Eminem's Boxes of Notes
“the Bruce Lee of loose leaf”
As Eminem describes it, he’s only ever been great at one thing: rhyming. He felt like a failure at nearly everything else and dropped out of school after failing the 9th grade three times. But Eminem put everything he had into his singular talent in order to become “the Bruce Lee of loose leaf.” According to Eminem,
It’s a psychological thing…For anybody…who feels like I’m worthless, I’m not nothing in this world…and then finds something that they’re actually good at…I think that’s what makes somebody go for that so hard.1
We don’t need to excel at everything. Sometimes, all we need is that one thing.
Often, seeing a person’s notes offers us glimpses into a more private part of their personality. One look at Eminem’s scribbles, and I understood the immense passion, perseverance, and obsession that led him to become one of the greatest rappers of all time. It’s not surprising that Eminem loves the movie Rain Man; he recognizes brilliant obsession.
From an early age, Marshall Mathers III, known as Eminem, loved language. He would read the dictionary as an 8th-grader, pulling out words that interested him— not just because of their meaning but because of their sound. He’d build rhymes around them.2
Even as a kid, I always wanted the most words to rhyme. Say I saw a word like “transcendalistic tendencies.” I would write it out on a piece of paper— trans-cend-a-lis-tic ten-den-cies—and underneath I’d line a word up with each syllable: and bend all mystic sentence trees. Even if it didn’t make sense, that’s the kind of drill I would do to practice. To this day, I still want as many words as possible in a sentence to rhyme.3
Eminem claims he has a “rhyming disease.” He explains, “In my head everything rhymes.”4 But he won’t remember his rhymes if he doesn’t write them down. And he’ll use any available surface to record them. Mostly, he scrawls his rhymes in tightly bound lists on loose leaf, yellow legal pads, and hotel notepads.
When Anderson Cooper interviewed Eminem, the rapper brought out a box filled with notes (at around 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the following clip):
So how does Eminem turn these crowded rhyme-sheets into chart-topping hits? Let’s take a closer look at his notes to find out.
Anyone who thinks notes ought to be neat and tidy should look at Eminem’s lyric sheets. He saves rhymes from the page’s chaos by circling those he think he might use, as he does here with lines that appear in “The Real Slim Shady.”
seen a white
Eminem describes several methods for identifying crucial lyrics.
I used to circle lyrics that I thought I might use. Or write them in a different-colored ink. “Y’all act like you never seen a white person before.” I went back and dug that line out for “the Real Slim Shady.” Love might be a battlefield, but rap is a puzzle.5
He also returns to lyrics multiple times on a single page to try out different combinations as he does here with rhymes that show up in “Lose Yourself.”
Towards the bottom of the page, he scrawls central rhymes for his Oscar-winning song, “Lose Yourself.”
vomit on my
but on the surface I look
calm & ready
to drop bomb
but he keeps on 4 getting
what he wrote…
Those who know this song well might note a section of the lyrics are missing—“vomit on my sweater already / mom’s spaghetti” — but these lines appear on the top left of the page:
Eminem’s notes also show how he groups together rhymes—especially the multi-syllabic rhymes that attracted him to rap in the first place:
Clock is tickin'
Plots just thicken
Here’s a close-up of these rhymes from the bottom left corner of the image above.
And here is the song’s official music video. It includes a short clip from 8 Mile that shows us Eminem’s character on the bus with his lyric sheets.
Eminem thinks of rap as a puzzle; all the rhymes he’s amassed in his notes are the pieces. He just has to fit them together.
You might wonder how Eminem knows where to look for these lines, but he has a talent for remembering where words are placed on a page. This is why he prefers pen and paper to computers. In fact, he has quite a visual imagination—more on this in the postscript.
Notes on Eminem’s Notes
Messy Notes: don’t worry about being neat. Sometimes the best ideas come out of seemingly chaotic pages.
Use tools that work for you: as you spend more time taking notes, you’ll learn more about how your mind works. And that will teach you what kinds of notes work for you. If digital notes work best for your mind, then go for it! If, like Eminem, you respond to seeing everything laid out on a single page, then pick up your pen!
Stack your ammo: Eminem refers to collecting rhymes as “stacking ammo”—these are the basic elements of his craft. My version of “stacking ammo” looks different: I collect quotes from my reading. Every craft has basic components. It’s worth spending some time thinking about your own “ammo” and how you’re collecting it.
Noted is fueled by you. Your ❤️’s and comments inspire me. As always, I would love to know your thoughts.
Thanks to Deane Barker and Zac Guevera for drawing my attention to Eminem’s notes!
Paid Subscribers, look out for more on Eminem’s notes later this week.
Bozza, Not Afraid, p. 41.