50 years of Eminem: the rapper who survived addiction and controversy capable of ending any career
The Detroit artist celebrates half a century of life as one of the most influential and defining figures in the music industry
Even the most egocentric and controversial of rappers, Kanye West, acknowledged with unusual lucidity the feelings of the entire recording industry, and the hip hop genre in particular, toward Eminem: “No one is going to be bigger than him.” The Detroit-born pioneer brought hip hop closer to the masses, rhyming with the cadence of a machine gun. He became a cultural phenomenon. He broke all album sales records, and he proved his critics wrong with dozens of Grammys and an Oscar. Today, he is more than aware of his status as the greatest rap icon of his generation. His successes at the top of the charts, and the $220 million that make up his fortune, confirm that status. Above all, though, his significance is underlined by his continued relevance, despite the fact that his glory days are behind him.
In less than two years, his legacy has been vindicated with performances at two of the most-watched events on television: the Oscars and the Super Bowl. He took the stage with none other than his most successful and long-lived work, the award-winning Lose Yourself, which 20 years after its release remains the most-listened to rap song of all time, far exceeding one billion views on both Spotify and YouTube. The motivational anthem has such significance that even US President Joe Biden asked permission to use it during his presidential campaign. Eminem celebrated his 50th birthday on October 17 by leveraging his greatest hits to stay current in the charts with the compilation Curtain Call 2.
Eminem’s rise to stardom, back in 1999, made him a scourge of the syrupy late-nineties pop scene. But he also managed to alter stereotypes about the criminality of the rap genre in the eyes of the general public. He dominated the portable CD players of turn-of-the-century youth, who emulated his style by dying their hair blonde and donning tank tops and oversized pants. “If I had been black, I wouldn’t have sold even half of it,” he acknowledged in one of his songs. With his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, and his cartoonish punk attitude, he was the first rapper to give a voice and lyrics to the disaffected and disadvantaged white families disparagingly termed as “white trash.” He turned hip hop into the favorite genre among the new generation, above stalwarts such as rock and pop, a trend that continues to this day.
Eminem’s provocative lyrics, littered with homophobic and sexist rhymes and profanity-laden attacks on all manner of public figures, caused a scandal. He transformed this controversy into a platform for his alter ego, Slim Shady, who became one of the great antiheroes of his time. The mainstream media branded him a “public menace” and theorized about the reasons for his excesses. When criticism threatened to slow down his rise to the top, the Detroit rapper turned to allies such as Elton John, the first big, socially acceptable global star to dare to defend and legitimize the Eminem’s lyrics and talent. His success shot to a new level in 2002 when he emerged as a cinematographic rebel without a cause, but with a hoodie, in the semi-autobiographical movie 8 Mile, which earned him an Academy Award for best original song.
But nobody has been a bigger target for the anger and resentment in his lyrics than those closest to him: his father, who he never met in person, abandoned him and his teenaged mother shortly after his birth. He found a way out of the street gangs and continuous fights with his mother - whom he publicly accused of mistreating him and initiating him into the world of drugs - through freestyle rap battles. During his time in high school, he met Kimberly Scott, whom he married and separated from twice, most recently in 2006. The result of their relationship was 26-year-old Hailie Jade, who currently earns her living as an influencer and model with nearly three million followers on Instagram. In addition to his biological daughter, Eminem is the adoptive father of two other young women, Alaina and Whitney Mathers, 29 and 20 years old respectively and the niece and daughter of his ex-wife, who has also been a regular target of his ire. Secretive about his private life, Eminem has not been known to have been in a stable romantic relationship for more than a decade and he admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone that he continued to have problems “trusting women.”
The rapper hit rock bottom shortly after his second separation. But recurring controversies and brushes with the law - which almost sent him to jail - failed to undermine a triumphant career. Addicted to sedatives, at one stage taking between 75 and 80 Valium a night, and hospitalized in 2007 for a methadone overdose that caused him to be deemed clinically dead, he disappeared from the public eye for several years and put on 40 kilos (88 pounds). Addiction also killed his creativity: he has acknowledged that it took his brain “a long time” to function properly again. “I don’t know how the hell I’m still here,” he said in a podcast. After relying again on his friend Elton John to begin the rehabilitation process, the rapper periodically celebrates each new milestone in his fifteen years of sobriety on his social networks. His legacy is undeniable: millennial successors like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Machine Gun Kelly have all acknowledged Eminem’s influence on their sound.