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.
On paper, the pairing makes no sense. Eminem and Rihanna are both titanic stars who have managed to cultivate auras of mystery, but beyond that, they have very little in common. For all of her years-long imperial era, Rihanna seemed to absorb and internalize all the currents and ideas swirling in popular music, channeling those sounds and images and approaches into a series of world-beating diamond-skinned anthems. Eminem, by contrast, is a self-described hermit who tends to ignore pop-music winds, preferring instead to put his adolescent rap fandom and dazzling technical skill to work by making dense, insular word-thicket rappity-raps about his own undying anger at the world.
In practice, the combination was pretty weird, too. Rihanna, only 22 at the time, had just gone through her darkest period and made her darkest music, but she was still defined by her effortless, laid-back glamor. Rihanna never had to work hard, and she never had to become a vocal virtuoso. Instead, she leaned into the sheer power of her own presence. Eminem, already pushing 40, was a white, Midwestern dad who’d flirted with retirement. His writing had become labored and awkward, and his endless documenting of his own internal struggles had lost the devil-may-care silliness that once animated his persona. Together, Rihanna and Eminem were fire and ice. They didn’t necessarily belong together, but they made their own kind of sense. With the first song that they recorded together, these two spectacularly rich and popular artists made each other even richer and more popular.
When they made “Love The Way You Lie,” Eminem and Rihanna had one big thing in common, besides the suffocating popularity that they shared, and that thing was the terrible specter of domestic abuse. They came at this subject from different angles. For years, Eminem had rapped feverishly about his tortured relationship with Kim Scott, the mother of his daughter. Marshall Mathers and Kim Scott both had serious problems — depression, addiction, chaotic upbringings.
Eminem and Kim married in 1999, divorced in 2001, and then married and divorced again in 2006. Before they became a couple, Kim lived with Marshall and his mother. The Mathers clan took Kim in when she was a runaway, fleeing an abusive stepfather. The couple first got together when they were both teenagers, and they became parents when they were young and broke. Their relationship was never easy. Again and again, Eminem fantasized about murdering Kim on record — starting out with “’97 Bonnie And Clyde,” where he brought their baby daughter in to happily babble in the studio, without her mother’s knowledge.
As far as anyone knows, Marshall Mathers never physically abused Kim Scott. If he had, that probably would’ve come out in one lawsuit or another by now. But you can’t really live a healthy life if your significant other is constantly rapping about killing you. The most difficult song on 2000’s kajillion-selling Marshall Mathers LP is “Kim” — the one where a howling, screaming, crying Eminem again envisions himself murdering the woman who bore his daughter. Em also famously had Kim’s tombstone, with the phrase “Rot In Pieces,” tattooed on his stomach. In 2000, Marshall Mathers pleaded guilty to assault; he’d pistol-whipped some guy in a Hot Rock Café parking lot after he saw him kissing Kim.
Is that abuse? I’m no expert, but I know that shit ain’t healthy. Kim Scott attempted suicide in 2000, and it wasn’t her last time trying. When Marshall first filed for divorce, Kim sued for emotional distress, seeking an injunction to prevent him from rapping about her anymore. Before the divorce, Eminem said that the song “Kim” was “like an outtake from one of our arguments in everyday life. That’s really how we fight sometimes.” (Eminem, it’s worth noting, later released “Bad Husband,” a 2017 song-length apology to Kim. It’s a terrible song, but I guess I’m glad it exists.)
The Marshall/Kim saga played out in public, in Eminem’s lyrics. (Other than the occasional interview, Kim didn’t really have a platform to tell her side of the story.) “Love The Way You Lie” isn’t specifically about the Marshall/Kim relationship, at least not to the extent that some other Eminem songs are, but that history hangs heavy over it. The history of Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna — which, if anything, was even more public — is all over the track, too. That’s why Eminem sought out Rihanna for the collaboration. Rihanna, a fan of Eminem, agreed because she trusted that he didn’t just want her for sensationalistic appeal.
“Love The Way You Lie” didn’t start out with Eminem or Rihanna. Instead, the song began as an instrumental from Alex Da Kid, a producer from London. Alex, the son of a Jamaican-born pro footballer, started out making tracks for artists like British soul singer Terri Walker and Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall. He landed on Eminem’s radar when he co-produced “Airplanes,” the 2010 single that former Number Ones artist B.o.B. recorded with Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Eminem jumped on an “Airplanes” remix, and when he was working with other up-and-coming producers on his Recovery album, he wanted to hear more from Alex Da Kid. (“Airplanes” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)
Eminem wasn’t the first person to work with Alex Da Kid’s stormy, depressive, guitar-heavy instrumental. Instead, when Eminem heard the track’s demo, it already had a hook from Holly Brook Hafermann, the singer-songwriter who records under the name Skylar Grey. Grey, a Wisconsin native, got her start in Generations, a folk duo with her mother. In 2005, Grey co-wrote a few songs on future Oscar winner Brie Larson’s album Finally Out Of P.E. (Larson, who was years away from superhero-movie stardom, was probably best-known at the time for playing Bob Saget’s daughter on a short-lived sitcom. Finally Out Of P.E. bricked, and Larsen hasn’t made another album since.) That same year, Skylar Grey, who was still recording under the name Holly Brook, sang the hook on Linkin Park side project Fort Minor’s single “Where’d You Go,” a surprise hit that peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.)
After the success of “Where’d You Go,” the lady then known as Holly Brook released one album, 2006’s Like Blood Like Honey, on Linkin Park’s Machine Shop imprint. It went nowhere. She moved to Oregon, changed her name to Skylar Grey, and got ahold of Alex Da Kid’s beat when her publisher suggested that they work together. Grey later said that “Love The Way You Lie” was inspired both by a tumultuous romantic relationship and by her feelings about the music business, since her history in the industry felt like its own kind of abusive relationship. Later, she told Genius that she heard the beat and “those lyrics and melody just flowed out instantaneously. It was like I channeled it from a greater power.” (Grey’s original “Love The Way You Lie” demo, with Alex Da Kid’s beat, doesn’t seem to be online anywhere. Instead, the track labeled as Grey’s original demo for the song is an acoustic voice-and-piano track. It’s pretty.)
The “Love The Way You Lie” demo touched something in Eminem, and he wrote his own verses to Alex Da Kid’s beat. On the song, Eminem sounds raw and anguished. He yells through the whole track, and his narrator can barely contain his fury, both at himself and his partner. Em starts out describing his feelings as “a steel knife in my windpipe.” They’re stuck in a relationship that has both of them trapped on a constant emotional rollercoaster, where the good parts are just as extreme as the bad: “High off her love, drunk from her hate.” By the time the first verse is over, Em’s narrator is already admitting, “I laid hands on her, I’ll never stoop so low again.” On the chorus, Rihanna sings about liking the way it hurts. You hope it’s metaphorical. You hope a lot of things are metaphorical.
As “Love The Way You Lie” unspools, the situation that Eminem describes on the song gets sadder, scarier, more dangerous: “Spewin’ venom in your words when you spit ’em/ You push, pull each other’s hair, scratch, claw, bit ’em/ Throw ’em down, pin ’em/ So lost in the moments when you’re in ’em/ It’s the rage that took over, it controls you both.” The way Eminem lays everything out, the two halves of this relationship seem equally unwell, equally responsible for creating a toxic environment: “Your temper’s just as bad as mine is, you’re the same as me.” That’s always bothered me.
In a heterosexual couple, the man is probably capable of inflicting more physical pain on his partner. The balance is never equal. Eminem never grapples with that. In the world of the song, it’s just two fucked-up people fucking each other up more. I think that ignores just how dangerous that kind of situation can be for a woman. As much as he fumes, Em tends to depict his narrator as the victim, or at least as a victim: “Told you this is my fault, look me in the eyeball/ Next time I’m pissed, I’ll aim my fist at the drywall.” As “Love The Way You Lie” ends, Eminem veers back into violent-fantasy territory: “If she ever tries to fuckin’ leave again, I’ma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.” Once again, you hope it’s a metaphor.
In the video, it’s definitely a metaphor. The characters keep looking down at themselves and realizing that they’re on fire. Director Joseph Kahn had made the cartoonish videos for a bunch of Eminem’s early clips, and this one made for a hard tone-switch. Still, Kahn’s clip runs the risk of aestheticizing and glamorizing the kind of violence that Eminem depicts on the song. The video shows beautiful movie stars — former Autobot buddy Megan Fox, whose film Jonah Hex opened on the same day that the “Love The Way You Lie” single came out, and former hobbit Dominic Monaghan, who’d ended his arc on Lost a few years earlier. They don’t seem like the types of people who shoplift bottles of gin from liquor stores, and their romantic desperation looks like a perfume commercial.
“Love The Way You Lie” is a really impressive piece of music in a lot of ways. There’s a powerful contrast between Eminem’s enraged verses and Rihanna’s mournful chorus. The hook is both sad and hypnotic, and it’s got a certain power-ballad grace. Em’s yelling can get tiresome, but his cadences are straightforward. He actually rides the beat, which is something he was less and less able to do at this stage of his career, and he only howls out one total forehead-slap lyrical clunker (“Now you get to watch her leave out the window/ Guess that’s why they call it windowpane”).
Alex Da Kid’s “Love The Way You Lie” production is rich and varied, with a lot going on — layered drums, pianos, acoustic guitars. (Rihanna’s regular collaborator Makeba Riddick produced her vocals, and she earned herself a co-producer credit on the track.) “Love The Way You Lie” sounds less like rap music and more like the kind of airless and electronic studio-rock that would become increasingly popular in the next decade. Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that Alex went on to produce a bunch of huge hits for Imagine Dragons. (Imagine Dragons’ highest-charting single is an Alex Da Kid production: 2012’s “Radioactive,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 4.)
I’m sure “Love The Way You Lie” is an intensely meaningful song for a whole lot of people. It’s probably good to have pop hits that acknowledge the darker realities of life, rather than just the shimmery escapist fantasy that made Katy Perry such a chart titan in the summer of “Love The Way You Lie.” Eminem’s single came out in the context of Recovery, the album where he tried to get real with himself and the world, and it came out as the follow-up to his sobriety anthem “Not Afraid.” “Love The Way You Lie” is a cathartic, absorbing piece of music, but I never want to hear it. It stresses me out, and it makes me sad. Maybe that’s the intent. Maybe that means it’s successful.
At least on a commercial level, “Love The Way You Lie” was definitely successful. The song got airplay on tons of different radio stations — pop, R&B, even adult contemporary. It went to #23 on the Hot Latin Songs chart? I can’t figure that one out. Maybe melodrama transcends language barriers. The single has gone platinum 13 times over. (“Not Afraid,” the other chart-topping Recovery single, has also gone diamond.) “Love The Way You Lie” has more than a billion Spotify streams. Recovery became the biggest-selling album of 2010; it’s since gone octuple platinum. Eminem was already a commercial titan before “Love The Way You Lie,” but the success of that single is still pretty stunning, even all these years later.
Later in 2010, Eminem and Rihanna recorded a second version of “Love The Way You Lie” for Rihanna’s Loud album. Rihanna used more of Skylar Grey’s demo for the song, and the sequel makes her a little more central to the song’s narrative, though it still features a whole lot of Eminem’s fuming. At the 2011 Grammys, Rihanna sang that version of “Love The Way You Lie” with Eminem. It was part of a larger Eminem medley. Em also did Dr. Dre’s “I Need A Doctor” with Dre and Skylar Grey. “I Need A Doctor” was produced by Alex Da Kid, not Dre, and Skylar Grey sang the hook. (“I Need A Doctor” peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)
For Skylar Grey, those back-to-back performances represented a huge triumph. She’d finally broken through. Skylar Grey never became a star on her own, but she’s had a hugely successful career as part of Dr. Dre and Eminem’s artistic orbit. Meanwhile, Eminem kept releasing more Recovery singles, but none of them did anywhere near as well as “Love The Way You Lie.”
On “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” one of his Recovery album tracks, Eminem says, “I almost made a song dissin’ Lil Wayne/ It’s like I was jealous of him ’cause of the attention he was gettin’/ I felt horrible about myself/ He was spittin’, and I wasn’t.” Instead, Em followed “Love The Way You Lie” with the weird-ass Lil Wayne collaboration “No Love.” On that one, Em and Wayne traded verses over Just Blaze’s melodramatic sample of Haddaway’s eternally cheesy 1993 Euro-dance hit “What Is Love.” (“What Is Love” peaked at #11.) Wayne and Eminem had negative chemistry; their verses seemed to come from completely different songs. “No Love” only made it to #23.
But Eminem’s commercial fortunes did not end with “Love The Way You Lie,” and neither did those of Rihanna. We’ll see the unlikely Eminem/Rihanna combination in this column again.