How Did Eminem’s ‘Houdini’ Already Become His Best-Charting Single in a Decade?

While Eminem has never experienced a major decline in popularity in the 25 years since his “My Name Is” breakthrough at the turn of the century, his new single “Houdini” is reminding people just how big he remains after a quarter century.

The new single, Em’s first unaccompanied solo release since 2020 and the expected lead single off his upcoming The Death of Slim Shady LP, sees the rapper reviving his “Without Me”-era personality, down to the “Guess who’s back, back again” intro and the superhero getup in its music video. “Houdini” has also now matched the chart peak of that 2002 classic, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week (dated June 15).

How did “Houdini” score such a big bow? And will Eminem be able to keep up the momentum from here? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. “Houdini” debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, breezing through a loaded top 10 giving Morgan Wallen and Post Malone’s “I Had Some Help” all it could handle for No. 1. On a scale from 1-10, how surprised are you that Eminem is still able to manage this kind of bow in 2024?

Katie Atkinson: 4. We can’t be that surprised when “Godzilla” with Juice WRLD debuted in the top 10 only in 2020. And the fact that Em is recalling his most popular early days in all the marketing for his new music – from the cheeky Unsolved Mysteries promo to the title of the album itself – means generations of fans who have been along for at least part of his 25-year career feel invested in giving it a curiosity listen (or curiosity watch, in the case of the throwback music video) at minimum. Really, Eminem never went anywhere.

Anna Chan: 1: Not surprised whatsoever – I’m only surprised that he didn’t debut at No. 1. (Marshall was robbed!!!) Of course Em was going to have a massive debut upon his return. Not only is he the Rap God, though he may have laid low in terms of music in the last few years, he’s remained relevant in pop culture, whether it was rooting for his Detroit Lions to make the Super Bowl, partnering with Fortnite, making surprise SNL cameos, to serving up Mom’s Spaghetti and other opportunities. Plus, both the song and music video reflect the classic Em days, so “Houdini” is a welcome return for many a longtime fan. 

Kyle Denis: Probably around a 5? Eminem’s always been one for lofty debuts, and there was clear anticipation for “Houdini” thanks to its pre-release campaign. When you couple that with a questionable bar about one of culture’s hottest current female rappers, a No. 2 isn’t terribly surprising. 

Angel Diaz: My number is 8 and my mind is officially blown. I can’t believe that record performed that well. All I saw were jokes about how washed up he is on my Twitter timeline. Color me impressed. 

Andrew Unterberger: I’d say a 7. Yes, “Godzilla” had a lofty debut, but that was nearly a half-decade ago at this point, and was heavily boosted by its posthumous Juice WRLD hook. I thought this bow would be closer to “Walk on Water” (No. 14) territory for Eminem. I was wrong!

2. Eminem explicitly harkens back to his “Without Me” era both in the “Houdini” song and the video. Does the return-to-classic-form still feel fresh to you, or is it starting to sour?

Katie Atkinson: This feels like a good time to admit that I’m from Michigan. I have the softest soft spot for my fellow Michiganian Eminem and always have, which probably makes me quicker to defend or praise him, even when I should know better. Which is to say, I kind of love all this nostalgia. I wouldn’t say it “feels fresh,” but I think a lot of the things that people are calling out about “Houdini,” from the offensive lyrics to the cheesy sample, are Slim Shady hallmarks that are designed to press these exact buttons. This album is called The Death of Slim Shady, right? So Em is in the process of killing off this purposely annoying alter ego. Shouldn’t we wait to hear the whole thing before casting judgment on the intro single that sounds exactly like at least three other Eminem lead singles over the decades? (Now if the whole album sounds like this, I’ll take back everything I just wrote.)

Anna Chan: Fresh smesh. Nostalgia works for a reason, but in this case in particular, the goofy Em is back (only to be killed in the music to come?) to entertain, and I’m here for it. Call me old, IDGAF. Give me more RapBoy! 

Kyle Denis: It’s been sour. He’s referencing The Eminem Show (2002) on a song that’s the lead single for an album whose title references The Slim Shady LP (1999) which will arrive just over a decade after The Marshall Mathers LP2 (2013) which, in turn, references his own Marshall Mathers LP (2000). It’s tired. You can’t keep heralding a return-to-classic-form when the new material isn’t up to par. The constant self-references feel more like a crutch than a source of genuine inspiration. 

Angel Diaz: I hated the song but warmed up to it after watching the video. I wouldn’t say it was “fresh” but there was something nostalgic about the video, I guess. I will probably never listen to it again after this exercise, though. That’s how Em’s silly stuff has been for me over the course of his career. “My Name Is” is the only one of those I find myself going back to. 

Andrew Unterberger: About as fresh as mom’s spaghetti after being left on the radiator for a week.

3. Em also gets a good deal of help on “Houdini” via a melody lift and chorus interpolation from a song that got all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 42 years ago: Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.” Is the lift more tired or inspired to you? 

Katie Atkinson: Somewhere in between. “Abracadabra” is obviously a fitting sample, given the magical theme of “Houdini,” and it’s always been a catchy (albeit sorta grating) song. I think it very much works within the Slim Shady theme, because it has a sort of carnival-music sound that matches previous Em productions. What I would call tired is the atrocious rhyme scheme in the chorus. “Abracadabra” rhyming with “I’m ’bout to reach in my bag, bruh” and “Just like that and I’m back, bruh”? This is where my Michigan loyalty ends.

Anna Chan: My two cents: It’s … free. I mean, fine! The beat lends itself easily to a “Without Me” mashup and the magic theme, so no complaints here! 

Kyle Denis: I’d say it’s inspired. Thanks to the sample, “Houdini” doesn’t really sound like anything else in mainstream rap right now, for better or for worse. Regardless, the way he and producer Luis Resto flipped the sample makes it sound more cartoonish than they probably intended. 

Angel Diaz: I don’t like Carny Beat Eminem at all and didn’t realize the chorus and the beat are essentially the same. However, for the sake of the rap community I’m going to say it’s more wired than tired and inspired. The song is fun when matched with the video. 

Andrew Unterberger: The melody lift is inspired, but the “Abra, abracadabra/ I’m ’bout to reach in my bag, bruh” chorus hook is downright comatose.

4. What do you think is the biggest reason Eminem is still able to command this much interest and attention 25 years into his career — and do you see this lasting, or mostly being a one-week thing where interest in the song and his return will fade quickly afterwards?

Katie Atkinson: He’s a legend who has consistently stayed present in pop culture since his mainstream debut in 1999. He doesn’t feel dated because he just had a Hot 100 top five hit four years ago. No one is forcing him to tap into his early days; he seems to have an artistic reason/motivation for revisiting the alter ego that made him famous. This all adds up to a fun, throwback-y moment that anyone who has ever been invested in Eminem before would enjoy. I think the album rollout will be on our radar all summer, but as for “Houdini” itself? I could see it staying the upper half of the Hot 100 for at least month.

Anna Chan: Talent can withstand the ages, and Em is wildly talented – just ask DreDrake and Wiz Khalifa. (Don’t believe them? Check out Billboard’s very own 50 Greatest Rappers of All Time, in which Em lands in the top five.) But what’s more, he knows how to court controversy (and it’d be so empty without him). While he’s toned down significantly since the early Slim Shady days, he still knows how to push just the right buttons to get fandoms in an uproar (that “Houdini” lyric about Megan’s feat, anyone?) while also maintaining a sense of humor (see: the new single’s music video). So yes, Shady’s back with a No. 2 debut, and he ain’t going anywhere, obituary or no.

Kyle Denis: Obviously, Eminem is a very gifted rapper who has built an unwavering fan base over the past quarter century. He’s one of those artists that will always be able to garner considerable interest in new material because his track record (at least pre-2013) is so strong. Nonetheless, there’s also something to be said for the reach Eminem has in comparison to Black rappers. His whiteness allows him to reach and maintain a broader audience, some of whom don’t even really engage with hip-hop outside of Eminem and his music. 

Angel Diaz: I think some of the controversial lines got people talking again and this song felt fresher than some of his latest lyrical miracle efforts. He’s also a legend and every white person’s favorite rapper. The latter part always helps when it comes to the charts. 

Andrew Unterberger: Eminem never really fit that seamlessly into contemporary pop or hip-hop, so the fact that he sounds even more out of step with trends now doesn’t really hurt him much with his still-devoted fanbase. I don’t think the song is gonna hang in the top 10 for more than another week or two, but if radio picks up on it — he is still a big name, and the song is catchy — I doubt it’ll disappear from the chart altogether that quickly either.

5. Make one request of Eminem for his upcoming The Death of Slim Shady album. (Anything you think he should do or hope he doesn’t do on or with the album.)

Katie Atkinson: Slim Shady worked best when balanced with Em’s more thoughtful songs, like “Stan” or “Mockingbird.” If Slim is getting killed off, then I’m hoping for the jokey songs like “Houdini” to be paired with something a little deeper. …Or at least give me a new jam for my workout playlist – “Lose Yourself” and “Not Afraid” are still in heavy rotation, but I can always use more gritty inspiration.

Anna Chan: There’s so much I’ve loved from his previous albums – witty word play, lyricism and humor, for starters! – that I’m sure will be present on TDOSS. So let’s hope for yet another amazing collab with a powerhouse female vocalist to bring some extra oomph, someone new, along the lines of a Rihanna (“The Monster”), Dido (“Stan”) or Beyonce (“Walk on Water”). 

Kyle Denis: No more weird lines about “transgender cats.” Please. I’m begging. 

Angel Diaz: Please let this be the only carnival beat. Wishful thinking, I know, but one can only dream. He was so good on Dre’s 2001 and 50’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. I’m not sure why he doesn’t rap on harder beats more often. 

Andrew Unterberger: If he’s calling this The Death of Slim Shady, then I just hope he gets all these callbacks, reheated beats and half-hearted attempts at controversy out of his system and tries something new and different next time around.

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