Well before he took the stage, it was clear that Eminem’s headlining performance was going to be a spectacle. As one of the best-selling artists of all time, he has both the money and the clout to put on a show for the ages, and it seemed that many of those attending the last night of Boston Calling 2018 expected him to do just that. Despite the Detroit rapper’s fame and talent, however, by the end of the show, the non-musical had partially upstaged him. In the end, Eminem seemed small compared to the excess with which he had surrounded himself.
All Sunday long, fans displaying every conceivable kind of Eminem merch were present, milling around Harvard’s Athletic Complex just waiting for him to start his set. Dozens of people in Eminem hoodies and other branded gear were in the audience—some likely there only to secure a good spot for his performance—during Thundercat’s show, which was on the same stage four hours before the rapper was scheduled to appear.
This tactic proved necessary, as by the time Eminem actually performed, the crowd had exploded, dwarfing those for every other artist at the festival. Furthermore, at other shows, only the most committed fans could be found dancing and singing along to every song near the front of the stage. Even at the back of Eminem’s audience, however, one was still likely to be surrounded by those very invested in his performance.
Eminem was in fine form, blowing through the almost 30 songs in his set, including covers of Dr. Dre and Drake. His staccato flow and lyrical prowess kept the crowd enthralled as he and longtime associate Royce da 5’9” performed tracks from “The Slim Shady LP,” the 1999 album that made him famous, all the way through last year’s “Revival.” Royce and Eminem have previously released music as Bad Meets Evil, and tonight they performed “Fast Lane,” the lead single off of their 2011 collaboration “Hell: The Sequel.” With the exception of a few songs like “Stan” and “Lose Yourself,” the music was hardly the most memorable part of the evening—so much else was happening onstage, namely a mass of inessential elements that unnecessarily distracted from the show.
Royce wasn’t the only person to join Eminem on stage: Skylar Grey, the singer-songwriter who co-wrote “Love the Way You Lie,” Eminem’s hit collaboration with Rihanna, joined them for “Walk on Water” and “Stan,” to replace Beyoncé and Dido, respectively. Even without Grey or Royce, Eminem would have had a full stage, as he was flanked by two drummers with full kits. Between them sat roughly a dozen musicians with string instruments, and on all sides, various DJs, keyboardists, guitarists, and others stood in the shadows.
Behind this crowd of people onstage hung a massive screen, depicting an industrial landscape and a factory in the foreground, with screens on two towers on either side, adding depth to the animation. Throughout the course of the show, the factory and its surroundings changed, as the factory was gradually destroyed, overgrown, and turned into snow-covered ruins. During Eminem’s performance of “The Monster,” King Kong appears briefly before realizing the building he hoped to climb was destroyed before he got there. The shifting backdrop constantly drew the eye away from the actual performance, with the sole purpose of following the story it depicted. To go with the Rust Belt aesthetic, a massive tower stood center stage, an anvil inscribed with Detroit’s 313 area code hanging from its top.
Amidst all this, Eminem and Royce kept their audience entertained with plenty of banter and crowd work. Most notably, he referenced the rumored romance between he and fellow rapper Nicki Minaj. Minaj had dismissed the possibility, saying her claim on Instagram that they were dating was joke, and Eminem may well have be teasing the audience when he said, “Shout out to my bae Nicki Minaj.” Moments later, however, he seemed more sincere when he asked, “Boston, how many of you want me to date Nicki Minaj?” When the audience responded with roars, he replied, “Well, goddamn it, me too,” then told Minaj to text him later. Later, in response to the shockingly graphic lyrics in “Fast Lane” about his desire to sleep with her, the audience laughed and cheered. More than almost any individual song, Eminem’s shout out to Minaj got the largest crowd response of the evening.
With so much stimulation already onstage, fans needn’t have bothered downloading Eminem’s augmented-reality app, “Eminem Augmented,” and indeed it appeared that few had—with good reason: They were hardly missing out. Among other features, the app is supposed to add effects to specific songs at live performances, and prompt for users to use specific features of the app flashed on screens tonight. The app, sadly, was glitchy, consistently misplacing where the stage was meant to be, and on a tiny phone screen in the midst of a jostling crowd, the effect of a robot (a giant version of Eminem himself) or any of the other animations, was lost. Instead, the app essentially forced those who wished to use it to watch their phones, instead of the performance.
As the show moved towards a close, the effects got bigger. At one point, bursts of flame shot out of the back of the stage, and one couldn’t help but spare a thought for the poor, cellist who had worked hard only to end up trapped between a jet of fire and tens of thousands of rabid Eminem fans. For an encore, Eminem played his iconic track “Lose Yourself,” from the 2002 film “8 Mile,” in which he starred. As he rapped, the ruined factory was replaced with a beautiful, revitalized cityscape, likely that of Detroit, symbolizing hope for a reversal of urban decay. At the end, fireworks erupted from the top of the stage, filling the area with smoke, and, with a bang, Eminem departed.
All of these extraneous touches—the set, the effects, the app, the personal drama—were entertaining, to be sure, but they distracted from the core of the show: the music. The stage seemed like a monument to Eminem’s success, but monuments are generally built after one’s death. After last year’s lackluster “Revival,” perhaps Eminem should be focusing on going back to the basics, instead of wasting his efforts on these nice, but far from crucial, pieces. His performance was, to be fair, excellent, his energy consistently high, but his show was so overstuffed it barely registered. In the end, Eminem the man seemed dwarfed by the edifice he had built around himself.
—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at email@example.com.
10 Questions with Hilton AlsHilton Als is a staff writer for the New Yorker. He wrote “The Women,” and recently published a new novel, “White Girls.”
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