Paris Hilton is in the crowd at Eminem with her fiance, but are the millennials? I am stood between her and a sixtysomething white-haired man who will soon be swaying his hips to every bar. Before Em appears, Paris – who became infamous during that same weird late-90s MTV era as the rapper – takes selfies with everyone, happy to be recognised: like Eminem, she’s fighting to stay around. Hilton tells me about the time she was in an Eminem video for 2004’s Just Lose It. “I had to punch him and I was nervous,” she says. “He kept making me do it harder and harder. Eminem’s just so real.” A man behind us collapses. “Is he OK?” Hilton asks. “Did a guy just die as we were taking a picture? I’ll say prayers for him. Imagine missing Eminem and dying. Double buzzkill.”
You wonder: is Eminem’s first ever Coachella headline set unmissable? Oddly, in America it’s a rarity to see Eminem live on a stage like this, unlike in Europe, where he often headlines major festivals. “We ain’t ever been on this stage. This is the best fucking time Eminem has ever had,” says his hype man after the opening number. “It feels great to be back in motherfucking America!” adds Em, as the Stars and Stripes drape the screen and he launches into White America, one of his more political songs from 2002’s The Eminem Show. “We need to start this shit off right,” he says. He doesn’t seem at all fazed by following Beyoncé’s #GOAT slot.
The set takes place with a DC Comics-looking version of an industrial town – probably Eminem’s own home of Detroit. In front is a full orchestra that adds melodrama to the doomsday soundtrack that dominates his career and tonight’s career-spanning set, which contains rap-alongs for the likes of Kill You, Sing for the Moment and Soldier.
Eminem plays many characters: angry dude, humorist, loser, but in the second third he posits his most relatable character: the emo outsider. He invites a guest vocalist to take on both the hefty drama of Love the Way You Lie (originally featuring Rihanna) and Stan (which featured Dido). As rain pours down on the backdrops during the latter, Hilton turns and asks if it’s real. As the clock strikes 11:11 she shouts: “Make a wish!”
And just like that 50 Cent comes out, with a grin on his face like it’s 2003 and his bestselling album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ just dropped. He spits a lethargic flow along to a trio of Patiently Waiting, I Got Money and – to the ecstasy of all here – In Da Club. “Go shorty! It’s your birthday,” hollers everyone. These blockbuster hits now feel old enough to be heritage classics. Eminem’s place here probably warrants a vintage classification, and yet he brings out the likes of emerging pop star Bebe Rexha on The Monster to bolster his relevance.
He’s not afraid to confront the critics, though. US late-night host Jimmy Kimmel makes a cameo appearance on the backing screens: “I love Eminem but not everyone does,” says Kimmel, before inviting Em and his MC to do an Eminem special of Kimmel’s “mean tweets” series. His MC reads tweets aloud: “No one’s been paying attention to you since 2003.” “Remember when Eminem was actually dope?” Em takes it all on the chin. “He kinda has a point,” he says. “Coachella, can I take you back to a time when I was actually good?”
From here on, the show is a masterclass in throwback entertainment. It begins with My Name Is – as sharp, fun and non-PC as it was when jostling for attention with the millennium bug. He segues into The Real Slim Shady, which stops abruptly with a record scratch when he raps the line: “Dr Dre’s dead. He’s locked in my basement.” The crowd realises that the legendary Compton rapper is going to come out. He unites with Eminem for a slew of era-defining classics: Still Dre, Nuthin’ But a G Thang and, of course, Forgot About Dre.
“Y’all know who that is?” says Eminem, pointing at Dre. “I know y’all did not forget who this man is.” The crowd raps all the parts as perfectly as Slim Shady. When Em delivers the high-pitched bars of “Slim Shady, hotter than a set of twin babies / In a Mercedes Benz with the windows up when the temp goes up to the mid-80s” you’re reminded why he was once the most ferociously funny and cutting-edge in the game. Dre says a perfect goodbye with a rendition of California Love. “You know what’s next,” says Em, before letting the voice of a non-holographic Tupac Shakur carry Pac’s classic verse. He ends the set by dedicating his final songs, including Lose Yourself, to anyone who’s ever struggled; this week is the 10th anniversary of his sobriety, he says. Tonight it doesn’t look like Eminem is vying for his old throne, rather that he’s grateful to have ever held it.