“My Name Is” had all the marks of a novelty song, with its annoying hook and pop culture obsessions. But Eminem’s music is too smart for that low company. The flow is like a stunt driver showing off, with the indelible spark of genius. Maybe he’s Bart Simpson but a little James Joyce too, the modernist scribbling on walls because he’s bored of the frame.
Where it really gets tricky is post-2010. Modern Eminem takes his lyricism to absurd heights, at the expense of his music. Which I kind of admire – c.f. Finnegans Wake. His battle rapper spirit takes over and songs just become backdrops for his performances. It’s a high bar to get into an Eminem album these days. Sometimes his effect is like a parrot that won’t shut up. But inside every song you’ll find layers of puns, wordplay, and self-satirizing humor. There is no doubt – Eminem is a top 10 rapper of all time.
It’s super lyrical, with some flows borrowed from Illmatic. But also low impact. Consider that Eminem was coming up in an era crowded with greats. A solid first step, this material was not enough to stand out.
The Slim Shady LP (1999)
Dr Dre and Interscope suit up Eminem for the mainstream. Which means aiming straight for the gutter. Punchline rap gets taken to new heights by going way low. Provocation has become the muse, and the results are magnetic. Note the absurd “ballads” that turn faux-emotional music on its head: “As The World Turns,” and the Will Smith satire “Bonnie And Clyde ’97.” I still don’t know if it was clever marketing or just narcissism that positioned Eminem as the star of his own show. But he sure doesn’t seem to care about anything else.
The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Now MTV famous, his self-obsession has a wider palette. My favorite is “Criminal,” in which his delusions (i.e. – intentionally shocking people then wondering why they’re all so shocked) find the perfect pocket with his provocative lyrics. Every song he puts himself into that trap – the controversial star upping the offensive ante just to rap his way out of it. None of it is offensive to me, because the flows are so clever, fitted to low bubbling beats. “The Way I Am” resonates beyond its fame complaints as an ego death anthem of identity. “Stan” remains seminal and eerie. The only issue is that the album seems a little antiquated. Like this view on millennium culture that was so vital then, now looks kind of small.
The Eminem Show (2002)
The formula is perfected here. “White America” is the flipside of “My Name Is,” where the Eminem persona is placed in a new context. The second verse lays out how institutional racism made him the white king of rap music. A title he doesn’t want, and I believe him. That’s the key to this album, it’s dark. Not ‘ooh shocking lyrics’ dark, but the immense pressure of fame dark. “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” is more desperation than posturing, “Superman” is a supercatchy groupie diss, “Hailie’s Song” is trademark cognitive dissonance (exalting his daughter while defaming her mother). I can’t begin to disentangle moral ambiguities here. The music is just so well executed, concepts and songs and flows.
Not as bad as its reputation. Which is not saying much, since Encore is known as one of his worst efforts. Too many goofy songs and drugged out ideas that don’t land. Some of the songs are flat out stupid. “Ass Like That” is a can’t miss beat that Eminem still fumbles. “Like Toy Soldiers” is quite the change from his mixtape tracks joyfully beefing with Ja Rule et al. (Some key freestyles can be found on those tapes, like his absurdly entertaining feud with Benzino.) “Encore/Curtains Down” with Dre and 50 Cent is supposed to be a victory lap, but the victory feels hollow. Eminem is tired of his persona, but doesn’t know how to escape it. This album has glimpses of where his music will go wrong, but it’s still just a notch below his classic trilogy.
Post-sobriety, this is one hell of a fifth step, if still too enamored with chemicals for clarity. But clarity is not what we’re here for. Dr Dre evokes a carnival atmosphere and Eminem plays the Joker. Half the album humanizes him with addiction struggles, on the other half he just goes ham. The surrealistic blasphemy is about more than just ‘tee hee look what I can get away with’ – it’s a statement of artistic purpose. “Stay Wide Awake” locks in with eerie precision flows, “Deja Vu” nails rock bottom addict-think. “Underground” is a wild climax – never again will his blatant offensiveness sound so confident and compelling. Relapse is probably my favorite Eminem album. You can hear its heavy influence on Tyler the Creator’s Goblin.
A turning point, at which I’d say Eminem disconnects a bit from the music world. He’s just making Eminem songs. Which are transparently constructed – okay here’s a beat it’s not that good but do some crazy verses and have someone sing a hook. This will dog him the rest of his career. He’s trying hard, and if you want emotional honesty you’ll find lots of it here. Sometimes the emo-formula works, but other times it’s just that – formula.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)
Welcome to Modern Eminem – rapping his ass off to the void. Cut this tracklist by half and it would be twice as strong. At this point he’s not a visionary, he’s a worker bee. Give him a trash beat and chorus like some video game menu music, and he’ll spazz on it. But give him a cape that fits and he can still fly. “Brainless,” “Groundhog Day,” “Don’t Front” = classic Eminem music. In the streaming era these are small complaints, since it’s easy to make a good playlist from this material. The tragedy is how much effort is here, without direction.
The spare piano ballad “Walk On Water” sounds like a genuine expression of self doubt. Basically admitting that he forgot how to make good music. Admitting is the first step, but somehow he forgot the rest – so here’s more awful pop mashups, more “shocking” murder fantasies, family drama, and a terribly out of touch Joan Jett sample. Elsewhere he revisits old material – “Castle” mashes up “Stan” and “Hailie’s Song,” “Offended” rewinds back to MMLP era and “Framed” mines the Relapse formula. The OD monologue “Arose” is a mawkish rewrite of “Deja Vu.” By then the listener is suffering from tonal whiplash. Does he just want a stable family or murder everyone? That issue that didn’t matter when his music was dope, but dope this is most assuredly not.
Despite the cover, this surprise album was rush released to avoid a career crash. Which brings him full circle. His true style is now too niche for mainstream, which is why the attempts to go pop seem so inept. He was hurt by the reaction to Revival, so this album is a counterpunch – one hand holding his wounded eye, the other swinging to leave a mark. So it’s inspired, and packed with shots at fans and critics and other rappers. Because he does have a point. His prodigious efforts to elevate his flows are graded on a curve, if not totally ignored. That’s his style, and sometimes it’s abrasive, but if you can dig it Kamikaze is good work.
Music To Be Murdered By – Side A/B(2020)
“Darkness” reimagines Stan as a mass shooter. “Stepdad” sounds like an Eminem parody, which I suspect he’s aware of. “Killer” sounds like an over-40 club hit. “Never Love Again” personifies drug addiction as a hated ex, a marriage of his muses. “Zeus” is a mellower than usual take on his place in the rap game. “Alfred’s Theme” is like an old school mixtape freestyle flex. “Gnat” has COVID jokes and Mike Pence death threat bars that seem quaint since Donald Trump went there first in real life.