Why don’t we give more recognition to the 8 Mile soundtrack in the canon of great Eminem projects?
We know The Slim Shady LP is Eminem’s triumphant, game-changing introduction to most of the world, where his fantastical shock value rhymes made him a star. The Marshall Mathers LP was Em at the peak of his powers, dropping dizzying rhymes over a sound that was growing increasingly more mainstream. The Eminem Show, to many, was the final great album of his career, the last to truly show his greatness over a full project before Encore began his descent.
The 8 Mile soundtrack—released on October 29, 2002, five months after The Eminem Show—is often forgotten, but it still stands as some of Eminem’s strongest work. Sure, it only has three solo Eminem songs (as well as verses on two posse cuts), but they’re three of the best, most distinctive songs of his career. And the film and soundtrack, as a tandem, were crucial in making him the Detroit spokesman that he is today.
“Lose Yourself” is the best song of Eminem’s career, his strongest candidate for a track that will remain in the hip hop canon. It has been likened to the film Rocky’s rousing theme, and the comparison holds up: It shows a hungry Em, desperate to showcase his skills to the world and become the star he’s destined to be. “Lose Yourself” was well-deserving of its accolades, as it became the first rap composition to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, found a spot on virtually every list of the greatest rap songs ever, and got certified quintuple platinum by the RIAA. But aside from the formal praise, it’s the impact on the world that makes “Lose Yourself” special. The opening bars—“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy”—are instantly recognizable in a way that transcends hip hop. It’s also arguable that the song represents the pinnacle of Em’s career. After its release, Em’s career began to decline due to drug use and personal turmoil—a reality especially evident on the weaker, more nonsensical portions of Encore.
But “Lose Yourself” wasn’t all that Eminem had to offer on the 8 Mile soundtrack. Two songs later is the title track, which tells a similar story about Eminem—and his character in the film, Jimmy “B. Rabbit” Smith—battling poverty and self-doubt while chasing dreams of rap fame. Over some of his career’s best self-production, he gives lucid details: rummaging through Salvation Army racks for clothes, being evicted from his place, and experiencing incessant doubt and pressure to find an escape. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just bein’ pulled apart/From each one of my limbs, by each one of my friends/It’s enough to just make me wanna jump out of my skin,” he yells. “Not a moment goes by/that I don’t pray to the sky, please, I’m beggin’ you, God/Please don’t let me be pigeonholed in no regular job/Yo, I hope you can hear me, homie, wherever you are.” The song ends with him putting his faith in his talent to see him through. “I got every ingredient, all I need is the courage,” he rhymes in the last verse. “Like I already got the beat, all I need is the words.”
After a flurry of songs by the likes of JAY-Z and Freeway (“8 Miles and Runnin’”), Nas (“U Wanna Be Me”), Gang Starr (“Battle”), and a then-rising 50 Cent (“Places To Go”), Eminem closes the soundtrack with “Rabbit Run.” While “Lose Yourself” and “8 Mile” see Eminem fighting through his struggles and self-doubts, “Rabbit Run” presents Em simply zoning in on his pen and pad while refusing to let his circumstances interfere. It’s as if he just won the battle at the end of the film 8 Mile—his real-life problems weren’t going to simply disappear with that victory, but until they did, his notebook would be his refuge. For three minutes with no chorus, Em just unloads all of his anxieties, determined more than ever to overcome.
Eminem’s urgency and desperation is palpable on all three songs. He had spoken about poverty, dead-end jobs and depression on “Rock Bottom” and “If I Had” from Slim Shady LP. But his first lyric of Marshall Mathers LP is, “They say I can’t rap about being broke no more,” and aside from a few instances, the poverty and hungry raps took a backseat to songs that dealt with the consequences of his game. His third studio album The Eminem Show further solidified him as the biggest rapper in the world, selling a total of 7.6 million copies that year. Em had been far removed from the life he was rapping about on these 8 Mile songs. Ostensibly portraying himself in a movie obviously helped, but it’s still stirring to hear Em talk so candidly about his times at the bottom. Usually, we revere artists’ debut albums for displaying this type of hunger, then resent them for never being able to recapture it. But Eminem conveyed his story in a new way, after already building the foundation of one of the greatest rap careers ever.
Eminem’s performance on the 8 Mile soundtrack also captures the spirit of hip hop more distinctly than any of his other songs. Eminem has always been an expert at bending the English language to his will, and using that skill to tell unique stories. But “Lose Yourself,” “8 Mile,” and “Run Rabbit Run” integrate the urgency of using hip hop as a tool to escape one’s circumstances—one of the genre’s tried and true tropes. If there was ever a case for Eminem’s G.O.A.T. status, it’s this: After already mastering his own lane on his previous solo works, Eminem used the 8 Mile soundtrack to compete on the same grounds as many of his contemporaries, and still deliver at a level of excellence higher than nearly all of them.
While Eminem has the skill set that marks him as one of rap’s greats, there are two dents in his armor. Firstly, a lack of songs that stand in the all-time canon of rap’s greatest records; aside from “Stan,” Eminem didn’t have songs like Biggie’s “Juicy,” JAY-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.,” or Tupac’s “California Love”—songs that universally connect, sticking in the zeitgeist as the absolute best that the genre has to offer. Secondly, for much of his career, Eminem has relied on limited subject matter. It seems no matter how introspective he’d try to get, his lyrics would always revert to dissing his mother, his estranged wife, people in the LGBTQIA community, or whatever pop starlet happens to be hot at the time.
The 8 Mile soundtrack tackles both of those issues. It gave Em his first song that occupies an indisputable place in the rap hall of fame, and it found him taking on subject matter that challenged him and made him more relatable than ever.
The soundtrack also lays the foundation to the rest of Eminem’s legacy. It officially marked 50 Cent’s entrance into the Shady fold, housing his breakout song “Wanksta” and showing how he fit in with the label’s IDGAF attitude on “Love Me,” where he showed up Em and Obie Trice with a verse that dissed Lil Kim and Lauryn Hill while problematically giving props to R. Kelly. 8 Mile marked the point at which Eminem truly became Detroit’s spokesperson as we see him today—he didn’t always look the part, but when he was putting the city on the big screen and putting fellow Detroiters in the scenes and on songs, his role was indisputable. The soundtrack boosted that sentiment. It also solidified his place among rap’s kings. Where else could you find a then-beefing JAY-Z and Nas on the same record in 2002? Finally, it laid further groundwork for the hip hop purist branding that Em has relied on for the signing of acts like Slaughterhouse and Westside Gunn & Conway, the “Rap God” music video and his regular participation in the cyphers during the BET Hip Hop Awards.
Putting the 8 Mile soundtrack on the same level as his classic Marshall Mathers LP or Slim Shady LP may be a stretch, but the release is a piece of a G.O.A.T.-caliber catalog that shouldn’t be dismissed.