Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

face off

The Greatest Rapper Alive: Jay-Z vs. Eminem

After taking on Detroit's Comerica Park last weekend, Jay-Z and Eminem's Home and Home Tour comes to New York today and tomorrow. Who better to inaugurate Yankee Stadium as concert hall than those two? And what better time to try to definitively answer the age-old question: Who is the greatest rapper alive?

Sales (Domestic)
Jay-Z: $31.3 million
Eminem: $48.47 million
Edge: A big win for Eminem, and one of the best arguments in his favor right off the bat. Based on numbers and numbers alone, he is No. 1.

Singles
Jay-Z: 42 "Hot 100" singles; 17 in the top 20; 1 No. 1
Eminem: 33 "Hot 100" singles; 16 in the top 20; 4 No. 1s
Edge: Too close to call, although if anything this speaks to Em’s track record. Before seeing the actual numbers, wouldn’t you have been certain the pop-friendlier Hova would have more No. 1s?

Awards
Jay-Z: 10 Grammys; 6 VMAs
Eminem: 11 Grammys; 11 VMAs; 1 Oscar (Best Original Song, “Lose Yourself”).
Edge: Nobody remembers the winners of VMAs seconds after they are announced, and they’re pretty much even with Grammys. That Oscar, though, gives him the go-ahead.

Lyrics
In the broadest possible terms: Jay-Z is untouchable when it comes to talking about how incredible he is; Em’s untouchable when it comes to talking about how fucked-up he is. Em’s the better technical rapper, and, at the peak of his powers, his internal-rhyme-laden trickery would often make all other rappers seem irrelevant. Jay's more methodical, staying away from overwhelming you with double-time flows in favor of killing you with rock-solid boasts it can take until the next verse to completely unwrap. (From “Threat”: “I dig a hole in the desert, they build the Sands on you / Lay out blueprint plans on you / We Rat Pack niggaz, let Sam tap dance on you.”) Both have sterling battle-rap bona fides (see “Notable Beefs” for more), and both are grand masters at sketching out scenes and stories, although Jay's credentials in that department, from "Reasonable Doubt" to "99 Problems," are arguably more heralded. Eminem's both the intentionally funnier (the shrooming hookup with daddy issues from “My Fault”) and unintentionally funnier (the dated celebrities on “We Made You”) rapper. Also, for what it's worth: The one time they rapped together, on “Renegade,” popular opinion is that Eminem — in the words of Nas — “murdered [Jay-Z] on [his] own shit.” All that said, making a fully objective case for one over the other may not be possible.
Edge: Even

Beats
Outside of Recovery, which saw Eminem recruit producers-of-the-moment like Boi1da and Jim Jonsin, Em has primarily rapped over either Dr. Dre beats or those of his own making. That’s made for an effective but limited sonic palette: to generalize dramatically, bouncy and cheesy for the lead singles, and foreboding and plodding for the rest of the album. Meanwhile, Jay has gotten the best out of nearly every producer who has ascended to star status over the last decade and change: D.J. Premier, Swizz Beats, Timbaland, Just Blaze, 9th Wonder, the Neptunes, and, of course, Kanye West. That means he’s gone from chipmunk soul to tabla drums to bombastic synths, handling all with his trademark ease. Miscellaneous factors to consider: Em produced Jay’s "Moment of Clarity." And only one of these dudes has rapped over a Chris Martin beat.
Edge: Jay-Z

Notable Beefs: This one's a bit counterintuitive. Eminem's squabbled with the likes of Everlast, Benzino, ICP, and, um, Mariah Carey (see “Relationships”) and has summarily destroyed them all. But is the layperson even aware of those feuds? Meanwhile, Jay-Z was one-half of the biggest rap beef of all time … a beef that, unfortunately, he lost. But just because Nas's “Ether” is arguably the genre's greatest ever diss track doesn't mean Jay's “Takeover” isn't still in the top five. Plus, Jay would eventually sign Nas to Def Jam, and the loss ultimately had no impact on his reputation.
Edge: Jay-Z

Live Performance
Jay-Z tours constantly, and has evolved into arguably one of the best live acts on the planet. Eminem has simply not been as present on the live circuit, and is not a valid contender in this category.
Edge: Jay-Z

Collaborations: Jay-Z has taken part in two long-form collaborative projects: Best of Both Worlds with R. Kelly, most notable for the ensuing tour, in which Kellz got pepper-sprayed by Jay's BFF Ty Ty; and Collision Course with Linkin Park, which proved conclusively the long-held theory that Jay-Z's songs sound better when they're not being mashed up with Linkin Park songs. His track record as a guest performer is much more impressive, featuring such jams as Young Jeezy's “Go Crazy,” Panjabi M.C.'s “Beware of the Boys,” Jermaine Dupri's “Money Ain't a Thang,” plus three No. 1s (Rihanna's “Umbrella,” Beyoncée's “Crazy in Love,” Mariah Carey's “Heartbreaker) that may or may not have gone to No. 1 without him rapping about Nick Van Exel.

Eminem has no major collaborations to his name, which also means he has no major embarrassing collaborations to his name. Tends to stay in-family for his guest work which has birthed Dr. Dre stand-outs “Forgot About Dre” and “What's the Difference,” and early banger “Trife Thieves” (“I hop in the Jeep and charge you / and bombard you in the car that your mom bought you”) alongside Bizarre. Also worth nothing: his excellent, hints-of-bestiality verse on Biggie's posthumous single “Dead Wrong.”
Edge: Em, for quality over quantity.

Protégés
If you'll allow us to quote ourselves: “'Hov has two distinct but equally checkered mentoring eras: the late nineties into early aughts, when the talented, hardened — and now mostly forgotten — Freeway and Beanie Sigel led the prime-years Roc-A-Fella entourage; and his Def Jam presidency days, when he scooped up Rihanna and Rick Ross, and nurtured Ne-Yo’s career amid constant internal criticism.” The closest he came to releasing a posse album was The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, and that had "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" and “1-900-Hustler” on it. Insert your own Memphis Bleek joke wherever you see fit.

Recent career lull and Twitter activity aside, Eminem gets major points for launching 50 Cent. Elsewhere, Obie Trice and Em's own group D12 managed to sell a lot of records (the latter also released the stellar single “Purple Pills,” hilariously released to radio as “Purple Hills”) without making much of a lasting impact.
Edge: Jay-Z

Relationships
Surprisingly, Eminem's no slouch when it comes to celebrity pairings: He dated both Brittany Murphy and Mariah Carey (it didn't end so well, though; later, he'd write a song about hiding out in her wine basement and she'd cross-dress in order to portray an Eminem-like stalker in a music video). But his most notable relationship is with his on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again wife Kim Scott, whom he’s basically made famous by rapping about killing her a bunch of times. (Our favorite iteration, from “What's the Difference”: “If I do decide to really murder my daughter's momma / I'ma sit her up in the front seat and put sunglasses on her / And cruise around wit' her for seven hours through California / And have her wavin' at people / Then drop her off on the corner at the police station and drive off honkin' the horn for her.”) On the other hand, Beyoncé.
Edge: Jay-Z

Money
Perennially the top dog on Forbes biggest hip-hop earners, Jay racked in $63 million last year. Despite the tremendous sales numbers of his comeback album Relapse, Eminem made a relatively piddling $8 million last year, good for the No. 14 spot on Forbes list.
Edge: Jay-Z

Business Empire
Jay’s business acumen is so well-documented, even your mother could probably list off a few of his more prominent assets and perhaps a few of his major transactions. For the record: founded Roc Nation, a record label and management company that operates under Live Nation; is a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets; co-founded Rocawear (and sold the rights to the company in 2006 for $204 million); co-owns the 40/40 nightclub chain; and is an investor in Carol’s Daughter, the Oprah-approved line of organic beauty products. Also co-founded his first label, Roc-a-Fella, which saw a string of successes, including releases from Dipset and Kanye, before collapsing after a fallout with Jay’s former partner Dame Dash (who is now attempting to resurrect the brand).

Eminem, on the other hand, seemingly has no interest in monetizing his fame in any way other than selling albums. He is co-founder and owner of Shady Records, which is distributed by Interscope, and also has a Sirius radio channel, Shade 45, which seems like more of a hobby than anything else.
Edge: Jay-Z

Film
The manifold charms of Jay's movie and music-video compilation Streets Is Watching are not to be undersold, but his most prominent cinematic affiliation came with American Gangster, which wasn’t actually officially related to the movie at all. Meanwhile, Eminem not only starred in 8 Mile — an unlikely commercial and critical success that still holds up — he never felt the need to sully its reputation by attempting a full-on Hollywood career. Bonus: His cameo in Funny People is one of the best parts of the movie.
Edge: Eminem

Retirement
Both had prolonged periods of inactivity right in the middle of their careers. So who handled themselves better during their time off? Jay's was an official retirement, launched beautifully with a gig as the head of Def Jam and the explanatory “Dear Summer.” Eventually his general level of ubiquity during his “retirement” became something of a joke. That he returned with Kingdom Come, probably his most-hated album, and that he did so only three years after The Black Album, pissed a lot of people off.

Drug troubles and personal issues more or less sidelined Eminem completely for five years after 2004's Encore. And while that is certainly a sad state of affairs, it also meant that when he did stage his return, with last year's Relapse, it actually felt like a momentous occasion.
Edge: Eminem

Albums
Not counting largely ignored debut Infinite, Eminem has released six studio albums, and all have been massive commercial successes. Two are considered classics (The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP), two are solid mid-career releases (The Eminem Show, Encore), one is a partially successful attempt to return to form (Relapse), and one is a mature, humorless, late-career evolution (Recovery). There's also the 8 Mile soundtrack, which featured “Lose Yourself” and was, again, a massive commercial success.

Jay-Z has released eleven studio albums. That includes his classic debut, Reasonable Doubt, his classic would-be finale The Black Album, and his generally classic The Blueprint. Second tier: Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life, Vol. 3 ... Life and Times of S. Carter, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, and American Gangster. Third tier: The Blueprint²: The Gift and the Curse, In My Lifetime Vol. 1, Kingdom Come, The Blueprint 3. Starting with Vol. 2, all of his albums have debuted at No. 1.

So how do their best albums stack up against each other? There's no public consensus one way or the other, so this is completely a judgment call. That said, we're pitting The Black Album vs. Marshall Mathers, and we're giving the edge to Jay.

Also worth nothing: Both have seen their skills decline as they've aged but, remarkably, this has had not much impact on their commercial relevancy: Eminem's Recovery has had even more success than Relapse, and Jay's “Empire State of Mind” — off the uneven Blueprint 3 — is the biggest single of his career.
Edge: For not front-loading his best albums early on, Jay takes it.

Groundbreaking Achievements
Greatness is bestowed upon those who go where no one has ever gone before, and these two certainly have. Eminem bested the stigma of the white rapper in the mainstream, and eventually turned it into a positive: His unimpeachable ability to sell records has at least a little to do with his built-in crossover appeal. But while the white rapper is certainly more populous post-Em, the stigma is not anywhere near gone. Meanwhile, Jay has perfected the template for the multiplatform hip-hop entrepreneur and is the most successful executor of the template, when factoring in finances along with critical acclaim. Yes, Russell Simmons and Diddy preceded him as hip-hop entrepreneurs, but Simmons doesn't rap and Diddy barely does, meaning Jay will always eclipse them in the fans' eye no matter how much money they make. (Put it this way: Very few seventh graders in the country are going to be dreaming about being Russell Simmons or Diddy right now.) His impact is everywhere.
Edge: Jay-Z

Official tally: 10–5–2 in Jay-Z's favor. What this speaks to is Jay's overall stature, indicated nicely by the rapper Lupe Fiasco. After being quoted saying, "I don't want to be Jay-Z and be worth $400 million" earlier this year, Lupe explained: "[My comments were] just an example using him of how people rate success. There's an idea of the status quo that every rapper wants to be Jay-Z. Nah. Every rapper does not want to be Jay-Z.” True. But the standard is the standard, and regardless of how they feel about it, eons of industrious rappers will be held up to Jay-Z's standard. And that, more than anything else, makes Jay-Z the greatest rapper alive. Congrats, sir.

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images, Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images