Marshall Bruce Mathers III, this is your life.
Even a deaf man could hear that ‘Revival’ was a mess when it was released at the tail end of 2017. Maybe a case of too many cooks. Maybe Em was surrounded by too many ‘yes’ men. Whatever the case, the marriage between beats and rhymes in hip-hop is a sacred thing and one song into ‘Revival’ it was obvious that divorce papers needed to be served, immediately. Whether it’s Em’s obsession with rap/rock hybrids (his use of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll’ for ‘Remind Me’ should be considered a crime against music), the terrible choice of beats that at times stifle some pretty significant lyrical content from getting out the gate, or the fact that ‘Walk on Water’ sounds like someone stole some Eminem a cappella files and pasted them over the top of an instrumental meant for Emeli Sande, ‘Revival’ suffers from a lack of quality control. Em might have since addressed the album and its critics (me being one of them) on ‘Kamikaze’, but it still doesn’t excuse this awful body of work.
Remember when Bill Duke in the movie Menace II Society famously said, “You know you done fucked up, don’t you?” ‘Encore’ was the moment Eminem fucked up – I’m just not sure he knew it at the time. Bringing to an end his impressive run of three near-perfect releases in succession, it was on this album that he introduced the world to the most annoying thing in his arsenal: those fucking voices! Armed with a fake Middle Eastern accent one minute (‘Ass Like That’), a slice of hick-hop the next (‘Rain Man’), and then doing his best Muppet impression, much to the dismay of Jim Henson who’d be rolling in his grave (‘Just Lose It’), ‘Encore’ plays like what I imagine listening to Donald Trump and Adam Sandler reciting lines from Billy Madison, Borat, or Napoleon Dynamite would be like. It’s not all bad though, fan favourite ‘Like Toy Soldiers’, ‘Mockingbird’, and the album’s opening track, ‘Evil Deeds’, make sure you’re not fully disappointed. Just 90 percent.
With just a handful of tracks standing out on Em’s sixth studio album, ‘Relapse’ is another misfire in his repertoire. The difference here, though: it came off the back of a turbulent five years for the rapper, a period that included the loss of his best friend (Proof, of D12) and battling addiction to drink and drugs. So truth be told, this album was more about Em getting back on the horse and seeing how it felt. Acting like a lyrical training camp at a time when Em needed it, on it you can hear him feeling his way through new rhyme schemes, playing with cadence and experimenting with different types of lyrical content, all in an effort to nurse himself back to full strength.
10. ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’
This album never stood a chance. The title alone felt like a spit in the face of fans. ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2’? Are you kidding me!? An album that seriously lacks cohesiveness and is so bloated that it’s bursting at the seams with excrement named a successor to probably one of the most impactful rap albums of the last 20 years? OK, so ‘Monster’, featuring Rihanna, might be catchy, and tracks like ‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘Beautiful Pain’ help Em find a rhythm late on, but because the album sits at an unnecessary 21 tracks in length, the good is massively overshadowed by the bad and the ugly. And what a waste of a Kendrick Lamar verse on ‘Love Game’. The shit sounded more like a Beach Boys record composed by a cartoon character than the meeting of two elite MCs.
9. ‘D12 World’ w/ D12
Before The Lonely Island, there was D12. But instead of rap written solely for the purpose of comedic entertainment, Em and his band of rapping misfits were serious MCs who just so happened to be funny, too. And while their sophomore album ‘D12 World’ pales in comparison to the quality of predecessor ‘Devil’s Night’, it does have its moments. For some, there’s absolutely no forgiving ‘My Band’, while others will claim guilty pleasure immunity for the album’s first single. ’40 Oz.’, which sounds amateurish at best with its dated Trackboyz production failing to connect, and I’m pretty sure that rubbing your ear along a cheese grater would be more pleasurable than listening to ‘Get My Gun’. There are a few gems sprinkled throughout ‘D12 World’, though, such as ‘Git Up’, ‘6 in the Morning’ and ‘How Come’, but it’s the final stretch that proves the finest stretch as ‘American Psycho 2’, ‘Good Die Young’ and ‘Keep Talkin’’ stand head and shoulders above the rest of the album.
‘Kamikaze’ is Eminem’s biggest fuck-you to his critics. Regardless of whether they were members of the media, fellow artists, or anyone else with something negative to say, everyone fetched it on his 10th studio album. Born out of the opinion-driven shit storm that followed the release of his previous album, ‘Revival’, ‘Kamikaze’ is the album critics knew Em had in him. Going nuclear on several occasions, there are no holds barred throughout the entire 12-track LP. Making his intentions very clear straight out the gate, on ‘The Ringer’ he loads up a lyrical clip and fires each round off one by one with no hook, and even when you think he’s out of ammo he’s not, instead he just throws the gun at you. After listening to tracks like ‘Fall’, ‘Lucky You’, ‘Greatest’, and the Royce Da 5’9” assisted ‘mumble’ rap takedown, ‘Not Alike’, you’re left thinking that perhaps the media need to poke the bear more often, because even with a few holes in it (‘Nice Guy’, ‘Normal’) it proved to be Em’s best work in seven years.
Made up of dirty loops, dusty beats and warped tape sound effects, if you didn’t know any better you’d swear J Dilla produced ‘Infinite’, Eminem’s official debut album. Released three years prior to ‘The Slim Shady LP’, in 1996, it couldn’t be any different from Em’s future work if it tried. It’s the Eminem album backpacker hip-hop fans are happy to admit they like – some of them are probably on Discogs right now trying to find an original vinyl pressing. More LL Cool J than America’s worst nightmare, on ‘It’s Ok’ he raps: “One day I plan to be a family man, happily married/ I wanna grow to be so old that I have to be carried.” It’s a little weird hearing that, right? Where’s the deranged psychopath who kills his wife and rolls her corpse off the dock with the help of his infant daughter? While there were no obvious signs on ‘Infinite’ that Em was going to become the rap titan he later did, the crafty wordplay and complex rhyming style he displayed throughout the album – especially on the title track – were enough to capture your attention at the very least.
The lack of unity between beats and rhymes is the reason why several of Eminem’s more ‘commercial’ sounding albums have fallen flat on their ass. Picking beats is a skill and Em has long been criticised for his lack thereof. However, on ‘Recovery’ he hit the nail on the head. Appealing to the masses and garnering huge chart success, he was able to also appease his underground fanbase too. One minute he’s riding up the charts with Rihanna (‘Love the Way You Lie’) and Lil’ Wayne (‘No Love’), and the next he’s getting his lyrical guns off on a beat by Havoc of Mobb Deep (‘Untitled’). ‘Recovery’ isn’t perfect (what he thought he was doing with ‘Cinderella Man’ I’ll never know), but it is unquestionably one of Em’s finer moments with more rewind value than you might remember.
5. ‘Devil’s Night’ w/ D12
It was a given that Eminem was always going to put his crew on. However, what wasn’t a given was their debut album being any good. Surprisingly, the Dirty Dozen’s first outing as a collective was a solid one. The best way to describe ‘Devil’s Night’ is it’s a tough-talking, laugh-a-minute, multi-layered and satisfyingly twisted offering all glued together with an impressive selection of top tier beats. While there was no escaping being within earshot of ‘Purple Pills’ (aka ‘Purple Hills’) during the summer of 2001, it didn’t matter because ‘Devil’s Night’ cemented its credibility with tracks like ‘Fight Music’, which is accompanied by a superb Warriors-inspired music video; ‘Girls’, a diss aimed at Limp Bizkit; ‘Pistol Pistol’, which is worthwhile for Bizarre’s verse alone; and if you were lucky enough to get your hands on the bonus disc version of the album then you were privy to ‘Shit on You’, easily one of Em’s best performances on wax. All in all, where Nelly failed miserably with his group the St. Lunatics and their album ‘Free City’, Eminem triumphed with D12 and ‘Devil’s Night’.
4. ‘Hell: The Sequel’ w/ Royce Da 5’9″ as Bad Meets Evil
‘Hell: The Sequel’ is an album that had been a long time coming. After dropping a few underground cuts towards the end of the 90s under the name Bad Meets Evil, Eminem and Royce Da 5’9” were then introduced to the world as a duo on their self-titled track from Em’s major label debut, ‘The Slim Shady LP’. On it, Royce demonstrated a knack for elite wordplay, intricate rhyme schemes and above all else, a natural chemistry with Em. Often regarded as one of the few MCs lyrically capable of keeping up with his Detroit brethren, it only made sense that the pair release a collaborative album – even if it did take them over 10 years to do it. Taking it back to the essence of hip-hop with back-breaking beats and potent penmanship, the two MCs put on a clinic with ‘Hell: The Sequel’. Sure, there’s the god-awful ‘Lighters’ with Bruno Mars – an obvious attempt at grabbing some love from pop radio – but the rest of it is stellar. Listening to them go back and forth on tracks like ‘Fast Lane’ and ‘Living Proof’ remains the gift that keeps on giving.
3. ‘The Eminem Show’
There’s always a lot to digest when listening to an Eminem album, but none more so than on the politically-charged and message-driven ‘The Eminem Show’. When he’s not throwing lyrical jabs in the direction of Canibus, Jermaine Dupri and Moby, or leaving George Bush a little hot under the collar with anti-draft, anti-war anthem ‘Square Dance’, Em tries desperately to restore some balance to the entertainment industry. Going straight for the jugular of congress on the album’s opening track, ‘White America’ hears our fearless MC question censorship laws (“To burn the flag and replace it with a Parental Advisory sticker/ To spit liquor in the faces of this democracy of hypocrisy”), while also shining a light on the unbalanced attention he was getting at the time simply because of his complexion – this compared to that of his African/American contemporaries. Giving listeners so much to dissect at every twist and turn, ‘The Eminem Show’ is the rapper’s most developed offering to date. He pays homage to the greats (‘Till I Collapse’), addresses his run-ins with the law (‘Soldier’), admits the need “to slow down” from always being caught up in the middle of some shit (‘Say Goodbye Hollywood’), and with ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet’ he delivers one of the most poignant and introspective records in his entire catalogue as he buries the memories of his complicated relationship with his mother, Debbie.
2. ‘The Slim Shady LP’
If in 1999 there was such a thing as ‘breaking the internet’ then Eminem’s ‘My Name Is’ would have done it. Providing the soundtrack to the rapper’s coming out party, the Labi Siffre-sampling single also introduced the world to what would go on to become one of music’s most iconic working partnerships: the one-two punch of Eminem and Dr. Dre. Proving to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of creativity and controversy, the album upon which ‘My Name Is’ resides took things to a whole other level. With Em’s twisted alter-ego at the helm, ‘The Slim Shady LP’ didn’t just showcase the Detroit rapper as an animated wordsmith armed with an extraordinary amount of talent, it also tested how far someone could push the boundaries of censorship in art. Whether it’s killing his wife (‘’97 Bonnie & Clyde’), attempting suicide (‘Cum on Everybody‘), overdosing on shrooms (‘My Fault’), or promoting date rape and the killing of a cheating spouse (‘Guilty Conscience’), the level of vulgarity on ‘SSLP’ would never fly in today’s hypersensitive society – although, there were quite a few people at the time campaigning for much of the material on the album to be banned. But just like a really good drama series with a perverse storyline or a truly messed up horror movie that you can’t take your eyes off, so long as you know it’s not real and can enjoy it for what it is, ‘The Slim Shady LP’ is magnificent.
1. ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’
Of course Em’s earth-shattering, record-breaking, diamond-selling second major label album was going to take the top spot. Was it ever really going to be anything else? C’mon, be honest. While ‘The Slim Shady LP’ was on a different planet to most other albums released at the time, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ was in another galaxy. Think how Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ stood head and shoulders above ‘Bleach’, or how Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ eclipsed ‘Pablo Honey’, it was like that, just on steroids. ‘MMLP’ was a moment. Confidently walking the line between underground lyricist and pop icon without a care in the world, Em rewrote what it was to be a Top 40 artist. Giving hip-hop heads tracks like ‘Bitch Please 2’ and ‘Remember Me’, Em also had fans from both ends of the spectrum dedicating their every waking hour to learning the words and rhyme scheme to ‘The Way I Am’. And while ‘The Real Slim Shady’ was an obvious hit, who knew ‘Stan’, a song featuring Dido about a crazed fan who killed himself and his pregnant girlfriend, would top the UK singles chart the week before Christmas? ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ is a musical masterpiece, a literary classic, and an award-winning movie all rolled into one. Take a bow Eminem. Take a bow.