Love him or hate him, most have to concede there’s never been an artist quite like Eminem, at least in the music world.
Comedians regularly confront their demons in real time, in the first person, but few have been as willing to get as sick as Marshall Mathers, a trailer-park refugee with nothing to lose whose debut single appropriately summed up his worldview as “Just Don’t Give a Fuck.” Before social media, here was someone willingly to let his audience get uncomfortably close, confessing every detail of sins worth covering up and personal disappointments of his own and his family’s, and executing it in song with the razor-sharp skill of Rakim.
The most imaginative and morally tortured rap superstar to emerge in Biggie’s shadow, Eminem has been shocking us, surprising us, and making us laugh out loud for nearly 20 years, as well as annoying and infuriating us plenty. Here are his eight major-label efforts, ranked in ascending order of greatness.
8. Relapse (2009)
Marshall Mathers himself considered this a low point only a year later, commenting on Recovery that he “ran them accents into the ground” — and he’s not wrong. The serial-killer schtick feels creepier and more gratuitous than ever because it rarely leads to a new or funny situation on tracks like “3 A.M.” or “Stay Wide Awake,” and singles like “We Made You” and “Beautiful” were diminishing returns of lighthearted and impassioned fare like “Without Me” and “Mockingbird” respectively.
But Dr. Dre turns in some amazing beats here towards the start (“My Mom,” “Insane,” “Bagpipes from Baghdad”), and Eminem himself earns a couple showstoppers on the arena-ready “Medicine Ball” and the closing “Underground,” whose bizarre rhythm is unlike any you’ve ever heard in rap, yet he never strays from the beat. At his low point, it’s still incredible how well he could flow, even if the content wasn’t necessarily all that.
7. Revival (2017)
Eminem’s newest album comes at an unfortunate historical juncture: a time when he’s called upon to say something meaningful about the world’s fraught state to the largest audience of anyone in his genre, and an age where he is absolutely struggling to rap like he used to. Revival comes with the most noble intentions of any Eminem record, and admitting to his past abuse and manipulation of Kim — as well as his regrets about Hailie and nearly dying from his pill addiction ten years ago — are all brave subjects to tackle. He’s also using his privilege for good by calling upon such fellow icons as Beyoncé and Rick “99 Problems” Rubin to assist him in eviscerating police racism and the callousness of this presidency.
The problem is, well, the music. The hooks are platitudes, the production often sounds like Rubin tracked at an airport, and Em’s verses are so hamstrung he fails to land both punchlines (an Anna Nicole Smith joke in 2017?) and polemics (nothing here as on-point as that BET cipher). Worst of all, in this context, the fact he still makes rape jokes (“Just escaped from the state pen for raping eight women who hate men”) is more infuriating than it was when he didn’t know better.
6. Recovery (2010)
At first, Recovery sounded like Eminem’s worst, a defeated attempt to bury his sound and at long last try and catch up to what rap actually sounded like. The strangely buried production mix never quite gels with his rapping style, despite the first-time involvement of such hip-hop legends as Boi-1da and Just Blaze, and he abandons his skits and original characters for the most part (bye Ken Kaniff!) to mixed, overly earnest results. But the closing waltz (!) is his finest Slim Shady cut in years, and “Talkin’ 2 Myself” has dated well, especially his admission that he had to stop “dissing people for no reason.” Recovery laid the groundwork for something better than Revival, that’s hopefully still to come.
5. The Eminem Show (2002)
The opening four-song run is nearly as astonishing as anything Eminem’s ever done. “White America” remains his best-ever political track, and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is one of his most gripping and conflicted emotional moments on record, while “Square Dance” and “Business” are showcases of Slim Shady’s purely original Mobius strip of a flow circa 2002. And then there’s the absolutely incredible “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” which shows how much fun Eminem can have with his daughter on record when he’s not making her an accessory to uxoricide.
But The Eminem Show was the first sign of cracks in Eminem’s armor, beginning to repeat a formula and also including weak tracks; the stretch from “Soldier” to “Drips” is so dire it almost nullifies those great openers, and “Superman” was the first of many misguided attempts to make Eminem a romantic lead.
4. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)
No, it sounds nothing like the original Marshall Mathers LP, and that was wise. The sequel business is mostly there to justify the grandiosity of such lengthy, multipartite marvels of rhyming dexterity as “Bad Guy,” “Rap God,” and “So Far…,” as well as him being able to tap into the effortlessness of his younger self, which don’t come easy these days. Eminem’s 2013 album focuses primarily on R-A-P, and it does more than that, if you’re willing to admit that “Stronger Than I Was” is a credibly belted ballad, that “The Monster” is a credible, Flo Rida-style crossover-pop song, and that “Headlights” is a credible apology to his mom. And the little, stirred-in easter eggs that call back to the original Marshall Mathers LP are the right kind of fan service.
3. Encore (2004)
Eminem’s most underrated album is often looked at as the moment he jumped the shark, and much of it is truly unbelievably silly. Recorded at the height of his drug addiction, it’s hard to imagine Marshall Mathers himself thinking too highly of it either — indeed, he’s recently disparaged the set as “mediocre.”
But relisten to Encore many albums later and marvel at his ease, his comic timing, his seemingly inexhaustible inventory of flows, his balls. It’s his lightest album, and that means something these days, since even the best Eminem records feel like an anvil being dropped on the listener to some extent. After the umpteenth song about Kim or Debbie Mathers or pledge to do better for Hailie, it’s a positive relief to hear him mocking Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s accent (“Ass Like That”) or singing along to a sped-up sample of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” (“Crazy in Love”) or apologizing for using the n-word as a teen (“Yellow Brick Road”) and not being long-winded about it.
Encore is also an achievement in making you laugh at the absolute stupidest things. The ridiculously wordy chorus on “Big Weenie” that ends on the final punch of just calling then-rival Benzino a weenie. When he accidentally starts the same verse a second time on “Rain Man.” The stupid, stupid Arnold Schwarzenegger impression at the end of “Ass Like That.” And the moment in “Puke” when he realizes after getting a Kim tattoo that “My next girlfriend, now her name’s gotta be Kim / ShiiiiiiiI-iiiiiiii-iiiii-iiiit.” Encore was the album when Eminem finally put his all into comedy, and yet it succeeds so much on a rap level and a human level as well, with real fury and dismay behind the anti-war “Mosh” and the bonus track “We as Americans.”
2. The Slim Shady LP (1999)
The thing is, while Encore may be Eminem’s biggest reconciliation with the idea of himself as an entertainer, his comedic impulses were still never funnier than when he was at his darkest, when we were first introduced to Slim Shady as a character, not to mention Paul Rosenberg, Steve Berman, Ken Kaniff, and a Dr. Dre who admits on record he was wrong for assaulting Dee Barnes.
The situations that Eminem makes some of the funniest-ever music from are downright jaw-dropping, like the character sketch of Susan in “My Fault,” a rape victim who overdoses on ‘shrooms that Eminem’s helpless to watch die, or “Brain Damage,” where every adult in teenage Marshall Mathers’ life fails to protect him from a bully and even punish him after he stands up for himself. In 2017, the jokes about rape and fat women are more uncomfortable than ever, and yet it’s undeniable how inspired Eminem was to create and imagine this fucked-up cartoon universe by his nihilistic worldview. There wasn’t and still isn’t any artist like him, and “ My Name Is” remains one of the most audacious debut hits of the last three decades.
1. The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
No one else could’ve made The Marshall Mathers LP, duh, but it’s also astounding that no one in the last 17 years has really tried, with Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin perhaps coming closest to its dangerous but proudly free-speech-flaunting spirit. But that’s still a ways off. If it’s possible to an envision a time in which a white man who embodies toxic masculinity could be held up as a bastion of what’s important in society, Eminem didn’t sound at all conservative when he baited GLAAD on such homophobic tracks as “Criminal.”
Rather, he felt secure in a mission to defeat the establishment’s lifelong battle against blaming rap records for the world’s violence and rather immature in not caring what casualties got in his way. At a time when intersectionality was not yet a buzzword, it was fascinating. Women were obviously a regular target of Marshall Mathers’ constant rage, like when he offered to rape his own mother on the opening “Kill You.” But you can hear him grappling with these impulses in real time on “Kim,” which could’ve won an Academy Award, as he makes himself and his on-record character uglier than many lesser men could stand to in their art. You could hear a man breaking down as he failed as a human being, over and over again, to increasingly irredeemable consequences.
What often gets lost about one of the greatest albums of all time, is that it knows morality. It knows when it’s being bad, of course, but also how to be good. Whether Eminem is belatedly writing back his deranged and deceased fan with decent mental health advice on “Stan,” or expressing concern about the kids cheering for a violent movie on “Who Knew,” he is constantly questioning the war between art and life. He never stops fighting for art, but he knows a bit about life, too. “There’s a little Slim Shady in all of us,” is one of his healthiest admissions.