The Number Ones

November 9, 2002

The Number Ones: Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”

Stayed at #1:

12 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

“Lose Yourself,” Eminem’s first #1 hit, sounds a little different when you’re staring at an abandoned skyscraper. The only time I’ve ever been to Detroit, Eminem’s hometown, was in 2010, when Em and Jay-Z played the first in a series of shows at Comerica Park and Yankee Stadium. I’d driven four or five hours from Chicago, and I would drive back later that night, so I didn’t exactly spend a lot of time soaking in the environment. But in Detroit, the environment is so apocalyptic, so blasted-out, that you can’t help but notice. I’m from Baltimore; it takes a lot to impress me on the urban-decay front. Detroit impressed me.

Before the show, friends from Detroit had told me about what it’s like there — about the idea that some of the city’s tallest buildings were simply empty husks. I couldn’t get that idea out of my head. During the show, my eyes kept drifting over to one dark edifice that hung over the stadium. When I got back to Chicago, I looked that building up online. Sure enough, it had been unoccupied for years.

That whole fucked-up tableau is central to Eminem’s narrative and just as central to the origin-story myth that Eminem presented to the world in the movie 8 Mile. 8 Mile is supposed to be fiction, but its hero, Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr., is a barely-disguised version of Eminem himself. The film depicts B-Rabbit as a flat-broke desperate nobody who clings to rap music because it’s the only way he can see to dig his family out of poverty and dysfunction. The actual thrill of artistry is somewhere in there, but it’s secondary. To build himself a career, Rabbit willingly subjects himself to the humiliations of Detroit’s battle circuit, a scene that’s hostile to scrawny white guys who can’t stop barfing and losing their nerves in actual battle scenarios. Rabbit will only be able to survive this crucible through sheer jaw-clenched determination — a determination that he finally shows at the climax.

Ultimately, 8 Mile is a plucky-underdog story, a rap equivalent to Rocky or Flashdance. Like Rocky and Flashdance, 8 Mile needed a stirring, montage-ready theme song to make that struggle-to-redemption story really sing. That’s exactly what Eminem gave it. On “Lose Yourself,” Em toggles back and forth between rapping about B-Rabbit, his 8 Mile character, and rapping about himself, to the point where it’s not always clear which is which. He gives both stories a certain majesty by speaking the sonic language of stadium-rock — the same churning, pounding, anthemic qualities that animated past sports-movie hits like Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.”

At that Detroit stadium, I got to see Eminem really put on a show. He brought out big stars for surprise-guest appearances: Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Drake. He shared his stage with local heroes like Trick Trick and his D12 buddies. He rapped in front of a full band and a DJ, with a stage set made up to look like a desiccated street corner or a moldering auto plant. Eminem ended the night with “Lose Yourself” — his biggest hit, his obvious show-closer, the one song that could’ve credibly closed out a night of stadium spectacle. It sounded natural. “Lose Yourself” always belonged in stadiums, and it especially always belonged in a stadium that exists in the literal shadows of a blighted, torn-apart cityscape.

By the time he landed his first #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, Eminem was already one of the most famous men in America. 8 Mile tells a story of its Eminem character trying to fight for acceptance as a white guy in an overwhelmingly Black scene, and I have zero doubt that Eminem himself faced many of those same obstacles — first as a kid in Detroit, then as a struggling rapper. But the fact of Eminem’s whiteness also made him a commercial colossus as soon as he was presented to a mass audience, which Eminem himself has acknowledged multiple times through song.

Eminem was a perfect storm — a good-looking, gleefully transgressive, foul-mouthed white rapper with a compelling backstory and legitimate skills so obvious that no gatekeeper could write him off. A conference room full of record-label execs couldn’t have invented an Eminem figure in a hundred years, but he was exactly what the record business needed in the early ’00s. In that early Napster era, as music-business structures crumbled before our very eyes, Eminem seemed to be keeping the whole machine running almost singlehandedly.

The compelling backstory: Marshall Bruce Mathers III was born into a white working-class family in St. Louis. (Eminem was born when Michael Jackson’s “Ben” was sitting at #1. Just last week, Em turned 50.) Eminem’s parents had been struggling musicians. His upbringing was chaotic. Em’s father left when he was young, and Em spent his childhood bouncing back and forth between Detroit and Missouri, usually in squalid circumstances. While living in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit, the young Eminem was a scrawny-looking white boy, broke and always ornery because he was always sick of brawny bullies picking on him. Once, Em was beaten up so badly that his mother tried to sue the school district. (A judge threw the lawsuit out.)

School didn’t work out so well for Eminem; he repeated ninth grade three times before dropping out and working a series of go-nowhere jobs. But Em poured all of his ideas and energy into rap music. Eminem learned about rap from his uncle Ronnie, who died by suicide when Em was young. Em threw himself into rap with all the bookish fervor of a true dork. He attached himself to his high-school friend Proof, just as Proof was quickly gaining a rep as a familiar face on the Detroit rap scene. Eminem competed in freestyle battles like the ones in 8 Mile, and the audience wasn’t always receptive. Some nights, he was chewed up and spit out and booed offstage.

A teenage Eminem recorded his first demo tape in 1988, and he eventually formed a group called the Dirty Dozen with Proof and a bunch of other Detroit rappers. Mark and Jeff Bass, two local producers who’d worked with George Clinton, signed Eminem to their tiny Web Entertainment label after Mark Bass heard Em freestyling on a local radio station. Eminem released his debut album Infinite on Web Entertainment in 1996. Even by the standards of regional underground rap music, Infinite was a dismal commercial failure.

The Eminem of Infinite knew how to rap, but his layered, labored, chirpy Nas impression wasn’t moving any needles. At that point, Eminem was desperate. For years, he’d been dating Kim Scott, a girl who’d moved into his mother’s house as a runaway when both she and Eminem were teenagers. Eminem and Kim’s daughter Hailie was born just before Infinite came out. At the time, Eminem was washing dishes for minimum wage. Then he lost that job and attempted suicide. Em poured his frustrations into a violent and demented new cartoon-character persona that he called Slim Shady. Em introduced that character on 1997’s horrorcore-flavored Slim Shady EP, and he finally started to build some momentum.

On the strength of The Slim Shady EP, Eminem was featured in The Source‘s kingmaking Unsigned Hype column in 1998. The EP also got him an invitation to compete in a Los Angeles battle called the Rap Olympics in 1997. Eminem finished the Olympics in second place, losing the prize — $500 and a Rolex — to a rapper named Otherwize. An Interscope intern was at the battle, and he took The Slim Shady EP to label boss Jimmy Iovine, who passed it along to Dr. Dre. Dre immediately signed Eminem to his Aftermath label. Eminem released his Slim Shady LP — mostly a re-recorded version of The Slim Shady EP, with a few extra Dre collabs thrown in — early in 1999. This was the moment that Eminem’s whiteness ceased to be a liability. His skin — it was starting to work to his benefit now.

The Slim Shady LP was an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, a thing that couldn’t have been predicted. In 1999, the days of Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark were long over. The Beastie Boys, the original white-rap crossover poster children, were still thriving, and they were still sometimes making rap records, but they were exclusively playing to an alt-rock audience. The idea of a credible white rapper seemed ridiculous. But Eminem was sharp and vicious and funny, and he talked about working-class desperation in a way that was recognizable for just about anyone. In college, I wrote entire term papers about the way that Eminem subverted notions of rap realness by dialing his bloodthirsty violence up to surreal levels. The whole act worked. Suburban white kids had been buying rap records for years, and now Dr. Dre, the man who’d discovered how to sell street-rap in blockbuster numbers, was introducing these kids to a white guy who could rap as well as just about anyone. It clicked.

Eminem’s Dre-produced single “My Name Is” peaked at #36, but that number really only hinted at Eminem’s pop appeal. Em didn’t make many attempts to integrate rock into his rap, but he still went into rotation on alt-rock stations that never played rap, simply because he was a white guy. He spent a summer on the Warped Tour. On Total Request Live, he joined the ranks of Korn and Limp Bizkit — angry masculine counter-programming to the prevailing teen-pop wave. (Em also made cameos in Korn and Bizkit videos.) The Slim Shady LP eventually went triple platinum, and Eminem played a key supporting role in Dr. Dre’s big comeback album 2001, ghostwriting for Dre and rapping on songs like the #25 hit “Forgot About Dre.”

Eminem’s hype was so loud that his sophomore album, 2000’s Marshall Mathers LP, was a genuine cultural event that sold nearly two million copies in its first week. Lead single “The Real Slim Shady” peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) Em’s success became a cause for moral panic, with plenty of public figures complaining about the record’s real and jarring misogyny and homophobia — qualities that had already been there in The Slim Shady LP and that Eminem, in true troll fashion, had cranked up when he saw that they drew a response. The controversy just made the music more successful, and The Marshall Mathers LP went platinum 11 times over.

Somewhere in there, somebody had the bright idea to make an Eminem movie — a fictionalized biopic in the Purple Rain mode. Future The Fighter and Joker screenwriter Scott Silver, who’d just directed the flop movie version of The Mod Squad, cranked out a script, and LA Confidential auteur Curtis Hanson signed on to direct. Watching 8 Mile today, it’s striking how dour and anti-glamor it is. The movie takes place in the mid-’90s, and it never presents the noxious provocateur version of Eminem. Instead, Em’s B-Rabbit is a struggling everyman who only barely functions in an indifferent world. He also sticks up for fellow downtrodden folks, going after Xzibit in a lunch-break cipher for, uh, being too homophobic. (Xzibit’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “What U See Is What U Get,” peaked at #50.)

In classic Flashdance fashion, 8 Mile fills its burnt-out cityscape with glamorous faces: Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer. But the film’s slate-grey cinematography and real locations make its Detroit feel like an actual fucked-up, oppressive environment. In the center of all of this, Eminem himself proves to be a compelling leading man, as long as he’s playing some version of himself. When Em overcomes his nerves and shuts down his tormenters in battle, you feel it. The final twist: The movie’s villain, the future Captain America Anthony Mackie, is a Black guy who grew up privileged — who never had to deal with B-Rabbit’s poor-white-trash struggles. It’s that Hoosiers thing — the plucky white underdog in the Black-dominated game. Maybe future generations will look at 8 Mile like it was Birth Of A Nation. In the moment, though, every audience embraced 8 Mile, just as every audience had embraced Eminem himself.

While filming 8 Mile, Eminem kept a trailer studio where he spent all his off-camera time working on the music for the movie. Eminem wasn’t a trained musician, but he’d been producing himself since Infinite. On the 8 Mile soundtrack, Em worked with Jeff Bass, one of the producers who’d signed him in the first place, and with Luis Resto, a session keyboardist from suburban Detroit. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Resto describes Eminem’s production process: “He never studied music, and the way he communicated his ideas is by humming to you. So that’s what I do — I hear them, I play them, and if one needs a bit of refinement, I do it. He either approves or disapproves. I gave my input, but that structure that you hear on ‘Lose Yourself’ is really Marshall speaking. It’s surprising how he can take three or four counter-thoughts and make them all work. He spits them out of his head one at a time, and it’s the same with his raps.”

Eminem was always a deliberate, painstaking rapper — not the type to lay everything out in a single freeform take, but the type to obsessively scribble in a notebook until he gets everything the way that he wants it. Eminem wrote “Lose Yourself” because Curtis Hanson wanted a song from the B-Rabbit character’s perspective. Em spent months on the song, nailing its combination of go-for-it motivational-speaker intensity and granular specificity. An early demo of “Lose Yourself,” which Em released years later, had the central heart-pounding guitar riff, but the lyrics were entirely different.

Eminem must’ve been working on 8 Mile at the same time as he prepped The Eminem Show, his third album. The Eminem Show show came out in May 2002, six months before 8 Mile. Two of its singles, the happily nasty pseudo-disco bounce “Without Me” and the chest-thumping confessional “Cleaning Out My Closet,” went top-10. (“Without Me” peaked at #2. “Cleaning Out My Closet” peaked at #4. They’re both 9s.) The Eminem Show was the year’s best-selling album, and it eventually outsold even The Marshall Mathers LP, going platinum 12 times over. The deep cut “Till I Collapse” — a song that’s gone platinum in the streaming era even though Eminem never released it as a single — probably served as a blueprint for “Lose Yourself,” right down to the dramatic opening narration and the brittle, stomping beat.

“Lose Yourself” has none of the devilish playfulness of Eminem’s early records. Instead, it’s majestic in its urgency. As the song opens, Eminem describes B-Rabbit’s emotional turbulence in vivid, concrete detail, famously focusing in on the vomit on his sweater already — mom’s spaghetti. Em sounds panicked, feverish, but he also flexes the virtuosity that was always obvious in his music. Em turns his voice into a percussion instrument, letting the beat dictate which words he emphasizes: “Snap back to reality/Ope, there goes gravity/Ope, there goes Rabbit/ He choked, he’s so mad.”

As the song goes on, Eminem blurs the focus. Suddenly, he’s not talking about Rabbit anymore. There’s no movie, no Mekhi Pfifer. Instead, he’s talking about himself. He’s earned levels of success that B-Rabbit could never imagine, but he’s still stressed out, worried about all time away from his daughter and his own inevitable fall-off moment. Eminem was always comfortable toggling back and forth between fiction and reality, dramatizing his own depression and his feelings of victimization. “Lose Yourself” is masterful craft, masterful writing. It probably affected Eminem’s career in unproductive ways. Somehow, Eminem lost all ability to be funny after “Lose Yourself,” and whenever he tried, it was excruciating. It’s like the seriousness of that record metastasized within him, and a whole lot of bad music followed. But the rapping on “Lose Yourself” itself remains undeniable.

The music is pretty great, too. That crunching stomp gives Eminem heft and context. It sounds like B-Rabbit’s heartbeat when he’s throwing up in the bathroom, getting ready to fail in front of everyone. Luis Resto’s piano adds contemplative grace notes. “Lose Yourself” works as movie-score music, and it keeps reappearing on 8 Mile. At one point, we even see B-Rabbit sitting down and starting to write the song. But we don’t hear “Lose Yourself” in full until the end credits, when Em wins the final battle and then goes off to finish his overnight factory shift — one small-stakes triumph for a guy who still has the odds stacked up against him.

8 Mile was a solid hit at the domestic box office. It took in about $117 million — a little more than Road To Perdition, a little less than The Sum Of All Fears. But more than that, the movie did the important work of communicating Eminem’s story to older audiences who’d been repelled by his nastier lyrics. It made Eminem respectable. The 8 Mile soundtrack album — comprised almost entirely of songs that never played in the movie — went quadruple platinum. Since the movie took place in the mid-’90s, most of the actual soundtrack was classics: Biggie, 2Pac, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang. For the album, though, Eminem showcased himself, his friends, and a handpicked roster of the rap greats who he respected: Jay-Z, Nas, Rakim, Gang Starr. Em also used the soundtrack to launch a couple of careers. Second single “Rap Name” didn’t quite make a household name out of Em’s friend Obie Trice (real name no gimmicks). But third single “Wanksta” effectively launched 50 Cent, who Em had just signed to his Shady label. “Wanksta” peaked at #13, and we’ll see 50 in this column soon enough.

But “Lose Yourself” was the song. When “Lose Yourself” arrived, it seemed like it had always existed. It became the definitive Eminem song, the single distillation of this guy’s whole story. The song came out a decade before the kids in my son’s fifth-grade class were born, but all of those kids know every word of it. The song has gone platinum 13 times. It also earned levels of institutional recognition that Eminem had never sniffed. In 2003, “Lose Yourself” defeated U2 and Paul Simon, artists who have been in this column, to win the Oscar for Best Original Song — the first time that award had gone to anything rap-related. Eminem skipped the ceremony, either because he didn’t want to perform a clean version of “Lose Yourself” or because he just didn’t think he’d win. Instead, a very excited Luis Resto accepted the award from Barbra Streisand, an artist who’d been in this column a bunch of times. Babs seemed happy about it.

After 8 Mile, Eminem remained a presence on the pop charts. His group D12 made it to #6 with their 2004 single “My Band.” (It’s an 8.) Later that year, Eminem, deep in the throes of prescription-drug addiction, released the distracted and graceless album Encore, and lead single “Just Lose It” peaked at #6. (It’s a 4.) Eminem cut short his Encore tour to check into rehab. In the years that followed, Em released occasional singles and collaborations, and he made the top 10 a few more times. But Eminem didn’t release another album for nearly five years. When he reemerged, it was an event. We’ll see Eminem in this column again.

In the meantime, “Lose Yourself” has taken on a life that’s almost independent of Eminem himself. It pops back up again in the funniest places. The song has soundtracked a Chrysler Super Bowl spot and a Joe Biden campaign ad. At the 2020 Oscars, 18 years after Eminem skipped his own award acceptance, Em popped up to randomly perform “Lose Yourself” for no real reason. (The reaction shots of an unimpressed Martin Scorsese were fun.) This past year, “Lose Yourself” was one of the focal points of the Super Bowl Halftime Show. The song made sense there. It always made sense in stadiums. It just makes more sense when there’s an abandoned skyscraper looming over the stadium.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s laziness-themed 2004 “Lose Yourself” parody “Couch Potato”:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lupe Fiasco rapping over the “Lose Yourself” instrumental on his 2003 mixtape track “Lu Yourself”:

(Lupe Fiasco’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “The Show Goes On,” peaked at #9. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: A very young Taylor Swift had a habit of covering “Lose Yourself” at her live shows; it was both awfully cute and awfully awkward. She doesn’t do that anymore. Here’s Taylor doing “Lose Yourself” in 2007:

(Taylor Swift will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Eminem’s buddy 50 Cent rapping over a “Lose Yourself” sample on his 2007 track “My Gun Go Off”:

(50 Cent will soon appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ryan Reynolds quoting “Lose Yourself” in the 2019 Michael Bay film 6 Underground:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Missy Elliott’s joyously horny, gibberish-laced cartoon masterpiece “Work It” peaked at #2 behind “Lose Yourself.” Why you act dumb like brrrr, duh? You know it’s a 10.

THE 10S: Sean Paul’s “Gimme The Light,” a hypnotic dancehall anthem that emanates mysterious energy like a 2001 monolith, peaked at #7 behind “Lose Yourself.” It moves like a spiderman, and it’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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