Still Shady: how did Eminem’s 2005 greatest hits become last year’s biggest rap album?

Released in 2005, Curtain Call: The Hits has spent 552 weeks in the UK album charts. Are young fans thrilling to his outrageous lyrics – or is the truth more prosaic?

Eminem pictured in 2013.

Still No 1 … Eminem pictured in 2013. Photograph: Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images

It was inevitable that amid the rolling waves of the Y2K revival, the era’s leading enfant terrible would be sucked into the cycle. The children of Eminem fans are growing up and logging on, and as 2022 came to an end the 8 Mile rapper’s 2004 track Mockingbird became his latest song to be sped up and spat out across TikTok. The ensuing trend involved young users of the app – in a mode that seems incredibly off-brand for the rapper – sharing stories of parental devotion while the song zipped along, pitched-up, in the background.

But while other ageing acts pulled into the algorithmic whims of youth culture might be grateful for an audience boost, Eminem (AKA Marshall Mathers), now 50, is hardly in need.

Last year, his 2005 greatest hits album, Curtain Call: The Hits, was No 6 in the UK Official Charts’ biggest albums of the year. Effectively, a 17-year-old greatest hits compilation was the bestselling rap album of 2022 – a year in which the likes of Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Megan Thee Stallion, DJ Khaled, Future and any number of other blockbuster hip-hop acts released new full-length efforts.

While a spot in Dr Dre’s 2022 Super Bowl half-time show, various TikTok bumps, and a Fortnite collab (that other industry beeline to young ears) will have aided Eminem’s 2022 end-of-year standing, Curtain Call has long been a fixture of the annual tallies. It’s notched Top 40 spots in 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2005, when it was originally released, and Top 100 placements in 2016, 2015 and 2006. Since it first hit shelves, the album has spent 552 weeks – more than 10 years – lodged in the Official Charts.

While Eminem’s loquacious, sometimes corny, wise-cracking style may be out of step with the more melodic, anthemic gait of modern rap, those chart results suggest a rekindled interest: a new generation of listeners latching on to Mathers’ back catalogue, undeterred by how his outrageous lyrics hold up to contemporary sensibilities. But the theory doesn’t quite hold out.

“We know that he’s paved the way for artists and is a massive inspo,” says Harvey, 16, “but people don’t really listen to him like that” – as in, by choice – “any more.”

Karam, 17, recognises him as “one of the greatest rappers in history” but, he adds, a little less charitably: “I think he’s fallen off since 2016, and he’s just pretty old at this point.” He mentions a trend from a few years ago when boys his age would ape Emimen’s blond buzzcut – but, like cheap peroxide, it didn’t last long.

Morgan, 11, says he has heard Eminem on Fortnite, but greets any follow-up questions with disarming bemusement. Like, why are you asking me about this old man? (Or, perhaps, why are you asking me about this, old man?)

It’s hard to ascribe the waning interest to anything beyond the usual generational atrophy. Despite characterisations of today’s young people as pearl-clutching snowflakes, the misogyny and homophobia that centred Eminem in any number of early-2000s moral panics barely figure.

“Most of my friends say that because he raps so fast they don’t even pay attention,” offers Mehima, 19. The sped-up versions on TikTok add a cutesy, smoothing effect on the more crass material too, she says.

Other evidence suggests that Eminem, who has been rapping since the late 1980s, is barely in need of a youth bump at all. A handful of fan accounts plug gamely away on TikTok (his official page has 4.4 million followers, but no videos), but the real action is in more ageing enclaves of the internet, where Real Rap remains king, vocabulary triumphs over vibes, and comparisons to Shakespeare don’t inspire cringe. The site churns out bite-size bits of hagiography every day, and there’s a Reddit community and numerous Facebook fan pages that do a good trade in gossip and nostalgia. Last week, Facebook’s boomer-leaning population was dragged into debates about Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly’s rumoured break-up; previously, they’ve argued over the virtues and sacrilege of the sped-up TikTok edits.

Eminem performing at the 2022 Super Bowl half-time show alongside Dr Dre, Mary J Blige and Snoop Dogg.

A closer look at those end-of-year chart finishes is revealing too. Since the Official Charts started counting streams in 2014, Curtain Call: The Hits has been a mainstay. Eminem commands about 67 million monthly listeners on Spotify, many of whom will be pumping Lose Yourself along with their weights in the gym. If you think this is overstating the power of exercise playlists, Emimen’s ’Till I Collapse, from 2002, has been named the top workout song of all time by Spotify. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the first non-single to surpass 1bn streams on the platform.

What we’re witnessing, then, is the emergence of a new era of legacy artist, and one shaped acutely by the streaming era. We no longer question the presence of Abba or Elton or Queen collections in end-of-year lists. That roster is expanding, albeit very slowly. Streaming, and the droves of data that it delivers, provides a granular sense of what people are listening to, yet – thanks to editorialised playlists – also skews where our cultural arbiters lie. In the charts, new acts are in constant competition with history.

Eminem’s omnipresence, then, is a perennial reminder of his undeniable talents – but also a glimpse into a narrowing, algorithmically curated cultural future. Which is a lot scarier than any bleach-blond rapper could ever be.

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