovery tracks, "On Fire" and "Won't Back Down." The line "Listen garden tool/ Don't make me introduce you to my power tool," off the latter, was an awesomely weird, indelible moment live.
Then, barely audible over the hoots for "Shady! Encore!," he muttered, "Honest to God, thank you for getting me to where I'm at"-and as quickly as he came, he disappeared..
"Well, how much did you think you were gonna get for $15?" asked D.R.I.S. Tha BEATnik, smirking into the rising lights and the delirious crowd. Not an encore, it turns out. But the proximity to Eminem, on the eve of wherever he's going next, was enough.