The Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Eminem. There are only a few global superstars who reached the heights he has. Even mega-stars with millions upon millions of fans—like Bono, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift or Tupac—didn’t or don’t reach the same magnitude of superstardom. Global, Superstars are like saints—they generally need those three “miracles”. Phenomenons like The Beatles, Michael Jackson or Eminem change cultures, change music, and change history. The mega-superstars change more than just one thing, globally, and everything afterward is changed by them. There are superstars that change music, or change pop culture, or change the status quo. Then, there’s those ultra rare phenomena that change everything, and on a massive scale. These are the stats that have thousands of people crying and screaming and trampling each other to death just at the sight of them. They don’t just shut down traffic—people go to the hospital as barriers collapse and traffic is mowed over. It’s a phenomenon of fandom that has only happened for a rare few on a global scale. Imagine not being able to go to *anycountry in the world without people running toward you trying to grab you. We have many superstars that get this kind of reaction at their concerts—but it’s a rare few that get this reaction literally anywhere in the world.
- Michael Jackson was the King or Pop. From ballads to dance music to radio hits to holiday music, he could do it all and at the highest level. There was no competition for Michael. He was the King of Dance, and there wasn’t a soul alive that could compete. And he invented quite a bit, from the moonwalk to “the lean”. He was exceptionally business-savvy, too, and famously bought and owned The Beatles’ catalog.
With most rappers—and most singers—they have a particular style, particular genre, and a particular “pocket” niche of the kinds of songs they make. Take Metallica, for example. Metallica is a classic Metal band. They make metal. They don’t make country, or love ballads, or club music, or acapella singer-songwriter tunes. They have their one thing, and they’re one of the best of all time at that one thing.
Practically any other rapper has a specific style, delivery, genre and niche. Jay-Z always sounds like Jay-Z. Nas always sounds like Nas. Those are superstars and indisputable fathers of rap, but even they don’t compare to Eminem. Eminem has that one style from the Slim Shady EP/LP that we all remember—and then he has at least dozen more. Any style, any delivery, any count at any tempo with any timing—he does and has done it all. He’s created and continues to create styles no one has ever done before….and has a range wider than anyone may ever have. He’s able to say anything, talk about any topic, and make any kind of song without it being dumb, ruining his “image” or limiting him into a niche. The fastest, the most complex, the most double and triple entandre, the most original songs, the most styles and methods, the largest vocabulary—the list just keeps going on. You can argue that other rappers with extremely unique skills can compete at that one thing—but not all of them. Joe Budden’s criticism is that he isn’t writing songs that will be played for decades anymore—that Cleanin’ our my Closet, Stan, Lose Yourself and Not Afraid were all ten years ago or longer. But if you think he won’t have at least one more “timeless” song before he’s done, I’d take that bet. It’s the story telling, ironically, that launched Eminem into stardom. It was a combination of acting, script-writing, rap, singing and poetry that hardly anything can compare to. “If I Had” and “Kim” were gut-wrenching songs that instantly made anyone feel emerged in his story. Stan was a work of genius, and Cleanin’ out my Closet (in my opinion, the best song he ever wrote) touched kids with crappy parents across the world.
Who else could get away with singing a nursery rhyme and rapping in baby talk, making boy band pop-ballad satire, hard core gangster rap, songs about killing cheating spouses, trash-talking themselves—let alone use words like “pout”, “boo boo” or any of the other various craziness that’s come out of his mouth and be taken seriously? Maybe one of those things, but no one but him has the ability to cover anything in any way. There used to be a niche—a limitation to what rap was, and what you could get away with saying and still be taken seriously. He changed that. Now, you’ll hear rappers intentionally sounding like a white wannabe rapper from Malibu’s Most Wanted. On purpose. Now, you’ll hear rappers intentionally drop words they could never have said in the 90’s. There was a time when all rap was in a niche, and limited to cool, tough bad-asses from the streets. Eminem changed that. It wasn’t cool to talk about being broke. It wasn’t cool to talk about not having food. There was an image with rap, and if you didn’t fit that image you didn’t belong. He opened a door to humility, and an intimacy that rap never had before. It wasn’t just his technical ability, it was exposing his personal life and every flaw, every failing and every “weakness”.
Eminem is the best-selling hip hop artist of all time, with 170+ million albums sold worldwide. Indisputably, no one compares to his sales. He has dominated charts for three decades, and shows no sign of stopping. At his peak in 2002, he famously said he could sell a blank CD. And he could have.
“Best rapper” is an opinion. But you can measure him by any standard and he’ll come out at the top. Are there more popular rappers in 2018? Sure. Are new artists with new talents we’ve never heard before more exciting than an artist you’ve heard from for decades? No doubt. But “best” in those cases probably just means you’re excited because it’s new.