Possibly no rapper has caused as much controversy and offended as many sensibilities as the bleach-blond boy wonder from Detroit, Eminem. He's mortally offended GLAAD, Mothers Against Violence, the FCC, politicians and pop stars — some of these several times over — and rightly so. Most artists would never get second chances after saying the things he's said, but there's one thing that keeps people listening: his undeniable wordsmithing skill and his self-awareness.
He's a monster in both senses of the word — a destructive and malicious force, yet also one of the most ferociously talented rappers purely from a wordplay perspective. Even when you're rightfully appalled by the things he says, few rappers flaunt the complex wordplay, endlessly internal rhymes or flawlessly constructed metaphors. There are many reasons why Eminem is your favorite rapper's favorite rapper. Here are 12 verses that show exactly how Eminem has stayed relevant all these years.
1. "Infinite" — Verse 1
From the first four bars off the first song of his first solo LP, Eminem was already starting to push lyrical boundaries. He rhymes in an incredibly complex syllabic pattern of internally rhyming four-syllable chains. These first two couplets repeat the "-ain", "-e-," "-ac-", "-in" sounds in tight runs — "chain reaction", "brain relaxin'", "zany actin'", "maniac in action" — before switching to an entirely different set of sounds.
2. "Just Don't Give a Fuck" — Verse 2
The second verse of "Just Don't Give a Fuck" — a foundational song in the development of Eminem's persona and style — begins with Eminem tearing down his predecessors. Prime Minister Pete Nice, MC Serch, Everlast, Miilkbone and Vanilla Ice were all white rappers before him. Everlast, Miilkbone and Vanilla Ice would all later take shots back, but none of them ever managed to rise to the new lyrical bar Eminem set.
3. "Role Model" — Verse 1
This line from "Role Model" is one of the earliest and most subtle instances of Eminem redirecting the criticisms for his violent and despicable content onto society at large. The kinds of taboos, deviancy and violence Eminem promotes, he claims, are exactly the same kind constantly on display on shows like Jerry Springer, where Springer literally pits unstable people against each other on camera.
4. "The Way I Am" — Verse 1
Eminem's early hits were so poppy, he continually found himself on MTV's TRL sharing the same stage with all the pop stars he mocked in songs like "My Name Is" and "The Real Slim Shady." He turned that upside down on "The Way I Am," producing the song's dark sinister beat himself and pulling out some impressive consonance while denouncing his newfound fame: "And since birth I've been cursed with this curse to just curse / And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works / And it sells and it helps in itself to relieve / All this tension dispensing these sentences / Getting this stress that's been eating me recently off of this chest."
5. "Stan" — Verse 4
Eminem rapped out a four-part epistolary film in rhyme on "Stan." Every single verse deepens the listener's understanding of Stan's character, his life and his deranged thought process. Even though most people know the course of the song by heart, the ending always reaches an uncomfortably poignant emotional pitch. Eminem's expert characterization of Stan's rabid fanhood added a new word to hip-hop's vocabulary: a "stan."
6. Dr. Dre's "Forgot About Dre" — Verse 2
Without Eminem, Dr. Dre's 2001 may not have been half as renowned. His unpredictable lyrical and conceptual flexibility created the perfect foil to the severe kingpin persona Dre cultivated. Greg Tate's January 2000 review of the album in Spin singles out "Forgot About Dre" as the album's standout: "[Dre] uses 'Forgot About Dre' to make sure all recognize his majesty ... with Eminem standing by his man like a cartoon. Except for Dre and Slim Shady, the rhyming is passable at best." Genius goes so far as to suggest that this line is the "one of the greatest extended metaphors in rap music."
7. Jay Z's "Renegade" — Verse 2
One of the most unforgettable moments on Jay Z's masterpiece, The Blueprint, has little to do with Jay Z. "Renegade" is all Eminem. He produced the beat, he has the stand out verses and he paints a much more compelling picture of himself as America's renegade than Jay did. Nas spoke truth on his Jay Z diss track "Ether" — "Eminem murdered you on your own shit."
8. "White America" — Verse 3
Eminem put aside his criminally insane Slim Shady alter ego for The Eminem Show and delved into more social and political exploration. The song's first track, "White America," offers some of his most cutting insights. "I always wanted to make sure that people knew what I was doing," Eminem recently wrote on Genius. "We wanted people to know that we knew this shit was fucked up and pushing the envelope, but that there was still a voice of reason somewhere."
9. "Without Me" — Verse 3
The rhymes on "Without Me" are endlessly tongue-twisting and flexible. Every verse contains multiple flows and rhythmic patterns that run rings of insults around the musical elite of the day. He insults Chris Kirkpatrick from N'Sync, Limp Bizkit, Moby, Prince and Elvis Presley — whom he calls the first "King of Controversy." Eminem followed Presley's lead: "To do black music so selfishly / And used it to get myself wealthy."
10. "Cleanin' Out My Closet" — Verse 3
"Cleanin' Out My Closet" runs back all the tragedy that occurred in Eminem's life up until then, including his father abandoning him as a boy and his troubled relationships with his mother and his wife Kim. These lines can be heard two ways. Either they're about Münchausen's Syndrome — a mental illness in which caretakers exaggerate or fabricate of illnesses of their children to gain sympathy from others — or as "much houses syndrome," building off his previous claim about cycling through the "public housing system."
11. "Lose Yourself" — Verse 1
Up there with Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" and Nas' "Life's a Bitch," Eminem's "Lose Yourself" is one of the most widely memorized songs in all of hip-hop. Though its stature is somewhat diminished by its frequent appearance in commercials, it's still a legendary track. Eminem showcases an astounding "economy of language," as XXL put it. "So much narrative information packed in a tight verse — that makes the song's chorus hit like such a tidal wave of inspiration and relief."
12. "Rap God" — Verse 3
When "Rap God" dropped it created a violent storm of controversy for its rampant homophobia and horrendously violent metaphors. All of that is warranted, and Eminem's defense of his use of the words "gay" and "faggot" only showed how out of touch his politics and world view actually are.
But the song is still undeniably impressive from a wordplay standpoint. The only reason Eminem has been able to maintain his relevance is because he does have skills. It's too bad we have to take the bad politics with the wordsmithing, but those accolades speak volumes. No one knows how hard it is to like Eminem better than Eminem. "I'm a fucking waste of life," he wrote in a Genius annotation. "I'm a waste of sperm. I am a fucking outcast of society, I am a piece of shit. But I know how to rap. Other than that, I'm a fucking scumbag. I'm worthless. Or this is what I've been told."