How Does Eminem Keep Selling Records?

'Recovery' by Eminem
Aftermath Records

For the fifth straight week, the number one album in the country belongs to an artist who "has misunderstood everything that once made him great," who "is no longer a sure thing," and who is drawn to "anthemic, hackneyed hooks and big-budget producers du jour at their most monochromatic and monotonous."

That artist is Eminem, the album is Recovery, and those quotes are from reviews (mostly mixed or negative) that weighed in before the album sold 741,000 copies in its first week (the highest sales figure for a single album since October 2008, according to Neilsen SoundScan) and went on to move nearly a million more units in the following month. Unless California hard rockers Avenged Sevenfold can mount a major attack, it seems likely that Recovery will finish on top of the album chart for a sixth straight week.

Now that Recovery is as close to a certified smash as a record gets in 2010 (remember when The Marshall Mathers LP sold 1.79 million copies in its first week back in May of 2000?), a few questions remain: why do people still buy Eminem records? Who are they? And if he's an artist for our current musical era the way he was for the late '90s pop gold rush, what does his music say about us?

In the late '90s, Eminem existed within the manufactured pop neighborhood: he chucked stones at Britney Spears and 'N Sync all day long and then built his glass house in their cul-de-sac. When that day-glo era ended, Eminem faltered a little — his last widely acknowledged success was the soundtrack to the movie 8 Mile, from 2002 (a hits compilation, Curtain Call, came out in 2005). 2009's Relapse was criticized for being aimless and out of time, even though it sold over 2 million copies.

So how does Eminem manage to keep selling records if he's stumbling creatively? Maybe audiences today want a battle-tested, contrite pop star to go with their Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. The release of Recovery was accompanied by a chorus of stories that followed the rapper's effort to pull himself out of addiction, and the album itself has Eminem capitulating to critics in an oft-quoted line from the song "Talkin 2 Myself": "Them last two albums didn't count / Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing them out."

The album's first single, "Not Afraid," turns on a rousing, generic "Come take my hand" chorus that — as pointed out elsewhere on this site — attempts to make amends for past mistakes, both personal and lyrical. (Anecdotal evidence suggests his efforts worked —earlier this week at Citi Field during the Mets' failed comeback against the Cardinals, the chorus of "Not Afraid" got five or six spins, and the crowd sang along every time.)

According to SoundScan, Eminem was the biggest selling artist of the last decade. If no musician today (Em himself nor any of his targets) is as ubiquitous, it stands to reason that he'd still have a larger slice of the pie than most.

When he reviewed Recovery on June 21, New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica wondered if Eminem's entire career was some kind of miraculous fluke, from the heights of his success to his mid-era fallow period and recent comeback. In the wake of his chart success, Eminem's recent career moves seem more like canny attempts to diversify his personality portfolio.

The musical tastes of the tens of millions of teenage fans who bought The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show a decade ago have probably matured in a few different directions. Back then, Eminem was the guy with feet in both the rap and pop territories; in 2010, he's added touches of hard rock, emo, and R&B to his repertoire (his collaboration with Rihanna on "Love The Way You Lie" has been the No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot 100 for the last two weeks). Even if his old fans don't like all of his new moves, the moderate doses of tortured romance, or angst, coupled with nostalgia for his classic hits, may have convinced them to pony up for Recovery.

And maybe that's how Eminem fits into a post-Eminem era. AC/DC and U2 may not be the most relevant rock bands in the world, but they can still get fans to part with cash better than almost anyone. If Eminem turns into the rap version of a classic rock dinosaur, it won't be the first time he's crossed boundaries, and it's not a move that will hurt his bottom line.

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