CHICAGO — 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.
The 53rd annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles is shaping up as a coronation for one of the industry’s erstwhile bad boys. The onetime master of outrage 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 Eminem to dominate the old-fashioned way: by creating a ubiquitous commercial-radio hit that transcended formats.
In that respect, he defines an old-school music industry pro, the type of star who benefits from the distribution and marketing muscle of a major multinational corporation (Eminem’s Interscope label is a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group, which claims 31 percent of the U.S. market). He is a reminder of how the industry worked in the pre-digital 20th century, a machine that rivaled Hollywood in its ability to maximize profit for a select few superstars.
Unfortunately, all this has very little to do with Eminem as a still-vital creative force. 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.
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. Such acceptance all too often coincides with comfort or compromise, attributes that have come to define “artistic excellence” at the Grammys.
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.” At the time, members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the industry professionals who vote on the Grammys) said Eminem’s homophobic and misogynistic language cost him big time, so they fell back on an older band that hadn’t been given its due while in its prime. It was a stance that smacked of hypocrisy (cut to smoke-filled room at recording academy): “We’ll put up with that crass little punk as long as he’s selling records. We’ll even invite him to our big year-end awards ceremony and let him mingle with the tuxedos. But when it comes time to hand out the big prizes, we’ll give them to someone we should’ve paid attention to 20 years ago before we let that potty mouth strut around like he owns the place.”
Afterward, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker joked about finally winning a Grammy after ‘70s releases such as “Pretzel Logic” and “Aja” were overlooked. “I never saw a room of more disappointed people in my life,” Fagen cracked of walking into the post-Grammy media conference.
Now it appears to be Eminem’s turn to join the parade of formidable 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 victory seems assured because 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 recording (“The Fame Monster”) is too skimpy; and the deserving Arcade Fire has never won a Grammy and is likely still too unfamiliar to most of the academy’s voters.
What’s lacking in that group? The kind of long-in-the-tooth career artist that the Grammys usually like to anoint when the pop upstarts who have been nominated aren’t quite cutting it. Remarkably, this year it’s Eminem who is playing the role of elder statesman at age 38, the maverick star who won 11 previous Grammys but never took home the big prize.
An Eminem win would be a fitting year-end capstone for an industry struggling to remain relevant. Even pariahs who hang around long enough selling records become acceptable, especially in an industry that can no longer afford to be choosy about which best-sellers to wrap its withered arms around.