Debating hip-hop’s Top 5 is never an easy or agreeable task. Although there are some familiar emcees who have somewhat solidified their spots on the coveted list, no one is truly safe. Let us examine your classic 2Pac, Jay-Z, Biggie, Eminem and Nas lineup. As much as this list is commonly agreed upon, old school rap fans who came of age during 80s explain that it excludes artists from the first golden era—artists like Rakim, Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane. New school fans complain that the list is too dated and more modern artists like Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Vince Staples, Pusha T, Big Sean and others have earn a spot or at least a mention. Fans with a less “commercial” outlook are also quick to point out the absence of rappers like Ice Cube, Jadakiss, MF Doom, Atmosphere, Ghostface Killah, Andre 3000, etc.—and we haven’t even began to discuss the exclusion of notable femcees like Lauryn Hill, MC Lyte, Rah Digga or Jean Grey.
Personally, I have been in this very debate countless times. But there is one rapper on the classic Top 5 list that I have always been unsure about and that is Eminem. I simply do not think that his spot is solidified nor do I think that he is the greatest rapper alive. I was recently engaging in a discussion in which I boldly proclaimed:
Eminem is overrated.
Now, before discontinuing reading this article and hurry down to the nearest arts and craft store so that you may create a dummy in my likeness and burn me effigy, hear me out.
Firstly, Eminem is an extraordinarily talented lyricist with a nose for compelling subject matter and an uncanny lyrical dexterity that is almost unmatched. Eminem is not trash, nowhere near it. As an artist, Eminem has produced work that has made him a bonafide top tier emcee. In fact, sporting a new bearded look, Eminem is currently in the studio with Rick Rubin mounting a comeback and I’m more than sure he has some great music still left him. That being said, I am still not against arguing why his spot on the Top 5 list isn’t cemented and is almost immediately up for the taking.
Eminem is a superb wordsmith but being one of the greatest rappers, dead or alive, is more than having a way with words. There is longevity, marketability, sales, relevancy, cultural impact—and, ultimately, in Eminem’s case, race. Allow me to break down each criteria in relation to the Rap God.
Having released his debut album, Infinite, in 1996, Eminem didn’t truly catch fire until 1999’s The Slim Shady LP. Nonetheless, he took the world by storm with his lyrical prowess, provocative content and nihilistic humor. 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP bore hits such as “Stan”, “The Way I Am” and “The Real Slim Shady”, all memorable tunes that fans know word-for-word. Then he released The Eminem Show in 2002 and Em gave us a certified Diamond album that was a worldwide success. But then things went left…
2004’s Encore was lackluster. Relapse was “ehh”—Eminem’s own words—and Recovery was barely tolerable. With the exception of 2013’s slightly buzzworthy The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem was teetering out. He ignited in 1999 and artistically fizzled by 2004. That is a five-year reign in which he was inarguably one of—if not the best rapper on Earth. Even Eminem admitted that he “drove things into ground” conceptually and stylistically.
Eminem lacks longevity because his sound lacks staying power, even as it evolved into a sound that resembled something out of a dark pop opera. It came to a point where it seemed like he was autopilot, coasting and failing to push the envelope, which is what made him successful in the first place.
He also became a one trick pony. You almost knew what you were going to get with an Eminem album before you even listen to it—snarling underdog rhetoric, mommy issues and heathen humor. It become boring.
Eminem is (and always will be) one of the most marketable artists in today’s music industry. He has that “It” factor, that magnetic artistry and distinguished branding that makes Em one of the most notable artists today. Everything from the blond caesar cut to his potty mouth makes him an ideal celebrity. Entrepreneurship, endorsements, movie appearances… Eminem has multiple veins of revenue to explore thanks to his personal brand. Beside not being an immediate style icon, Eminem has no problem here.
Once again, Eminem takes the cake. The Marshall Mathers LP was the fastest-selling solo album in US history—and that’s just for starters. Despite the aforementioned creative staleness and withering after a good five-year long hot streak, Em still enjoyed five more years of what I like to call “success by numbers.” With worldwide album sales well over 172 million, Eminem is one of the best-selling musical artists in the world. He absolutely kills in regards to concert sales, digital streaming, YouTube views and social media. He also has received more than his fair share of awards and plaques—and by “fair share,” I mean enough awards and plaques to fill an olympic-sized swimming pool.
Yes, Eminem has received an abundance of accolades but award institutions like The Grammys and record sales don’t always speak for what the culture feels in its heart. I was watching an interview with Vince Staples on THE CRUZ SHOW and when one of the hosts tried to imply that Eminem is the greatest rapper of all time, Staples wasn’t so quick to agree. Staples, who has recently risen as one of hip-hop’s most potent lyricists, has been making a whole lot of sense lately and this almost looked to be a time when his rhetoric was going to take a rare L. But Vince didn’t disappoint:
“We can say Michael Jordan is still alive, but he’s not beating Lebron James one-on-one… [there aren’t] that many kids walking around saying they want to be Eminem… I don’t know who was dressing like him, walking around like him. That clothing line [Shady LTD.] wasn’t boomin’. You gotta separate commerce and art when we talk about music… Vincent Van Gogh was nobody before he died… Basquiat died, bro… [if] we talkin’ about sales and commerce, Michael Jackson died in severe debt. That’s the greatest artist of all time… If he died with no money, we can never talk about money… As an artist, you don’t get in a museum for having a lot of money, they put you in there because they care [about] what you are doing…”
To Vince’s point, Eminem may have oodles of trophies and astonishing sale numbers but has he really made a creative mark? In my opinion, Em doesn’t really make songs that you can either vibe or dance to—or both. His most popular songs are high energy but are usually brooding, angsty, raging or quirky. Eminem’s songs often put you in your feelings, not get the party jumping or percolating. They aren’t songs that come on in a club, lounge or bar and everyone gets hype. You’re not getting the BBQ lit with “My Name Is” or “The Way I Am” but throw on Ice Cube’s “Today Was A Good Day” or Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” or Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” and it instantaneously does something to the crowd. He also doesn’t have that many memorable lyrics. You know, quote friendly lyrics that even become staple references in other rappers’ verses. Mostly fan know Em’s songs word-for-word. Whereas as any Becky and her nana could recite the lyrics to “Hit ‘Em Up.” There isn’t even a signature Eminem ad lib that other rappers can use to shout him out or pay homage.
We could say that Em made it okay to rap about depression, suicide and familial dysfunction but confessional rap songs like The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts” and 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” dwelled on those topics way before Em even put out his first album.
Let’s be honest, although Eminem has established a memorable legacy, he is no longer as relevant as he used to be. In the aforementioned radio interview, Staples went on to reference Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z and their ability to maintain relevance throughout their career. “When Snoop came out with ‘Sexual Seduction’ no one said, ‘you too old’,” said Staples. Vince is right. With the exception of his last album and the occasional freestyle appearance, no one is desperately checking for Eminem. Sure, there is growing buzz around his upcoming album but the culture isn’t suffering for another Eminem record. The industry—even rap in particular—is actually getting along just fine without one.
While he is still a legend, Eminem’s stock, in terms of being relevant to rap, has declined significantly since his heyday. His sound is no longer appealing and even Em knows it. Which is exactly why he reached out to 2 Chainz to redo a hook on one of his songs off the alleged upcoming album. 2 Chainz wasn’t particularly fond of that idea, so Em offered a remix feature. 2 Chainz, knowing that his present stock is worth much more than a redone hook (in which he would not receive any publishing rights) or a remix, eventually convinced Eminem to let him do a main verse.
The tracklist for the pending project has yet to be released, and Em isn’t known for having a ton of features on his albums, but I’m pretty sure he is going to be reaching out to a few of the industry’s current tastemakers in order breathe some life into his sound.
In the videos for “Without Me” (2009) and “We Made You” (2009), Eminem at one point donned an Elvis costume, taking a tongue in cheek jab at his critics and possibly himself. When he first rose to prominence, many began to see Eminem as the Elvis of rap. He was a controversial but consumable poster child for a genre that—despite its popularity—was always a little too “dark” for mainstream white America. This has been happening since white artists like Pat Boone was stealing songs from black artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino.
There is no question whether or not Eminem is talented. He is extraordinarily talented. But is he that talented? Is there an extra push there? Point being, despite his immense talent, is he inherently benefiting from cultural white privilege? Some would argue that he indeed is benefitting and this privilege has accelerated the progress of his career, granting him a certain level of success that may not be granted so readily to a person of color.
Rap/hip-hop is a melting pot with various influencers and key players of all colors, shapes and sizes. From The Beastie Boys to Fat Joe, the genre isn’t just for black people. But there are certain levels of exposure—underground and mainstream—where color does come into play.
When you are underground, your audience is mostly people of color, misfits and/or have-nots. This is mainly because of socioeconomic, sociopolitics, cultural nuances and overall access. In that case, creativity can be an outlet or an escape for those who are mired in poverty and lack proper access; and because of the racial climate in America, those without proper access usually tends to be people of color.
Then there is the mainstream. This is the level where you go from selling your music out of your trunk and filling night clubs to selling millions of records worldwide and filling stadiums. Now, when you get to this level, it is mostly white people with access and disposable income buying those records and filling up those stadiums, not people of color.
So, would it be far-fetched to say that race plays a role in how the mainstream audience has embraced Eminem? With all things being considered, absolutely not.
In retrospect, Em made his bones through hard work, just the same as his peers. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve a consideration for Top 5 spot but to just unequivocally declare him the greatest rapper alive—which many do—isn’t as justified as it seems.
What do you think?
Is Eminem the greatest rapper alive? Or is he overrated?
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