The Ones of the ’10s: Eminem’s “Not Afraid”

In The Ones of the ‘10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.

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Eminem- “Not Afraid”

HIT #1: May 22, 2010

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

When Elvis Presley broke out in the mid-’50s, he immediately became a powerhouse force in American popular music. He played a big part in bringing rock and roll music to the masses breaking down social barriers with his voice and moves. Up until the day he died in 1977, Elvis remained a huge cultural force and was still able to chart on the Hot 100 well into the ‘70s. But after his military stint in the late ‘50s, Elvis would never recapture the greatness of his early years. He still had fame and popularity to land #1 hit after #1 hit through the early ‘60s but the rebellious style he had originally become known for had disappeared. He started making music that relied more on charisma getting formulaic and tired after a while. While Elvis still some good moments, most people will mainly remember him for the impact he had early on.

That’s almost the same correlation to Eminem, an artist who’s compared himself to Elvis many times. By the time he had his first #1 song of the ‘10s, Eminem had already established himself as a powerful and influential force in popular music being a hugely successful white artist in a predominately black genre. By 2010, he had enough big songs to release a greatest hits album. But after his initial success, he fell on hard times musically and by 2010 was in the midst of his own comeback that’d bring him back to chart dominance. Fans still bought his music in droves but from the first hit, it’s clear this wasn’t the same Eminem that was riling up feathers a decade earlier. 

Born Marshall Mathers, Eminem grew up in a constant state of turmoil and uncertainty. His family moved back and forth between Missouri and Michigan before settling in working-class Detroit by the age of 14. It was by that age where he began rapping with a high school friend where he adapted his famous stage name. He performed all over Detroit’s rap scene engaging in freestyle rap battles and open mic contests. Throughout his teenage years, he’d formed various rap groups with local friends and eventually created one called D12 or Dirty Dozen (D12’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “My Band,” peaked at #6. It’s a 3.). 

Around this time, Eminem was signed to FBT Productions and released his debut album Infinite in 1996 to commercial failure and dismissal in the Detroit hip-hop scene. It wasn’t any help to a man struggling to make a living in a crime-ridden neighborhood raising a newborn daughter. In the midst of all this, he developed his famous Slim Shady alter ego allowing him to express his most satirical and violent fantasies in his music. He released The Slim Shady EP in 1997 which garnered more attention including from the major labels. 

It was around this time when Eminem went to Los Angeles where he came in second at the Rap Olympics in 1997. His performance caught the attention of the staff from Interscope Records who sent a copy of The Slim Shady EP to Interscope head Jimmy Iovine who then played it to Dr. Dre. Dre was immediately impressed by Eminem’s skill and after getting in touch signed him to Interscope. 

Eminem got right to work on a major label debut with The Slim Shady LP being released in February 1999. Hot 100 wise, “My Name Is,” the song everyone recognizes from the album, only peaked at #36 but it played a big part in introducing Eminem and his Slim Shady persona to the mainstream public which would garner lots of controversy. The Slim Shady LP may have gotten critical acclaim and become certified 4x Platinum but it also opened up criticism for the constant violence, homophobia, and misogyny in Eminem’s lyrics. 

Eminem quickly capitalized on this newfound fame with 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP. The album quickly became a monster bestseller, selling almost 2 million copies in the first week eventually being certified Diamond. It also gave him his first Top 10 hit with “The Real Slim Shady” his satire on his growing fame and the celebrity scene of the era (It peaked at #4. It’s a 10!). All of a sudden he was not only the biggest rap star in the world but the biggest star in the world period. As his fame grew, so did the controversies over his lyrics and attitude from both parents groups and gay-rights groups.

Following up on this massive success, Eminem released The Eminem Show in 2002 continuing the Slim Shady persona while touching on his new fame and success. While not reaching the heights of The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show was another hugely successful album spawning two Top 10 hits, “Without Me,” (Peaked at #2. It’s a 9.) and “Cleaning Out My Closet” (Peaked at #4. It’s also a 9.). It was the best selling album of 2002 in the US beating out Nelly’s Nellyville and Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. And like the previous album, The Eminem Show was certified Diamond. Continuing his hot streak, he starred in the movie 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical tale of his upbringing. The movie was a critical and commercial success with the soundtrack giving Eminem his first Hot 100 #1 with the immortal “Lose Yourself,” which won Eminem an Oscar (It’s a 10!). 

Naturally, after reaching those dazzling heights Eminem had nowhere to go but down. His 2004 album Encore saw a critical and commercial decline from his previous two albums and notched only one Top 10 hit, the lead-off single “Just Lose It” which peaked at #6 (It’s a 2.). He put out a greatest hits album, 2005’s Curtain Call: The Hits, which spawned two more Top 10 singles, “When I’m Gone” (Peaked at #8 It’s a 6.) and “Shake That” with Nate Dogg (It peaked at #6. It’s a 3.). After that, he largely stayed out of music for the next few years aside from being featured on Akon’s 2006 #2 hit “Smack That” (It’s a 4.).

Eminem would come back in 2009 with the release of Relapse. The album netted Eminem another #1 hit with “Crack A Bottle” with Dr. Dre and 50 Cent (It’s a 5.) and the #9 peaking “We Made You” (It’s a 4.). The album got mixed reviews and didn’t sell that well compared to Eminem’s earlier albums but it brought him back to prominence in hip-hop and the charts. Eminem originally planned to release a follow up to Relapse, Relapse 2, but later changed it to Recovery after feeling the new music didn’t have much to do with the Relapse album. 

The release of Recovery continued Eminem’s comeback as it debuted on top of Billboard’s 200 chart. It ended up selling almost three and a half million copies becoming the best selling album of 2010 over Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now. Its lead off single “Not Afraid” also carried the album’s success debuting at #1 on the Hot 100. 

During an interview with Billboard, Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg stated how Recovery would open Eminem up to more fans and commented that Not Afraid is meant as an uplifting song away from all the dark inflected material he’d become known for. He’s right about that. In “Not Afraid,” Eminem is talking straight about the struggles he’s gone through in life and his career. He also talks to his fans and critics agreeing with their takes that his Relapse album wasn’t great. But through the chorus, he also calls out his fans to join him and never lose hope. It’s an updated “Lose Yourself” only not as great or memorable as that song was. 

Eminem delivers “Not Afraid” in his usual confrontational style as well as singing the chorus. Producer Boi-1da tries lending an anthemic feel to “Not Afraid” with the cinematic strings and while it delivers for the most part it just doesn’t hit you as hard as you’d expect it too. The song tries to walk the balance of being personal enough for the artist while also letting the fans in on the message. While Eminem performs the song the way you’d expect him to, it doesn’t leave you with much of an impact compared to his earlier work. The chorus sounds more like a commercial than a genuine empowering message. So “Not Afraid” is a generic empowerment song from an artist that’s done much better. But it’s a fine generic empowerment song. 

The success of “Not Afraid” was only the beginning for Recovery. We’ll see Eminem back in this column soon as well as the Recovery album.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Not Afraid” being used in a trailer for 2012’s Act of Valor

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