The Number Ones

December 21, 2013

The Number Ones: Eminem’s “The Monster” (Feat. Rihanna)

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. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

One of the clearest dictates of show-business logic goes like this: If something worked once, it will work again. That kind of thinking doesn’t always work, and it leads to cultural dead-ends, to multiplexes full of slight variations on decades-old brand names. But it’s a truism for a reason. More often than not, it’s the truth, commercially if not artistically. Familiarity breeds resentment, but it also gives comfort. If you’re a middle-aged white rapper who’s built a titanic, historic career by ruminating on your own mental problems, then you might have some use for that comfort.

Once upon a time, rap careers were short. Run-DMC were on top of the world in 1986, and they couldn’t get arrested in 1990. MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice elevated rap to scary new commercial heights, but they were punchlines when their biggest hits fell off the charts. By the ’90s, the biggest names in rap were trying to lock down roles in sitcoms and B-movies. Rap careers can still burn out quickly enough to spin your head around; just ask Roddy Ricch or DaBaby, a couple of guys who will eventually appear in this column. But once you reach a certain point in the 21st-century rap firmament, you’re indestructible. If you’ve got a strong enough back catalog and the right people looking after your business interests, you’re never going away.

Eminem was always an unlikely candidate for pop stardom — a foulmouthed Scribble Jam battler who was all too eager to display his troubling relationships with the people in his life. But Em arrived at exactly the right moment, with exactly the right presentation and packaging and with the real-deal skills necessary to back up the hype. Within a few years, he became the biggest-selling rapper in history. As Eminem’s sense of style atrophied and his aesthetic diverged from everything else that was happening within rap, he kept selling records. At the age of 41, he reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the fifth and, as of now, final time. That’s a real accomplishment, and Eminem pulled it off by sequelizing himself.

In the fall of 2013, Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP 2, explicitly calling back to the 2000 album that made him a pop-culture juggernaut. The 2013 record had none of the transgressive, zeitgeist-choking immediacy of the one from 13 years earlier, but its release was still an event. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 would’ve been a big deal simply by existing, and three of its singles made the top 10. But for the record’s biggest song, Eminem had to get back together with Rihanna and make another song that sounded a lot like “Love The Way You Lie.” It wasn’t broke, and he didn’t fix it.

At least from where I’m sitting, Eminem’s 2010 album Recovery is a boring, frustrating slog, a turgid manufactured blockbuster trapped between its self-help sermonizing and Eminem’s innate snot-bubble obnoxiousness. But the thing resonated — eight million units moved, two chart-topping singles, biggest album of its year. After its release, Eminem tried to build up the roster at his Shady Records label, putting out a few semi-successful records from similar-minded rhyme-animal types and releasing a Bad Meets Evil album with his old Detroit partner Royce Da 5’9″. So it was a big deal when Eminem announced the impending release of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 in a TV ad that ran during the fateful 2013 VMAs.

Two days after that commercial, Eminem released lead single “Berzerk,” a Rick Rubin production that clearly aimed to bring back the big-beat minimalism of the music that first captured adolescent Eminem’s imagination. Rubin sampled Billy Squier and the Beastie Boys, while Eminem went into his pinched and purposeful yammer mode, talking about bringing real hip-hop back, whatever that means. The song was a statement of intent, but it wasn’t really a hit, debuting at #3 and quickly sliding down the chart afterwards. (It’s a 4.) After the emotional catharsis of his Recovery singles, Eminem simply wasn’t going to make the same impact by going into rappity-rap mode, especially as his rappity-rapping grew increasingly cluttered and labored.

I absolutely fucking hated The Marshall Mathers LP 2. I hated it with a cleansing, purifying, soul-deep fire. I hated it with my entire being, physical and mental and spiritual. It almost felt good to hate it as much as I did, since at least I was feeling something. A sane person could’ve just ignored such an unpleasant record, but I am an online rock critic, so I had to review it on the day of release, fuming about all the things that I could’ve been hearing or seeing or doing instead of listening to Eminem’s attempt to rap in a Yoda voice.

Returning to the album now, I don’t quite feel the same whirlwind of loathing, though I still definitely hate the fucking thing. These days, I’ve got factors tempering that hatred. A rapper who I once loved lost his way completely, complicating and overthinking his own flow and performing a joyless impression of the antic silliness that once came so easily to him. That’s sad! I feel kind of bad for him! Eminem was trying to mature and grow, but he couldn’t shake the virulence of his own misogyny. There’s some dark entertainment in how badly he forces all his own punchlines. All those weaknesses are on display on the #7 hit “Rap God,” a technically dazzling fast-flow exhibition that does very little to justify or complement the sheer virtuosity on display. (It’s a 5. Eminem also reached #16 with the melodramatic “Survival,” which might honestly be the best single from that album.)

Maybe my hatred for The Marshall Mathers LP 2 doesn’t burn quite so bright because the album is no longer anywhere near the zeitgeist. Eminem is still hugely popular today, but we don’t have to worry about this guy dictating the direction of the genre. Like his fellow white rapper Macklemore, another guy who was all over the charts in 2013, Eminem was just finishing up his dominant period. Eminem lasted a lot longer at the center of the world than Macklemore did, but all things are temporary.

In retrospect, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 wasn’t quite as huge as it seemed in the moment. The album still sold four million copies, but that was half as many as Recovery. None of the singles reached #1 until the emergency-glass Rihanna collaboration. “The Monster,” the obvious attempt to create another “Love The Way You Lie,” did not originate with Eminem. Instead, the song started out in a studio session from two producers and two frustrated would-be pop stars.

Bebe Rexha was in her early twenties when she recorded the “Monster” demo, but she already thought of herself as a music-business washout. Rexha, the daughter of Albanian immigrants, grew up on Staten Island, and she was a talented musical-theater type as a kid. She signed a Def Jam deal when she was still a teenager, and when that went nowhere, she spent a couple of years singing for Black Cards, a Pete Wentz-led Fall Out Boy side project that released a couple of mixtapes. Eventually, Rexha left Black Cards, signed to Warner Bros., and started writing for other pop artists.

“The Monster” came from a songwriting session that Rexha did with Frequency and Aalias, two rap producers who haven’t really done anything else that you need to worry about, and Jon Bellion, a Long Island musician who wrote for other people and had his own solo-artist aspirations. Later on, both Rexha and Bellion had some real success on their own. Jon Bellion only has one hit, but that one hit, the truly annoying 2016 track “All Time Low,” went all the way to #16. Bebe Rexha remains a bit a music-business conundrum, a capable but faceless dance-pop singer with lots of hits but no definable persona or evident fanbase.

Shortly after “The Monster” hit, Bebe Rexha started racking up successful singles with random-ass collaborators: David Guetta, G-Eazy, Florida Georgia Line. Rexha’s highest-charting single, the 2017 Florida Georgia Line collab “Meant To Be,” peaked at #2 and set all sorts of country-radio records. (It’s a 4.) The “Meant To Be” single is diamond now, and Rexha has continued to rack up hits. Yesterday, she played Coachella in a prime main-stage slot. She’s doing fine. In 2013, though, Rexha had all kinds of angst about where her pop career was going, and she says she put those feelings into “The Monster.”

In demo form, “The Monster” has basically nothing to do with rap music. Instead, it’s a maximalist fusion of festival EDM, stomp-clap folk-pop, and arena rock. But you could rap over all that stuff, and plenty of people at the time were having success by doing exactly that. A&R people shopped that demo around, and Frequency had an in at Shady Records, since he worked as tour DJ for the also-ran goon-rap supergroup Slaughterhouse.

Bebe Rexha wanted to keep “The Monster” for herself, and when Eminem’s camp expressed interest in the track, she resisted, later claiming that people from his team “bullied” her into letting him have the song. She was hoping she’d at least be featured on the track, and Eminem kept the vocal that she’d used on the demo, but that vocal stayed in the background. Rexha didn’t know that Rihanna would sing her chorus until she heard the song on the radio. Today, “The Monster” had seven credited songwriters: Eminem, Rihanna, Rexha, Jon Bellion, Frequency, Aalias, and someone named Maki Athanasiou.

With all respect to Bebe Rexha’s hitmaking ability, it’s a good thing that Eminem recruited Rihanna. Rexha’s a strong singer, and her weird yodeled refrain still works as one of the main hooks on “The Monster,” but she’s never had the kind of presence that Rihanna brings to the track. After they made “Love The Way You Lie” together, Rihanna and Eminem teamed up a few more times, doing a literal part-two and a Rihanna album track called “Numb.” Eminem says that he wanted Rihanna for “The Monster” because people think that both of them are crazy. I think everyone who works in popular music at any level is at least a little crazy, and I don’t think Eminem and Rihanna really stand out on those terms, but I can see what he means.

Like so many other singer/rapper collaborations, “The Monster” relies on the fire-and-ice combination of its two stars. On the hook, Rihanna sounds composed and controlled. It’s hard to describe, but Rihanna’s gravitas gives the song a lot of weight. By contrast, Eminem is clenched and impassioned, staying in barely-contained syllable-spray mode. The approaches are different, but they both describe the same thing: Coming to terms with your own inner monster.

On his verses, Eminem talks about how he didn’t want the fame that he found: “All I wanted to do’s be the Bruce Lee of looseleaf/ Abused ink, used it as a tool when I blew steam.” He says, once again, that he raps for the kids who felt powerless like him, but he longs for some kind of normalcy: “Call me crazy, but I have this vision one day that I’ll walk amongst you a regular civilian.” He knows that it doesn’t make sense to crave and reject fame at the same time, but he can’t stop himself.

Eminem’s writing on “The Monster” is as clumsy and cluttered as it’s ever been. He raps with fire and fluency, but he hasn’t found a pocket in years. The most impressive thing about his performance “The Monster” is the level of emotion in his voice, the strained growl that finds notes of sincerity even when he’s shoehorning Kool Keith and Jeff VanVonderen and Russell Wilson’s names into his self-help diatribe. In its final product, “The Monster” sounds like a stitched together Frankenstein of all the genres that were big in 2013. The hook is strong, and the message is resonant, but the sheer maximalism of everything — melody, production, rappity-rap bars — is exhausting and slightly oppressive.

Rihanna plays Eminem’s therapist in the “Monster” video, which is pretty funny. The clip works as a serious of laborious flashbacks to previous Eminem videos, with the padded cell and the 8 Mile trailer park and the CGI rooftop plunge all making repeat appearances. Eminem filmed the clip with his “Not Afraid” director Rich Lee, and I can’t say the video really captured my imagination. I never got why I should feel that concerned about Eminem’s inner struggles, and the video never gave me a reason to change my mind.

When “The Monster” came out as a single, it seemed like Rihanna’s parade of massive hits would never end. In reality, that run was coming to a self-imposed ending, though Rihanna will appear in this column again. Eminem and Rihanna went on a short co-headlining stadium tour, and then they never collaborated again. Eminem followed “The Monster” with “Headlights,” an unlikely collaboration Nate Ruess, the former Fun. singer who’s been in this column a couple of times; it peaked at #45. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 cycle wound down, and when Eminem followed that album with 2017’s Revival, none of its singles reached the top 10, even with huge-name guest stars. Eminem worked with Beyoncé on “Walk On Water” and with Ed Sheeran, someone who will eventually appear in this column, on “River,” but those songs peaked at #14 and #11, respectively.

Eminem’s three most recent albums are all platinum, but the man used to go platinum in his sleep. Eminem did land a couple of major hits in that period, though. After surprise-releasing 2018’s Kamikaze, Eminem got into a brief feud with fellow white Midwestern rapper Machine Gun Kelly. (MGK’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Camila Cabello collab “Bad Things,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

Eminem didn’t like a comment that MGK made about his daughter, so he brought up MGK’s name derisively on Kamikaze. MGK responded with the pretty fun diss track “Rap Devil,” which reached #13. That seemed to light a fire under Eminem, who shot back with the gleefully fired-up non-album single “Killshot,” which, among its many punchlines, included a weird flex about Rihanna leaving hickeys on his neck. “Killshot” was effective enough that MGK almost immediately pivoted to alt-rock, and it foreshadowed the present moment where rap beef can dominate the pop carts. (“Killshot” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) Eminem also got to #6 with the Kamikaze track “Lucky You,” a team up with fellow fast-rap guy Joyner Lucas. (It’s a 7.)

These days, Eminem pops up less and less often. His last album came out in 2020, and he reached #3 with that year’s “Godzilla,” a posthumous collaboration with the late Juice WRLD. (It’s a 7.) There’s apparently another album on the way, but these days Eminem mostly seems to make music for Venom sequels and show his face at big-deal events like championship fights in Saudi Arabia. He’s still ultra-mega famous. In 2022, he took part in Dr. Dre’s Super Bowl Halftime Show and got inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I suppose Eminem could show up in this column again, but his legend status is secure, and he’s done just about everything that a popular musician could do. I don’t think he has any good music left in him, but it would be cool if he proved me wrong.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: The UK dance group Rudimental covered “The Monster” during a 2013 session at the BBC Live Lounge, turning the song into a medley with the One Direction ballad “Story Of My Life.” Here’s the video:

(“Story Of My Life” peaked at #6. It’s a 9. One Direction’s highest-charting US single, 2013’s “Best Song Ever,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6. A couple of One Direction members will eventually appear in this column. Rudimental have a bunch of UK chart-toppers, but their only Hot 100 hit is the 2015 Ed Sheeran collab “Lay It All On Me,” which peaked at #48.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Now, I ain’t much of a poet, but I know somebody once told me that you can buy the book here.

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