They tried to shut him down on MTV, but in his heyday, Marshall Mathers had no trouble stringing together some of the best chart-toppers of his generation. As Eminem’s career nears its second decade, here’s a rundown of his greatest hits.
10. ‘Rap God’
As Em’s career wound down, he learned to translate his skills into gimmicks – take the cheesy confessions of Rihanna collab ‘The Monster’, the cringworthy ‘self-awareness’ of ‘Not Afraid’ – and on that point, ‘Rap God’ is no different: its gimmick is to squeeze in 1560 words, a record for a hit single. But the song’s insistent wordplay and deranged, hookless flow propel it straight into the Shady canon.
Released to coincide with 2004’s US presidential election, this digital-only single, haunted by a simple piano dirge and dystopic storm noise, calls for the withdrawal of troops from foreign territories, and more urgently, the withdrawal of George W. Bush from office.
8. ‘Sing for the Moment’
Third LP ‘The Eminem Show’ saw Mathers focus on the alienating effects of fame, including shit slung by morality police trying to get his music banned – “for the kids”, apparently. Soundtrack to deeply awkward car journeys the world over, ‘Sing for the Moment’ persuasively argues that parents mad at rap’s negative influence are themselves to blame for their kids’ disaffection.
7. ‘Without Me’
A definitive ode to rap controversy, ‘Without Me’ astutely diagnoses a dearth of personality in pop music before giving polite society its medicine. The track loops together a captivating series of pop culture callouts – where are “them little Limp Bizkit bastards” now, eh? – all while holding a flow as tight and bouncy as a trampoline.
6. ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet’
After Mathers’ mum sued for his claim, on ‘My Name Is’, that “my mom does more dope than I do”, he penned this devastating account of growing up around her drug use. Particularly ferocious, the final verse reels off the traumas of his pockmarked childhood, culminating in hysterics as he yells that “I fucking hope you burn in hell for this shit”.
5. ‘The Way I Am’
When Interscope begged Mathers for a fun, ‘My Name Is’-like track for ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, they got something entirely more exciting. ‘The Way I Am’ destroys a diabolical beat with headfuck flows that tear up the media, the industry and even his fans in a scorched-earth frenzy. Alarmingly, it was a commercial triumph, charting as a UK Number 8 and greasing his transition into full-blown psychosis with follow-up single ‘Stan’.
4. ‘Guilty Conscience’
This early single sees Eminem split his narrator’s psyche in two: the guilty conscience, Dr. Dre, and its evil twin, repped by Mathers in full Shady. The lyrics are relentlessly horrifying – at one point, Shady justifies date-raping a 15-year-old by reasoning “look at her bush, does it got hair? (Uh-huh!)” – but Em’s all-cylinders-firing creativity is irrepressible, notably when he gets meta and starts querying the ethics of “Mr. N.W.A.” himself.
3. ‘The Real Slim Shady’
Even forgetting its verbally dextrous chops, ‘The Real Slim Shady’ is a classic on its pop merits alone, armed with replayably funny pop cultural gags and one of the most memorable rap choruses ever. Future generations will balk at his punchline-thirsty homophobia, but there’s no doubt we’ll be listening for decades to come.
2. ‘Lose Yourself’
Popular opinion says Eminem’s career petered out soon after ‘The Eminem Show’, but don’t overlook the ‘8 Mile’ factor. In interviews and song, Eminem always tempered his shock tactics with a philosophy of empowerment, inspired by his own rags-to-riches story. ‘Lose Yourself’, in that sense, is quintessential Em, and the closest we’ve come in song to meeting the real Real Slim Shady.
‘Stan’ is a gruesome twist on the murder ballad form, wrapping together Eminem’s obsessions with celebrity-worship, mental illness and the delusions of fame while remaining concise and poignant enough to be an international smash. There’s plenty left to the imagination – is the Slim Shady character really as blameless as he makes out? – but it’s precisely those ambiguities that make Eminem the smartest pop star in recent memory.