As I write this, I?ll be attaching songs, videos and articles which help illustrate my points. All in all there is nearly 3 hours of music and videos, and the post is 4,426 words long ? so assuming you don?t have time to read this all now, I really suggest that you still take the time to not skip the links. Even if you?re familiar with a lot of these tracks, it will be better to revisit the music, in order to fully appreciate where I?m coming from. I?ll try to space them out so that you can click on the links, and read the lyrics along with the songs ? or you can have it playing in the background while you?re reading if you?re tight on time.
I should also say that I?m a massive Jay Z fan. I?ve seen him perform live 6 times in 3 different countries, his shows are always incredible ? and the best concert I?ve ever been to was one of his in the US in 2009. I?ve listened and loved every album and will regularly revisit his back-catalogue and some of the best verses ever written are his. I love the journey that he?s been on with his music, growing from deadbeat drug dealer, to starting a record label, to becoming a business magnate, to his more recent work dealing with philosophical, political and moral topics. Jay Z is certainly a better businessman, being worth $810 million (vs. Eminem $200 million). And he also definitely has a better overall life than Eminem, basketball team, successful clothing line, married to Beyonce, hanging out with Obama etc. If I were picking between whose life I wanted to switch with, it wouldn?t be a question.
His legendary ability to never write anything down, and put verses on tracks straight from memory is a freakish skill ? one that will probably never be replicated again. There is no doubt in my mind that he?s a genius, and one of the best lyricists to ever pick up a microphone?
?but when it comes rap and hip-hop, the writing, the technical ability, flow, rhyme, variety, and all the battling, beef and bravado that is central to Hip Hop, Eminem is the greatest rapper of all time.
Intro ? Background and getting their Big Breaks
Both artists come grew up in difficult conditions, broken homes and environments that were often hostile. Both Jay-Z and Eminem started off their rap careers honing their skill as lyricists and focusing much more on their flow, rhythm and rhymes than necessarily the content of their raps.
When Jay was coming up, he was known for fast flow and quick triplets which were popular at the time. (watch The Originators 1990, or listen to I can?t get wit dat ? 1994). His first solo album came out in 1996, and he was rapping about gang violence in Brooklyn, and often references the fact that he used to be a drug dealer before becoming a rapper, but already has that cocky, swagger that will become trademark Jay-Z. His first solo effort, Reasonable Doubt, was an instant success and has since sold 2.5 million albums. Jay Z was an established artist right off the bat. (listen to Dead Presidents ? 1996).
Eminem came out of the detroit rap scene which had its own style, and Eminem was equally focused on the craft of creating rap which more focused on cramming an insane amount of rhymes into his verses whilst perfecting his flow (listen to biterphobia ? 1995).
His first solo album ? Infinite ? was also released in 1996, but it wasn?t well received at all only selling an estimated 1000 copies. However, I love this album, as it?s Eminem flexing his lyrical muscle to the extreme and showing his skill as a lyricist who is just rapping for the love of the way it sounds. It is a masterclass in constructing verses that are so tightly packed with rhymes and rhythm that you can (and I have) play this album to people who don?t understand english and they still admire the ability just for the way it sounds. (listen to Infinite)
My thesis?ll smash a stereo to pieces
My a cappella releases classic masterpieces
Through telekinesis, it eases you mentally
Gently, sentimentally, instrumentally
With entity, dementedly meant to be Infinite?
The thing that makes Eminem?s big break so impressive is that instead of retreating to lick his wounds about the flop of Infinite, Eminem went straight back to work dominating the battle rap scene in Detroit which he would later immortalise in 8 Mile (watch Eminem at the rap Olympics in 1997). It was these battles where he made a name for himself, before his demo got picked up by Dre before they worked together on The Slim Shady LP in 1999.
Freestyling and battling have been a part of hip hop from the beginning. Competition is at the heart of rap music ? and part of what makes Eminem the best rapper of all time, is that he literally had to freestyle battle his way into a record deal; there is no route into the scene which is more difficult. Unlike Jay Z, who had Damon Dash start a record label so they could put his music out, Eminem had to scalp other MCs to get the recognition he deserved.
Eminem has sold WAY more records
I personally don?t think that this is necessarily a good indication of the quality of a rapper as there is a long list of rappers who are lyrically incredible, but haven?t sold very many records. Like Big Pun ? Twinz (link). However, it?s useful as a starting point to put into context just how big of an impact these two rappers have had on the music scene. Jay Z has sold a total of 51 million albums ? including 3.5 million for his collaboration with Linkin Park in 2004, and nearly a million ?best of Jay-Z albums?.
Eminem, on the other hand, has sold 165 million albums ? more than 3 times as many ? and that doesn?t include any of the albums he released with D12 (another 8.3 million)! Eminem has 7 albums which have outsold Jay-Zs best-selling album of all-time (Vol 2, Hard-knock life, 1998, 10.5M sold).
The argument that Jay-Z has been more consistent is a good one, and he?s certainly had a higher output of music (JZ: 115 singles and 24 albums, EM: 48 singles and 15 albums) ? the numbers just don?t stack up for me.
Yes, Eminem took a break in 2000 to make a movie, and then struggled with his drug addiction between 2005?2008, so consistency and output are valid concerns, but it is undeniable that Eminem has a much bigger fan base, and has outsold Jay-Z significantly over the years. He is a much bigger rapper.
There are loads of videos which break down why Eminem is unparalleled when it comes to raw rhyming ability. I really like this video which gives a quick overview of the various rhyme types, and then breaks down the opening verse of Lose Yourself (watch ? Why Eminem is one of the most impressive lyricist ever). Jay Z and Eminem both pack an awesome number of rhymes into their lyrics, but Eminem is just at a whole other level when it comes to creating line after line of perfectly rhymed verses, with virtually no wastage. (Listen ? Till I Collapse, 2002).
The other thing that is so impressive about Eminem?s rhyming ability is not only the number of rhymes that he can deliver, but he also uses compound multi-word rhyme schemes to have 3 or 4 syllables rhyme at a time, multiple times within a single stanza.
Stop the tape! This kid needs to be locked away!
Dr. Dre, don?t just stand there, operate!
I?m not ready to leave, it?s too scary to die
I?ll have to be carried inside the cemetery and buried alive!
Jay Z also does a lot of compound rhymes, but there just aren?t the same examples of complex, technical rhyme schemes that Eminem does in basically every track.
Both these rappers have an incredible flow, and can seemingly twist words to create stories without ever pausing for breath. They also both benefit from being able to rap very clearly, so that anyone can follow along with what?s being said (unlike more modern mumble-rappers). But since Eminem?s return in 2008, he has also clearly demonstrated that he can take other people?s flows and do it better than they can.
Listen to Jay flow on Hard Knock Life in 1999 and then listen to him flow on The Story of OJ from 2017. His style is clean and iconic ? but you can basically draw a straight line through 20 years of his music and his flow is instantly recognisable as Jay Z.
Compare that to Eminem who has made trap tunes like Believe, Rock remixes like Remind Me and Rap God with probably one of the most talked about verses in the last 5 years.
I love the way Jay Z raps, and his style, flow and swagger are inimitable. And he does have some classics like Jigga What where he returned to his nimble, technical flow, but for the most part it?s one-dimensional (and especially recently) he just can?t, or won?t, do it like Eminem can.
To reiterate, Eminem?s ability to change his flow and master multiple different styles of rapping is unrivaled. But what makes Eminem completely unique is that he has taken the rap form and totally smashed barriers and gone in directions that were unthinkable before he came along. With every album, he is always pushing boundaries and taking you on an emotional journey with him.
Just listen to these tracks, all from the same album (Marshall Mathers LP) and notice how different they are.
Listen to Eminem ? Kids, 2000 (funny)
Listen to Eminem ? The Way I Am, 2000 (angry)
Listen to Eminem ? Kim, 2000 (Insane)
Acoustically, there?s just nobody else that has got the range and breadth of sounds out of rap music that Eminem has [edit: with the exception of Andre from Outkast, maybe].
Not to mention that his public perception is almost as varied as his sonic direction. Not that it necessarily makes him a better rapper per se, but his artistry is not limited to the music he makes. He is the master jester who is able to make astute cultural observations, and mercilessly slay those in his line of fire using lyrics and music videos as his weapons.
If breadth is important to be the greatest of all time, Eminem would beat Jay Z, hands down.
The ability for rappers to paint pictures and tell compelling stories is part of what has made the genre so impactful over the years. From Dance With The Devil, to Regulators, the ability for rappers to tell a good story is one of the key attributes of a legendary lyricist. Since the early great storytellers like Slick Rick were sharing their lives, through NWA telling the world about the truth of LA in the 90s, to be crowned as the GOAT, any rapper needs to be able to tell a good story.
Jay-Z has some of the best storytelling ability in the industry ? including one of my favourite verses of all time in his infamous interaction with the NYPD on 99 Problems (listen). Talking at length about his early life, as a drug dealer, his childhood, and his life as an artist, it?s easy to get lost once he starts talking.
Eminem is also, famously, a story-teller, and opens up about troubles in his family life, struggles with drug addiction, and battling his own internal demons as a result of being bullied as a kid (Listen to Brain Damage, 1999)
She beat me over the head with the remote control
Opened a hole and my whole brain fell out of my skull
Whether it?s being to blame for a girl OD?ing at a party (My Fault), Explaining to his daughter why he killed his wife (Bonnie and Clyde 97) or the trilogy of stories as the devil on the shoulder of 3 characters (Guilty Conscience) ? Eminem has shown time and time again that he?s an expert at using rap to tell stories that shock and thrill in equal measure.
The pinnacle of the story-telling format is when it becomes so well known that it can be used in everyday conversation ? and everyone knows what you?re talking about. If someone talks about ?Roxanne? ? 9 times out of 10 it?s a reference to the Police Song, or ?A Boy Named Sue? and you know that it?s about a boy with a rough upbringing a la Johnny Cash. The name ?Stan? now carries that same weight, and if it?s used in reference to a fan, it immediately conjures up the story of the obsessed fan who goes as far as taking the life of himself and his girlfriend, partly because Eminem won?t get back to him. (Listen to Stan, 2000).
There are rappers who have made whole careers out of being good story-tellers, and both Eminem and Jay-Z have made records that show they are both very skilled bards. But Eminem has created characters and stories that have proven so compelling and painfully relatable that they will stand the test of time. In 20 years, you can talk about your experience with a ?stan-like fan? and people will still know exactly what you mean.
Hip hop, at its best, is competitive. Diss tracks and battling are a part of rap, and artists and crews have been insulting each other on the mic to show who is better since the very beginning.
Jay Z locked horns with the prophet poet Nas, and came out on top of arguably the biggest industry battle since BIG and Tupac. The tracks going back and forth brought out the best from both rappers back in the early 2000s.
Listen to Nas ? Got Yourself a Gun, 2001
Listen to Jay-Z ? Got Myself A Gun, 2002
This battle is the rap equivalent of walking up to the biggest bully in high-school and punching him in the throat on the first day of school. Nas was a well-established leader in rap since Illmatic in 1994, and Jay-Z went after him with several savage attacks, calling him out for being past his prime, and focusing on Jay-Z?s prior relationship with Nas? girlfriend at the time. Both rappers experienced a boost in sales after the conflict, but Jay-Z did better out of it, showing that he could go toe-to-toe with one of the big dogs and battle him directly for the crown of ?king of New York?.
But this is another area where Eminem absolutely destroys other rappers. Head to head, there is nobody that can go toe-to-toe with Eminem (Watch Interview with the Game).
And Eminem is also no stranger to industry beef ? having pretty much non-stop conflict from 1999 till Proof?s death in 2006. He took swings at pretty much the whole of pop culture, but also directly had industry beefs, most notably with Benzino (owner of the Source), and Ja Rule?
It seems a distant fantasy now, but there was a time when Ja Rule was one of the biggest rappers on the planet. His album Pain Is Love sold 6.1M albums, (more than any Jay-Z album except Hard Knock Life) and he won a slew of awards in 2002 for his efforts.
Em, you claim your mother?s a crackhead
And Kim is a known slut
So what?s Hailie gon? be when she grows up
After a problem with 50 cent spilled over into the rest of shady/aftermath ? Eminem released a series of vicious tracks insulting Ja Rule and Murda Inc. (listen to Eminem ? Hail Mary). Some of the biggest rappers in the world lined up behind them (including DMX and Busta Rhymes), and they terrorised Ja Rule, who himself admits that his reputation and career never recovered afterwards. The disses were so complete, that he went from selling 6M albums in 2001, to 500k in 2003. His most recent album in 2012 sold less than 5000 copies. Jay-Z and Nas went hard at each other, but they both came out the other side better for it. Eminem?s beef with Ja-Rule was a total and utter ending of a career, in no small part to the brutal lyrical attacks from Eminem.
For me, there is an even better example of Eminem?s diss prowess, in when he was going back and forth with Everlast (front man for House of Pain).
First, listen to Tupac?s legendary diss track Hit em up, 1996. It is aggressive, insulting and is a complete character assassination on Notorious BIG and his crew. Listen to the rhyme scheme and the flow that he uses to deliver punchlines with devastating effect before passing the mic to his squad to finish off the job.
Now listen to Eminem ? Hit em up, 2001. Notice how Eminem?s verse uses the same rhythm and rhyme as Tupac, but creates a different song from it? It can?t be overstated how difficult this is to do. Writing a whole verse where virtually every line is a punchline and is mirrored perfectly with Tupac?s verse is Eminem showing that he is every bit as skillful as Tupac, even if he?s actually going against Everlast.
Hit Em Up ? Eminem
First off, fuck your songs and the shit you say
Diss my wife, but at least I got a bitch, you gay
You claim to be a Muslim but you Irish White
So fuck you fat boy, drop the mic, let?s fight
Plus I punch you in the chest, weak hearts I rip
Whitey Ford, forty and white, lethargic ass dickhead
I keep ?em comin while you runnin out of breath
Steady duckin while I?m punchin at your chest, you need to rest
Dilated, go ask your people how I leave ya
With your three CD?s, nobody sees, when they released
Evidence, don?t fuck around with real MC?s
Who ain?t ready for no underground beef, so fuck geeks
I let you faggots know it?s on for life
But Everlast might die tonight, haha
Fat boy murdered on wax and killed
Fuck with me and take a heart pill, you know!
Grab 380?s when you see Slim Shady
Call the doctor to heal your heart
They shocked you back to life at the clinic
But you ?bout to get relapsed any minute
Honkey, I hit ?em up!
Hahaha, yo check this out
You faggots ain?t even on my level
I?mma let D-12 ride on you bitch-made ass faggots!
Hit Em Up ? Tupac
First off, fuck yo? bitch and the clique you claim
Westside when we ride, come equipped with game
You claim to be a player, but I fucked your wife
We bust on Bad Boys, niggas fucked for life
Plus, Puffy tryna see me, weak hearts I rip
Biggie Smalls and Junior M.A.F.I.A. is some mark-ass bitches
We keep on comin? while we runnin? for your jewels
Steady gunnin?, keep on bustin? at them fools, you know the rules
Lil? Caesar, go ask your homie how I?ll leave ya
Cut your young-ass up, leave you in pieces, now be deceased
Lil? Kim, don?t fuck around with real G?s
Quick to snatch yo? ugly ass off the streets, so fuck peace!
I?ll let them niggas know it?s on for life
Don?t let the Westside ride tonight (ha ha ha)
Bad Boy murdered on wax and killed
Fuck with me and get yo? caps peeled, you know
See, grab your Glocks when you see 2Pac
Call the cops when you see 2Pac, uh
Who shot me? But you punks didn?t finish
Now you ?bout to feel the wrath of a menace
Nigga, I hit ?em up!
Check this out, you motherfuckers know what time it is
I don?t know why I?m even on this track
Y?all niggas ain?t even on my level
I?ma let my little homies ride
On you bitch-made ass Bad Boy bitches, feel it!
I remember being stunned by this when I first heard it, and it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up from the first line. Both rappers have demonstrated real skill when it comes to battle rapping. But where a battle with Jay z might ruin your day, a beef with Eminem will ruin your life.
Jay-Z has borrowed (stolen?) lyrics from BIG (and Eminem too!)
Watch DJ Felli Fel ? ?I?m not a writer, I?m a biter? (Mainly BIG)
Nobody can doubt that the lyrics he writes are amazing, nor can they say that sampling/remixing aren?t an important part of hip-hop culture ? however, it is a commonly accepted rule about hip hop (like comedy, or journalism) that you don?t take other people?s IP and pass it off as your own.
Jay-Z openly admits this when he says ?I say a BIG verse, I?m only bigging up my brother. Bigging up my borough. I?m big enough to do it?? suggesting that he is aware that he does it, but he thinks it?s ok?
It might be a small point, and in his corpus of work, it would be tough not to have lyrics that borrow, either directly or indirectly, from other artists ? however, I bring it up because he has also taken lyrics from Eminem directly and used them in one of his own songs.
Jay Z ? Success, 2007 (listen)
I used to give a fuck, now I give a fuck less
What do I think of success? It sucks, too much stress
I guess I blew up quick
Cause friends I grew up with
See me as a premie, but I?m not, and my nuts big
Eminem ? I?m Back, 2000 (listen from 52s)
I used to give a fuck, now I give a fuck less
What do I think of success? It sucks, too much press
I?m stressed, too much cess, depressed
Too upset, it?s just too much mess
I guess I must just blew up quick (yes)
Grew up quick (no)
If you were the greatest lyricist of all time ? there?s just no reason for you to be doing it. Especially not when it is so frowned upon by fans and artists alike.
Eminem is your favourite rapper?s favourite rapper
I?m also not alone in this view that Eminem is the greatest of all time, in fact here?s 15 minutes of other rappers talking about how Eminem is the best of all time including, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, The Game, Rakim, Redman, Nicki Minaj, and Kendrick Lamar.
I don?t think that ?popularity? and ?greatness? or ?best? are necessarily the same thing, but when more than 200,000 people voted on Ranker.com in ?a definitive list of the best rappers of all time? Eminem came out on top.
(Listen to Renegade ? Jay-Z ft. Eminem).
Pop artists from every corner are clamouring over themselves to work with both of these guys. Eminem even puts Jay-Z in his top 10 list of greatest rappers from the song Till? I collapse. (Redman, Jay-Z, Tupac, BIG, Andre 3000, Jada, Kurupt, Nas, Eminem). So there?s no question that Eminem respects Jay-Z as a rapper.
The year prior to the release of Till I Collapse, in 2001, on the same album where Jay was taking shots at Nas, Jay invited Eminem to join him to make a track on the Blueprint, in a clear signal that he respected the work on the Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers LPs.
Unfortunately for Jay, Eminem dropped one of the best verses of his career and completely stole the show. When you make a track together, comparisons are inevitable, and when the featured artist blows it out of the water ? it?s pretty difficult to argue that you?re on the same level. Nas pounced on this fact and penned the line ?Eminem murdered you on your own shit.? in his song Ether. Snoop even referenced the fact that he would never do another track with Eminem after listening to his verse on Renegade.
To jump on a track on another rapper?s album, and burn the house to the ground, takes some serious stones ? and solidifies Em as clearly the superior rapper. Since then, Jay-Z has stayed away from the darker, more aggressive corners of hip hop, and stuck more with with the soulful beats that are more in his comfort zone.
I have really enjoyed going back through the greatest hits and hidden gems of these two artists. They?re both absolute titans in this industry, and with good reason. But going back has really only further concreted my belief that Eminem is clearly a much better rapper. In addition to his records sold, his rhyming ability, his flow, his variety and his ferocious and funny punchlines, Eminem is also superior in ways that are much harder to objectively compare ? like his wordplay, his use of metaphor and his sense of humour.
Forget a chorus, my metaphors are so complicated
It takes six minutes to get applause
And by the time you all catch on, I?m a end your career
And walk away with the whole floor so you have nothing to fall back on!
Also, I haven?t really included any more than a casual reference to any of their other attributes outside of rapping ? like Eminem producing Tupac ?Loyal to The Game? in 2004 (w/ Ghetto Gospel ft. Elton John) or the fact that he took a year out to make a movie, and won an Oscar for his efforts. I also think it was badass when he slammed Trump in a freestyle last year. But I didn?t want to focus on these things, because, while they?re great, they distract from the pure question of ?who is the best rapper of all time??
Eminem may not have the swagger, the lifestyle, the family, or the business successes. He has family issues, relationship issues, substance abuse issues and mental-health issues. He raps about killing his wife, raping his mother, taking drugs, slitting his wrists and hanging out with the devil. He is a weird, drug-addled, socially-inept, probably-psychopathic outsider?
?but he is undoubtedly the best rapper there has ever been. And now you know why.
For your consideration :
Eminem ? Lose Yourself (genius lyrics)
Eminem ? Stan (genius lyrics)
Eminem ? Till I Collapse (genius lyrics)
Eminem ? Rap God (genius lyrics)
Eminem ? Hi My Name Is (genius lyrics)