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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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9

“The Way I Am” (2000)

“If you think I’m an asshole, then I’m gonna show you an asshole,” he told SPIN of his motivation behind the angst-ridden 2000 single that adapts lines from Eric B. & Rakim’s “As the Rhyme Goes On.” “If you call me a misogynist, I’m a misogynist. If you say I hate gay people, then I hate gay people.”In the wake of releasing The Slim Shady LP, Eminem became one of hip-hop’s most polarizing figures: PTA meetings were dedicated to his violent lyrics; conservative organizations decried him as poisonous to young people. This was hardly a shock to the rapper. “Look, I know what people say and how they feel about some of the language I use, topics I rap about and stuff I present,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. And so on “The Way I Am,” the self-flagellating second single off The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem beats his critics to the punch. He embraces the role of a villain, happy to aggressively play it up.

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8

“Just Don’t Give a Fuck” (1997)

In the summer of 1998, when Aftermath/Interscope mailed out 12-inch promos of “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” as the first single from Eminem’s major-label debut, he was still a battle-rap rumor. This rowdy-rebel boast was the wider world’s first brush with the wiseass white MC, who instantly tweaks our perceptions, tagging himself “Slim Shady,” his sociopathic alter ego, in the first line. Soon after, there’s a goofier intro – “My name is Marshall Mathers, I’m an alcoholic” – which spikes the mix with a third persona via his government name. This is the foundational head trip: Who is this person? Are all of these narrators unreliable? Though not the pop wallop of follow-up “My Name Is,” “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” was its own defining shot – more polished, scintillating and frisky than the version on 1997’s Slim Shady EP (credit to executive producer Dr. Dre). It wildly sprays the sky, with the three-headed rapper waving “two Glocks, screamin’ ‘Fuck the world’ like 2Pac.” 

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7

The Notorious B.I.G. feat. Eminem, “Dead Wrong” (1999)

Even at the peak of his powers, it was a bold move for Eminem to get on a track with a posthumous Notorious B.I.G. verse. The antisocial jolt of Biggie’s lines on the thunderous “Dead Wrong,” produced by Bad Boy Hitmen Chucky Thompson and Mario Winans with Diddy hovering nearby, were among his most potently scathing. Yet Eminem practically matches him, sketching an antihero heel turn that scoffs at norms and good taste. Rather than reaching for Big’s legendarily blunt, declarative phrasing, Em eases into his verse easily, abstractly, as if he were writing a Wikipedia page on theistic Satanism: “There’s several different levels to devil worshipping. …” But it’s a false sense of banality as the verse winds its way into a maze of malevolence and brutality.

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6

“Kill You” (2000)

In late 1999, Eminem called his mentor Dr. Dre. He doesn’t remember what they were supposed to discuss, but he was struck by the jauntily frenetic jazz loop (possibly borrowed from Jacques Loussier’s 1979 composition “Pulsion,” as a lawsuit claimed) that Dre was tinkering with in the background and demanded to use it. Though Em already had a triple-platinum, Grammy-winning album and a Rolling Stone cover touting his “dirty white boy rap,” he was eager to warn folks that he was only getting started. (To quote Em’s Angry Blonde: “If anything … I got worse.”) To wit, “Kill You” uncorks a delirium of comic-book revenge, shading irony with savagery to bait and ridicule his critics. But the track is most fascinating impressive for its absurdly specific and self-aware depiction of an unhinged superstar (though, unfortunately, most of the ire is at the expense of women and features a homophobic slur). Vice presidential wife Lynne Cheney was among those taken aback. During a 2000 Senate hearing, she cited “Kill You” – in particular, Em’s perverse revenge scenario against his estranged mom, who had sued him for $10 million after lyrics about her appeared on The Slim Shady LP – as one reason the music industry needed a rating and labeling system to protect children from harmful subject matter.

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5

“My Name Is” (1998)

Eminem’s 1998 breakout single burst from the earliest meeting between the then-unknown MC and the storied producer Dr. Dre, who had been fiddling with a sample from Labi Siffre’s 1975 soul strut “I Got The…” “I was, like, man, listen, I put this sample together – tell me if you like it. And I hit the drum machine, and maybe two or three seconds went by, and he went, ‘Hi! My name is … My name is …,” Dr. Dre recalled in the 2017 documentary The Defiant Ones. “Like, ‘Yo, stop. Shit’s hot.’ That’s what happened on our first day, in our first few minutes of being in the studio.” Eminem’s combination of nonstop pop-culture punch lines (he name-checked Nine Inch Nails, the Spice Girls, Pamela Anderson Lee and Kris Kross in the first verse), intricate rhyme schemes delivered in his Michigan drawl, cartoonishly violent imagery and a music video in which he gleefully parodied TV hucksters caused “My Name Is” to become a parental-advisory-emblazoned crossover sensation and MTV mainstay (albeit with heavy censoring). While it only peaked at Number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, it won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 2000, establishing Eminem as one of hip-hop and pop’s brightest talents.

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4

“Lose Yourself” (2002)

Eminem has always drawn a line between 8 Mile‘s protagonist, Rabbit, and his own life: The film’s central character was loosely based on his own come-up, but it was not strictly autobiographical. Still, it’s easy to hear much of the rapper’s own grind in the film’s lead single. In many ways, it’s the realism and overcoming-all-odds sentiment of “Lose Yourself” that propelled it to become the biggest hit of Eminem’s career and the first rap song to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Eminem and producer Jeff Bass had recorded a demo a few years earlier, but revisited it during the Detroit-based production of 8 Mile; Eminem wrote the song’s confessional lyrics only after receiving the film’s script. “I had to make the song while I was in the movie,” he told Funkmaster Flex. “Because once I stepped out of that movie I wouldn’t feel like I was in [the character.]” He cut the track in rapid-fire fashion. “”He came in and laid down all three verses in one take,” recalled engineer Steven King. “Jaws dropped – we were, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ This story had been building up in him.”

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3

Dr. Dre feat. Eminem, “Forgot About Dre” (2000)

Despite its origins as a hard-nosed diss track torching Suge Knight – written in secret and presented to Dr. Dre by Eminem – “Forgot About Dre” became the artist/producer/A&R visionary’s career capstone, winning a Grammy and achieving pop-culture ubiquity five years after his last Top 40 hit. “People were saying that I didn’t have it anymore and that I hadn’t made a good record in years,” Dr. Dre told Rolling Stone at the time. “I just can’t ignore that shit. … Now what do you people have to say?” The creeping-outside-your-window ambience he conjures – like a tightly plotted big-screen adaptation of the Dungeon Family’s vividly sprawling vignettes – possesses an almost stately, imminent threat. This song a rap fan wrote for a pioneer also might be Eminem’s crowning validation. The artful verse structure he creates for both himself and his mentor allows them to spit scorn or self-affirmation in perfectly calibrated declaratives or dazzling double-time. Plus, Em voices the unforgettable chorus in a battle-rap rat-a-tat that effortlessly ferries a dizzy melodic swoosh. 

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2

“Stan” (2000)

In 2003, Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney was asked whether he though any current musicians had inspired a renewed interest in poetry. “[Eminem] has sent a voltage around his generation,” the Irish poet answered. “He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.” Heaney didn’t cite specific lyrics, but the song most deserving of such high-flown praise is this epic diary of obsession. Playing off what functions as an ironic sample (by producer DJ Mark the 45 King) of Dido’s “Thank You,” an ode to simple gestures of kindness, Eminem unreliably narrates the story of “Stan,” an increasingly disturbed fan who religiously follows, then feels abandoned by, Em’s unhinged alter ego “Slim Shady.” Eminem, as himself, finally shows up to reply, but it’s too late. The song’s brilliance lies in its panopticon of personas and points of view, which shift from compassionate to cruel to bewildered. When interviewed, Eminem tended to characterize “Stan” as a conventional cautionary tale, but he wasn’t very convincing. “It’s kind of like a message to the fans to let them know that everything I say is not meant to be taken literally,” he told MTV at the time. “Just most of the things that I say.”

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1

“The Real Slim Shady” (2000)

After listening to an early iteration of The Marshall Mathers LP, Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine delivered some grim news: The record lacked a lead single. “I thought that the album was spectacular, but I thought they hadn’t taken it as far as they could,” Iovine remembered in a VH1 special. “They needed a song to introduce the album.” Dr. Dre agreed: “I knew we had a second or third single,” he acknowledged, “but we needed that big opener.” The pressure frustrated Eminem. “I can’t give you another ‘My Name Is,'” the rapper lamented. “I can’t just sit in there and make that magic happen.”

He didn’t come up with another “My Name Is”; instead, he topped it with “The Real Slim Shady,” which became Eminem’s biggest hit to date, reaching Number Four on the Hot 100. Though Eminem would soon transition into making somber world-beaters like “Lose Yourself” and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” “Real Slim Shady” is uproarious, with a carnivalesque synth line and a lyrical nod to a novelty track from Canadian comedian Tom Green. The rapper takes shots at everyone – pop stars, music critics, Will Smith, himself – but those freewheeling insults mask a unifying purpose: “I guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us,” Eminem concludes. “Fuck it, let’s all stand up.”

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