Thirteen years ago, Eminem offered this modest self-assessment: “Whether you like to admit it, I just shit it / better than 90 percent of you rappers.” Numbers would come to tell a different story—Eminem is the best-selling rapper of all time, by a wide margin. He’s also got 13 Grammys, an Oscar, and as of Sunday night, an “Artist of the Year” trophy from the first-ever Youtube Awards. Of course, charts and accolades don’t mean everything. But Eminem is surely one of rap’s most capable practitioners, fond of breathtaking verbal displays frequently delivered at manic speed. In his prime, his brand of gleeful vitriol seemed to have infinite reach—no one was safe.
The trilogy of albums he released between 1999 and 2002, each dedicated to one of his personas (Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers, and Eminem), captured the rapper at his most unhinged and most effective. He ranted, joked, vented, and cleverly offered a vision of a silent but angry army at his back—“every single person is a Slim Shady lurking,” “there's a million of us just like me / who cuss like me, who just don't give a fuck like me / who dress like me, walk, talk and act like me.” It turned out there were a lot more than a million, and they liked to buy albums.
The man’s sound changed as he moved—he became increasingly aware of his own impact, and got more serious, more predictable, less deranged. He contributed several of the definitive songs of the early ‘00s, and they reflect this progression. “The Real Slim Shady,” released in 2000, has that exaggerated, Halloween-worthy keyboard riff, goofy asides, strange vocal quirks, cackles, sex noises, and moose jokes. By the time Eminem reached the peak of his powers, with 2002’s “Lose Yourself,” he’s the most serious guy around. The song is made for layup lines and Gatorade commercials, opening with a question—“If you had one shot… to seize everything you ever wanted… would you capture it or just let it slip?”—that a younger Eminem would have laughed off, made fun of, and sworn at.
Seizing the moment is one thing, holding on is another. Eminem has maintained his ability to make people buy his work, but the three albums he released between 2004 and 2010 are a lot less inspired. He covered the same topics as before, but with less vigor and amusement. His once sharp references fell behind the times. He also struggled with drug addiction.
A lot has changed since Eminem started tantalizing and scandalizing the world with his combination of jaw-dropping ability, humor, and belligerence that frequently veers into misogyny, gory fantasy, or homophobia. Rap’s in a strange place right now, with the long-ruling elite in disarray or disavowing the genre’s current direction. When Jay Z gave away free copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail, it seemed as though it was because the album couldn’t stand up on its own. Kanye with Yeezus made a brave, defiant break with his commercial side—and was outsold in two weeks by an uninteresting album from J. Cole. Lil’ Wayne, once reliably surprising, has settled into more conventional, less-thrilling patterns.
What about the youngsters? Drake’s had success with Nothing Was the Same, but he mixes rapping and singing, moving rap in directions purists aren’t always comfortable with. Nicki Minaj hasn’t released an album this year, and she’s also made genre gate-keepers anxious by occasionally singing and by not being a man. Kendrick Lamar has called himself the King of New York and last year released the much-lauded good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but so far he’s only had one top-20 pop hit. He talks big, but he’s not yet a superstar.