This year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show should be a time-and-a-half. Mary J. Blige will surely break out her insane vocals, and Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg will grace the universe with “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” nearly thirty years following its emergence as west coast rap’s quintessential masterpiece. Kendrick Lamar, six years removed from DAMN, will be joining the ensemble as well, hopefully using music’s biggest stage to perform new music (don’t fuck us, Kendrick). At the center of it all is Marshall Mathers the emcee better known as Eminem—a clarification needed if you’re six-years old, an alien or Helen Keller.
On a roster filled with trailblazers and megastar artists, Eminem is the biggest of them all by a country mile, and has been since the turn of the century. Unfortunately, Eminem is a lot like our Denver Broncos. Ten of those years have been dominant, and the other ten have been a pile of misguided donkey shit (and way, way too white—even for Eminem). Where did it go wrong? When was his apex? Can he recover? Before you throw your rent money on Eminem playing “The Real Slim Shady” first, or his hair color (a real life bet you can make), take a gander with us through Eminem’s bafflingly inconsistent career.
ASCENSION (Marshall Mathers)
When Dr. Dre discovered and eventually enlisted Mathers to Aftermath Records in 1998, rap was defined by two distinct patterns—it’s coastal prominence and its cultural exclusivity. Rap music was for the African American community, by the African American community, and rightfully so. It was a clear creative outlet for illustrating messages of poverty, unjust legal treatment, and a harsh reality. Mathers, a low class, blue collar worker from Detroit, knew this world as well as any. They saw public housing, Mathers saw trailer homes. They saw crack, Mathers saw meth. They saw an established genre, Mathers saw an opening.
Armed with a unique diction, a fresh take on poverty and horrifying, often comedic narrative storytelling, Mathers became one of the country’s highest selling artists faster than you could say “wait, that guy is a redneck?” The Slim Shady LP (1999) and The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) were, and still are, masterpieces. Mathers single-handedly bridged the gap between rap music and middle America, using his unlimited creativity and relatability to demolish the racial divide in rap music. Records like “My Name Is” and “The Way I Am” showed the world a never before seen delivery, while “Stan” and “Rock Bottom” proved his narrative brilliance as a vivid storyteller.
Mathers released The Eminem Show (2002) at the peak of his powers. He was untouchable, and formed an even larger lead from the pack with an album many consider his most polished to date (see “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” “‘Till I Collapse” and “Hailie’s Song”). Then came Encore (2004)… and radio silence.
PLATEAU (Slim Shady)
Save “When I’m Gone” (one of Shady’s best songs to date), 2004 to 2009 gave the masses no music, or concerts, or so much as a peep from the Detroit kid. Shortly after the release of Encore, Shady was forced to face his demons. Being the biggest rapper on the planet had taken a mental toll, and to cope, he developed a vicious addiction to painkillers—something that took years of hard work and family time to overcome. When he finally felt it was time to return to the studio in 2009, there were—reasonably—one of two options that would have sufficed in resurrecting a dormant career: reinvention or reflection. Shady chose neither. This marked his first musical misstep, a bad decision that would mark a decade long string of skid marks. Shady decided to double down on the grotesque thematics that gave people a rush a decade ago, but the country—deep in the throws of a recession—had changed.
Relapse (2009) was a classic case of “wrong place, wrong time.” People wanted lyrical reassurance from the guy who brought comfort to middle class America. He instead gave songs like “Buffalo Bill” and “Bagpipes From Baghdad.” Most notable was “Insane,” a record that featured an opening verse about a kid getting raped by his stepfather (a story, Eminem would later tell the New York Times, was pretty much all fiction). Sure, much of the album was catchy, but most of the tracks lacked an ideal setting. What, were you going to play these songs at a barbecue? In the car with your girlfriend? Your headphones? The album was a “twisted jokes for sick kids” book in musical form, and added nothing to Shady’s legacy.
Recovery (2010) is perhaps his most divisive album to date. It murdered the billboard charts with songs like “Not Afraid” and “No Love,” and featured his hardest intro to date—“Cold Wind Blows”—but something was missing. Shady heard the groans spawning from Relapse, and decided that, in a golden opportunity to redeem himself, the best route would be submitting to radio-friendly ears. Records like “W.T.P.” showed his creativity was still there, but it was rapidly whittling. When he released The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)—a clear money grab, like most sequels—a fate most feared was sealed.
Following The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem went into another hiatus—this time four years long, and completely unjustified. During this time two negative outcomes reared their ugly heads—one concerning his fans, and the other concerning his image.
The follow-up to his 2000 landmark album was almost entirely forgettable, which led many in the rap community to begin questioning Eminem’s relevancy and pen game. His fans fired back in the most corny way possible, gripping buzz-phrases like “he’s real rap” or “your favorite artist is a mumble rapper.” It was a combative attempt fueled by Mountain Dew Code Red. They inadvertently hurt Eminem’s persona, but like a battalion of cutoff wearing soldiers, they marched on, shriveling in anticipation for Revival (2017). It was Custer’s Last Stand. The album was horrendous. Any shred of validity Eminem once held was buried. The bad decisions that plagued Eminem to this point—radio submission, grotesque imagery, “over-rapping” (see “Rap God”)—fell even flatter on Revival. Sprinkle in a tired attempt at political commentary, a freestyle in a parking garage, and a stupid album cover (Eminem behind… an American Flag?)… you’ve got what most consider one of the decade's worst rap projects.
Kamikaze (2018)—a surprise project—was at least listenable, but Music To Be Murdered By (2020) served as a last ditch attempt at resurrecting the horror-core hip-hop of days past. Apple Music’s description of the album puts it perfectly: “If you were hoping that an Eminem album released in 2020 would be less offensive, violent, or controversial, this album isn’t for you.”
FEBRUARY 13, 2022 — SUPER BOWL LVI
What could Eminem possibly do to win back the hearts and ears of fans around the world? This question is impossible to answer. A better inquiry may be, does Eminem care? He’s seen the highest highs and the lowest lows of the music industry. Grammy wins, billboard number ones, world tours, and a one-of-a-kind approach to the genre places him in most people’s “top 10 rappers” lists. One could argue there’s nothing left to prove. When the lights dim in SoFi Stadium on Sunday night, however, fifty-kajillion people will have their eyes fixed on a kid from Detroit. All we can do is cross our fingers and pray he doesn’t fuck this up too. Our bet is that he doesn’t—Eminem is due for a much-needed win. But please, no “Rap God.”