It’s only six years since Eminem launched himself on the world’s consciousness, but it seems like so much longer. Back in the mists of 1999, his producer and mentor Dr Dre was in the middle of ensuring that hip-hop was still the most adventurous music in the world. American music was polarised by the pre-teen brigade led by Britney and Backstreet Boys and angry men in shorts like Korn and Limp Bizkit. (Indiewise, let’s just say that this was the heyday of Travis).
Eminem’s genius was to distill this millennial pop culture into something as powerful as a force of nature. Eminem’s best work is angrier than Fred Durst, articulated with rhyming skills that could make Jay-Z sound tongue-tied (check ‘Renegade’ for aural proof), with music by Dre, the Brian Wilson of beats. His videos were as glossy as ’N Sync’s, his choruses hookier than anything created for Christina Aguilera and his brattish whine and blond crop made him as instantly recognisable as his white trash forefather Elvis.
This greatest hits is arranged out of chronological order, with three new tracks, including the disappointing current single ‘When I’m Gone’ and a dubious bonus track – his 2001 version of ‘Stan’ performed at the Grammies with Elton John, who sounds like Vic Reeves’ club singer. The highlights are nearly all from Eminem’s first two albums. ‘My Name Is’’s cultural references may have dated (“I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I wanna impregnate”) but its mix of fizzing humour and menace still sound startling. There’s the clanging ‘The Way I Am’ (“I am whatever you say I am”, being the killer line), and the single version of ‘Stan’, a narrative of amazing perceptiveness and power, even if it did inflict Dido on the world. Best of all is 2003’s ‘Lose Yourself’, from his surprisingly good film 8 Mile. Packed with intricate rhymes and delivered as if Eminem’s got a pack of dogs at his Timberlands, it can stand alongside any classic you care to name.
Elsewhere, things are patchier. Eminem’s last two albums saw him digging into stadium rock and revealed an Achille’s heel in his fondness for (by his standards) sentimental ballads like ‘Mockingbird’, ‘Like Toy Soldiers’ and, despite the eviscerating language, ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet’. His involvement with the useless D12, represented here by the puerile ‘Shit On You’, almost seemed like self-sabotage, a desire to prove that he was mortal after all. By the time he’d been both described by George Bush as, “the greatest threat to our children since polio” and acclaimed for his rhymes by the poet Seamus Heaney, Eminem was left with nowhere else to go. Rappers also use up far more words in a song than your average rock star does – by the time he appeared ready for retirement this year, it looked as though he’d simply said all he had to say.
If indeed he has retired (and that’s by no means a certainty), remember him this way – the thrilling self-reflexivity of ‘Guilty Conscience’, the apocalyptic ‘Criminal’, the knife-edge emotional switchbacks of ‘Kill You’ and lines like “I get a clean shave, bathe, go to a rave/Die from an overdose and dig myself up out of my grave/My middle finger won’t go down, how do I wave?/And this is how I’m supposed to teach kids to behave?” Eminem’s best songs still have the power to disconcert and set a standard that all rock stars will struggle to match.