To say that the expectations were high for Eminem at Austin City Limits Fest would be the understatement of the weekend. Of the headliners, up-and-coming acts and pop playlist standards peppering the lineup, he was the one who's been away the longest (with the exception of the Replacements). He's the one with a record to promote. He's the one who's got the platform and the audience in the palm of his hand awaiting his next move. He's the guy who can deliver or disappoint.
Despite the enthusiasm that exploded at Lollapalooza when he brought out Rihanna and the announcement on the night of the VMAs that a new record was on the way, it's been a minute since Marshall Mathers took front and center on the mainstage of any massive music event. He may be Slim Shady forever and always, but Eminem is the one who had the most riding on his showing at ACL Fest, and thankfully, he proved the haters wrong—or at least forced them to reconsider their argument.
The stoic, unsmiling celebrity that Eminem's become made a brief appearance at the opening of his set, when a fake crime report was broadcast over the huge screens flanking the stage. The story: Marshall Mathers has disappeared—kidnapped, likely—and the suspect, Matthew Mitchell, is the little brother of Stan, the titular tragic character who corresponds with Eminem in his hit with Dido of the same name.
The question raised at the end of the cinematic clip? "Where is Marshall Mathers?" Clearly, Em's absence was felt by the man himself given the dramatics. He couldn't wait to burst out onto that stage, and he mentioned his time away from Austin within seconds of finishing up "Square Dance." The stoney-faced, intimidating rap guru was gone, and in his place came the Slim Shady from TRL's days of yore, the dude who could lap a stage twice-over without skipping a beat and rhyming his verses into submission at a Speedy Gonzalez-level rate. "It hasn't even been that long, it's been three years," he said, pausing for the cheers and screams to crash at his feet. "But it feels like f-ckin' twenty!"
His set list definitely reflected that, with Eminem dancing, punching and spritely working his way through a medley of his poppier jams ("Airplanes," the B.o.B. smash that featured him Hayley Williams of Paramore; the aforementioned Dido duet, "Stan;" both Rihanna collabs, "The Monster" and "Love The Way You Lie") just as intently as he did his fiercer standards. "Kill You," "Business," "The Way I Am" (complete with killer facemelting guitar solo), "Toy Soldiers," "My Name Is," "Without Me," "The Real Slim Shady" (of course): the list goes on, and his ACL Fest set was just as retrospective and full as Shady XV will hopefully feel when the album/label compilation spearheaded by the MC drops later this fall.
The emotional closer "Not Afraid" was dedicated to those who've lost loved ones to or are struggling with addiction, and it made for a poignant, raw moment that further distanced Eminem from the Marshall Mathers fictionalized in the Law & Order-worthy intro. While Lollapalooza gave us a glimpse of things to come with exciting surprises and news at the ready, ACL Fest gave us a peek into how Eminem's currently looking back on his own career as he prepares for its next chapter. Frankly, the world is ready for it, and it seems like we're all eager to turn the page.
Check out all of Fuse's on-the-ground coverage from Austin City Limits Festival 2014 here, including our list of the weekend's best moments.