After what has been a markedly quiet few years, Eminem was suddenly thrust back into the public eye last week with his stunning, anti-Trump freestyle delivered at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. For those that had let Slim Shady fade into the subconscious, it was a stark reminder that the emcee is not only a living legend, but remains one of the most crucial – and controversial – voices hip-hop has to offer. His righteous anger is truly second to none.
In light of his sudden resurgence, now seems as good a time as any to turn back the clock and revisit the very best Eminem songs. From his radio-juggernauts that still get airplay to his early, legacy-building tracks to the deep cuts that just missed the mark, we’ve tallied them all up to determine the most essential tracks from the Detroit rapper’s ever-growing catalogue of excellence.
Without further ado, these are our picks for the Top 25 Best Eminem Songs.
25. “Encore/Curtains Down”
Eminem had every reason to rest on his laurels in 2004, so it is completely warranted that he would close out his full-length Encore with a title track that featured little more than he and Dr. Dre reminding us all of their awesomeness. Because when you’re Eminem, and when you’ve spoken to “a generation of angry teenagers” and graced “the cover of Rolling Stone pages,” you definitely get to relax and brag a bit.
24. “Not Afraid”
In which Eminem proves that he did not in fact need Rihanna to make a radio-smash in 2010. The instantly-memorable, very sing-alongable chorus propels this track from being just another ‘veteran rapper encouraging his fans to never give up anthem,’ which is really exactly that this is. But if you think “Not Afraid” is a farewell call, think again, this rapper is staying around “until he bows out or he shits his bowels out of him.”
23. “Shake That”
Greeted with derision upon its first release, time has been kinder to “Shake That.” Many were upset with Eminem for dropping a booty-jam on his greatest hits collection that featured more of Nate Dogg than anyone else, which is a fairly justifiable complaint. Our counterpoint is – how can you listen to this and not get your ass moving?
22. “Déjà Vu”
Very little new ground was covered in Eminem’s 2009 album Relapse, but “Déjà Vu” is worthy of some standout attention. His flow – even at its worst – is hypnotic, but hearing him deliver bars from the perspective of a junkie deep in the throes of addiction is on another level of magnetic storytelling. And all of this before his own extremely frank admission of his struggles with substance abuse during the last verse.
21. “Rap God”
Hip-hop purists may shake their fist at this song’s inclusion over other, perhaps more worthy tracks, from earlier Eminem songs. But say what you will about his foray into more trap-oriented sounds; you can’t look over “Rap God” after its entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for most words in a radio single (since overtaken but we digress). In a single verse, Em raps 97 words in 15 seconds.
There are few relationships more pure for the American man than the one between himself and his gun. Naturally, Eminem’s love letter to his own weapon of choice is a track that gels beautifully. His flow here is on point – the breathless delivery of “If you feel it, kill it / if you conceal it, reveal it” is particularly exhilarating – and it is matched by a beat that brings a calm contrast to the anger of his delivery.
Another unexpected highlight from the much-maligned Relapse, “Beautiful” is among the more intriguing slow-paced Eminem songs. That we don’t know the exact inspiration behind the track adds depth to the – dare we say – sweet delivery of the chorus, a quality you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in his aggressive catalogue.
18. “When I’m Gone”
Even those that have no issue with Eminem’s more touchy-feely songs will have their patience tested with “When I’m Gone.” It combines the ballad-driven work focused around his daughter Hallie with the ballad-driven work focused around his self-loathing, which makes for quite the emotional cocktail. What saves it from careening into the abyss is his earnestness; he’s not pulling any punches here.
17. “‘Till I Collapse”
How this song was never an official single is a mystery for the ages. “‘Till I Collapse” pulses with a relentless energy, one that is felt even before Eminem tosses in the iconic stomp-and-clap sample from Queen’s “We Will Rock You” – which is really the only sonic equivalent to a line like “rip this shit till my bone collapse.”
16. “Just Lose It”
Does it retread old ground and sound a little too similar to singles that came before it? Surely, but it’s a testament to the strength of Eminem’s musical formula in his early 2000s hey-day that a track like “Just Lose It” can still hold its own. Even more impressive is that a song where the chorus is built around the rapper doing his best Chewbacca-impression is this pleasing to the ear.
The catalogue of Eminem is riddled with tributes to his daughter Hailie, but “Mockingbird” is by far the most essential. The interpolation of the titular lullaby is – fortunately – only present in the chorus, as the magic of this track is found in the completely subdued, clear-eyed delivery of each verse. It is a poignant admission from a father to his daughter on one of life’s more painful truths: that sometimes, relationships just aren’t going to work.
14. “Love the Way You Lie”
Over a decade after Eminem first began drawing criticism for his language towards women, he delivered one of his most open-hearted analyses of his own short-comings with “Love the Way You Lie.” While it is certainly not his most impressive lyrical outing (the window pane pun is cringe), the track succeeds in part by marrying painfully intimate portraits with high-caliber, pop-radio sheen. And let’s all just take a moment to appreciate that massive, massive Rihanna hook.
13. “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”
It gets a bit confusing to remember which song is which in the Eminem subgenre of ‘songs about dumping your wife in a car trunk,’ but this one can be best remembered as ‘the chill one.’ For a song (almost) on par with “Kim”‘s graphic content, it is remarkably subdued, where a beat tailor-made for blissing out with a blunt conceals the alarming lyrics being tossed around.
12. “Guilty Conscience”
Eminem and Dr. Dre battling. Enough said.
11. “Brain Damage”
Violence begets violence, and so it goes with Eminem, who deftly weaves a heartbreaking tale of his adolescence, one punctuated by violent abuse at the hands of his peers. Wisely, he does not attempt to use his past as a victim of bullies as an explanation of his present behavior, instead relying on his visceral tales of school-set trauma to do all the talking for him.
There is nothing, and we mean nothing, pleasant about “Kim.” It is a horrifying document of abuse, one that is confined to the realms of the imagination but is made no less disturbing by this fact. And yet it would be remiss to look over this track in the timeline of Eminem. It broke new ground for both the rapper and hip-hop as a whole, striding with unbelievably bold confidence into dark, dark new territory. And yet, much like the hardcore and punk movements of old, it is vital.
9. “White America”
Hearing our glorious nation referred to as “the Divided States of Embarrassment” feels alarmingly real in 2017, but that line just scratches the surface of the politics embedded in “White America,” Eminem’s musical molotov cocktail to the establishment. Indicting the music industry, the federal government and the hypocrisy of his often-radical fan base in one fell swoop, Em very accurately sums up his statement of intent as an artist by referring to his work as “anger aimed in no particular direction.”
8. “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”
The duality inherent in Eminem’s character – one that swings like a pendulum between violent aggressor and piteous victim – is given a thorough dissection in “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” Keeping his vocal flourishes to a minimum, he deals with some profoundly disturbing admissions with as much humility as he can, though his righteous anger is unable to be kept to the background. Case in point: lamenting his behavior towards his mother before addressing her with “you selfish bitch!”
7. “Role Model”
You would be hard-pressed to find a better statement of Eminem’s intent than the opening line of his first verse: “I’m cancerous / So when I diss, you wouldn’t wanna answer this.” As one of the center-pieces of his debut album proper, “Role Model” oozes with a mood of contempt, glazed over extra-thick with that haunting set of repetitive guitar chords. “You can try this at home / you can be just like me” he taunts, seemingly a direct tease to the millions of horrified parents whose children embraced this track.
6. “My Name Is”
It’s fitting that Eminem would give us one of his most versatile displays of performance on a track whose chorus is hinged on the very idea of shifting identities. While creating the beat with Dr. Dre, he would say that the title “was the first thing that came out of my mouth that first day I was at Dre’s house.” As far as improvising in the studio goes, that’s about as good as it gets.
5. “The Way I Am”
Who could have possibly been prepared for this song to be the follow-up single to “The Real Slim Shady?” Where the latter track is goofy, catchy and glides along a G-funk groove, “The Way I Am” is like a jagged knife slipped through the ribs. It’s dark, sure, but it is first and foremost a rhythmic anomaly, in Eminem’s work or otherwise. Few have attempted – let alone succeeded – at upholding such a starkly uneven flow, one that finds him resting on the beat and inserting his words in between. That he makes it sound so effortless is another accomplishment entirely.
4. “Without Me”
Because when you drop a return single, you might as well make fun of your mom and the vice-president of the United States while you’re at it. At least that’s the way it goes in the Eminem school of thought. Jokes aside, this is among his best beats (the saxophone tho) with one of his most impressive flows. Everything about this song is, not only working, but working overtime.
3. “The Real Slim Shady”
“The Real Slim Shady” is the supreme example of everything that made early-era Eminem great. It’s squelching beat is the crown jewel of his numerous collaborations with Dr. Dre, and it is the launch pad for Detroit’s finest to unleash his flow like a whirling dervish. The tongue-tied acrobatics of the chorus are nothing compared to the dexterity at work in each verse, verses that also happened to make enemies with the entire music business circa 2000. #SorryNotSorry Will Smith.
Much and more (and then some) has been written about the extremely problematic lyrical content in Eminem’s catalogue. It’s safe to say that had he begun in his career in say, 2017, there is no way he would have reached such prominence without collapsing under the weight of the criticism one finds in today’s blogosphere.
“Stan,” aside from being a fantastic song, is a much-needed reminder that Eminem is more self-aware than many would give him credit for. Weaving a classic tale of a fan gone dangerously-obsesso, it arrived as a piercing, pointed response to those who condemned the effect his lyrics would have in inciting violence. Instead of denial, Eminem responds with a cautionary tale to his fans with such dispositions, in the process delivering the most stellar example of storytelling in his career.
1. “Lose Yourself”
Was there any question that this wouldn’t take the top spot? It is a song that has transcended culture both high and low; dominating the Billboard charts and winning the coveted Academy Award for Best Original Song (the first of only two rap songs to ever achieve this distinction).
Even if it hadn’t have netted Eminem an Oscar, “Lose Yourself” would still rank among the most integral pieces of 2000s hip-hop, let alone as his most essential track. From the iconic lyrics (shout out Mom’s spaghetti) to the haunting, jangly-guitar production to that chorus; the chorus that completely exemplifies the Eminem-school of vocal delivery and palpably produces adrenaline on each listen. It is – unquestionably – his crowning achievement.
- Cover Image: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images