Nothing warms the hearts of showbiz types more than a comeback—except maybe a comeback that announces itself as one. Think of The Wrestler: people saw Mickey Rourke’s performance as a version of the actor himself, pushing against heavy odds to recapture his former glory—which translated to a Golden Globe for Best Actor, an Academy Award nomination for same, and a bump onto the Hollywood A-list Rourke had fallen off of two decades earlier (or possibly was never on in the first place).
The music business loves a comeback story even more than Hollywood, and Sunday night, chances are good that they’ll prove it by sealing Eminem’s unexpected triumph after years of indifferent or plain lousy work. The Detroit rapper’s Recovery was the bestselling album of 2010, and it’s the frontrunner for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards this Sunday. In addition, his collaboration with Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie,” is up for both Song and Record of the Year. (The former is a songwriter’s award, while the latter goes to artist and producer.) Despite strong competition across the board—Lady Antebellum are also up for all three awards, thanks to their ubiquitous country-crossover smash Need You Now, and Lady Gaga, Cee-Lo Green, Katy Perry, and Jay-Z & Alicia Keys also have strong shots in their respective categories—Eminem stands a good chance of becoming only the ninth artist since their 1959 inception to win all of the Grammys’ Big 3 awards. (To see who else has done it, click on this slideshow.)
In a sense, the Grammys are the final step of Eminem’s public rehabilitation—not to mention the chemical kind. After three albums that made him into a megastar (1999’s The Slim Shady LP, 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and 2002’s The Eminem Show), the rapper began sliding hard. His life took on the aspects of a sideshow—public feuds with everybody from his mother to his on-and-off-again wife, Kim (the subject of a brutal murder fantasy on Marshall Mathers) to, um, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog began to sap his musical focus, and his 2004 album, Encore, was a big slide down from its predecessors. The following year, the rapper entered rehab for pill dependency. Subsequent albums were slapdash—something Eminem himself readily admits on Recovery: “Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ehh/Perhaps I ran them accents into the ground/Relax, I ain’t going to do that now.”
The possibility of winning big on Grammy night is doubly ironic considering that 10 years ago, Eminem caught some of his most public fire due to The Marshall Mathers LP’s nomination for Album of the Year. Citing lyrics like, “Hate fags? The answer’s yes,” GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) organized protests outside the Staples Center in L.A. during the 2001 Grammy ceremony. To quell the uproar, the rapper performed the album’s hit “Stan” with Elton John. More recently he’s come out in favor of gay marriage, telling The New York Times Magazine, “I think if two people love each other, then what the hell? I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want.”
That conscious shift to a new role as a responsible adult (it’s impossible to imagine the younger Eminem singing “Everybody, come take my hand,” as he does on the hit “Not Afraid,” and meaning it) is catnip to Grammy voters.
With the exception of Norah Jones, the Grammy sweeps of the past two decades have been comeback narratives. And incidentally, sweeping Grammy’s Big 3 isn’t the same thing as sweeping the Grammys proper. Take Michael Jackson, who won eight awards in 1984—seven for Thriller, one for an E.T. tie-in album—more than any single artist other than Santana, who also won eight in 2000 for Supernatural. Yet Jackson missed the Big 3 when the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” trumped “Beat It” for Song of the Year—which, in all honesty, it deserved.
It’s certainly possible that—as with last year when Kings of Leon won Record of the Year (for “Use Somebody”), Taylor Swift won Album of the Year (for Fearless), and Beyoncé won Song of the Year (for “Single Ladies”)—the Big 3 awards will all go to separate artists. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of Eminem as this year’s Mickey Rourke—even if he only wins one or two of the big prizes (no way is he losing all three), in a sense, the awards’ narrative belongs largely to him.
Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Sign 'O' the Times (Continuum, 2004), part of the 33 1/3 book series, and writes columns for The Stranger, Cowbell, and Flavorwire. He lives in Brooklyn.