Wednesday marks Eminem’s 40th birthday, but don’t go calling the Detroit rapper over-the-hill just yet.
While 40 was once an unthinkable age for a rapper, Em finds himself in good company in the “40” club: Jay-Z is 42, Em’s mentor Dr. Dre is 47, and Nas, 39, will join next year.
We’re marking the milestone by ranking Em’s 40 best songs. The criteria: We culled only from his studio albums, ignoring leaks, mixtape tracks and other songs floating around the Internet. We included the “8 Mile” soundtrack and his Bad Meets Evil project, as well, but left off his collaborations on other artists’ albums, which we’ll mark with a separate list.
The list is purely subjective, but takes into account impact, legacy and chart power. To our surprise, Em’s 2010 “Recovery” album notched the most entries, with eight, but “The Marshall Mathers LP” ranked the highest, earning four slots in the Top 10.
Overall, compiling the list proved Eminem has amassed an impressive body of work and he’s truly worthy of being called one of hip-hop’s all time greats.
The full list is below. (Warning: Explicit lyrics in just about every song.)
Eminem’s 40 best songs
40. “Stay Wide Awake” (from “Relapse”)
A grisly horror movie tale so vivid it conjures up images of nighttime fog rolling over gravestones.
39. “Mockingbird” (“Encore”)
Not the first or the best song dedicated to Em’s daughter, but the heart-wrenchingly honest storytelling — especially the part about her college fund getting stolen — hits home.
38. “Fast Lane” (“Hell: The Sequel”)
A propulsive beat backs this sturdy exercise in no-stakes, old-school rapping from Eminem and Royce da 5’9”.
37. “Rock Bottom” (“The Slim Shady LP”)
There weren’t a lot of good times to be had on “The Slim Shady LP,” and “Rock Bottom” was the album at its lowest, with Eminem rapping-for-broke about never being able to catch any breaks.
36. “My 1st Single” (“Encore”)
“I’m at the top of my game,” Eminem raps — empty boasting at a time when his success was his biggest hindrance. He had nothing left to say by the time “Encore” came around, but he at least has fun getting meta on this song about not even having the discipline to stop belching long enough to make a single.
35. “White Trash Party (W.T.P.)” (“Recovery”)
Eminem has made many songs for Detroit, but here’s an anthem for Warren, a song about partying down trailer part-style and loving it.
34. “You’re Never Over” (“Recovery”)
A heartfelt tribute to Proof, whose death caused Eminem to spiral out of control, the bouncing back from which formed the basis of “Recovery.”
33. “Déjà vu” (“Relapse”)
An uncomfortably honest, harrowing chronicle of Em’s descent into drug abuse and lethargy.
32. “Rabbit Run” (“8 Mile” soundtrack)
For three tension-filled minutes, Eminem — as his “8 Mile” character B-Rabbit — breathlessly raps over a ticking clock that signifies his window of opportunity closing.
31. “My Mom” (“Relapse”)
Eminem takes a familiar subject — his mother — and flips it on its ear, spinning an absurdist tale and about his own drug problem and surmising, “I’m on what I’m on cuz I’m my mom.”
30. “Encore” (“Encore”)
The “Platinum Trio” — Eminem, 50 Cent and Dr. Dre — close out “Encore” with a raucous club-banger, one that, rather hilariously, teases the imminent release of Dr. Dre’s “Detox,” an album that has yet to materialize eight years later.
29. “A– Like That” (“Encore”)
The nadir of “Encore’s” pointless self-wankery, but notable in that Eminem raps the entire song in a Triumph the Insult Comic Dog accent which he at one point transitions into an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation.
28. “White America” (“The Eminem Show”)
“The Eminem Show’s” opening salvo is a seething statement on Eminem’s place in the culture as a result of the color of his skin, illustrating that he could both anger politicians and get hugs on the set of “TRL.” All in a day’s work.
27. “Not Afraid” (“Recovery”)
This 12-step program set to music, with Eminem thanking his fans and promising to not let them down again, was an important step in his “Recovery.” However, an unfortunate victim of his self-cleansing is his “Relapse” album, which he unfairly dismisses as “ehh.”
26. “Lighters” (“Hell: The Sequel”)
A soaring Bruno Mars chorus marks this unlikely inspirational ballad from the Bad Meets Evil duo.
25. “Cold Wind Blows” (“Recovery”)
Eminem gets struck with lightning mid-song — a first — but not even that can stop his momentum as he flows like lava over Just Blaze’s ice cold beat.
24. “Business” (“The Eminem Show”)
Utterly effortless, it’s a testament to Em’s hitmaking abilities at the time that this song sounds completely tossed off, and he knows it. “You ain’t even impressed no more,” he groans, “you’re used to it.”
23. “Drug Ballad” (“The Marshall Mathers LP”)
A very different commentary on drugs than on Eminem’s latter albums, “Drug Ballad” celebrates youth and drug culture with a carefree, live-for-today nonchalance.
22. “3 a.m.” (“Relapse”)
As a standalone single, “3 a.m.” didn’t work very well, but as the lead-in to “Relapse,” it was a portal into the demented, dark fantasy world the album inhabits.
21. “Won’t Back Down” (“Recovery”)
Rock guitar riffs and a valuable vocal assist from Pink help set the scene for this spirited “Recovery” barnburner.
20. “So Bad” (“Recovery”)
The only “Recovery” track produced by Dr. Dre has a lurching beat that is as thick as a tree trunk and stomps like a brontosaurus.
19. “Criminal” (“The Marshall Mathers LP”)
Some embarrassingly homophobic lyrics aside, Slim Shady is in top form here, switching rapidly between characters — he plays Gianni Versace, a concerned record exec and a philandering Southern preacher all within a few lines — while gleefully and venomously playing up his bad boy persona, even stopping to rob a bank mid-song.
18. “Square Dance” (“The Eminem Show”)
Coming on like a demented polka with a cheerfully inane chorus, “Square Dance” manages to slip in some subversive lyrics about post-9/11 America amid the craziness and Em’s complicated flow.
17. “My Dad’s Gone Crazy” (“The Eminem Show”)
Em enlists a vocal assist from his daughter on this hilariously profane track where he describes his dedication to rap in several amazingly unprintable stanzas.
16. “Kill You” (“The Marshall Mathers LP”)
The opening track from “The Marshall Mathers LP” establishes the album’s angry but playful tone, and Eminem deftly sums up his entire M.O. in nine succinct words: “Blood, guts, guns, cuts, knives, wives, lives, nuns, sluts.”
15. “Love the Way You Lie” (“Recovery”)
Some of Eminem’s more groan-worthy puns — “Now you get to watch her leave out the window, guess that’s why they call it window pane” (get it? Window pain?) — are rescued by Rihanna’s anthemic chorus on this monster hit which spent seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.
14. “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” (“The Eminem Show”)
“I’m sorry mama, I never meant to hurt you,” Eminem raps, but he’s far from burying the hatchet with her. He later says, “Hailey’s getting so big now, you should see her she’s beautiful/ but you’ll never see her, she won’t even be at your funeral,” proving while he may have cleaned out his closet, he was far from forgiving his mother for his tormented childhood.
13. “Without Me” (“The Eminem Show”)
By the time “The Eminem Show” came out, Em’s upbeat, celeb-skewing first single gimmick was old hat, but “Without Me” proved there was still some life left in the formula. Latter entries “Just Lose It” and “We Made You,” however, weren’t as fortunate.
12. “Guilty Conscience” (“The Slim Shady LP”)
Eminem goes toe-to-toe with Dr. Dre as they play the devil and angel, respectively, on a series of characters’ shoulders in three different situations. Em flips the script on his counterpart when he calls out his real life assault on TV host Dee Barnes, an early indicator that Em was a loose cannon willing to go say anything to shock his audience.
11. “No Love” (“Recovery”)
Spitting triple-time lyrical genocide, Eminem raps like he’s got something to prove, in this case that his guest Lil Wayne — at the time, considered by many to be the best rapper in the game — isn’t worthy to share his air space. To Em’s credit, by the end of his verse, you barely remember Wayne was even on the song with him.
10. “8 Mile” (“8 Mile” soundtrack)
Overshadowed by “Lose Yourself,” “8 Mile” is the unheralded gem of the “8 Mile” soundtrack, an in-character missive about the struggles he faced to make it in the rap game.
9. “My Name Is” (“The Slim Shady LP”)
The world’s introduction to Eminem, Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers established him as a pop-culture skewering psychopath with serious parental issues who could out-shock anyone put in front of him. Beyond that, it established his penchant for bizarre, complicated rhyme schemes (“extraterrestrial running over pedestrians”) and showed he was an MC first and foremost.
8. “Mosh” (“Encore”)
A pointed jab at George W. Bush, “Mosh” came out a few weeks before the 2004 election and found Eminem at his most political, slowing down his flow to make sure each word landed like a death blow.
7. “The Way I Am” (“The Marshall Mathers LP”)
So, how did Eminem enjoy the success of “The Slim Shady LP?” “I’m so sick and tired of being admired that I wish that I would just die or get fired,” Em seethes on this livid track from “The Marshall Mathers LP,” which acts as a bitter indictment of fame and the media spotlight.
6. “Till I Collapse” (“The Eminem Show”)
This “Eminem Show” cut has thematic similarities to “Lose Yourself” and an infectious militaristic stomp, and is hammered home by Nate Dogg’s confident chorus. Despite never being released as a single, the song has sold 2 million digital copies, in part because of its popularity in movie trailers (“Real Steel,” “Savages,” etc.).
5. “The Real Slim Shady” (“The Marshall Mathers LP”)
The song that marked Eminem’s pop peak and cemented him as a cultural force. The references are now dated — Tom Green, anyone? — but “The Real Slim Shady” is Eminem the celeb-skewer at his finest.
4. “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” (“The Slim Shady LP”)
This track — where Em calmly describes the murder of his daughter’s mother to his baby girl — established the bond between Eminem and his daughter, one of the most important themes in his work, and also proved Em to be both a scary-good storyteller and a good scary story teller.
3. “Stan” (“The Marshall Mathers LP”)
A story of demented fandom told from the prospective of an obsessed fan over three increasingly hostile verses and closing with a measured response from Em, “Stan” is a triumph of conceptual storytelling and one of Em’s most impressive efforts both as a rapper and a producer. It also helped break the career of Dido, whose tender “Thank You” forms the unlikely backbone of this dark, moody tale.
2. “Kim” (“The Marshall Mathers LP”)
A disturbing, shockingly violent murder fantasy that is the rawest, angriest song Eminem has ever recorded. It also contains his most complex, intricate rhymes ever; when he lays out the particulars of a grisly crime scene, he does so with a clarity and attention to detail that would make a “Law & Order” screenwriter proud. Truly haunting.
1. “Lose Yourself” (“8 Mile” soundtrack)
Eminem’s Oscar-winning masterpiece, “Lose Yourself” represents the peak of Em’s artistry and songwriting. Rousing and inspirational, it has become hip-hop’s “Eye of the Tiger”; listen closely and you can hear Em taking deep breaths between each line, as if he was losing himself in the music while recording. It worked; mom’s spaghetti hasn’t been the same since.