How exactly do you appraise the career of Marshall Bruce Mathers III? Depending on your perspective, Eminem is either one of the finest MCs of all time, a white trash kid who defied all the odds to push rap and hip-hop into the suburban homes of mainstream America and shock it to its very core, or he’s a cartoonish, one-trick pony who has fallen off during his disappointing second act. You’d imagine that Mathers wouldn’t have it any other way than to inspire such extreme reactions; wherever you stand, he’s been a divisive, polarising, controversial and impossible to ignore figure for decades. Over 11 studio albums he has also created some of his chosen genre's most iconic songs. Here they all are, ranked from worst to best.
11. Relapse (2009)
Not all Eminem albums are good, but only one is deeply, truly this bad. Although you could certainly argue that standards had slipped a notch on his previous two records, Relapse represented a remarkable drop-off for a man who was making some of the most vital music of his generation at the start of the decade. Opener 3 a.m. is a poor start, totally unmemorable and with Marshall sounding like an SNL parody of himself in the chorus. It’s a shockingly stinking lift-off from which Relapse never really recovers, with songs like Insane, Same Song And Dance and Must Be The Ganja all sounding tired and phoned-in.
The worst moment, however, is the grating Bagpipes From Baghdad, which starts with Em doing... er... let’s call it a “culturally insensitive" accent, for no discernible reason. Positives? The production on We Made You is kind of interesting...and that’s all we got. For those reasons and a good few more, Relapse is the worst album in Eminem’s discography.
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10. Revival (2017)
All but abandoning the edgier side he’d revisited on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem went full hip-pop for album number nine, pulling in guest appearances from Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran and 'levelling up' his production with a stadium rock sheen that made the likes of Recovery look like basement recordings. The result is a bloated and largely forgettable, if occasionally interesting effort, sprinkled with an overabundance of ballady fluff and a host of uninspired sample choices. Remind Me’s use of Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ’N’ Roll feels like something Vanilla Ice might have turned down, while In Your Head manages to totally neuter Cranberries classic Zombie.
While Eminem’s earnest tirades against Donald Trump and musings on police brutality and institutional racism offered some fresh lyrical perspectives (for him, at least), the album’s misguided production choices - unforgivable given the calibre of exec producers Dr Dre and Rick Rubin - and cynical hooks left the one-time scourge of mainstream America looking lost and unfocused. The record would sell bucketloads, of course, but the arrival of Kamikaze just a year later would highlight that Eminem took Revival’s critical walloping personally.
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9. Music To Be Murdered By (2020)
Surely nothing better represents the latter period troubles of Eminem’s career than his decision to bring back Ed Sheeran for a second insipid collab. Teaming the omnipresent king of normcore acoustic pop alongside the most controversial rapper of all time once was bit weird, but twice? Those Kinda Nights just sounds like a b-rate Sheeran song, flattening all of Eminem’s edge out and leaving an unmemorable mulch of sonic nothingness.
The fact that this is fairly representative of the album as a whole says it all. Music To Be Murdered By is too reliant on guests, too low energy and too flabby to be considered anywhere near the quality demanded of Mathers. Even when it does work, like the enjoyably soulful, slow jam In Too Deep, it’s not due to Em himself but composition and production of the song. When Black Thought and Q-Tip, MCs who are still making great music, turn up on the old school Yah Yah it’s like a breath of fresh air. Slim Shady? Slim pickings, more accurately.
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8. Encore (2004)
Ending a run of albums that had installed Eminem as the edgiest, most talked-about voice in contemporary hip hop, Encore absolutely has its moments, but they’re few and far between compared to what came before. Just Lose It is completely ridiculous, but its danceable beats and hilarious barbs pack enough to have earned its place as a hallmark track of Em’s post-Slim Shady era. Yellow Brick Road, with its autobiographical analysis of his relationship with race as a youth, and Like Toy Soldiers, settling his ongoing beef with Ja Rule, are as earnest and well-executed a double-header as you’ll find anywhere else in his discography. Mockingbird, too, remains one of Em’s most heartfelt and emotionally compelling compositions.
That all said, there’s still just too much throwaway material on here. Ass Like That is rubbish before you even get to Em’s dodgy attempt at a Middle Eastern accent, Mosh plods lifelessly along without any real purpose or drive, while a great sample of Heart’s Crazy On You is wasted on Crazy In Love, a mostly meandering track that sounds like it was written in ten minutes. A disaster? Hell no. But by Encore, Eminem was already battling against his own legacy, and this is ultimately a swing and a miss.
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7. Kamikaze (2018)
Following the well-deserved critical kicking that Revival received and facing a hip hop climate that was rapidly leaving him in the dust, Eminem decided that he’d had enough. Surprise-releasing Kamikaze onto an unsuspecting public in August 2018, our Marshall produced the most spiteful album of his career. “I feel like I wanna punch the world in the fucking face right now” he furiously announced on album opener The Ringer, unleashing a 13-track missive that took aim at everyone from music journalists to ungrateful fans to the entire mumble-rap movement.
Musically, Kamikaze is extremely solid, largely consisting of simple, straight-to-the-point, beat-driven ragers that shrug off the pop sheen and fanfare of Revival (save two songs: Stepping Stone, an apologetic, ballad-y dissection of his relationship with D12, and Venom, a fun if somewhat throwaway tie-in to the Tom Hardy antihero movie). Naturally, though, it was the album’s lyrics that warranted the most attention, igniting new beef with Machine Gun Kelly, Ja Rule, Drake, Die Antwoord, Lil Yachty, Joe Budden and many, many more. His use of a homophobic slur during a swipe at Tyler, The Creator on Fall sparked widespread condemnation, marking Eminem as an artist who was looking increasingly out of step with the times.
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6. Infinite (1996)
A fascinating look at what Eminem would have been without a truly great producer to bring that special talent he had to the fore, Infinite is a fine showcase for a supremely talented MC, but there is very little of the personality, intensity or uniqueness that would define his greatest work. Instead, the title track and It’s Ok both go for a laidback, coffee house, Mos-Def style vibe, something Mathers can do even if it’s not strictly his forte, but even they work more than the sexy R&B slink of Tonite which, even with that iconic vocal tone, is unrecognisable as Em. Infinite is certainly not a bad album. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable in a throwaway, 90s big beat, house party soundtrack kind of way. All in all, though, it it’s easy to understand why it would be dwarfed by what came next.
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5. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)
With Recovery packing plenty of great songs but perhaps lacking a little of the bite with which Eminem had made his name, old school fans were excited (if a little hesitant) when it was revealed that Marshall’s eighth studio album would be a sequel to The Marshall Mathers LP. Or at least, as it turned out, it kinda is. Album opener Bad Guy certainly feels like a spiritual successor to Stan, while the deranged, women-hating tirades of So Much Better hark back to Em’s early days, even if the song itself is ostensibly about his relationship with hip hop.
However, the likes of Survival and The Monster - the latter packing an absolute doozie of a chorus courtesy of another Rihanna appearance - are pure mid-career Eminem, boasting arena-friendly production and massive, chart-chasing hooks. Rap God, meanwhile, sees Marshall at his most braggadocios, packing in so many bars in a dizzying six-minutes that the track ended up setting a Guinness World Record - even if some of its lyrical matter meant accusations of homophobia reared their head, neither for the first time nor the last.
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4. Recovery (2010)
After the misfiring Relapse, Eminem decided to head towards a more personal, introspective lyrical bent. The result wasn’t only one of his most candid and emotionally raw records, but one absolutely stacked with bangers; the likes of Cold Wind Blows, Talkin’ To Myself, Not Afraid and 25 To Life boast hooks big enough to snag a killer whale. Some well-executed guest appearances in the shape of Lil Wayne (No Love), Pink (Won’t Back Down) and Rihanna (Love The Way You Lie), plus some delightfully unexpected samples taking in everything from Black Sabbath to Haddaway, also keep Recovery diverse without feeling too sprawling.
Lyrically, Marshall opens up on his substance abuse issues, the death of longtime friend and D12 rapper Proof, his longstanding beef with numerous contemporary rap heavyweights (in short: ‘SORRY LADS, LET’S BE MATES?’) and his appreciation for his fans. While the earnestness of it all may have stuck in the craw of longtime Em followers still gagging for mischief and mayhem, he did still manage to stir up a little controversy up thanks to channelling the perspective of an abusive, violent spouse for Love The Way You Lie. It didn’t detract from the fact that Eminem had pretty much perfected his stadium hip hop formula.
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3. The Eminem Show (2002)
By the time his fourth album came around, Eminem was just too big to fail. The Eminem Show topped the charts in 19 different countries and became his best-selling album, and its creator was effectively now the biggest artist on the planet. And he knew it, too. The Eminem Show is at its best when it delights in prodding the establishment: see Marshall arrogantly waggling his success in the face of the pearl-clutching mob that despised him on excellent opening track White America.
If there's anything to judge The Eminem Show harshly on, it's that much of the record suffers from coming in the immediate aftermath of two iconic albums; there are great songs, yes, but it's all maybe a little too consistently cartoonish to be considered an equal of the sky-high standards of what came just prior. Square Dance leans a little too hard into a rather played-out white trash stereotype (especially when you consider it was now being performed by a multi-Platinum selling superstar). My Dad’s Gone Crazy and big single Without Me are unquestionably huge, but both recycle ideas from the two previous albums without increasing the quality. The flipside is that the likes of Cleaning Out My Closet, Say Goodbye Hollywood and Sing For The Moment show that Em could still brilliantly do pathos when the mood took him.
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2. The Slim Shady LP (1999)
An album that dropped like a neutron bomb on the music scene upon arrival in 1999, decades later The Slim Shady LP still doesn’t sound like anything else. Marshall's exploration of his race, social standing and general frustrations as a broke, single father evoke a phenomenally diverse set of emotions. Sometimes it’s funny, often it’s moving and almost all the time it is jawdroppingly shocking. Song for song it’s remarkably consistent and varied; My Name Is remains the finest example of Eminem at his most OTT and cartoonish; Guilty Conscience is a fantastically original idea, executed perfectly albeit with some distressingly violent imagery; '97 Bonnie & Clyde is demented, chilling and sweet in equal measures; Just Don’t Give A Fuck is wonderfully unhinged.
All of it is tied together with a spectacular production job by the genius of Dr. Dre, who accentuates the dizzying flows and flights of fancy of the record’s lead character. But make no mistake, Slim Shady is the star here, a true original of his era, the flow, tone, cadence and lyrical passages he displays on this record stunning the hip-hop community and way beyond. No wonder it turned him into a superstar: The Slim Shady LP is a game-changing classic.
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1. The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
If The Slim Shady LP turned Eminem into both a star and a magnet for controversy, then nothing could have prepared anyone for just how far Mathers would push it on the follow-up. The Marshall Mathers LP stripped away much of the OTT, nudge-wink schtick of his previous album and, fuelled by the contention he inspired, ratcheted up the feelings of real anger and threat. Opener Kill You is unbelievably offensive even by today's standards, Mathers seemingly doubling down, determined to hit as many nerves as he can within the opening four minutes of his album. But any accusations of mere button-pushing are wildly missing the mark here. Em consistently turns the mirror back upon a society attempting to demonise him: Who Knew, The Way I Am and Criminal all furiously point out the hypocrisy of middle America despising his art while tolerating the very worst aspects of their politicians, religious figures and media system.
There is real power in those particular songs, but the true strength of The Marshall Mathers LP is to balance those moments with anthems like The Real Slim Shady and I’m Back. That diversity is key to stopping the record from becoming too intense, because not everything on The Marshall Mathers LP can be explained away as easily. Stan was a huge hit against all the odds and is surely the ugliest and most violent Number 1 single in history, but even that pales in comparison to the truly horrifying Kim, a murder ballad fantasy so nauseatingly vicious that it's hard to fathom exactly how anyone could even attempt something similar today. Unquestionably, this record is a tough listen, but experiencing your moral compass swinging so wildly throughout The Marshall Mathers LP is one of the things that make the album so unique, so special, so singular and Eminem's definitive musical statement.
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