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Eminem: 50 Greatest Songs

The best from the bloody, bombastic, brilliant career of the hip-hop troublemaker

Though he’s been a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning star for almost 20 years, Eminem is not an unequivocally triumphant figure, either within pop music or within his own mind. Just listen to the vulnerability and self-doubt on his recent single “Walk on Water.” At age 45, the Detroit rapper continues to make art about how people are driven crazy by weakness and lack. It’s just now he’s finding it harder to joke about the darkness that has always fueled his best work.

Some fans celebrate only the funny “Slim Shady,” when the musical comedy is quality controlled by executive producer Dr. Dre. They eschew the more viciously somber, rock-leaning character studies helmed by Em and his longtime Detroit collaborators Jeff and Mark Bass. But spend serious time with Eminem’s entire catalogue and you quickly realize that those two sides of his music are inextricable, one always informing the other. 

When Eminem raps about violent, tragicomic death, he is furthering a grand murder-ballad tradition in folk and blues music. He’s also, on occasion, regurgitating grotesque sexist, homophobic stereotypes. But for a poor, white, emotionally unstable MC to excel in hip-hop and not be viewed as a villainous buffoon, he must possess prodigious artistic gifts and a real commitment to personal transparency. On these 50 essential songs, Eminem fearlessly displays that devotion to task and proves why he’s been one of pop music’s most fascinating, complex characters. 

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“Bully” (2003)

Appearing on the Internet sometime before its inclusion on the semi-official Eminem mixtape Straight From the Lab, “Bully” is the best of the loosies Eminem made during his virulent war of words with Benzino and Murder Inc.’s Ja Rule and Irv Gotti. He dismisses claims that he’s just a “2003 Vanilla Ice” by rhyming, “So now you try to pull the race card/And it backfires in your face hard/’Cause you know we don’t play that black and white shit.” Then he reflects on how death seems to hover over the genre, wondering if all the beef is worth it. He raps, “Now what bothers me the most about hip-hop is we so close to picking up where we left off with Big and Pac/We just lost Jam Master Jay, Big L got blasted away, plus we lost Bugz [of D12], Slang Ton [of the Outsidaz] and Freaky Tah [of Lost Boyz].”

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“I’m Back” (2001)

“I’m Back” would appear high on a list of the most controversial Eminem songs: Even on the uncensored version of The Marshall Mathers LP, the rapper’s reference to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting – “I take seven [kids] from [Columbine], stand ’em all in line/Add an AK-47, a revolver, a 9/A MAC-11 and it oughta solve the problem of mine/And that’s a whole school of bullies shot up all at one time” – was bleeped out. Years later, Eminem got the last word, re-rapping the original line on “Rap God” from The Marshall Mathers LP 2.

But the track’s potency is barely impacted by the censorship, especially in the masterful first verse, which is giddy and assonance-heavy. “I used to give a fuck, now I could give a fuck less,” Eminem raps. “What do I think of success? It sucks, too much press/I’m stressed, too much sess, depressed/Too upset, it’s just too much mess, I guess.” Jay-Z later paid homage by borrowing this structure on his 2007 track “Success.”

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“Bad Influence” (1999)

Eminem has always been adept at running dizzying circles around his critics, nullifying attacks by embracing and one-upping them. “People say that I’m a bad influence,” he raps on this track from the End of Days soundtrack. “I say the world’s already fucked, I’m just addin’ to it.” Though the beat by Jeff Bass is pedestrian and plodding, Eminem – the “human horror film, but with a lot funnier plot” – has no difficulty elevating it. He’s animated by his outsider status, aiming shots at the über-wealthy and hip-hop guide The Source: “As long as I’m on pills and I got plenty of pot/I’ll be in a canoe paddling, making fun of your yacht/But I would like an award/For the best rapper to get one mic in The Source.” He saves his best line for critics like Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White, who condemned Eminem in 1999 for “exploiting the world’s misery.” “You probably think that I’m a negative person, don’t be so sure of it,” Eminem raps. “I don’t promote violence, I just encourage it.”

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“Talkin 2 Myself” feat. Kobe (2012)

On this anguished highlight from Recovery, Eminem unburdens himself with honest, plainspoken revelations. “I almost made a song dissing Lil Wayne/It was like I was jealous of the attention he was getting,” Em admits. “Almost went at Kanye, too.” He doesn’t blame them for his loss of relevance at the dawn of the 2010s; instead, he criticizes his own uneven output, invokes the murder of his best friend Proof in 2006, and cites his addiction to prescription pills. “The last two albums didn’t count/Encore, I was on drugs, Relapse, I was flushing them out,” he confesses. Meanwhile, the rollicking, synthesized funk rock backing of Aftermath/Shady producer DJ Khalil plus Kobe Honeycutt’s tortured chorus heightens the interior drama. “[Eminem] told me that he literally had to pull everything out of himself to deliver that record because the music is so thick,” Khalil told Complex in 2011. “There’s so much music that he’s screaming at the top of his lungs.”

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“Drug Ballad” (2000)

In the wake of The Slim Shady LP, Eminem became an A-list celebrity and the VIP debauchery quickly ensued: “The bigger the shows got, the bigger the after-parties; drugs were always around,” he recalled to Rolling Stone in 2011. But the theme that drives this song is that Eminem never moralizes or expresses regret but still recounts, in vivid detail, the dangers and illusions caused by drinking and drugs, including that his daughter might inherit his boozing ways: “That’s the sound of a bottle when it’s hollow, when you swallow it all, wallow and drown in your sorrow/And tomorrow you’re gonna wanna do it again.”

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“Beautiful” (2009)

Eminem’s 2009 album Relapse, where he tried to recapture his salad days as the ribald storyteller Slim Shady, was generally considered a disappointment. But “Beautiful,” a self-produced track that he reportedly made while still addicted to prescription drugs, was poignant, confronting his frequent bouts with depression. Cuing up a heartening verse from Queen + Paul Rodgers’ “Reaching Out,” Eminem portrays himself as a modern Pagliacci who “hides behind the tears of a clown.” He balances his antipathy toward society with compassionate lyrical warmth. “In my shoes, just to see/What it’s like, to be me,” he sings in an achingly fragile voice. “But don’t let ’em say you ain’t beautiful/They can all get fucked, just stay true to you.” The rock-ballad melodrama of “Beautiful” points a way forward for what would be his true comeback, 2010’s Recovery. “I started writing the first verse and half of the second when I was in rehab going through detox,” he told The Guardian in 2009. “It brings me back to a time when I was really depressed and down, but at the same time it reminds me of what that space is like and what never to go back to.”

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Busta Rhymes feat. Eminem, “Calm Down” (2014)

“It started off from just doing a dope, high energy hip-hop record into us respectfully competing and damn near battling each other,” Busta Rhymes told Complex about this flashy feat of technical abilities that took seven months. He says Eminem initially responded with a 42-bar verse, so he returned with 50 and the ante kept being raised – 60, 62, 64 – until it ended up as a tune where each rapper goes for about 2 minutes and 30 seconds apiece. “My hat is off to Eminem because he genuinely still cares about the music,” said Busta. “He very much cares about being a thoroughbred MC and wouldn’t ever be the type of artist that has to worry about letting me down or compromising his skill set because he’s trying to do something that people think is cool.”

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Eminem, Slaughterhouse, Yelawolf, “Shady Cxvpher” (2014)

To promote the 2014 compilation Shady XV, the members of Slaughterhouse (Kxng Crooked, Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, Royce Da 5’9″), Yelawolf and Eminem recorded extended a capella verses in their respective hometowns for Vevo in the 18-minute video “Shady Cxvpher.” In his seven delirious minutes, the rapper blends introspection (“Became a millionaire, went downhill from there”), breakneck double-time rhymes, tasteless barbs at media figures and some brutal honesty (“I think of all them times I compromised my bottom lines/And thought of rhymes that sodomized your daughter’s minds/Then I’m like: dollar signs.”)

“It’s about longevity. To me, the verse says, ‘After all the years of classic material, I am still one of the illest rappers to ever do this shit,'” Kxng Crooked tells Rolling Stone. “Being a wordsmith in rap music is a dying art. Connecting syllables, metaphors, punchlines and similes is a dying art. For those of us who still love rapping for the sake of showing how good one can rap, Eminem is our only mainstream voice.”

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The Madd Rapper feat. Eminem, “Stir Crazy” (1999)

When Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie of the Hitmen – the production squad responsible for Bad Boy Records’ array of Nineties smashes – assembled his debut “Madd Rapper” album, Eminem was one of the few currently popular rappers with whom he hadn’t worked. “I called him up and said I was a fan of his, and he said he was a fan of mine, too,” D-Dot told MTV News in 1999. Collaborating with a then-unknown Kanye West as co-producer, the result is a loony game of wits between an upstart Slim Shady (fresh off his “My Name Is” success) and D-Dot’s churlish Madd Rapper persona. “Psyche, no bread/Fucked up in the head/Shot my girl and my sister ’cause I caught them in bed,” rhymes the Madd Rapper in a punchy Nuyorican flow reminiscent of the Beatnuts. But Eminem is clearly the superior stylist, dropping oddball stanzas like “I’m crazy with this razor/With this razor I’m crazy/With this crazor I’m razy/Razor cray, I’m crazy!” The Madd Rapper eventually concedes defeat: “Fuck that, Slim, keep that for yourself/You a crazy white dude and you need some help.”

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The High & Mighty feat. Eminem, “The Last Hit” (1999)

As his fame ballooned at the turn of the millennium, Eminem was still reaching back to the (mostly East Coast) underground that had inspired and sustained him since before his 1996 debut album Infinite. Hence, this fiery boom-bap scratchfest from the Rawkus debut of Philadelphia duo High & Mighty. With samples of EPMD’s “Never Seen Before” and Hambone’s Salsoul disco-funk banger “Hey Music Man” lending the veneer of a vintage buddy-cop flick, Eminem trades bars with Mr. Eon. However, this is Slim Shady’s showcase and he goes bonkers, gobbling acid and snatching mics: “Escaped Bellevue, stuffed the nurse in a purse/Disperse like I added too many words in a verse.” 

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“My Fault” (1999)

The Slim Shady LP‘s 46-second “Lounge (Skit)” actually spurred Eminem to write “My Fault,” the intricate story song that follows it on the tracklist. The skit’s silly tune, sung by Bass Brothers producer Jeff Bass (“I never meant to give you mushrooms, girl”) got Em thinking about the time one of his friends had a bad drug trip. “He was talking about how worthless he was and how fucked up his life was,” Eminem said in the 2006 David Stubbs book Eminem: The Stories Behind Every Song. In “My Fault,” the friend’s gender is flipped into Susan, one of four characters Em alternately describes, comically and grotesquely, throughout the song’s narrative of a unruly rave party.

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“Infinite” (1996)

The opening track of Eminem’s 1996 indie-label debut establishes his bona fides as a skillful, complex rhymer who specializes in visceral, imagistic lyrics. “I travel through your mind and to your spine like siren drills/I’m slimin’ grills of roaches, with spray that disinfects/And twistin’ necks of rappers/’Til their spinal column disconnects,” he snaps on the opening verse. Produced by D12’s Denaun “Kon Artis” Porter, Eminem’s voice has a more nasal timbre, balanced on a sumptuous sample of Les Baxter’s “Hot Wind” from the 1969 bikesploitation flick Hells Belles. “If you ever listen to Michael Jackson before he was Michael Jackson, or Prince, they were younger-sounding, but you can tell there’s something there,” Jeff Bass, one-half of the album’s executive producers the Bass Brothers, told Rolling Stone. “When I hear Eminem from 20 years ago, I can hear Eminem today. I can hear the nuances in his tone, and his rhythm was insane, and this is him starting out as a kid. We recognized that there was something there that was special.”

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“Stimulate” (2002)

An underrated gem, “Stimulate” appeared as a bonus track on the 8 Mile soundtrack, overshadowed by the more explicitly inspirational maxims of “Lose Yourself.” “Stimulate” methodically reflects the approach and attitude underpinning Eminem’s complex, singular human experience, conveying that sober message with the vitality of his comic rants. It’s a sound of regret and confidence, depletion and resolve, uncertainty and power, swirling in an unsteady cocktail. Rather than escalating any one mood, the song stays dysphoric and ambiguous. The woozy, flanging guitar tone and overall production suggests a sedated edginess, as Eminem’s voice shows signs of cracking. The sonic unease contradicts Em’s lyrics – “I’m just partying,” the Slick Rick-referencing “I’m just a man who’s on the mic” – as if he were recognizing that the expressive form he once loved had become its own kind of cage.

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D12, “My Band” (2004)

On their highest charting single, Detroit horrorcore troupe D12, which Eminem joined in 1996 and used to develop his Slim Shady alias, addresses the rock-band malady of “lead singer syndrome.” “‘My Band'” is a parody, but as with any good joke, there are truths within it,” Touré wrote in a 2004 Rolling Stone profile of D12. “For example, at the concert, an unscientific poll of people in the VIP room found most couldn’t name any of the members of D12. A few recognized Bizarre, who stands out because of his twisted imagination, and Proof, well known to be Eminem’s best friend. But two people asked me if I was a member of D12.” The group was sanguine about the whole situation. “We grew up together, lived together, flipped burgers together,” Kuniva said of the relationship with Em. “We used to just sit on the porch and drink and think about hip-hop, think about makin’ it. There’s a bond there that nobody can break. … He knows [that] without D12 there wouldn’t be a Slim Shady.”

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Missy Elliott feat. Eminem, “Busa Rhyme” (1999)

Missy Elliott was a key black artist to co-sign Eminem early on. “He hadn’t even come out with ‘My Name Is’ yet,” she said in a Billboard interview. “I heard something of his and instantly told [producer] Tim[baland], ‘I need this guy on my album … He’s special.'” Though the rappers were from different galaxies, Missy might be pop’s most hospitably freaky host; and here, she intros, sings the chorus, boosts the joie de vivre on the bridge and shouts support for her crude young guest. First up, Eminem blacks out in Slim Shady mode over Timbaland’s jovial synth-bass blurt. But after Missy interjects to lighten the mood, the shrewdly bold Timbaland switches mid-song into a dramatically charged, breakbeat chase scene: “I’m homicidal and suicidal with no friends,” Shady spits with sharpened mania. “Holding a gun with no handle, just a barrel at both ends … Fucking mad dog, foaming at the mouth/Fuck mouth, my whole house is foaming at the couch.” 

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OldWorlDisorder feat. Eminem, “3hree6ix5ive” (1998)

Before The Slim Shady LP, Eminem used the rap underground as a test audience for his new alter ego. One example features Skam, the Miami rapper-visual artist namechecked in “Stan,” under the group moniker OldWorlDisorder. Here, Slim Shady adopts an Andre 3000 lyric – “I’m just releasing anger!” – as his modus operandi. Another particularly gleeful example comes toward the song’s end: “I’ll take it back before we knew each other’s name/Run in the ultrasound and snatch you out your mother’s frame/I’ll take it further back than that, back to lovers’ lane/To the night you was thought up and cock-block your father’s game.” In a MySpace interview, producer DJ Spinna remembers Em being “on point and quiet.” Meanwhile, his barbs were becoming more distinctively violent and outrageous.

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“Mockingbird” (2005)

Some critics dismissed this song from Em’s transitional fifth album Encore as just a mawkish exploitation of his daughter Hailie Jade. But what Eminem told Rolling Stone was “his most emotional song ever” was vulnerably fair-minded and delicately constructed. Here, he approaches the track like a stage actor digging into the nuances of a role, which is ultimately the key to our belief that he cares as much about being a real father as about being a privileged, embattled pop star firing cheap shots at his kid’s troubled mom. In other words, he keeps his bullshit in check and comes across like the everyday Marshall Mathers, a 32-year-old single dad still dealing with a dumpster-fire marriage, but also a mature adult who is capably raising three kids – Hailie, niece Alaina (who is also mentioned in the song) and half-brother Nate. What’s more, at least for this song, he makes that normcore guy just as compelling as the unhinged maniac he usually plays at work.

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“Headlights” feat. Nate Ruess (2013)

Contrary to his well-earned reputation as a fearless cultural provocateur, Eminem has long written sentimental song