By Jason Arline
Since the early days of hip-hop on the streets of New York, the age-old question of “who is the best?” has been fought over and debated incessantly throughout the history of the music industry. Revolutionaries like Grandmaster Flash, Rick Rubin, and Run DMC paved way for the future artist who would eventually turn Rap into the #1 musical genre in entertainment. Their dedication to the music helped hip-hop grow into a successful business leading up to the ’90s when it finally broke mainstream appeal.
Among the artists who would carry the mainstream torch into the 2000s, Kanye West and Eminem pioneered their way to the status of hip-hop legends while becoming inspirations to young artists and fans. When compared to each other both artists from a glance seem completely unalike, but with a closer look, you’ll see just how much their feats resonate with each other.
Kanye Omari West was born on June 8th, 1977. His father, Ray, divorced his mother Donda when Kanye was three. West was raised by his mother in a middle-class neighborhood of the south-side Chicago and would visit his father during the summer. After graduating high school, West planned to attend Chicago’s American Academy of Art on a scholarship but dropped out to pursue his music career.
Prior to graduation, West had become friends and apprentice to producer No I.D, to whom West credits as a huge help to him early on in his career. Early on West developed his own style of production that would be labeled as “chipmunk soul,” which utilized sped up samples from soul records. After producing for Chicago’s local artists, West moved to New York where he got his big break producing tracks for Roc-a-fella rapper Jay-Z on Dynasty: Roc-a-Fella and The Blueprint the following year. In 2002 Damon Dash would then sing West to Roc-a-fella records to keep the talented producer as a part of the label.
Later that same year West was involved in a head-on car collision that shattered his jaw. After receiving reconstructive surgery, West went to the studio to record “Through the Wire” while his jaw was still wired shut from the operation. The single was released on his debut album College Dropout, which debuted at number 1 selling 2.6 million copies and solidifying West as a star.
In the years that would follow, West’s albums would continue to impress and inspire. Currently, West has consecutively released 9 number-one debut albums across his career. A feat only bested by Eminem with 10, who was tied with Kanye prior to his release of Music to Be Murdered By in 2020. West’s need to innovate in music helped shape what hip-hop is today. From Graduation’s “Stronger,” which featured French House duo Daft Punk, to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “Monster,” which featured the up-and-coming artist Nicki Minaj, West has always had a skill for being ahead of trends, often being criticized for it after the fact.
Apart from West’s own success as a musician, his music label GOOD Music has signed and managed artists like Common, John Legend, Pusha T, and Kid Cudi. The only blemish on Kanye West’s career is his affinity for his controversial outburst and celebrity antics. Kanye has stolen the spotlight from Taylor Swift, has gone on rants in the middle of performances and showed support for Donald Trump by wearing a MAGA hat. All of these have caused strain within his personal life, namely his relationship with Jay-Z and Beyonce, who has since reconciled with West after attending Diddy’s 50th birthday celebration. Yet despite the constant celebrity and political drama that has surrounded West, when he focuses on his craft the results speak for themselves.
Eminem was born Marshall Bruce Mathers III on October 17, 1972, in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was raised by his single mother Deborah Mathers and never got to meet his father Marshall Bruce Mathers Jr, who died from a heart attack in 2019. Mathers was raised primarily in Detroit but moved around because his mother would frequently change jobs while trying to support her son.
Throughout his childhood, Mathers would often be bullied and didn’t have any close friends. He kept to himself, being seen as an outcast at the schools he attended. Mathers dropped out of Lincoln High School at the age of 17 after failing the 9th grade three times. However, even though he failed, Mathers showed a strong affinity for language. He would often read comics and even studied the dictionary in his leisure. As a teenager, Mathers’ passion for language and rage as an impoverished youth led him to the burgeoning genre of hip-hop. He took the stage name M&M, which later became Eminem, and began making a name for himself in the battle rap circuits of Detroit.
Following the birth of his daughter Haille, who had with his girlfriend at the time Kim Scott, Mathers released his first album Infinite in 1996. While Infinite displayed flashes of Mathers’ talent, his second project The Slim Shady EP jump started his career. Former NWA producer Dr.Dre gave the project a listen following Mathers runner up performance at the 1997 Rap Olympics MC Battle in Los Angeles. Dre signed Mathers to his Interscope Records label that year and after two years of working with Dre, they released The Slim Shady LP featuring Mathers’ first single “My Name Is” which mixed childish humor, an abundance of profanity and violence, themes that would define Mathers career as an artist.
In May of 2000, Mathers released his second studio album The Marshall Mathers LP. The album showcased Mathers poetic talent and overall range as an artist. With emotionally compelling songs like “Stan” to the hilarious “The Real Slim Shady”, Mathers proved himself as a diverse superstar talent. The Marshall Mathers LP sold over 19 million copies worldwide, won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album and is considered as one of the greatest albums of all time.
Following the release of his solo album The Eminem Show in 2002, Mathers received widespread media attention for his song “Lose Yourself” from the semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile. “Lose Yourself” won an Academy Award for Best Original song, a feat only achieved by Common and rap group Three Six Mafia. Following the release of Encore in 2004 Mathers would step away from music.
In the years that followed Mathers dealt with the remarriage and divorce to his daughter’s mother, Kim, the shooting of his friend and fellow rapper Proof, and drug abuse that landed him in rehab. Mathers wouldn’t return to music until 2009 when he released Relapse. While Relapse went platinum and received a Grammy for Best Rap Album, Mathers didn’t truly meet the critic’s expectations until he put out Recovery which featured hit singles “Not Afraid” and “Love the Way You Lie.”
The two songs resonated with audiences on a more emotional level and portrayed Mathers as a mature artist as opposed to the often vulgar Slim Shady from earlier in his career. Recovery received the Grammy for Best Rap Album that year just like Relapse before it. Mathers then released the Marshall Mathers LP 2 in 2013 and won the Grammy for Best Rap Album making Mathers 3 for 3 on albums since his return in 2009.
Mathers’ career as an artist has been scrutinized by critics for his vulgarity and homophobic content but his unapologetic demeanor and poetic skill have made him an inspiration to fans around the world. However, In recent years Mathers has taken a more conscious approach to his brand and image. In the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards cypher, Mathers criticized President Donald Trump and his administration and then gave his fans the ultimatum that if they support Trump they cannot be his fans.
Early on in his career, Mathers co-founded his own label titled Shady Records with his manager Paul Rosenberg. Shady Records have signed artists 50 Cent, Yelawolf, and Slaughterhouse in the past however none of said acts are currently still signed to the label. Shady Record’s current lineup consist of Boogie, Bad Meets Evil and Griselda. However, Mathers’ influence on hip-hop extends much farther than his label. Mathers is widely considered the greatest white rapper of all time and captured the attention of both whites and blacks alike, which propelled hip-hop into mainstream entertainment in the early 2000s.
Kanye West and Eminem both have changed the genre of hip-hop in their own ways and have achieved feats worthy of the title Greatest of All Time, but who is better? When you list out their stats they appear almost identical. Kanye West has 9 studio albums, all of them debuted at number one, he has won 21 Grammys and founded GOOD Music. Eminem has 11 studio albums of which 10 debuted at number one, he has won 15 Grammys, and founded Shady Records.
The only significant difference between the artist accolades is when it comes to Grammy awards, however, when you factor in other awards as well Eminem eclipses Kanye 28 to 57 according to IMDB. When you compare the two artist’s impacts on hip-hop, however, you see different approaches to innovation that have produced similar results.
West’s approach to music came from the perspective of a producer, his love of music in all genres led him to experiment with new sounds and ideas outside of the initial concept of hip-hop. West sped up samples, added house synths, used autotune as an instrument instead of a tool, and scored orchestras next to rap lyrics about cocaine and drugs.
West is the type of artist who pushes the envelope until it explodes. In an interview with BBC’s Zane Lowe Jay-Z said, “He’s going to challenge everything because he’s really trying to test it and poke holes to make sure that it stands up. I admire that.” West’s need for perfection as well as innovation has led each of his albums to be their own chapters in his life with each reshaping yet defining Kanye as an artist.
Mathers’ approach was always that of a poet, his love for language made him a pioneer of rhyme schemes. Mathers has said how it’s dumb to think that you can’t rhyme the words silver or orange with something, stating he could think of plenty of words he could use to rhyme with them. Mathers has also been noted by how he utilizes internal rhyme as well as being able to make every syllable in a verse rhyme with each other feats that would be tough for any artist yet Mathers has done it his whole career. Mathers inspired a generation of teenagers who sought emotional stability through his lyrics, they felt that Mathers’ music helped them get through tough situations in life growing up.
As Mathers’ career has progressed both he and his fans have grown along the way. Mathers inspired youth like Tyler, The Creator, who has said Eminem was one of his favorite rappers growing up. As time has gone on, Mathers’ reputation as a wordsmith has caused him to be regarded as both a legendary lyricist and the last person you’d want to have rap beef with.
So when compared to each other, who’s better? While Kanye’s production genius has led him to top the charts repeatedly, his eccentric ego and wild outburst make him tough to be a fan of. Alternatively, Mathers’ lyrical skill and poetic mastery has made him one of the greatest rappers of all time but his personal life and backlash from critics has made his music somewhat inconsistent. Mathers worked with Dr. Dre and Kanye worked with Jay-Z to start their careers, owing their beginnings to two legends in hip-hop’s history, but who is better?
Kanye’s fashion success and subsequent wealth gives him the edge over Mathers monetarily but you can’t deny how Mathers’ way with words inspired the nation’s youth and propelled hip-hop into mainstream media. Ultimately it’s Kanye’s production vs. Eminem’s lyricism, who wins out is up to you, but both artists are undeniably two of the Greatest Artists of All Time.
Featured image via K.D. Anglin.