SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why Is Eminem’s “The Monster” No. 1?

The Monster”—America’s newest No. 1 single, according Billboard’s flagship Hot 100 chart—is the umpteenth example of one of the most durable pop tropes of the last two decades: the rough-and-smooth pairing of a gruff rapper and a hook-belting singer. It’s flawlessly constructed—machine-tooled, really—for radio dominance, a stew of current pop motifs: sampled acoustic guitar julienned into a club beat; ’80s-style new-wave yelping; post-Mumford stomping; and allusions to dubstep, if not a full bass-drop.

But what “The Monster” really is, mostly, is a sequel.

It appears on a sequel album, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, a reimagining of his 2000 best-seller. More specifically, the song is a follow-up to the most successful single on Em’s last album, 2010’s Recovery, which spawned its own smash Rihanna duet, “Love the Way You Lie.” That aching ballad about an abusive relationship spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100 in the summer of 2010 and eventually wound up the best-selling single in either artist’s career.

And so “Lie” was bound to spawn a sequel, as surely as an overperforming Hollywood blockbuster does. It’s actually already had one, “Love the Way You Lie (Part II),” from Rih’s own 2010 album Loud. But “Lie II” was an album-only bonus cut that simply repeated the original’s chorus, included a drive-by Eminem rap break, and received no pop airplay. Really, “The Monster” is the official sequel. It’s arranged to recall “Lie” almost exactly, kicking off with an immediate deployment of Rih’s melody, sucking you in from the jump.

As with many sequels, you feel—not disagreeably, but not entirely pleasantly, either—like you’ve been here before. “The Monster” is Die Harder or Ocean’s 12: enticing, faster-paced than its predecessor, but a bit overly amused with itself.

Marshall Mathers knows from reruns. For a guy responsible for some of the most witty lyrics and most bracing songs in hip-hop, Eminem is content to take an idea that’s worked for him before and keep returning to that well. The insta-Zeitgest satire of “The Real Slim Shady” (2000) is rerun as “Without Me” (2002) and then “We Made You” (2009). The eye-of-the-tiger anthem “Lose Yourself” (2002) comes back as “Not Afraid” (2010). In fact, Mathers’ whole career kicked off with a fantasy killing of his baby-mama Kim that he quickly, once he hit a major label, sequelized.

Of course, when it comes to radio hits, repeating yourself is not necessarily bad. According to Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil admitted to taking their previous Righteous Brothers composition “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” and turning it “sideways” to come up with the sound-alike sequel “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration.” In that same book, Freddie Perren, part of Berry Gordy’s Motown song–assembly line the Corporation, confesses to shamelessly adapting the chorus of the Jackson 5’s smash “I Want You Back” for the verse of follow-up “ABC.” More recently, other chart-toppers have pulled off the same trick, following an initial smash with a quick sound-alike record.

“The Monster” did not begin its life as a direct rewrite, though. The main melodic hook was written by young recording artist Bebe Rexha while working on her own album, before she pitched it to Eminem. (The main writer of “Love the Way You Lie,” pop singer-songwriter Skylar Grey, wasn’t involved.) Em then took Rexha’s composition into the studio with producer Bryan “Frequency” Fryzel, wrote his rhymes on top and invited Rihanna to sing the hook; Rexha’s original background vocals were left intact, deep in the mix.

As “Monsters” go, this one is of the Frankenstein’s variety; like so many pop songs today, no fewer than seven writers are listed in the credits. But having started its life as a completely different song, “The Monster” evokes its predecessor without being a carbon copy. You could dance, or at least bop gently, to “Monster,” while “Lie” was made strictly for bathing or wallowing. Shady’s rhyme delivery is more manic, adopting a range of identities; at one point, he lurches from computer-masked Vader voice to a Julie Andrews–worthy yodel. In general, “Monster” is brighter-sounding, while still employing enough minor-key dissonance to let Rihanna “blues” her vocal à la “Lie.”

Indeed, if anyone sells “The Monster,” it’s Rihanna, the premier hook-singer of the post-hip-hop era (eat your heart out, Ashanti). That might sound like damning with faint praise, but think about what has made Rih’s own best songs over the last five years—“Umbrella,” “Disturbia,” “Rude Boy”—work. None are powerhouse vocal showcases, but all are improved by the tone and personality of her voice. Rih brings the same A-game to what is frankly a B-plus hook on “Monster.” (Rexha wrote an instantly memorable melodic line, but it might be too tight—the song basically runs the cascading up-and-down melody into the ground.)

As for the lead artist, he is both dazzling and disappointing. All of Eminem’s gifts are on display—half-rhymes, shifting cadences, rapid flow, multiple personae—but they’re in service of a lyric that is all about himself; the “monster under my bed” is just his muse. In his wittiest moment, he raps: “Fame made me a balloon ’cause my ego inflated when I blew, see/ But it was confusing, cause all I wanted to do’s be/ The Bruce Lee of loose leaf/ Abused ink, used it as a tool when I blew steam.” Brilliant prose, but all about Em.

It’s fine for Eminem to rap about himself—what do most rappers talk about?—but he’s shown he can do more, and not just on deep album cuts. What made “Lose Yourself” and “Stan” the rapper’s best hit singles was the sense of empathy they projected toward hardcore fans, non-fans, and anyone wanting to succeed like Eminem, not be Eminem. What made “Love the Way You Lie” compelling was its directness (“I can’t tell you what it really is/I can only tell you what it feels like”) and its country-music-worthy story; it was about something.

“The Monster” may well improve on its predecessor in catchiness, but it can’t match Em’s and Rih’s previous smash for soul-baring revelation and the sense of the new. It’s hard to imagine “Monster” having the legacy that “Lie” had. But as pastiche, it’s an apt 2013-closing smash—it will likely rule the Hot 100 long enough to last through the holidays, bringing one of the more frustrating, patchworky years on the pop charts to a close.

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