Among the new songs on Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP 2, one of the most anticipated was the Kendrick-assisted "Love Game," because, duh, Eminem feat. Kendrick Lamar.
It's an unusual song.
In keeping with the retro theme hinted at by "Berzerk," "Love Game" is a throwback; the Wayne Fontana sample was flipped very similarly by Prince Paul on De La Soul's classic "My Brother's A Basehead." And for fans of Eminem going in as he did on "Rap God," "Love Game" is one of the most intricately written rap songs this side of Lupe Fiasco.
No doubt lyrical heads expected an outright battle between the two MCs. Instead, conceptually, "Love Game" is one of the most straightforward tracks of Em's career, and a timeless concept: Love makes you want to do crazy things. The rappers are paired together to make a song about frustration with members of the opposite sex—and proceed to rap with hypertechnical competitiveness anyway.
Kendrick's verse is more oblique than Eminem's two, and more furtive in its attempt to conceal meaning. Its references, as in many of Kendrick's verses, are guarded and scattered—not unlike, perhaps, the ambiguity of the relationships described in the song. Kendrick holds his own, although it must be said that Eminem's writing circles around everybody these days.
Compared to a song like "Kim," in which his anger and rage felt like a raw nerve being pulled for our benefit, this song feels like a product of craft.
For Em, the song is completely absent of the personal details and the vulnerability, that made the Marshall Mathers-era Eminem so weird. The form is still there, from the violent exhortations to the clear frustration at the deceitfulness of the women in his stories. But the audience is protected; the performance is distanced, even cartoonish.
Compared to a song like "Kim," in which his anger and rage felt like a raw nerve being pulled for our benefit, this song feels more a product of craft than of passion. Not to say there's no passion in the song; Em very clearly feels a passion for writing and constructing complex, perfectly executed rap verses. But a passion for the game of love? It's the removed passion of a 41-year-old man, older and colder—more like the recitation of a memory of a feeling, rather than tapping right into the aggrieved, hurt truth of right now.
If Em's mentor, Dr. Dre, taught hip-hop anything, it was the significance and power of minimalism. Sometimes, a bunch of layered samples are the best way to communicate an idea. Sometimes, a simple loop can be a hundred times as powerful. Artfulness comes not from the baroque curlicues of practiced rehearsal, nor the blunted simplicity of pure id translated to the page. Instead, it's tools like these, combined with many others, directed toward an overall effect. The pertinent question: Do these parts, when combined, move the listener in some way?
"Love Game" does a bunch of things very well—flawlessly, even. Em's engaged in a formal exercise, one he's done in more shocking, autobiographical ways in the past. Some might find his new focus, the old-fashioned songwriter's performative distance, to be less offensive. After all, it doesn't create that same visceral unease as a song like "Kim."
When Em is telling his own story, it isn't assumed that every listener is going to feel that way, or that they should.
Hip-hop's fetish for "keeping it real" is certainly contradictory and problematic, particularly since it became one of the genre's most overused slogans.
But the way it's used by the genre's best artists emphasizes their own subjectivity. When Em is telling his own story, it isn't assumed that every listener is going to feel that way, or that they should; on "Kim," Em was simply broadcasting an aspect of his own perspective. It unsettled us, because it provoked us: Does he really mean this? Do I ever think this way? Could I be capable of this level of anger? By keeping the line between artist and art blurry, Em forced us to ask hard questions.
"Love Game" doesn't provoke its audience in the same way; it reassures. Sometimes you feel this way, and that's alright—it's not real. Em's new music is about catharsis. Emotions and actions are divided. Em is making an assumption about his audience, and what they like about his music, rather than locating an emotion within himself. Em has withdrawn; now, he wants to be judged by the execution of his craft. And in his craft, Em is a perfectionist.
In "Love Game," he doesn't really want to hurt her, because who she is is rhetorical. He wants to bury her under concrete, then pave over it, an extended Wile E. Coyote-style over-the-top punishment. What's interesting about this is that the echoes here are more a return to "As the World Turns"-era Slim Shady, more so than The Marshall Mathers LP. The fevered, hallucinatory flights of fancy aren't real; it's all in the imagination. It might be less provocative to our sensibilities. But provocation is a trapping of a bygone Eminem. In 2013 Mathers' art exists to articulate the demons of his audience, rather his own.