Ten years ago, on October 22, 2002, Eminem released “Lose Yourself.” The first single from the soundtrack to the film 8 Mile, the song marked a high point in an already meteoric career that still felt in its infancy. A wildly broad success, “Lose Yourself” would go on to hit number one on 24 charts around the globe, be nominated for five Grammys (winning one), and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. A decade later, the song remains his greatest accomplishment, one so dauntingly impressive that it has haunted his diminishing returns ever since.
To examine Eminem’s career is to effectively divide it into pre- and post-”Lose Yourself.” Heading into the fall of 2002, the rapper was coming off the success of his third album, The Eminem Show, his finest record-length balancing of production and lyricism to date. Produced almost entirely by Eminem, the album is his most sonically cohesive and features intimately personal tracks (“Cleaning Out My Closet,” “Hailie’s Song”) next to ones featuring wildly sexually explicit material (the STD saga “Drips”) and some that are simply off the wall (“My Dad’s Gone Crazy”), all while feeling undoubtably part of the same project. The album pulls together the best aspects from his first two efforts, mixing compound syllable rapping with imagery-rich storytelling to superb effect. A mere three years and as many albums into his career, Eminem emerged as a wise, seasoned lyricist, aware of his shortcomings and with a clear vision of staying atop the hip-hop world he’d wholly conquered. He appeared unstoppable and as listeners spun his latest disc, they salivated at the prospects of what he had in store.
The Eminem Show also continued Eminem’s pattern of sprinkling in mini-anthems amidst his blatant radio singles, shock-and-awe numbers, and general goofing around. Following in the steps of “Rock Bottom” and “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” from The Slim Shady LP, “Stan” and “The Way I Am” from The Marshall Mathers LP, and “Renegade” off Jay-Z’s Blueprint, “Sing For the Moment” and “”Till I Collapse” boldly stand out, distance themselves from his lesser charms, and elevate Eminem to revered lyricist status. The emotional intensity on these tracks resonates through their epic, attention-grabbing beats and is amplified further by Eminem’s masterfully crafted words. Instead of speaking to merely his past or present, recounting anecdotes and jabbing punchlines to great effect as he does on the bulk of his songs, these tracks aim for something more, encompassing universal feelings and situations as filtered through the mind of a gritty urban poet.
And so, in crafting a lead single for the soundtrack to the film based largely on his life, it only made sense that Eminem would rise to the occasion. Between takes of shooting Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, Eminem retreated to his studio trailer to write and record a song that tied together his personal history and that of his cinematic alter ego, Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith. In an 2003 interview with Rolling Stone, “Lose Yourself”’s engineer and mixer Steven King recalls the day when, during a brief break, Eminem went into the trailer and
…laid down the verses spontaneously. He did all three verses in one take and killed it. Jaws dropped — we were like, “Oh, my God!” When he was on the movie set, he didn’t get to spend as much time in the studio as he’d have liked. This story had been building up in him, so when he did that first take, it was incredible — it just came out of him.
Over a dark, moody electric guitar riff, punctuated by his own hip-hop drums and trademark tinkling piano in the background, Eminem unfurls the ultimate underdog story. Recounting the nerves that dominated his earliest rap battles and those of Rabbit’s in the film, he stresses the importance of seizing opportunities and pushing through doubts and struggles to rise to the top. Employing some of the finest polysyllabic rhymes of his career within a clear and concise storytelling structure, “Lose Yourself” builds on the strengths of his earlier anthems, reaching heights to which that these prior tracks only hinted.
A week after the single’s release, the 8 Mile soundtrack, featuring the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, Rakim, Xzibit, and Eminem’s soon-to-be label mate 50 Cent, followed “Lose Yourself” to the number one album spot. A week and a half later, the film itself debuted to rave reviews, including praise for Eminem’s subtle performance, likewise opening atop the cinema charts with a $51 million opening weekend. The film would go on to gross over $116 million in the U.S. and $242 million worldwide, easily recouping its $40 million budget. The DVD would also prove to be a huge hit.
With a #1 single, album, and film in the same week, Eminem success was at an all-time high, and yet the acclaim didn’t stop there. In early February, “Lose Yourself” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Bypassing the Oscar ceremony after declining to perform, and the song considered a long shot to win, Eminem stayed home and slept through the March 23 telecast. When Barbara Streisand announced that it had indeed won, the song’s stunned co-writer Luis Resto, clad in a grey blazer over a Grant Hill Detroit Pistons jersey, rushed to the stage and accepted the statuette as the pit orchestra reeled off an awkward rendition of the hip-hop anthem.
At the same time, Eminem and Dr. Dre were reaping the riches of signing 50 Cent to the Shady/Aftermath empire. 50‘s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ took over the top album spot vacated by 8 Mile and lead single “In Da Club” continued “Lose Yourself”’s tradition by likewise opening at #1. His status as hip-hop’s greatest living success firmly established, Eminem began further exploring the business side of music, growing his record label and turning increasingly to producing. Other efforts as the year rolled on included producing previously unreleased material for the Tupac: Resurrection soundtrack, handling the bulk of production on Shady Records artist Obie Trice’s debut Cheers, and contributing the “Moment of Clarity” beat to Jay-Z’s The Black Album, joining a Who’s Who of top contemporary beat-makers.
Not to be forgotten as a performer, Eminem released the strong mixtape Straight from the Lab in late 2003. In addition to scattered diss tracks at Benzino (“The Sauce,” “Nail in the Coffin”) and Ja Rule and Murder Inc. Records (a reworking of Tupac’s “Hail Mary” with 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes) earlier in the year, the seven-track bootleg found Eminem largely in beef mode, defending a turf that he’d fought hard to establish. On Straight from the Lab, he goes after those who’ve challenged his position, namely Canibus (“Can-I-Bitch”) and again at Ja Rule, who, after crossing the line by attacking Eminem’s daughter Hailie on “Loose Change,” effectively had his career ended by the track “Hailie’s Revenge (Doe Rae Me).” Standing his ground and sounding as passionate about rapping as ever, listeners could only guess as to the kind of thrills Eminem would deliver on his next proper album. Considering his track record, though, he was already behind in that department.
Comfortably atop the rap game, despite the emergence of new faces like 50 Cent and Kanye West, the wait continued in 2004. April provided some hope with the amusing sideshow of the second D12 album, D12 World. Catapulted by the goofy lead single “My Band,” the album offered multiple strong Eminem verses, but in sharing the stage with five less-talented MCs, as was the case with their debut Devil’s Night, it lacked the distinct feel of a true Eminem album. D12 World also featured an excess of hooks sung by Eminem, an approach that had only occasionally been employed on past efforts. Even in its most successful application, The Eminem Show’s heartfelt “Hailie’s Song,” it works primarily as a tongue-in-cheek gag, one in which the song triumphs almost in spite of itself with Eminem more than once acknowledging his inability to sing. Having that role unexpectedly expanded works overall for D12 World, but was used so frequently that it bordered on a distraction.
In late September, “Just Lose It,” the first single off Eminem’s upcoming album Encore, was released. Following in the tradition of “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me,” a certain degree of playfulness was expected, but “Just Lose It” felt downright cartoonish. Over a forgettable Dr. Dre beat, Eminem lamely recycles the intro to “Without Me” and raps empty lyrics that accomplish little besides a few sophomoric chuckles. Sporting another unfortunately sung chorus, the track also features an annoying Pee-Wee Herman laugh on the hook, contributing to the overall sense that Eminem was simply messing around and, in contrast to past lead singles, didn’t care about saying anything of substance.
A month later, the second single, “Mosh,” repaired much of the damage inflicted by its predecessor. Speaking intimately to the discontent surrounding the upcoming 2004 Presidential election, it seemed like the heir apparent to “Lose Yourself” and became a highly relevant anthem in its own right. In retrospect, however, it was more a product of its time, a cathartic anti-Bush piece that appealed to the anger and hope for political change in the air. With its slow, militaristic Dr. Dre beat, “Mosh” remains a powerful track, but despite a few choice and timely keywords, is fairly sparse lyrically.
With one great triumph and flop apiece, anticipation for Eminem’s fourth album remained high, though when Encore was at last released the week following Bush’s re-election, it was a giant disappointment. Despite a few minor triumphs in the vein of “Mosh,” the album overwhelmingly followed “Just Lose It”’s lead. The production, split between Eminem and Dr. Dre, was lackluster, though more troubling were the lyrical content and frequent reemergence of the nasally voices that began with the lead single. The Eminem of the first three albums would never have allow tracks such as “Puke” and “Ass Like That” to make the final cut, nor would he let this new “Rain Man” voice dominate the material. The singing also became more prevalent, starting with opening track “Evil Deeds” and continuing through to mar the otherwise introspective “Mockingbird.” After 20 tracks of such nonsense, sprinkled with the bare minimum of lyrical competency, it was painfully clear that something was wrong.
In the subsequent eight years, not much has improved, though plenty has shifted in Eminem’s personal life to complicate his music. After canceling the European leg of the Anger Management Tour in 2005, Eminem entered rehab for drug addiction and suffered further shock to his system following the 2006 death of his best friend and mentor Proof. Work understandably slowed down with such disruptions, though when he did resurface (for the 2006 posse album The Re-Up, plus guest verses on Akon’s “Smack That” and T.I.’s “Touchdown”), he seemed like a shadow of the Eminem that had fearlessly ruled music for a few short years. The similar speedy rise of Kanye West, along with the return of Jay-Z and the sudden legitimacy of Lil’ Wayne (fueled by a string of successful mix-tapes), made for standing room only at the top. Too early to be written off completely, despite a steadily increasing gulf between his best days, Eminem continued to work, eyeing what would be a welcome return to elite lyrical status. To do so, he’d have to try harder than ever, though with the help of the man who gave him his start, it was certainly possible.
Sober, he returned to the studio with Dr. Dre for 2009‘s Relapse, only to mysteriously use the “Rain Man” voice from Encore throughout the album. Frequently referencing his addiction and rehab, the album features fairly high-energy flows and is littered with the Slim Shady-like naughtiness of his early work. A decade removed from the style’s inception and filtered through such bizarre voices, however, the results were far less charming. Gone was the compound syllable rap that defined his prime, though the sung choruses remained. So-so lead single “We Made You” did little to help and only “Beautiful” hinted at the focused flow and lyrics from his former self. The presence of a clearly washed-up 50 Cent as the album’s lone non-Dre guest likewise hampered the disc and presented Eminem as a rapper loyal to his label, but out of touch with the general state of hip-hop.
A year later came the album-length apology otherwise known as Recovery. Despite its sung chorus, lead single “Not Afraid,” which featured prominently on the then in-progress NBA Playoffs, was the closest sign of a return to form. Saying that Relapse was “eh,” and admitting that “perhaps I ran them accents into the ground,” he promises fans that he won’t let them down again. On “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” he outright dismisses his previous two albums, admitting that “Encore, I was on drugs; Relapse, I was flushin’ ‘em out.” Such openness was refreshing and hinted at good things to come, but instead of getting the mea culpa out of the way and focusing on making more good music, Eminem remained stuck in apology mode.
And so, he spends the bulk of the disc stating that he’s back and refuses to disappoint, but provides little in the way of notable content. Produced by an assortment of beat-makers incapable of providing anything close to a consistent feel, the songs themselves are just as middling. Other than standout track “Changes,” Recovery is largely bereft of storytelling, relying instead on a plethora of bad punchlines and spelled-out puns. Teaming with R&B superstar Rihanna on the domestic abuse themed “Love the Way You Lie,” the painfully obvious line “Guess that’s why they call it window pane” is a career low and presents Eminem as awkward and distanced from the quality lyricism he once mastered. Throughout Recovery, he sounds desperate for a radio hit, which he got with “Love the Way You Lie,” and so walled in by the need to craft a catchy hook (more often than not frustratingly sung by him) that his verses become secondary. The album went on to become the year’s best-selling album and garnered 10 Grammy nominations, but was another unfortunate marker in a steadily waning career.
The trouble continued on Hell: The Sequel, his reunion with fellow Detroit MC Royce da 5’9”, reviving their personas from The Slim Shady EP’s “Bad Meets Evil” and recording under that joint moniker. Stressing style over substance, Eminem takes the same brand of unfortunate punchlines from Recovery and spits them in a frantic flow that does little besides make noise. Easily out-rapped by Royce throughout the nine-track album, the return to his roots failed to inspire Eminem as he continued his descent into the confusing pop-rap artist that he’s now become. Still juggling recording with his producer and record executive duties, Eminem’s most recent credits include overseeing albums from recent signees Yelawolf and the quasi-supergroup Slaughterhouse, whose members include Royce and Joe Budden. Lyrical contributions to these projects are consistent with his current style, and with work on an new solo album underway, despite an intriguing collaboration with No I.D., there’s little reason to think his planned 2013 release will be any different.
Yet despite these shortcomings, there remains hope. A 2009 BET Hip-Hop Awards “Cypher” with Mos Def and Black Thought showed a lyrically deft and nimble Eminem, spitting his compound syllable rap of yesteryear and sounding immensely hungry. In that brief resurrection, a new possibility emerged that, though potentially running counter to the riches and awards accumulated by the success of Recovery, could be key to getting Eminem back on track. Presented with the opportunity to focus entirely on lyrics without concern for hooks or delivering a sure-fire radio hit, Eminem proved that he’s still lyrically fit and looked by all accounts like his “Lose Yourself”-era peak self. An album-length exploration of that kind of wordplay just might reignite the potential clearly still inside him, though such an unusual approach seems unlikely.
Whether we’ve seen the last of Eminem’s genius operating on “Lose Yourself”’s level is yet to be seen, though perhaps there remains one more key element for a true return to occur. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone article, Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg offers this insight:
“Lose Yourself” is the biggest song he’s made in terms of radio play, but if you ask him today, he’d probably tell you he couldn’t write that song now. He said he couldn’t write it before or after filming. Only when he felt he was living the life of that character was he able to do it.
Roger Ebert noted in his 8 Mile review that he’d like to see a sequel that follows Rabbit’s rise in the music industry, and based on the success that his source encountered outside of Detroit, it’s easy to picture more chapters in Rabbit’s story. If revisiting the character that inspired Eminem’s greatest success is the secret ingredient, music fans should start the campaign immediately to make that project happen.
Until such a rebirth occurs, “Lose Yourself” remains the high-water mark for an immensely talented MC who recently celebrated his 40th birthday. The ten years since that remarkable track have been full of commercial success for Eminem, but for those to whom his first three albums remain in heavy rotation as paradigms of hip-hop, still eliciting goosebumps hundreds of listens later, each new release can only be called a disappointment.
The innate desire of fans for their favorite artists to grow and change while still remaining true to their initial appeal is a heavy burden for musicians, not all of who survive the subsequent scrutiny. At the start of his career, however, Eminem seemed miles ahead of that thinking, constantly growing in such exciting ways that few could match his level of innovation. Change, for better or worse, is bound to occur with all musicians, and as Jay-Z says in “On to the Next One,” if fans “want [his] old shit, buy [his] old albums.” That’s certainly one approach, sad as it is, and Eminem may very well subscribe to the same philosophy. He exhibits little indication of returning to his old ways or of picking up where his peak self left off, seemingly content with the direction his career has taken and continuing on his current path.
Regardless of Eminem’s feelings on his recent output, there’s no denying that his music since “Lose Yourself” is markedly different from what came before. Millions of listeners have embraced this new Eminem, but for those who pine for an earlier version, the prospect that it may never resurface is nothing short of tragic. The time for dismissing such a possibility has yet to pass and even with the ghost of better days, the situation may never reach that point. It also, however, may already have occurred. As he says in his finest work, “You only get one shot,” and as difficult as it is to accept, Eminem may very well have taken his and followed it through, a journey that ironically may have ended when he recorded 8 Mile’s epic triumph.
Written by: Edwin Arnaudin