Look, I have nothing against Eminem. I really don’t. (And no, I’m not just saying that because his insane devoted fans stormed our comments section the last time I said something remotely uncomplimentary about him.) For all that aspects of his work — namely, his not-especially-latent misogyny — have always bothered me, I found the way he lived out his crises in public, turning them into powerful and conflicted art, compelling and perversely fascinating. What we’ve heard of his new record so far has been a curious and diverse array of sounds: old-school pseudo-Run DMC (“Berzerk”), reflective power balladry (“The Monster”), raging against the dying of the light (“Rap God”), and… well, now there’s new single “Love Game,” co-starring Kendrick Lamar. To which my reaction was the same as many people’s: what the actual fuck is this?!
The song’s sound is… well, it’s unexpected, put it that way. It samples Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders’ 1965 chart-topper “Game of Love,” and bounces along on a surprisingly jaunty, summery beat. It’s certainly not what anyone was expecting from a collaboration between these two artists. It’s almost redundant to discuss such a strange piece of music, because clearly a song like this is going to be divisive — some people love it, and some people are already issuing pretty hilarious takedowns (yes, it really does sound like Smash Mouth).
As far as I’m concerned, the song’s perfectly OK in an entirely incongruous fashion, for all that its flirtations with reggae-influenced stylings are uncomfortably reminiscent of Vanilla Ice’s dismal reworking of Scotty’s “Stop that Train” (and, um, this.) But really, at this point no one expects Eminem to be at the cutting edge of production, and in any case, it’s kinda refreshing to hear him trying something different. The track proves again that his ability to weave a tongue-twisting rhyme scheme, and his understanding of stop-start track dynamics, are undiminished. Both he and Lamar sound like they’re having fun, and the whole thing would be a pretty inconsequential end-of-summer jam…
…except for the lyrics. Sigh. Because underneath the jaunty music, there’s another big ol’ dose of the same old misogyny that Em’s been trotting out for decades. It’s the tale of getting cheated on by a girl and the revenge fantasies this experience elicits, which might just sound awfully familiar if you’ve even casually followed Eminem’s work over the years.
The song’s full of the sort of tired teenage stereotypes that a man in his 40s should have long since left behind. You can pretty much check them off as you read down the lyric sheet: girls who “put out” are sluts and not to be trusted (“You confirmed my low end theory, though/ Should’ve known when I made it all the way to third base/ And that was only the first date, coulda made it to home plate”). Women are nags and shrews (“Here goes that broken record, cliché/ It’s all my fault anyway”). They’re also unstable and unpredictable and prone to overreaction (“Back together but forgot today was her b-day, cut me off on the freeway/ Simple misunderstandin’ but just as I went to slam on the brakes/ Then I realized that she may be as crazy as me, wait/ Bitch cut my fuckin’ brakeline, stepped on them fuckers eight times”).
And so on. On the whole, the women depicted are cardboard cutouts, devoid of any motivation beyond apparently existing to be evil and nefarious and inflict heartbreak on poor, trusting men. (It’s no coincidence, surely, that the song’s last verse references false rape accuser Leanne Black, with the implication being again that women are not to be trusted.)
It’s equally disappointing that Lamar’s verses find him largely abandoning the subtlety and depth that made Good Kid, m.A.A.d City such a compelling narrative, slipping instead into sub-Slim Shady silliness (“Cops pull us over, they just wanna know if you gargle, singin’/ I hope she’s good enough, meanwhile you’re chasin’ her/ Chlamydia couldn’t even get rid of her”). The art of peer pressure indeed. But really, it’s Eminem, back on his old lyrical hobby horse of what to do with a woman who’s hurt his fragile little heart.
And what happens to her this time around? “Snatch the bitch out her car through the window, she screamin’/ I body slam her onto the cement, until the concrete gave and created a sinkhole/ Bury this stink ho in it, then paid to have the street re-paved.” Most infuriatingly, this is followed by the usual lyrical cop-out: “Fuck, woke up in a dream state in a cold sweat.” Yes, he’s talking about inflicting pretty appalling violence on a woman, but oh no, wait, he was only dreaming! Or it was a persona! Or every other tired trope he (and various others he’s inspired — hi, Tyler!) have invented to explain away the pervasive misogyny of expressing things that, hey, y’know, everyone thinks about, anyway, right?!
Look, we’ve all had our hearts broken. We’ve all been angry at the people who’ve done it, and we’ve all probably fantasized about taking some sort of revenge, even if it’s just getting with someone better and shoving this fact in the face of the person who’s spurned you. And yes, this song is all fiction, and no one’s suggesting that Eminem actually advocates anyone acting out the sorts of scenarios he’s repreatedly described over the course of his career; the arguments that conservatives tend to like to trot out about violence being directly inspired by songs or films or computer games are simplistic and asinine.
Still, there’s something depressing about the fact that Eminem just keeps coming back to this subject matter again and again and again. Clearly, art exists in part to allow us to explore our dark places, to look at feelings in ourselves that we might not want to confront or express. But Eminem’s been doing this for decades. And perhaps the worst thing now is that it doesn’t even feel particularly genuine. A song like “Kim,” for instance, was legitimately terrifying because it felt like an insight into the mind of a man who might really flip at any minute and/or was having an actual meltdown in the vocal booth.
These days, the revenge porn of songs like this is more an aesthetic than anything — it’s just what Eminem does. The violence and misogyny here is cartoonish, and that just makes it worse, because the whole idea is tired, and it’s played out, and it’s awful. It’s not even shocking or provocative any more — it’s just sad, a continuing expression of the sort of hate and bitterness that fuels “men’s rights” activists on Reddit and plain old misogyny the world over. This song ends with a declaration that “I have infinite hate in my blood, [and] it’s mainly because of the game of love.” Get help, dude.