At this point, I propose the music-loving community respectfully consider The Marshall Mathers LP II to be hip-hop’s version of the film Prometheus — both are decent efforts that, had they not been made by such esteemed artists (Eminem and Ridley Scott, respectively), and not been sequels to masterpieces, probably would have garnered more critical acclaim. The best thing about Prometheus was that it reminded me of how brilliant the original Alien is. Concordantly, the best thing about MMLPII (besides the technicality of “Rap God,” and the left hook of “Bad Guy) is that it prompted me to revisit the original Marshall Mathers LP.
Clearly Mathers himself has been looking back at that album, as well. It represents the definite creative apex of his career. All of Em’s releases since have been marred in some way: Even its only worthy successor, The Eminem Show, strayed just a bit too far into pop sentimentality.
Mathers doesn’t easily lend himself to dissection — like all good pop-culture icons, he wears many masks but, unlike David Bowie or Prince, he passes between them in rapid succession. Which Mathers would you like? There’s the crass, below-the-belt comedian, the homicidal misogynist psychopath, the talented battle-emcee, the spokesperson for Rust Belt America, and the sensitive rapper-storyteller. Take your pick. At the height of his career — roughly between 1999 and 2002 — Mathers was all these things at once.
His greatest strength was probably autobiography. It’s fitting that one of the skits on The Slim Shady LP is called “Soap” — Em’s songs mythologized not only himself, but his mother, his ex-wife Kim, and even his daughter Hailie. These women became a recurring cast of characters (with Dr. Dre playing the occasional comic relief) in a family drama that served as a metaphor for Mathers’ own self-examination.
That sense of realism is what makes Mathers’ music at that time even more disturbing. In retrospect, some of the controversy surrounding the artist may have been warranted — the man has a serious lyrical penchant for holding women captive, particularly in his trunk. At the same time, these subjects give his songs a grit and intensity that many other bestselling emcees lacked around the turn of the century.
On the albums since then, Em’s technical rapping skill has increased exponentially — have you ever seen him on BET’s Cypher? At the same time, his knack for inventive storytelling seems to have faded — this is how you get songs like “Rap God,” jaw-dropping displays of tongue-twisting skill with approximately no ability to impact listeners emotionally. Eminem has become the Yngwie Malmsteen of hip-hop: all shred with no songs, propping his commercial value up with guest choruses supplied by talented contemporary singers.
Mathers’ post-2002 output has its proponents. Recovery moved major units, and The Marshall Mathers LP II is primed to do the same — heck, some critics even like it. That said, fans of that material won’t find much to like in this list. Likewise, people who adore jester Eminem can find vindication elsewhere — I think “FACK”and “Rainman” are hilarious in spite of themselves, but they’re not good music. Marshall Mathers was at his best — both on his records, and guesting for his companions, frequently stealing their thunder — when his penchant for darkness and self-reflection was not overpowered by his wit and rapping ability. Eminem’s top 10 songs will be judged not by the wizardry of his verses or the comedy of his punchlines, but by the strength of the music and lyrical content itself.
10. “White America” (from The Eminem Show, 2002)
If you listen to 2002’s The Eminem Show without “White America,” the album seems to follow The Marshall Mathers LP’s formula almost to a T — goofy opener, left turn into morbid ballad, etc. The album feels like a self-congratulatory victory lap in many senses. But the addition of “White America” right at the start changes the tone of everything. In retrospect, the song is less political than it makes itself out to be — Em spends most of the time recounting his own story — but to place this song at the front of a pop album in 2002 was a brave move. The song turns an arena rock drum beat into a funeral dirge. Meanwhile, Em reaches his most sarcastic depths, more or less explaining his commercial appeal, damning his would-be censors, and taking a sly jab at his own fair-weather following as well. “I go to TRL, look how many hugs I get,” still drips alkaline, even after MTV stopped showing music videos.
9. “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” (from The Eminem Show, 2002)
On The Eminem Show, Mathers had figured out the formula for a successful set of album singles: cheesy and hooky, if a bit dim, first single, followed by dark, self-referential second single. In general these second singles were some of his strongest work, and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is no exception. The definitive song in Em’s oeuvre regarding his mother ping-pongs from quick, accusatory verses to a slow, confessional chorus, and that juxtaposition elevates the song past some of his more monotone ballads. And the verses here cut deep, probably because while Em’s jabs at Kim can feel immature and crass, his assessment of his upbringing feels studied, detached, and surgical. Cheers for any hip-hop song referencing Münchausen Syndrome.
8. “Forgot About Dre” (from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic 2001, 1999)
The second single on Dr. Dre’s second solo album might as well be an Eminem song. Indeed, Mathers tackles the chorus by himself (it’s trickier than it sounds). In the same way that Dre’s original Chronic served as a public introduction to Snoop Dogg, The Chronic 2001 served as an introduction to Eminem. And while “Forgot About Dre” is about venerating Dre’s place in hip-hop history and to confirm his relevance, Mathers overpowers him. His verse is absolutely the standout piece of the song, marathoning through a little assault, battery, murder, and then arson before polishing off with the definitive description of his Slim Shady alter ego: “hotter than a set of twin babies/ in a Mercedes Benz with the windows up/ when the temp goes up to the mid-eighties.” Braggadocio via giving children heat stroke? It’s the exact sort of witty perversity that defines Mathers.
7. “Kim” (from The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000)
As reprehensible as Mathers’ treatment of women gets, especially his ex-wife Kim, the song that bares her name may be his single most terrifying song. On the surface, “Kim” is just another iteration of Em’s favorite narrative: taking a woman captive in the trunk of his car and driving to an inevitable suicide-homicide, but he puts so much ferocity into his performance that it elevates the song past the source material. Although Em is rapping on the track, it feels more like a radio drama, set to the tectonic drum sample from “When The Levee Breaks.” Mathers plays both himself and Kim, growing ever-more hysterical as the track proceeds — you really can hear his vocal cords strain. Everything about the track feels unhinged.
6. “Kill You” (from The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000)
Treading the razor’s edge between humor and braggadocio, “Kill You” lays out Eminem’s reputation in terms so simple it might as well be a mathematical proof. Q) Why ought one not fuck with Shady? A) Because Shady will fucking kill you. That little bit winds up being one of the very best hooks in Eminem’s discography, packing attitude, swagger, and whimsy. This song took Dre’s G-funk formula, blended it with Bernard Hermann strings, and formed an ideal bridge-beat between pop and shock rap. Inevitably, this song falls in as one of his mostly humorous efforts, but it’s the best of the bunch, setting cheap pop-culture references aside in favor of an escalating sense of mania in Em’s delivery.
5. “Renegade” (from Jay Z’s The Blueprint, 2001)
Speaking of commercial juggernauts whose creative output took a nosedive after an initial period of brilliance, Jay Z is seldom one to allow anyone to share the spotlight with him (besides Kanye, but that’s irrelevant at this point). However, Mathers landed the sole guest spot on Jay’s best album, 2001’s The Blueprint — Eminem even penned the beat. And in this brief moment, Eminem completely eclipses Hova on his own territory, so much so that this guest spot became fuel for Nas in his then-hot feud with Jay. Politics aside, Em’s flow is as multisyllabic as it ever was, but with a relaxed, in-the-pocket delivery. This is the sound of an emcee in absolute control of his own words — I mean, in his own words, “It’s as easy as cake, simple as whistling Dixie/ While I’m waving a pistol at sixty Christians against me.” Here, Mathers was a nonconformist’s nonconformist, as well as a superstar.
4. “Guilty Conscience” (from The Slim Shady LP, 1999)
If one listens to the Eminem discography in chronological order, this is the first truly significant song that plays. Like a great boxing match, it pits Dr. Dre against Mathers Slim Shady persona in three rounds. The two emcees play the shoulder angel and devil, respectively, of three would-be criminals. Somehow, this track works as a battle showcase, a character study, and even the kind of hip-hop-as-narrative-drama track that Mathers would later master. The quintessential Slim Shady track, “Guilty Conscience” culminates with Mathers turning his lyrical barbs on Dre, spitting one amazing couplet (“Be smart, don’t be a retard/ You gonna take advice from somebody who slapped Dee Barnes?”) co-opting NWA lyrics in a rare hip-hop moment of meta-critical self-aware humor.
3. “The Way I Am” (from The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000)
The phenomenon of Mathers’ own fame — both the improbability of its existence, and the uncontrollability of its repercussions — may be his favorite subject, and this is the best song on the subject. In part a defense of Em’s own character, this sarcastic beast actually has heart — it can be construed as a letter of solace to would-be Columbine shooters, as well as artists blamed for said tragedies (Mathers names Marilyn Manson by name, and Manson would later appear in the song’s video, and tour alongside Eminem). The beat — crawling, minimalist, with creepy pianos and funeral bells — is a masterpiece by itself, but Em’s delivery here is a standout. He barks, percussively, like a loosely chained pit pull, all snot and scrawny, abuse-hardened masculinity. A bundle of bare nerves, Mathers drops the Shady routine to show his vulnerability underneath, and in the process exposes just how much of a piece of armor his alter ego really is. A bit immature? Yes, but the immaturity gives the song a point of access for nearly any listener.
2. “Lose Yourself” (from the 8 Mile soundtrack, 2002)
“Lose Yourself,” the lead single from Eminem’s autobiographical film 8 Mile, details the climactic rap battle of the film, itself a metaphor for the moment Mathers went from unsigned artist to, in his mind, legitimate emcee. What could be a narcissistic piece of fluff is a career highlight. A generation of kids raised on FM radio (maybe the last such generation) can quote every hyper-memorable verse of this song. From the vamping bass-and-guitar of the verses to the massive arena-rock chorus, every piece of “Lose Yourself” is a hook. Except for maybe Nas’ “I Can,” there is no better hip-hop song about the value of musical catharsis and self-motivation. At the same time, “Lose Yourself” is the last chapter in Mathers’ golden years, and the very qualities that make it such a home run — the rock production, the big chorus, the hooks, the positivity — are the same ones that make his later work unlistenable. In that sense, this song is the tipping point, the last drop of liquor before liver poisoning, the very apex of the roller coaster.
1. “Stan” (from The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000)
If “Lose Yourself” is the last trumpet, “Stan” is the first. Mathers was a talented writer before this song, but he was also a bit self-obsessed. In “Stan,” he creates a whole new character, the distillation of his most negative qualities, a fan-turned-stalker-and-killer — the unavoidable end-result of his ego. His final days become a Greek tragedy, with Dido as Greek chorus, and Mathers himself as deus ex machina. In that respect, “Stan” has all the qualities of a classic folk tune. The live Grammy rendition of this song with Sir Elton John is still a moving experience, though Em’s homophobia seems like more of a put-on than a conviction now. Even in hip-hop, a genre that, at its best and according to its most intellectual proponents, lives and dies by its writing, it is rare to find a song so completely formed. Interestingly, the rhymes themselves are simple affairs, delivered at low tempos, the opposite of the sort Mathers employed in the direct sequel to the song, “Bad Guy.” That’s the difference between Em the shredder and Em the master. To craft his very best song, all he needed was one great sample, a clever idea, and a lot of heart.
Listen to the Spotify playlist here.