It wasn’t like Eminem didn’t know how to do sober, empowering records. “Lose Yourself’s” climax — “Success is my only motherfuckin’ option/ failure’s not” — is as self-serious and urgent as a quotable can get. That type of magic is hard to re-capture, but there’s something especially disappointing about just how far off Eminem was from it on Recovery.
His second comeback album in a row was the first one without that pop culture ethering lead single. Instead we got “Not Afraid,” an I-shall-overcome number that’s, by design, meant to fill stadiums. It seemed like it would accomplish just that; this was one of the G.O.A.T. standing with his balls in his hands saying it’s time to buck up. And that Boi-1da synth made sure it at least looked like Eminem was really going for it.
As time went by and the hype wore off, you start to realize the glaring clumsiness in lines like, “I'm way too up to back down/But I think I'm still trying to figure this crap out.” It’s realizations like these that make it apparent that Recovery is Eminem’s moment, although it’s not one everyone can share in.
Instead of sharing in his catharsis, fans are treated to Eminem rap-yelling himself into cacophony, and it becomes more of an endurance test for the listener than a musical experience. The haphazard, radio rip-off production helped transform Eminem from a shot of energy to the preacher (except a rapping one) on the train speaking to a chorus of sighs.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)
From a technical standpoint, Marshall Mathers LP 2 was Eminem’s true return-to-form after two false starts. There’s multiple criticisms that can be given about this effort, but there’s one thing that’s undisputable: The man can rap his ass off. From top to bottom, Eminem’s latest effort features some of the most tongue-twisting/tongue-incinerating, mind-boggling technical showcases heard in years. It’s actually contains some of the greatest of his career. “Rap God” is more masturbatory, rappity-rap showcase than a song, but at least the climaxes like the J.J. Fad reference in the third verse get their “Ahs” when they need to. Plus, the sound of Eminem screwing around gets back to being enjoyable, like in the joyous cynicism of “Rhyme or Reason” and the tenser album closer “Evil Twin.” “Headlights” is Eminem’s heartfelt apology to his mother; pretty notable for an album that’s supposed to revisit the original Marshall Mathers mindset.
One thing Eminem seemingly mastered by the turn of the millennium was the art of creating an album. Shady couldn’t quite recapture that in his re-visitation, as non-canonical filler mars Marshall Mathers LP 2. The album simply teeters on the edge of greatness at its best points, not quite enough to make up for the clunkers — namely the clichéd “Legacy” and the dated references of “Bezerk.” Low point “Stronger Than I Was” finds Eminem singing to a lesser, more grating effect than his performance on The Eminem Show’s “Hailie’s Song.” Marshall Mathers LP 2 could’ve been held in higher regard if albums were merely rap-olympics.
You should’ve heard the term, “The sum is greater than its parts,” by now. Encore is the opposite of that — a bunch of smaller negatives adding up to a greater misfortune. The initial disappointment of the self-referential lead single, “Just Lose It,” after a stream of great ones feels smaller in retrospect; that feeling is doubled in the context of this album. “Like Toy Soldiers” is a sobering and honest look at the nature of rap beef with an all too prescient video to go with it. Maybe “Big Weenie” is some sort of subversive, satirical nature of the absurdity of such tension, if we’re being optimistic. Even if it’s that, and not just a grating piece of filler, it’s still jarring and confounding how different it is in tonality from “Like Toy Soldiers,” which is just a few tracks before it.
We also get “Ass Like That” a few tracks before Eminem’s letter to his daughter before “Mockingbird.” Encore is the first Eminem album that doesn’t revolve around a definitive worldview, and it regresses into the rantings of a man succumbing to his vices (which turned out to be drug addiction). Unfortunately, this album officially marked the end of his pop culture dominance, and fans would have to deal with the aftertaste for an album-less five years.
Eminem was far from finding his voice and the production was paper-thin, but the most ardent critic couldn’t say the newcomer couldn’t rap. Perhaps he summarized Infinite’s charm in his recent Rolling Stone cover story: “"Hip Hop saved my life, man. It's the only thing I've ever been even decent at. I don't know how to do anything else. I think they have a word for that — what do they call it? Idiot savant?"
Rapping just to rap is essentially what he does in his conceptually immature first effort. Although it’s inessential in retrospect, there’s still something compelling about hearing someone rap with the type of hunger he does on the title track: “Imitator intimidator, stimulator, simulator of data, eliminator/There's never been a greater since the burial of Jesus/Fuck around and catch all the venereal diseases.” The fact that this was Em's debut project also gives it a bit of an edge, for the rareness factor if nothing else. It takes fans back to Eminem's starting place, giving us an idea of how he ended up where he is today.
What the people wanted from Eminem is more than what he could possibly give, so there was bound to be some disappointment. Instead of the reverberating, real-hip-hop-is-back sort of comeback, Relapse found Eminem “regressing” to the Slim Shady persona. Relapse argued not all men come out of rehab model citizens, however. From the mom-hating cut, “My Mom,” Eminem’s album found him wholeheartedly embracing Slim Shady’s murderous persona while still seeking humanity in it.
He proves he’s still acerbic when he does so too, like in the all too vivid murder fantasies of “3 a.m.” and the relived aggression of album closer “Underground.” The braggadocio horror flick can flip into a lucid view of human struggle from the eyes of someone who seemed so impervious to it just a few years ago. On “Déjà Vu’s” addict’s biography, he raps, “Now I need it just not to feel sick, yeah I'm gettin' by/ Wouldn't even be taking this shit if DeShaun didn't die/ Oh yeah, there's an excuse, you lose Proof so you use.” Relapse still had its clunkers like the Eminem standard comedic single “We Made You,” but at its high points, the effort could be as compelling as Em’s best work.
The Eminem Show (2002)
With his stardom at critical mass, Eminem decided to slide back the curtains a little more in what many argued was his finest work. Those were some pretty solid arguments, too. Although it wasn’t the record sales behemoth that The Marshall Mathers LP was, The Eminem Show was impressive in how well-rounded he is — both as a persona and a rapper. It was on this record Eminem showed he can express nearly every corner of human emotion in undistilled fashion, whether he was being sympathetic or unapologetically cocking the middle finger.
When he hated, he gave goosebumps and ended up pulling people deeper into the abyss (“Cleaning Out My Closet”). Rage, a very familiar emotion, was both galvanizing as it was human; “Soldier’s” visceral aura was felt in both its production (by Eminem, as is the rest of the album) and through its pointed words. The straightforwardness in, “tempt me, push me, pussies I need a good reason to give this trigger a good squeeze,” is just as brutal as any technical acrobatic he could possibly pull. It’s unfathomable to question Eminem when he puts himself in the all-time top nine on late cut “Till I Collapse,” an instant classic mountaintop proclamation. Eminem wasn’t just a jack-of-all-trades on The Eminem Show; he was a confident and masterful one. Hell, he even sings for joy in a majority of one cut (“Hailie’s Song”).
The Slim Shady LP (1999)
This was an album that has become both a gift and a curse for the debuting, blonde hair Eminem. Of course, this would be the start to his ascent into hip-hop Valhalla after going platinum in just over a week — a victory for those seeking refuge from late-90s, Bad Boy flourish. The Slim Shady LP placed an obstacle ahead of him at the same time. Was he going to be bigger than hip-hop’s Alex DeLarge? Can he outlive the revenge rape (“As the World Turns”), world-cursing vitriol (“Just Don’t Give a Fuck”), and absurdity (“Brain Damage”)? Well obviously, in retrospect. But it’s not like the debut didn’t hint he could. Tracks like the mournful, self-deprecative “If I Had” and the high-concept, twisted father-daughter lover story in “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” showed a frayed emotional depth.
The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
There are feats The Marshall Mathers LP has accomplished that will never be touched. It’s the fastest-selling solo album in music history (1.76 million) and the biggest-selling single disc album in hip-hop history (10.7 million in the U.S.).
The Marshall Mathers LP’s legacy isn’t merely measured by its statistical feats, however. It’s in the marvels in storytelling that’s “Stan” and the multi-voice black comedy of the album-closing “Criminal.” It’s in the mastery over hip-hop’s technical parameters in tracks like “Kill You.” It’s in the pop culture ruling moments in “The Real Slim Shady” and “The Way I Am.” Like Nirvana a decade before him, Eminem was able to become the symbol for a generation. If Kurt Cobain and crew represented Generation X nihilism and disillusionment, Eminem was the symbol of millennials’ unchecked rage.
MMLP was, at its core, a spit in the critic’s faces mixed with some personal therapy, and Eminem has made it clear in retrospective interviews that he didn’t intend to have this much of an effect. But even if it’s accidental, genius is genius.