GG‘s Number Ones column reviews every Billboard Hot 100 #1 single of the last 10 years.
“Have you any idea,” Eminem once rapped, “the shit that I’ve gone through?”
He wasn’t kidding.
Pills in the Kitchen
Marshall Bruce Mathers III was born on October 17, 1972. His mother was a 17-year-old named Debbie Nelson. He never met his father.
A stable home was a luxury Debbie could not afford. Instead Marshall and half-brother Nathan grew up in the trailer parks of Kansas City and Detroit. “We just kept moving back and forth,” Mathers would later recount, “my mother never had a job. We kept getting kicked out of every house we were in. I believe six months was the longest we ever lived in a house.”
Eminem single ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet’ tells the rest of the story. “Put yourself in my position,” Marshall levels “Just try to envision, witnessin’ your momma poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen, bitchin’ that someone’s always going through her purse and shit’s missin’, going through public housing systems, a victim of Münchausen’s Syndrome. Mother did drugs, hard liquor, cigarettes, and speed. That’s just the way she was.”
Mathers was bullied and beaten at school. (One savage battering at age 15 left him hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage.) In junior high school, he met Kim Scott. The pair quickly fell in love. Thus began a tempestuous 18-year relationship. All this, of course, was just the beginning.
The Rise of Eminem
After discovering hip hop at age 9 Mathers began rapping at 14. Dropping out of school a year later, he began appearing regularly at local rap battles as EMINƎM. Detroit’s underground music scene did not embrace him. Audiences routinely booed him off stage. Eminem refused to be put off so easily, working his way up from the bottom to earn their respect through sheer force of will and raw talent.
After performing in several groups Eminem began releasing music as a solo act. His first album Infinite was a flop. Reinventing himself as Slim Shady for The Slim Shady LP, he broke through. His second record sold more than a million copies.
Follow-up The Marshall Mathers LP and lead single ‘The Real Slim Shady’ established Eminem as one of his decade’s greatest acts. Selling 1,760,049 copies in a single week, The Slim Shady LP became the fastest-selling rap album in history. (It doubled the previous record held by Snoop Dogg‘s 1993 debut Doggystyle.)
A Generational Hero
Eminem had no glossy public persona. Speaking to a generation of angry teens he developed a reputation for lampooning the pop star archetype. Moby, Christina Aguilera, The Insane Clown Posse, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, P. Diddy, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Winehouse, Lana Del Rey, Shawn Cee, Tyler The Creator, Lil Pump, Lil Xan, Lil Yachty, Vince Staples, 21 Savage, Migos, 6ix9ine, Young MA, Iggy Azalea, and Die Antwoord have all been subject to a tongue lashing from Eminem.
He was dark, violent, and paranoid. It was no put on. “If I’m not passionate about it,” he once shared of his work, “I can’t write it. I can’t fake it.” What fans received was just the tip of the iceberg.
Tumble from the Top
Eminem’s climb to stardom was paralleled by a calamitous personal life. Melodramas of soap opera proportion continued to unfold at the same time as his greatest musical successes. As Eminem was struggling to make a name for himself, his partner Kim gave birth to a baby daughter. A rift began to form between the couple as Mathers was forced to choose between rapping or working for minimum wage to provide for his family. Kim struggled to be a mother while earning her share of the income and supporting her partner’s career.
Eminem’s relationship with Kim deteriorated. With both accusing the other of cheating, the two split prior to the release of The Slim Shady LP in 1999. Marshall was personally devastated, lapsing into alcoholism he moved back in with his mother. Shortly after Kim attempted to take her own life. Eminem would later reunite with Kim but the split turned out to be one of several for the couple who have, at the time of writing, have been married and divorced twice.
Following the release of The Marshall Mathers, Eminem’s mother sued her son for defamation. Key to her claim was the allegation that the hit single ‘My Name Has’ had unfairly slandered her. In compensation, she sought $10 million from her son. She would win the case but would ultimately pocket the more modest sum of $1,600.
Eminem’s Curtain Call
2002’s The Eminem Show, 2004’s Encore, and 2005’s Curtain Call: The Hits further cemented his blockbuster status. He would also star as himself in the autobiographical Hollywood blockbuster 8 Mile. After Curtain Call, Eminem announced to the world that he was putting his career on hold. He remained largely inactive for the next four years.
Fame and a $60 million fortune brought Eminem neither happiness nor peace of mind. At the height of success, Slim Shady captivated the world. But Shady had skeletons in the closet. As several personal controversies had been playing out before the public, Mathers had been succumbing to an addiction to prescription drugs.
‘Not Afraid’ was About Addiction
Eminem’s love affair with pills begun when his mother introduced him to the painkiller Tylenol as a child. By the time he performed ‘Stan’ alongside Elton John at the Grammys in 2001, he had moved on to sterner stuff. The fatal shooting of best friend and bandmate Proof (DeShaun Dupree Holton) escalated his intake at an alarming rate. By 2007, rap’s biggest name was routinely taking as many as 60 Valium and 30 Vicodin pills a day. His weight ballooned. At five feet seven inches tall, Mathers swelled from his usual weight of around 149 to 230 pounds.
As addiction worsened, Eminem lapsed into depression. Following Proof’s death in 2007 he nearly died of a methadone overdose. If he had arrived at the hospital two hours later Eminem would have suffered from catastrophic organ failure. “I don’t think I actually realized the totality of what had happened,” he later recounted to NPR, “so after I got out of the hospital … when I got home, I went right back to using again.”
Mathers would make a number of attempts to get sober. “Some days I would just lay in bed and take pills and cry,” he later shared. “I needed pills in my body just to feel normal, so I would be sick. It was a vicious cycle.” After a number of failed attempts, he achieved sobriety in 2008. This recovery was a harrowing process. Four years of addiction had slowed his life to a crawl. After getting clean he was eager to reclaim his former momentum.
‘Not Afraid’ was a Comeback Single
It didn’t happen straight away. 2009’s Relapse saw Eminem relaunch his recording career though it was follow up Recovery which was regarded as a true return to form. ‘Not Afraid’ was the single that launched the second leg of his comeback. “I’m not afraid,” Eminem boldly proclaimed, “To take a stand.” As for all those who looked down on him, he was, in his own words, tearing down their balcony.
The positive tone of ‘Not Afraid’ was accompanied by modern production. Eminem had been less than happy with his Relapse. As a result, he worked with several producers to fine-tune the sound and feel of Recovery. For ‘Not Afraid’ Eminem settled on Canadian producer Boi-1da, whose previous work with Drake on ‘Best I Ever Had‘ had met with his approval.
‘Not Afraid’ was the leading single from Recovery, an album praised as some of the rapper’s best work. It’s creation had not been an easy task. The album’s material reminded him of what it felt like to be in the grip of addiction and why he never wanted to go back. “When I first recorded [Recovery] it was a little difficult to listen back to,” he shared with NPR.
Unlike earlier material, it was no longer Eminem against the world. The chorus line of ‘Not Afraid’, “Everybody come take my hand, we’ll walk this road together, through the storm,” made it clear he was reaching out. It was him and his fans against the world.
A New Eminem
‘Not Afraid’ reflected a newfound maturity in Eminem’s post-addiction work. His mother and ex were no longer targets for scorn. “I went in headfirst,” he later confessed on 2013’s ‘Headlights‘, “never thinking about who what I said hurt. My mom probably got it the worst.”
Eminem now spent more time with his three children. He was more reflective. More and more he stopped looking outward to instead take a journey inside himself and confront his own shortcomings. (He was, of course, not above taking the occasional swipe at other celebrities and US presidents.)
Eminem would also admit to past misogyny and homophobia. He examined men’s role in domestic violence with Rihanna collaboration ‘Love The Way You Lie’. He also responded to longstanding criticism for use of the slur “faggot” with a song endorsing same-sex marriage.
“Anything I’ve ever said,” Eminem told NPR in 2010, “I certainly was feeling at the time. But I think I’ve calmed down a bit. My overall look on things is a lot more mature than it used to be.”
I'm "Not Afraid"
— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) April 26, 2010
“Getting clean made me grow up,” a reformed Eminem reflected in conversation with Elton John for Interview Magazine in 2017. “I feel like all the years that I was using, I wasn’t growing as a person.” Still, this new and improved Slim Shady was no model citizen.
“Some people may look up to me,” he shared with Rolling Stone following the release of ‘Not Afraid’. “Some people may consider me a f***ing menace but I’m grateful for every fan letter I get, and for every person who says I helped save them.”
The public responded to Recovery‘s positive tone. ‘Not Afraid’ was Eminem’s third No. 1 single. His first had been ‘Lose Yourself’ in 2002 and his second ‘Crack a Bottle‘ in 2009. ‘Not Afraid’ heralded the success of Recovery on the US albums chart, the rapper’s seventh chart-topper in the US. The album was another bestseller for Eminem, moving 3.42 million copies within a year of its release.
The Root of Eminem’s Addiction
To be afraid means to be filled with fear. Fear is a pathway to addiction. The state of addiction provides temporary relief – a form of emotional regulation otherwise unavailable to the addict. It allows the addict to feel regular, normal.
By his own confession, Eminem has “been through a lot of shit”. Whether his addiction sprung from a traumatic childhood, his tangled personal relationships, artistic frustration, or simply the unreality of fame has never been truly been revealed. Perhaps his mother’s alleged dependence on drugs, hard liquor and Tylenol introduced him to substance abuse at an early age. “Now that I understand that I’m an addict,” Eminem later confessed, “I definitely have compassion for my mother. I get it.”
Fans Gave Their Money, Eminem Gave His Mental Health
Fame did not alleviate these pressures. Media scrutiny was intense. Critics crucified him, journalists burnt him and lawyers sued him. He felt degraded. The fans gave up their money and gave their screams, Eminem gave them his mental health in return.
As to the exact cause of Eminem’s addiction, the public has only received vague explanations like the kind provided in the documentary How To Make Money Selling Drugs. “I don’t know at what point exactly it started to be a problem,” Eminem explained in the 2013 film. “I just remember liking it more and more.”
What is clear was that, at some point, the rapper no longer wished to cope with reality. Then, after realising the toll addiction had taken on his creativity and health, he began the long road to recovery. The results speak for themselves, he is, to date, one of the biggest-selling acts of all time.
How Famous is Eminem?
At the time of writing, December 2020, 36.7 million fans stream Eminem on Spotify every month. By the music streaming giant’s measure, this makes him the top 30 most listened to artists in the world. (Throw in 336.3 million monthly YouTube views on that and you begin to get the picture.) Considering how rare it is for a pop star’s career to survive a decade, let alone three, this is no small feat. By his own count, Eminem has sold 49.1 million albums in the United States, and 100 million worldwide. Many fans refer to him as the title of his chart-topping 2013 single suggests, a Rap God.
Eminem’s streaming and record sales accomplishments accompany the success of his post-comeback tours. These tours are multimillion-dollar affairs. Music industry insider website Pollstar notes that in 2019, Eminem averaged more than $6 million dollars income for a single show. Competing with the likes of Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift, live, he is not simply the greatest living rapper but one of popular music’s greatest living acts.
Black and Blue
“No prizefighter,” the philosopher Seneca once wrote, “can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in bloody but not it spirit, one who as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.”
Eminem’s greatest strength is perseverance. He never had a head start. He was born into a life few escape. Yet somehow he did. Many of his greatest successes – winning over Detroit’s underground rap scene, again proving critics wrong with The Slim Shady LP, overcoming addiction, and the mid-career revival of Recovery came from a refusal to give up.
Eminem After ‘Not Afraid’
Eminem remains less than perfect. Despite some steps taken in a positive direction his views on gay men and women in general still leave something to be desired. His mother is still estranged. The underlying root of the traumas which led to his addiction remains, at least as far as the public is concerned, unaddressed. Several commentators have expressed concern Mathers may have replaced his addiction to drugs with an unhealthy obsession with work, touring, and exercise.
Flawed people make perfect pop stars. To fail is to be human. Eminem is human. And perhaps that, of all his attributes, is his greatest appeal.
An Eminem for the Post-Eminem Era
“What is Eminem in the post-Eminem era?” asked one Rolling Stone writer while reviewing Recovery. Many critics echoed this sentiment at the time of the album’s release. The sentiment, however, was off. His story was far from over.
Reviving his career (if it had ever truly flagged) Eminem once again became a US chart-topper with ‘Not Afraid’ and Recovery. Live, he continued to draw massive crowds. What speaks more than of all of these achievements combined is that despite having such commercial success he was also producing some of the best material of his career.
Critics be damned. Few could have lived as hard a life as Eminem or for that matter many of his fans. With ‘Not Afraid’ Eminem stumbled upon a truth so obvious, yet so often overlooked. When he sang those words, it felt like a revelation. And it was.
Eminem refused to give in to fear. And having realised this he spun this sentiment into a song. It may not have been about the messenger as much as the universal truth ‘Not Afraid’ carried with it which ultimately made it stick.
‘Not Afraid’ Peak Chart Positions
US/Billboard 100: #1 (25 weeks on chart)
Australia/ARIA: #4 (27 weeks on chart)
UK/Official Charts: #5 (28 weeks on chart)
Eminem 'Not Afraid'7
A positive message
He didn't give up
Still not an ideal role model
Drugs are bad
Invented the term 'Stan'