BY THOMAS CONNER Pop Music Critic
Arcade Fire beat Eminem to Lollapalooza (they headlined here last year) and snatched the top Grammy from him in February. But it's still been Mr. Mathers' year. Taylor Swift, after all, isn't covering Arcade Fire in concert this summer, and if Facebook is any arbiter of cultural presence, it was announced this week that Eminem has overtaken Lady Gaga as the most "liked" living person on the social media site.
For fans new and old, Eminem took to Lollapalooza's main stage Saturday night and encapsulated his entire career into one sizzling 90-minute set. Featuring two noteworthy guests -- and assisted midway by an old partner, Ryan "Royce da 5'9" " Montgomery -- the Detroit rapper launched a consistent barrage of recognizable tunes and furious rhymes into the largest crowd ever assembled at the annual concert festival in Chicago's Grant Park.
Performing nearly the exact set he delivered in June at the Bonnaroo festival, Eminem -- who so rarely tours these days -- dished hits one after another, sometimes in abbreviated form, reaching all the way back to "The Slim Shady LP." Prowling the stage in a hoodie, Em proved deft as ever with his famously furious rhymes (misogynistic and homophobic as they sometimes are), spitting out "No Love" and "The Way I Am" with such tenacity and urgency you wouldn't think there was a decade between them.
Midway through the set, though, it was easy to forget Eminem is a rapper as we entered the hot chorus portion of the evening, signaled by the guest appearance of Bruno Mars. The omnipresent tunesmith sang a trademark melody for the chorus of "Lighters," a new single from Bad Meets Evil, a revived collaboration between Eminem and Royce that delivered a new EP in June. This continued through "Airplanes II," "Space Bound" and several other tracks more song than rap. By the time we reached "Love the Way You Lie," we expected Skylar Grey -- who co-wrote the song and who performed on Lollapalooza's BMI stage earlier in the day -- to take the Rihanna part. No dice. She did, however, appear to sing her part in "I Need a Doctor."
"Lighters" was the song that softened the immensity of the audience in Hutchinson Field. This was a crowd one could officially refer to as ginormous. With a record sell-out this year of 90,000 each day, it looked as if at least 80,000 of them were waving hands and jumping up and down in the mud for Eminem. Even he seemed impressed, guffawing, "Holy sh--, there's a lot of people here." But in between Em's fuzzy-wuzzy raps in that song, Mars sang about "a sky full of lighters" at the same time he witnessed one. Tens of thousands of people in a field holding lighters -- real lighters, much more than cell phones for a change -- was a breathtaking sight.
Eminem has made much of his recovery, even making it the title of last year's "comeback" album. A video intro to the concert plays up the post-addiction story, and Saturday night -- after asking fans, "How many people here get f---ed up to the "Recovery" album? ... What kinda crazy backwards-ass sh--is that?" -- he even managed to turn it into sketch comedy. In what he played as a personal moment, Eminem asked the crowd if we minded him relapsing tonight, taking a drink. He produced a bottle. Veteran hype man Kon Artis played the other side, "You sure you wanna do this? You know you get crazy when you drink." Eminem slowly put the bottle to his lips and drank. Liquid then began streaming from various holes in the special shirt he was wearing, as if he were a Warner Bros. cartoon character enjoying a beverage after a gun fight. What is this, "Hip-Hop With Benny Hill"?
He also used the shtick to validate -- or explain away -- the quirky, juvenile sound of his early hits. A medley of "My Name Is"/"The Real Slim Shady"/"Without Me" sounds potentially hilarious cast against Em's grave current image as a newly sober but still angry young man, but he introduced it by framing it in context with his addiction: "This is the stuff I was making when I was drunk."
Skylar Grey's own midafternoon performance on a side stage established that she belongs on the sidelines. Sassing around the stage in a flailing shirt and bikini top, Grey tried to play the tough, bad girl but hit the mark closer to Alannah Myles than, say, Gwen Stefani. Backed by too many meathead rap-rock grooves and peppered with too many clumsy exhortations for the sizable crowd to either dance or fight each other, most of the songs from Grey's forthcoming album, "Invinsible" (sic) seemed a dime a dozen despite her obvious vocal talent. She opened "Weirdo" with the refrain from Radiohead's "Creep" and sermonized about celebrating the world's oddballs, and it just sounded like a cheap grab at Lady Gaga's limelight. Here's to more "featuring Skylar Grey" and less solo Skylar Grey.