Remember the days when Eminem was considered an outlaw? Remember when a foul-mouthed, equal-opportunity offender sold gazillions of records while the industry that profited from his booby-trap rhymes squirmed?
The industry liked Eminem’s sales numbers, alright, but it didn’t care much for his style, and so kept him at arm’s length when passing out its biggest year-end prizes at the Grammy Awards.
Those days appear to be ending. Eminem is poised to finally win the one major award that has eluded him in a career that has produced more than 80 million album sales: The Grammy for album of the year.
Tonight’s Grammys is shaping up as a coronation for the onetime master of outrage, who finds himself with 10 nominations and is considered the front-runner for the music industry’s most coveted honor.
His 2010 album, “Recovery,” marked a return to commercial favor and critical relevance for an artist who had been struggling for several years with drug dependency. Now he’s back, and selling like it’s still 2001 when he was the biggest pop star on the planet and the music business was still swimming in profit.
If Eminem walks off with a boatload of Grammys, consider it a thank you from an industry desperate for a shot of vitality.
While album sales fell 9.5 percent in 2010, continuing a decade-long decline, “Recovery” trended upward. It racked up more than 3.4 million sales, nearly a half-million more than any other full-length release last year.
It didn’t hurt that “Recovery” showcased a more introspective – if emotionally frayed – Eminem than ever before. A huge single, with Rihanna singing an inescapable hook on “Love the Way You Lie,” allowed him to dominate the old-fashioned way: by creating a ubiquitous commercial-radio hit that transcended formats.
But no one should mistake “Recovery” for the rapper’s best work. In the past, the pitbull MC born Marshall Mathers III excelled at creating divisive, lyrically eviscerating music that could be cathartic, hateful, disgusting and comical – sometimes all at once.
“Recovery” has few of those qualities. It presents him as a more thoughtful and humble artist than ever before, one acceptable enough for grown-ups. He even owns up to his mistakes – the type of “maturity” that the Grammys often reward.
But the album lacks inventive production, brims with apologies for past lousy albums, and makes countless dated cultural references and jokes. Outside of a few singles, it lacks the depth that defines a classic.
Still, the Grammys have spent most of the last half-century playing a waiting game. Rather than embracing artists as they shake up the mainstream, they hold off till they’ve been fully assimilated.
Eminem knows the game first-hand. He was the album-of-the-year favorite in 2001, only to have his “The Marshall Mathers LP” topped by Steely Dan’s mediocre “Two Against Nature.”
Now it appears to be Eminem’s turn to join the parade of artists who won Grammys for less-than-stellar albums, including Herbie Hancock (“River: The Joni Letters” in 2008), Ray Charles (“Genius Loves Company” in 2005) and Tony Bennett (“MTV Unplugged” in 1995).
His competition doesn’t fit the usual parameters of the Grammys’ most prestigious prize: Katy Perry’s promiscuous bubblegum and Lady Antebellum’s catchy country pop are too lightweight; the provocative Lady Gaga’s EP-length “The Fame Monster” is too skimpy; and the deserving Arcade Fire is likely still too unfamiliar to most of the academy’s voters.
An Eminem win would be a fitting year-end capstone for an industry struggling to remain relevant.