The Number Ones

February 21, 2009

The Number Ones: Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle” (Feat. Dr. Dre & 50 Cent)

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

Since the moment that his career began, Eminem has talked so much shit about pop stars. One of Em’s favorite targets is Britney Spears, so it’s a little eye-opening to consider just how much he has in common with her. Consider: Two photogenic blonde white kids of modest means, both of whom have troubled relationships with their parents, come blasting out of flyover country in 1999, teaming up with visionary producers and conquering TRL. Both of them become cultural phenoms who sell millions upon millions of CDs and who star in hit movies specifically conceived as vehicles for their star personas. Both of them come to represent the dangerous power of pop stars, and both of them cause moral panics simply by existing.

When they’re at their peak, both of these blonde kids score #1 hits, though you’d expect both of them to top the Hot 100 much more often. Both stars exist at the center of perpetual media circuses, and the attention quickly turns toxic. Both stars deal with failed marriages, custody battles, addiction, rehab. Eventually, both stars come out of their personal crises with #1 hits in the late ’00s. Both string together series of late-career chart-toppers when they’re long past their creative primes. Both duet with Rihanna. Eminem and Britney Spears are basically the same person, but at least late-period Britney gave us some pretty good songs. Late-period Eminem gave us “Crack A Bottle,” one of the worst chart-toppers in Billboard history.

Eminem accidentally invented the term stan. The second song on 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP is “Stan,” a gripping and fucked-up psychodrama about a disturbed fan whose Eminem obsession leads him to murder-suicide. It’s a crucial document from a star who’s unsettled by his own overwhelming fame and with the people who get way too invested in his work. “Stan” wasn’t a huge hit in the US; the song only made it to #51 on the Hot 100. But The Marshall Mathers LP sold 58 kajillion copies, and “Stan” entered the cultural lexicon.

The person who really turned stan into a lowercase noun is Nas. A year and a half after The Marshall Mathers LP, Nas used “stan” as shorthand on “Ether,” his enraged and demonic clap-back to the Jay-Z diss track “Takeover”: “You a fan, a fake, a phony, a pussy, a stan.” Within a few years, rap heads were using “stan” conversationally, as a way to describe deluded and overly invested fans. The term eventually crossed over to all corners of pop music, and it lost its derogatory implication.

We’re now in a strange reality where fans proudly adapt the term stan to describe themselves. Over the past 20 years, pop music has lost its cultural centrality, the monoculture has sputtered and died, radio has lost its power, and stans have used the internet to organize. At this point, online stan armies are the main driving driving forces on the Billboard Hot 100. A star who has enough stans can release a bullshit song that leaves no cultural impact and still debuts at #1, thanks to the coordinated efforts of that artists’s stans. Maybe it’s appropriate that Eminem, the guy who came up with “Stan” in the first place, was one of the original beneficiaries of this pop-chart sea change. Too bad the song in question, the one that Eminem’s stans pushed to #1, sucks shit.

“Crack A Bottle” wasn’t the first terrible Eminem song, but it does find wild, psychedelic new ways to be terrible. It’s truly strange that “Crack A Bottle” is only Em’s second chart-topper, especially when you consider that his first was “Lose Yourself,” a totemic work for anyone who was paying the slightest attention to popular music or culture in the early ’00s. “Lose Yourself” was Eminem at his creative and commercial peak. After three vastly successful albums that catalyzed tons of conversation about rap and race and hate and anger, Eminem starred in his own self-mythologizing movie and then sailed to #1 with his own Oscar-winning motivational Rocky theme. After that, things got rocky.

Eminem stayed culturally present by releasing an album with his D12 crew and by shepherding the career of ascendant superstar 50 Cent. But Em’s first real statement after 8 Mile was 2004’s Encore, an album recorded through a fog of pain-pill addiction. The forced hijinks of lead single “Just Lose It” were representative of the problem. Em was trying to live up to the transgressive fun of his older music, and he was failing spectacularly. (“Just Lose It” peaked at #6. It’s a 4.) Encore still sold a ton of copies, but it didn’t do anywhere near as well as Em’s previous albums. Em followed that album with a 2005 greatest-hits collection called Curtain Call, and its bonus tracks gave him a couple more top-10 hits. (The bigger of those singles, the Nate Dogg collab “Shake That,” peaked at #6. It’s a 5.)

In 2005, Eminem cancelled the European leg of his Anger Management tour to go to rehab. Over the next few years, Eminem’s personal life was a disaster. He remarried and then immediately re-divorced his ex-wife, and he continued to struggle with pills. Proof, Em’s best friend and D12 bandmate, was killed in a gunfight at a Detroit pool hall in 2006. Em, despondent, went into seclusion. He didn’t stop recording entirely, but his appearances became less frequent. In 2006, Em rapped a feverishly off-putting guest-verse on Akon’s #2 hit “Smack That.” (That song is a 3.) A year later, Em released the compilation The Re-Up, and he got to #12 with “You Don’t Know,” a posse cut with 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, and his protege Cashis.

Eminem secured his place in pop and rap history with his first three albums, and he no longer had to worry about people taking him seriously. But he was struggling. Those mid-’00s records reveal an artist who’d fallen out of love with the game and who was losing touch with the reasons why people loved him in the first place. Eminem was leaning harder into his technical rap mastery and his nasal honk of a voice, but he’d lost the silly, malevolent glee that animated his early music. When Eminem went quiet for a few years, he didn’t rediscover that quality. If anything, he become even more remote — a prisoner to his own stylistic tics.

In 2008, Eminem started planting the seeds for what would become his comeback album. He locked back in with old mentor Dr. Dre, who produced or co-produced every track on the exhausting and overlong 2009 album Relapse. Relapse was the first album that Eminem ever recorded sober, though he later claimed that the opiates were still in his system when he was putting the record together. It’s a stunningly ugly and punishing piece of work, an endless barrage of overworked punchlines and violent fantasies. But Eminem had been gone for a long time, and there was lots of pent-up demand for his return. That return took the form of “Crack A Bottle.”

I can understand the thinking behind “Crack A Bottle.” Eminem’s two collaborators were going through their own things when they popped up on the track. Dr. Dre hadn’t released an album since his 1999 blockbuster 2001. Dre had gotten together with Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine to found Beats Electronics in 2006, and he’d started selling his Beats By Dre headphones in 2008. As for his music, though, Dre was focused on Detox, the supposed masterpiece that consumed most of his attention for years. Dre kept promising the release of Detox and then pushing it back. The album eventually took on a reputation as rap’s Chinese Democracy, but Chinese Democracy actually came out. Detox never did.

Dre’s golden touch as a producer was fading, too. Dre was still producing hits in the ’00s, but most of those hits were tied to 50 Cent and his G-Unit crew. When 50’s commercial prospects faded, so did Dre’s. 50 had already alienated much of his public before he made the fateful mistake of picking a release-date fight with Kanye West. 50’s Curtis lost the much-hyped sales battle to Kanye’s Graduation. Curtis still sold a lot of first-week copies, but nobody liked it, which compounded 50’s humiliation.

By the time of “Crack A Bottle,” 50 was reduced to beefing with Rick Ross, trying to capitalize on Ross’ past as a prison guard and contrast that with Ross’ larger-than-life drug-kingpin image. 50 had made his name by bullying his rap peers, but something funny happened with the Rick Ross beef. Nobody cared that Ross had made up his backstory. People still liked the music, and 50’s attempts to stretch the feud out came off as desperate flailing.

When Eminem reunited with Dre and 50 on “Crack A Bottle,” he clearly wanted to evoke the not-too-distant days when the three of them absolutely owned the pop charts, when that one XXL cover looked like an announcement of empirical dominance. Even in a diminished form, it still meant something to hear this trio back together. A reunion single felt like an event. But the version of “Crack A Bottle” with all three stars wasn’t the first one that the world heard. Instead, a leaked early version of “Crack A Bottle” popped up on a 2008 mixtape. The only voice on that leak was Eminem himself. He rapped two verses of his own, as well as another that was obviously a guide vocal for the Dr. Dre verse that he’d written. (Em had ghostwritten for Dre plenty of times before. Famously, Dre almost never wrote his own raps. Depending on who you ask, he might not have done all of his own production, either.)

In response to that leak, Eminem rushed out a commercial version of “Crack A Bottle” with the Dr. Dre and 50 Cent verses added on. “Crack A Bottle” appeared on iTunes in February 2009, more than three months before Em released Rehab. Interscope claimed that “Crack A Bottle” wasn’t actually the album’s lead single, and the track never even got a video. Nevertheless, the single sold more than 400,000 copies in its first week — at that time, the most that a legal download had ever sold in seven days. That was enough to push “Crack A Bottle” to #1 without much help from radio — a testament to the power of stans. But “Crack A Bottle” didn’t hang around long. Within a month, it was out of the top 10 entirely.

Here’s the thing about “Crack A Bottle”: It’s fucking abysmal. It’s the worst. It doesn’t even have the purity of the Relapse concept, the haze of serial-killer imagery, working for it. Eminem opens “Crack A Bottle” by playing boxing announcer, crowing about himself and his “record of 17 rapes, 400 assaults, and four murders.” Pretty cool, buddy. But Eminem doesn’t even go into violent overdrive on “Crack A Bottle.” Instead, the song is Em’s excuse to play stupid word games and to tell women how fortunate they are when they’re allowed to fuck him.

Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle” hook is one of the most viscerally unpleasant sounds that will ever appear in this column. Em delivers the whole thing in a neenering playground-bully singsong that makes me almost physically ill. He starts that hook out by addressing some lucky lady: “Crack a bottle! Let your body waddle! Don’t act like a sloppy model! You just hit the lotto!” Pretty soon, Em and his friends are preparing for an orgy: “Where’s the rubbers? Who’s got the rubbers? I noticed that there’s so many of ’em and there’s really not that many of us!” From a certain perspective, this is garden-variety rap hedonism, but Eminem writes it all with a charmless verbosity that really illuminates just how much craft and excitement there is in, say, a throwaway Ja Rule track. A throwaway Ja Rule track is bad, but it’s nowhere near this bad.

Em’s verse is even worse than his hook. It’s so muddled, so syntactically tortured. Em calls himself “Mr. Elephant Tusk,” which I guess is a reference to his ivory skin, and he rhymes it with “fix your musk.” He hands out a couple of invitations that aren’t very enticing: “Kiss my butt, lick fromunda cheese from under my nuts.” He says that when he spits the verse, the shit gets worse than Worcestershire sauce — accurate enough. He rhymes “hence the signal” with “back on you hoes,” which sounds even more awkward than it looks on paper. Em just yammers all his syllables, cluttering them together artlessly and gracelessly, like we’re supposed to be impressed at how many words he can say. In the years ahead, Em would practically turn that jumbled vocab-test shit into a competitive sport, but he almost sleepwalks through it on “Crack A Bottle.” I can’t really complain about Em’s verse being short, lest I get into bad food/small portions complaints, but it’s about as autopilot as he’s ever been.

Dr. Dre isn’t much help. Dre is the sole credited producer on “Crack A Bottle,” though the song also credits writers Mark Batson, Dawaun Parker, Jean Renard, and Trevor Lawrence, Jr. — all of whom should be ashamed. Dre’s beat is built on a sample of “Mais Dans La Lumière,” a French-language chanson that the Israeli singer Mike Brant released in 1970. Brant is a favorite of rap producers, and “Mais Dans La Lumière” was a hit across the French-speaking world. (Brant died by suicide five years after its release.) It’s a cool song, swollen and orchestral, but Dre’s beat doesn’t really capture its sweep.

Dre pairs his Mike Brant sample with the often-sampled breakbeat from the intro to “The Rainmaker,” a track that the 5th Dimension released in 1971. (The 5th Dimension have been in this column a couple of times. “The Rainmaker” didn’t chart because it never came out as a single in the US.) The combination doesn’t really work. Dre’s beat is sterile and ungainly, and it’s got none of the sleek and predatory quality of the tracks that he was producing a few years earlier. This is the time when Dre was trying to make Detox, when he was stuck inside his own head. You can tell.

Dre’s verse on “Crack A Bottle” is deeply forgettable. Eminem, writing for Dre, keeps most of his worst tendencies in check. Dre’s still got that awesomely booming, authoritative rap voice, but he doesn’t really say anything cool. He’s just talking about girls and lowriders and Los Angeles, and Em can’t restrain himself from doing goofy shit like rhyming “Maaco” with “Waco.” The chemistry that Eminem and Dre showed on tracks like “Guilty Conscience” and “Forgot About Dre” is just gone.

We don’t get much of the old Eminem/50 Cent “Patiently Waiting” chemistry, either. 50’s verse is the best thing about “Crack A Bottle,” and his lazy, confident singsong is enough to convince me that he’s the one who should’ve been writing and singing the hook. But this is still 50 Cent on total autopilot, and 50 was out of juice at this point. We’d seen too much of him, and he didn’t sound cool anymore. You can only get away with being on autopilot if people still think you’re cool.

“Crack A Bottle” sounds like ass, and it’s one of the worst examples of event-rap torpor — big stars expecting big reactions just because they all show up on a track together. It can be gross to hear people cruising on past glories, but there’s something much grosser happening on “Crack A Bottle.” The song’s lyrics imply a bleak-ass worldview. Plenty of rap songs talk about women as commodities, and some rappers get away with it through exuberance or creativity or general coolness. “Crack A Bottle” doesn’t have any of those things, and its problems are compounded because Eminem sounds actively annoyed at the drunk and hot girls that he wants to fuck. They should be happy! They shouldn’t be loud! They’ve been granted access to a famous rapper! They just won the lotto! “Crack A Bottle” gives off absolutely no sense of joy, romance, human connection. It’s a song about meaningless sex from someone who doesn’t even sound like he enjoys meaningless sex. It’s so depressing.

Eminem actually did commission a “Crack A Bottle” video, but he, Dre, and 50 didn’t bother to appear in it. Instead, director Syndrome made a clip where a disturbed unhoused lady’s 40-ounce malt liquor bottle opens up into a dilapidated fantastical apartment building. All three rappers get their own themed rooms. Eminem’s apartment is all clichéd horror-movie imagery, while Dre gets standard West Coast rap stuff and 50 gets a garden-variety nightclub where girls make out with each other. That video leaked, but it went unreleased until last year, when Eminem took it out of the vault and threw it up on his YouTube page. He should’ve left the video in the vault. It fucking sucks.

Eminem included “Crack A Bottle” on Relapse, but he buried it near the end of the album when it came out a few months later. Relapse might be Eminem’s worst full-length, but it was still a big deal when it came out. As far as I could tell, its main audience was the kids who were too young to remember when Eminem was good. In their early shock-rap days, the young Odd Future rappers seemed to mention Relapse a lot. The album eventually went triple platinum, and “We Made You,” which Eminem insisted was the actual proper single, peaked at #9. (It’s a 1.)

Later in 2009, Eminem padded out his whole comeback narrative by appearing alongside former Number Ones artists Kanye West and Lil Wayne on “Forever,” the triumphal posse cut from ascendant star Drake. Eminem’s “Forever” verse was dizzily fast and complicated. Within the song, it worked better than anything else that Eminem was doing on his own. (“Forever” peaked at #8. It’s a 6. Drake will appear in this column a whole lot of times.)

Within a year, Eminem was already apologizing for Relapse. On a song that’ll eventually appear in this column, Em rapped, “Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ehhhh.” (I’d say that ehhhh is a generous assessment.) But the album did bring Eminem back to the spotlight, and he went on a hugely successful run. We’ll see much more of Eminem in this column. We will not, however, see any more of Dr. Dre or 50 Cent.

Dre continued to promise the release of Detox, and he even made it to #4 with “I Need A Doctor,” a 2011 track with Eminem and Skylar Grey that was supposed to serve as that album’s big single. (It’s a 3.) In 2015, Dre finally announced that Detox would never come out. Instead, he released Compton, a new album that was tied in with the release of the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton. I liked Compton when it came out, but it didn’t leave much of an impression, and I haven’t listened to it in years. The only Compton track that even made the Hot 100 was “Medicine Man,” which featured Eminem and which peaked at #40. Dre hasn’t been back on the Hot 100 since.

At this point, it’s probably safe to assume that Dr. Dre is retired from making music, or that music will just be an idle hobby if he ever returns. In 2014, Dre and Jimmy Iovine sold Beats to Apple for $3.4 billion, which made Dre unfathomably rich. The Straight Outta Compton movie was a surprise blockbuster, and the group went into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame soon afterwards. Dre’s Aftermath label signed Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak, two artists who will eventually appear in this column. Last year, Dre led an all-star group of collaborators, including Eminem and 50 Cent, in a pretty great Super Bowl Halftime Show. The man’s legacy is safe. I wonder if he even remembers making “Crack A Bottle.”

50 Cent followed Curtis with his 2009 album Before I Self Destruct, which flopped hard. Its biggest single, the Ne-Yo collab “Baby By Me,” peaked at #28. 50 scored his last real hit in 2010, when he rapped on the R&B singer Jeremih’s #4 single “Down On Me.” (It’s a 7.) As lead artist, 50 hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2012. That’s when he got Eminem and Adam Levine to appear on his song “My Life,” which only made it to #27 and which never even appeared on an album.

50’s only album since Before I Self Destruct is 2014’s Animal Ambition, another absolute brick that disappeared without a trace. 50 was doing a lot of acting in those years, and he amassed one of the most busted filmographies I’ve ever seen. Other than Den Of Thieves and a cameo in Popstar: Don’t Stop Never Stopping, I’m not sure 50 has ever even been in a good movie. But 50 changed his story up when he co-created and starred in the crime show Power, a cult-hit Starz series that ran a bunch of seasons and got some spinoffs. Now, 50 is firmly in the nostalgia zone. In 2020, 50 acted as executive producer for the late rapper Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon, and he guested on Pop’s single “The Woo,” which peaked at #11.

Right now, 50 Cent is getting ready celebrate the 20th anniversary of his blockbuster debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ with an arena tour that’s got Busta Rhymes and Jeremih as its openers. Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent are all doing extremely well these days. They’re all rap legends, and they all landed on their feet. Good for them. They deserve to be successful. But they’re still jointly responsible for one of the shittiest hits in history.

GRADE: 1/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Rick Ross dissing 50 Cent over the “Crack A Bottle” beat and going hard on the homophobic slurs:

(Rick Ross’ highest-charting single as lead artist is his 2008 T-Pain collab “The Boss,” which peaked at #17. As a guest, Ross made it to #3 on the 2021 Drake single “Lemon Pepper Freestyle“; it’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2014, Eminem and fellow pop titan Rihanna went out on a short co-headlining stadium tour, and Rihanna performed “Crack A Bottle” with Eminem. Rihanna could almost sell that song. Here’s a fan-made video:

(Plenty more Eminem and Rihanna songs, including a couple that the two of them recorded together, will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Don’t act like a sloppy model; buy it here.

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