It was a miracle really: A self-described “white boy” from Detroit travels to Los Angeles to battle in the Rap Olympics and comes in second place (which he asserts is some bullshit). An Interscope employee witnesses said kid in action and decides to send his demo to Interscope CEO Jimmy Iovine, who then decides to forward it to Dr. Dre. The unknown rapper and Dre connect, the veteran’s then-failing label is saved, and Eminem rises from an underground artist to a multi-platinum entertainer to a social pariah to a voice of a generation.
The tools Eminem had on this rise do seem tangible. His technical prowess is unmatched by most, his delivery can switch from melodic to manic in an instant, and his songwriting has evolved over time. But if it’s all tangible, then how come it hasn’t been replicated since he’s been in the game? Approximately 220 million of his albums have been sold worldwide — like that will happen for anyone ever again.
Now, he’s back withThe Marshall Mathers LP 2. According to our own Mike Madden, the album’s “nostalgic in all the right ways, a worthy look back at the LP that made him the world’s most popular cult figure.” Because he’s keeping his eye on the rearview mirror, we decided to follow suit and tallied a list of his 20 greatest songs. Let us know what you think in the comments below.
We’ve all been there. Probably not to the extent that Eminem has, but the opposite sex will be frustrating. Of course, no one really thinks about doing a majority of what Eminem touches on here. However, “Superman” succeeds in using its absurdist imagery to connect with listeners on a visceral level. “Puss blew out, poppin’ shit/ Wouldn’t piss on fire to put you out.” That’s harsh, but it’s an excellent articulation of angst born out of the instinctual desire to be needed. And that tampon/anthrax line? Well, that’s just nasty.
19. Déjà Vu
Eminem’s return to rap was one of the bigger moments on his comeback album, 2009’s Relapse. So, where the hell was he during his five-year sabbatical from his last album? We get a graphic, direct explanation here: “See me and you we almost had the same outcome, Heath/ Cause that Christmas you know the whole pneumonia thing?/ It was bologna, was it the methadone, ya think?” That combined with the anecdote of his daughter wondering what to do with a drug-addicted father makes this one of the most harrowing cuts of his more recent discography. The drowsiness of the Dr. Dre produced beat serves as a further reminder that this is simply a human being trying to get re-acclimated. His world-conquering days might be over.
18. Love You More
Love has hardly ever sounded this ugly. Of course, there’s his infamous murder fantasy, “Kim”, but the brutality of “Love You More” lies in its dark details. Eminem gets a sexual thrill off the pain of his relationship here, and he’s well aware about its consequences. As he raps, “It’s sick but who could ever predict, we’d be doin’ the same shit/ We say we do it for our baby but we don’t/ We do it for us, it’s lust cause neither one/ Of us trust each other, so we fuck ’til we bust.” There’s no heroism to be found in this abusive cycle, and it’s heartbreaking when the main ray of light is: “You’re the only one I can fuck without a condom on/ I hope, the only reason that I cope is cause of that fact/ And plus I can bust in that.” Well, at least it’s not murder, right?
17. Like Toy Soldiers
As long as the memories of Biggie, Tupac Shakur, and Big L continue to ache, this song will always haunt. Although Eminem’s plea for ceasefire sure sounds hopeful, especially over that pristine Martika sample, he’s hardly a preacher. After all, he also had a stake in the Murder Inc./Interscope beef that inspired the song. Previously, Eminem’s daughter was named in one of Ja Rule’s records (“Em, you claim your mother’s a crackhead and Kim is a known slut / So what’s Hailie gon’ be when she grows up?”) and from there the problem escalated. Accountability needed to be involved here, and it was, making the song’s final plea a little more resonant. It also made “Big Weenie” – the Benzino diss that comes a few songs later – feel much more incongruous.
16. Kill You
How do you respond to protests and claims of misogyny? You start the biggest album of your career with a song engorging in it. It’s a harshly written piece of aggression that’s not without reason. “Fuck with me, I been through hell, shut the hell up/ I’m tryna develop these pictures of the Devil to sell ’em.” It turns out he’s a pretty good salesman as these pictures (read: The Marshall Mathers LP) sold over 10 million albums. But before the pandemonium completely unfolds, you get sets of masturbatory lines that are so intricately layered and a riff that’s so fidgety and cartoonish that you pretty much don’t feel bad for listening.
15. Sing for the Moment
Instead of using vulgarity, Eminem instead chose to converse and muse about his ongoing issues. This shows growth on his part, but what’s even more impressive is that he’s still packing thrills at almost the same rate. It’s just Eminem with more introspection and a little more nuance in his punchlines. Like the stadium-rocking Aerosmith sample implies, the scope of his lyrics expands the spotlight on more than just him. “They say music can alter moods and talk to you/ Well, can it load a gun up for you and cock it too?/ Well if it can, and the next time you assault a dude/ Just tell the judge it was my fault, and I’ll get sued,” he raps. He’s isn’t pointing the middle finger, but the index at maybe even logic itself. It also works really well as a companion piece to the wise-cracking “Role Model”. That was Eminem gawking at fame, “The Way I Am” is him struggling with it, and “Sing for the Moment” is him glaring at it through a sober lens.
14. Role Model
Perhaps no song in Eminem’s catalogue feels of its time than “Role Model”. It was a rare moment where he could actually joke about the responsibilities of massive success. Over the lackadaisical guitar riff, Eminem combines both crude (“I’m about as normal as Norman Bates with deformative traits/ A premature birth that was four minutes late”) and grotesque (“Hilary Clinton tried to slap me and call me a pervert/ I ripped her fucking tonsils out and fed her sherbet”) humor to wag the finger at trigger happy conservatives. It’s an achievement in itself that Eminem was able to open fire on so many targets while tying together a central concept at ease. And that was always the thing about his early works. Minds were blown, activists called for his head, and you could always just picture the rapper lying in some booth with a smirk.
It’s not that Eminem wasn’t a great rapper before Slim Shady. He just wasn’t a very good entertainer. He lacked the emotion to make any of his obvious skills grasp the listener as it should’ve. That said, an early track like “Infinite” proves that his hunger would leak into tracks. His silent determination here is one of the underdog, which is absolute magic. Lines like “There’s never been a greater since the burial of Jesus/ Fuck around and catch all the venereal diseases” rumble with a deep yearning for something greater, an easily relatable feeling because, really, who hasn’t wanted to be that guy. “Infinite” was Em’s most telling moment before the ego kicked in just years later.
12. My Name Is
On one hand, it’s a litmus test for many to judge the multiple levels of Eminem fandom. Some might call this the first single of his career, others might point to the far superior “Don’t Give a Fuck”. Then there are those that just recognize this as the moment a star was born. “My Name Is” also shed light on the Detroit MC’s warped sense of humor, which would become a prevalent attribute of any of his following albums. With one question, he kicked both adults and kids off their chairs: “Hi kids, do you like violence?” The former falling flat on their asses, the latter registering as fans.
11. Cleanin’ Out My Closet
Critics and fans often suggest The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show are more than just chart-toppers, they’re therapy sessions. That’s perhaps nowhere more obvious than within the bubbling rage of “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”. As the title suggests, he’s tossing the emotional baggage around, and at specific targets: his mother, his absentee father, and naturally Kim. The acid’s really flung at his mother, though, as he raps: “Bitch do your song, keep tellin’ yourself that you was a mom/ But how dare you try to take what you didn’t help me to get/ You selfish bitch, I hope you fuckin’ burn in hell for this shit.” He’s picking at festering wounds here, and in a combination of schadenfreude and awe, it’s still entertaining.
10. Scary Movies
Sometimes it’s the vulgarity of the lyrical content that throws people off. Other times, it’s the cartoonish nonchalance. Royce Da 5’9” delivers a laser-focused verse only to have Detroit buddy Eminem throw punchline after punchline as if he was some sort of homicidal Bugs Bunny. By 1999, Eminem was a fully grown man, so one has to assume he’s aware of how batshit crazy he must sound to people, especially lines like “You act up and I’m throwing you down a flight of steps then I’m throwing you back up them” or “I’m sicker than a 2Pac dedication to Biggie.” Then again, regular folk aren’t all that interesting, and perhaps Eminem knew that.
9. Guilty Conscience
The idea of Dr. Dre and Eminem as dueling consciousness is a very novel one (and one that hasn’t been mimicked too much thankfully). But what buoys this song is the severe lack of damns Eminem has in his verses. Not about repercussions or blacklash. Nothing. He even had the cojones to reference Dre’s infamous Dee Barnes incident even though they’re on the same song. That’s one of the tamer moments, too.
8. The Way I Am
“Shit, half the shit I say, I just make it up,” he says on The Marshall Mathers LP closer, “Criminal”. With “The Way I Am”, he embraced his other half. Eminem isn’t rapping as much as he’s snarling on this track — there’s genuine rage here. Why not? He’s glossing over more or less an exposé on his then recent life and times. This isn’t the rise of an icon, but a millennial voice. He raps: “And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me/ So I point one back at ’em, but not the index or pinkie/ Or the ring or the thumb, it’s the one you put up/ When you don’t give a fuck, when you won’t just put up.” Not the one he puts up. Yours. You should be mad as well.
7. ’97 Bonnie & Clyde
Even the most wicked have some sort of a soft spot. After dropping the schizophrenic “Just Don’t Give a Fuck”, Eminem issued his tribute to Hailie, “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”. (Then called “Just the Two of Us” before appearing on The Slim Shady LP with a different beat.) Slim Shady is still in character, but this time there’s a method to his madness. He disposes of Hailie’s mother’s body (she has a “boo-boo” on her neck, you see?) and prepares to dispose of her stepbrother and stepfather. It’s tense, but what we have here is one of Eminem’s first examples of him skillfully balancing extremes with a sense of emotional depth. Instances like the “spilled ketchup” and the baby talk shocks the listener, but the soliloquy to his daughter at the end really sticks.
“Criminal” is a closing, reaffirming statement in which Eminem capitalizes on everything that’s made his Slim Shady and Eminem persona legendary. Homophobic vitriol is multiplied, Dre catches an AK to his face, and he murders a bank teller right in the middle of the song. It all happens in a helter skelter pace that has a thrilling sense of exigency that turns the track into the classic it is. The final few lines perfects The Marshall Mathers LP: “Shit, half the shit I say, I just make it up/ To make you mad so kiss my white naked ass/ And if it’s not a rapper that I make it as/ I’ma be a fucking rapist in a Jason mask.” The vulgarity throughout the album switches from transgressive to defensive at this point. The vitriol and bravado was a front for a very humane love of the art form.
5. Just Don’t Give a Fuck
If we’re measuring “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” in pure rap semantics, everything does line up. The beat knocks hard enough to incite bouts of hooliganism. The hook is loud and obnoxious, like some of the best hip-hop songs (see: DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”). The flow is impeccable and he’s batting about 1.000 on the punchline stat category (“I’ll diss your magazine and still won’t get a weak review”). Yet the whole track feels like it’s on the verge of falling apart throughout the entire run time. Or maybe it’s the listener whose world is collapsing. Here we have this kid out of Detroit whimsically dropping lines upon lines effortlessly with a near-complete disregard for social mores. It’s rap semantics re-contextualized, and just like that, planet Shady became the place to be for the next couple of years.
4. The Real Slim Shady
Out of all the lead singles Eminem has released throughout his career, “The Real Slim Shady” still has the most bite. That’s including the ultra-serious “Not Afraid”. That’s not just because of the cartoonish bump-and-bass of Dre’s beat or the haymakers Eminem throws at dizzying speeds, especially sharp ones to the clean-mouthed Will Smith and the whereabouts of Christina Aguilera’s lips. It was hauntingly prophetic: “There’s a million of us just like me/ Who cuss like me / Who just don’t give a fuck like me.” With a little over 49 million albums sold in the U.S. and thrice that sold worldwide, it feels like a point that should’ve been made clear by the time the guitar coda kicks in.
3. Till I Collapse
This is “Lose Yourself” minus the mythology of B-Rabbit. “Till I Collapse” sheds musical ambition for something animalistic and the result forces action. It’s zero thought and all urgency, and that’s a very exciting feeling. The drums ripped from Queen stomp with an atomic force, while Eminem’s performance carries the nuance of a right hook to the neck. And if you’re wondering about the best rappers ever, “It goes Reggie, Jay-Z, 2Pac and Biggie/ Andre from OutKast, Jada, Kurupt, Nas and then me.” Any arguments?
“Stan” established Eminem as a legitimate poet rather than an eloquent shock lyricist — and the shocks remained. Bodies are mutilated during bouts of madness, a mind’s rationale gradually decomposes, and a pregnant woman drowns while screaming. But what makes it sting a little more is how it all feels so real. Listen to the brevity and violence as he darts through lines like “I ain’t mad, I just think it’s fucked up you don’t answer fans” and the lisp and audible delirium he delivers on Stan’s final verse. It gets to the point where one wonders how much of it’s really acting. It’s a scary thought that’s probably passed many minds. But how many of those same minds still hit replay?
1. Lose Yourself
While speaking on “Lose Yourself”, engineer Steven King told Rolling Stone that Eminem “was on a break from shooting [2002’s 8 Mile] and he laid down all three verses in one take.” How did he construct a Grammy and Academy award-winning hit with one take? Probably because there wasn’t anything to construct. The film’s story of B-Rabbit was more of an autobiographical account than anything fictional — even passersby knew that. Though, true to the rapper’s inherent genius he expanded that story into the sort of quotable arena rock anthem he’d go on to sample later in his career. When he screams, “Success is my only motherfucking option, failure’s not,” it’s pure gospel.