“I haven’t been compromising this whole time as an artist. Why would I start with my album?” — Jessie Reyez
It’s her birthday today.
Jessie Reyez first came on my radar, as I’m sure is true for a lot of people, because of her 2017 song “Gatekeeper.” Once you’ve heard it, you never forget it. And you also never forget the first time you heard it. The sound of her voice, first of all, goes right through you, it pins you to the wall and demands: “LISTEN TO ME. I DON’T SOUND LIKE ANYONE ELSE.” And she doesn’t. All comparisons fall flat. There’s some Amy Winehouse in there (Reyez clocks her as an influence), but there’s Billie Holliday too. There’s a raspy quality to her belting low voice, but she can also go up the octave, into a fragile crystal-clear soprano, vibrating with vulnerability. Her voice is astonishing. It’s what they call in the serious singing business as a real INSTRUMENT. Some people are singers, but their voices aren’t instruments.
Her music is difficult to categorize. It’s a hybrid-style, a little jazz, some R&B, hip hop elements, folk music – simple guitar accompaniment (she accompanies herself), and also, intriguingly, 50s-era doo wop. It’s a romantic style, nothing too huge or orchestrated or over-produced – nothing that detracts from her voice and what she’s saying. I want to call it “dreamy”. Dreamy as in she draws you into her world, she draws you into her experience, and she provides details – specific unforgettable details – that weaves a spell, like you’re entering a dream. And not necessarily a good dream.
So let’s listen to “Gatekeeper.”
It’s about her experience with an un-named music producer, who held out the carrot of “I’ll make things happen for your career” before saying “But only if you fuck me first.” A predator. Reyez resisted but it left a scar: all she wanted to do, ever, was sing, and share her music. This “gatekeeper” talked up all he could do for her, but it was pure quid pro quo. Here’s “Gatekeeper.” Trigger warning for sexual assault.
I don’t think she was even signed at this point. “Brave” doesn’t even cover it. To accuse an insider publicly, before you yourself are an insider, is courageous. She felt so strongly about putting out this story, she initiated a short film to accompany the song. Peter Huang directed, but it was really a collaboration with Reyez (they have worked together many times). The “Gatekeeper” film is an incredible piece of work. Reyez just wanted to make sure every detail of her memory was in there. She didn’t want to misrepresent the event, she wanted to get it right.
Here’s the short film:
A coda to this: the guy that “Gatekeeper” is about was arrested in August 2020 on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault. She doesn’t name him in the song but after he was arrested she confirmed his identity.
Hailing from Toronto, she is part of a close-knit Catholic Colombian immigrant family. This already gives her a unique perspective. She gathered a big enough and devoted fanbase that finally got the attention of major artists. Billie Eilish sang her praises as much as she could, in interviews, on red carpets:
This is using your power for good. Eilish put Reyez on her 2020 tour as the opening act (sadly, the tour was canceled due to the pandemic. I think they started up their tour again in 2022?) This was all before Reyez even had an album OUT. (Her first album Before Love Came to Kill Us came out in March of 2020: she hesitated to release it because of the pandemic, asking her Insta followers if it was inappropriate to put out music during such a scary time when so many people were suffering. The overwhelming response was: That’s the REASON to put out the album!! So she released it.)
But before all that, Reyez was on the grind, doing her thing, putting out EPs. Her songs are DARK. Her songs are AMBIVALENT. Her songs are HONEST. Honesty like hers stands out. There’s honest, like “I am really sad, and lonely.” That’s fine, but it’s pretty run-of-the-mill. Nobody’s going to JUDGE you for it. And then there’s honesty like Reyez’s. She sings about obsessive toxic relationships (I mean, look at the title – and cover – of her first album). She sings about being addicted to love, about tumultuous love-hate male-female relationships … she’s honest about being intense. She “tells on herself”, in other words. There’s also sexual honesty. In her song “Body Count,” she sings: “I dodge dick on the daily, yeah.”
Her frank-ness, her inventiveness with language and imagery, has gotten attention in hip-hop circles, because those people care about words more than any other music culture. She’s already collaborated with some big-wigs, some of the biggest names out there, doing guest spots on their albums.
Empowerment is important, particularly for young women. But I am turned off by relentless “I’m a badass” commentary. The reason I say this is because self-empowerment can very easily become a trap where you are not allowed to admit you are human. It can become a trap where being upset is seen as being weak, where getting hurt is seen as “caving”, where being in intense love is seen as bowing down to some man’s demands … when, no, it means you’re vulnerable, you make mistakes, you have deep feeling. One of Reyez’s EPs was called Being Human in Public, and that’s pretty much it. We have to be able to be vulnerable, to each other and ourselves. This is especially true for artists! Reyez is strikingly vulnerable, and she expresses something a lot of people feel. You know those relationships you can’t get out of? That you shouldn’t be in? But the sex is great? Fight-or-fuck relationships? This is Reyez’s milieu. She’s also CLEARLY powerful, but her power comes from admitting her darkness, her flaws, her tendency towards obsession, craziness. Her love songs are neurotic, sometimes violent. She feels the pull of the mad love.
Hmmm, this reminds me of someone else, who could it be …
… and this is where he comes into the story. And everything changed because his fame is his superpower and he uses it for good.
In August 2018, Eminem dropped an album – by surprise – on the world. It had the à propos title Kamikaze. The surprise was twofold: It came with no warning, no promotion, not even a teaser. He dropped it himself, via Twitter. But also he had just released an album 8 months before. Two albums in less than a year? He barely promoted either and they debuted at #1, went platinum, etc. Kamikaze was, for the most part, a declaration of war on everyone who dissed Revival. He named names. He ripped rappers whom he thought sucked. He was extremely petty (I love petty Eminem, it’s when he’s his funniest). He launched 100 beefs in one day. Critics were like “yawn” but the actual hip hop community ate it up – and that’s really all that matters. Kamikaze is still being argued about and people who were “named” on it are still trying to “clear their names.” It’s glorious.
It’s known as a Diss Album – songs like “Kamikaze”, “Not Alike”, “The Ringer”, “Greatest”, “Fall” and “Lucky You” are diss tracks, for the most part – but there are quite a few songs that don’t “fit”. The critics who look at his lyrics as “same ol’ same ol'” ignored the songs that don’t fit their narrative, kind of like the critics who claim Scorsese only makes gangster films, conveniently forgetting Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street, King of Comedy, New York New York, The Last Waltz, Hugo, The Aviator, Silence … I mean I could keep going. But sure, please keep saying “all he makes is gangster movies.” He’s made fewer gangster movies THAN gangster movies. Along all the diss tracks on Kamikaze, there’s the masterful “Darkness”, the entire song is a double-entendre with the “reveal” at the end. It’s a frankly political song, with a political agenda. There’s “Normal,” a song about a tumultuous relationship – does he have any other kind? – and how he’s “hopelessly devoted” to her and yet she’s running around on him, and so he puts a tracking device on her car because of course that’s just logical, and how he wishes she would be “normal, why can’t she be normal.” (If you don’t hear the self-critique in this, you don’t listen to much Eminem. The joke’s on him, and he knows it, that’s the point.) There’s “Stepping Stone”, a brutally honest song about his group D12 and how it fell apart really after Em took off and after Proof died. The album ends with “Venom,” a song written for the movie. Eminem doesn’t write a lot of songs you can dance to – and “Venom” is one of them.
In terms of guest features on Kamikaze, he’s got Joyner Lucas on “Lucky You” and his old friend Royce da 5’9″ on “Not Alike.” For those of you who need help keeping up to speed on what this means: Joyner Lucas is the up-and-comer, the younger generation, heavily influenced by Eminem. Royce is a peer of Eminem’s, and their friendship goes way back. So we’ve got the OLD in Royce, and we’ve got the NEW in Joyner. To squash the narrative that Em is out of touch with the current moment and cranky-old-man about younger rappers.
Now, finally, we get to Jessie Reyez.
Reyez is featured on not one – but TWO tracks – on Kamikaze and not only that, but they are back to back tracks – and not only that but they are basically the finale of the album before the curtain call show-stopper of “Venom” (which was attached to the film, so it was kind of separate from the album as a whole, anyway). In other words, Eminem went out of his way to highlight her. 2018 was already a huge year for her, Eminem or no (her EP Being Human in Public was nominated for a Grammy.). But doing two duets with him on one album launched her way beyond her own audience. Not only that: if you are familiar with Eminem’s collabs with women – and he’s got a lot of them – the Jessie Reyez tracks stand out. They’re different from his other collabs.
Her voice – raspy – and at certain times she sing-screams in this raspy wild-woman way – you wonder … how on earth does this work with Eminem’s style? But once you take it in, it works so beautifully that even though it doesn’t make any sense on the face of it – it makes perfect sense the more you think about it. It’s almost like the way her voice sounds is how he FEELS on the inside, if that makes sense. She’s as aggressive as he is, she’s as pissed, she’s as dark. Often women are there on his songs to counter-act him, or to mirror him, or to surround him with fluidity and feminine power – creating a destabilizing and often quite beautiful effect. I think he likes having this cushion of femininity around him, within which he can go apeshit (he might be like “What the fuck are you talking about”, but sorry, I call it like I see it, based on these collabs). Many of his hooks/choruses are written by Skylar Grey. She wrote one of his biggest hits – “Love the Way You Lie”, a song which took over the world. He produced her solo album and did a guest spot on one of the songs (as well as appearing in the video). He believes in her and loves her. She tours with him. Her songs tend to be big and emotional, with hooks that get in your head (i.e. hits). And on his first album of 2020, Music to Be Murdered By, she not only wrote one of the songs – “Leaving Heaven” – but she produced it as well, making it the first time a woman produced an Eminem song (female producers in hip hop – or in any genre – are rare, especially once you get up to Eminem’s level.) I hate to call this a “gesture” because it wasn’t. He has faith in her. But as a SYMBOLIC gesture, it’s huge.
Eminem and Skylar Grey
He tends to work with the same women over and over again. Rihanna. Multiple collabs. Pink. Multiple collabs. He’s done a couple of things with Nicki Minaj. Beyonce appeared on the opening track of Revival, singing the hook/chorus – it’s unlike anything Eminem has ever done, before or since. Alicia Keys provided the hook/chorus on one of his songs on Revival. So did Khelani. His collabs with women shakes loose other aspects of him, not vulnerable so much as open, and open in a different way. Being open to showing us anxiety and worry is … well, this isn’t new for him, but it SOUNDS different when he’s got a songstress-diva on the track for him, like what happened in the collab with Beyonce. And she reflected him. She didn’t tell him “everything’s going to be all right” in her part; instead, she said, “I feel the same way too.” All of this being said, and back to Reyez: for the most part, the women he features are already huge in the industry, people everyone already knows, people at his level, status-wise. Dream-Team collabs. Reyez, again, was different.
“Nice Guy” and “Good Guy” was him saying: “Listen to her. She’s going to be the Next Big Thing. And if ONE track doesn’t convince you, then how about TWO.”
The two songs she appears on also have similar titles: “Nice Guy” and “Good Guy” (one of which was written by him, one of which was written by her – more on that in a second). So the two songs seemed to be talking to each other, commenting on each other, commenting on the concept of the Nice Guy(TM), who has such a terrible reputation right now, and rightly so. Unlike his other collabs, where the women are there to sing the hook and the chorus, Reyez almost takes over the songs. And Eminem lets her. She doesn’t “appear” on the tracks. They’re straight-up duets. This is very different, for Eminem. Again: it stood out.
How did Eminem, supposedly out of touch with “the kids”, discover Reyez? Well, it was through “Gatekeeper.” Reyez performed the show on The Seth Meyers Show, and Eminem saw it. It blew him away. (Little did he know that the song was actually about a Detroit-area producer. They had no connection to one another, but still: Detroit hip hop is a small world.) He was blown away by the song, yes, but also by HER. Her voice, her presence, her honesty. Eminem does not do press. Or, very rarely. But he promoted her. In an interview with the NY Times about her, he said, “She sings from her heart. She’s writing about shit that she’s been through and stuff like that. But it’s not easy to do what she does, and she makes it look so easy.” After seeing “Gatekeeper,” he looked her up, and listened to everything she did. He was stunned by her, saying: “She doesn’t sound like anybody. Her style of singing, the way she enunciates her words and everything, she’s just naturally dope. It seems like she’s not even trying, and she’s that good. Her voice and her cadences don’t sound like anybody I had ever heard before.”
An added element here: Eminem’s daughter Hailie, now 24 years old, is a huge Jessie Reyez fan. She nudged her dad towards a possible collaboration. This is strangely gratifying to hear.
Can I just take a moment to point something out? Reyez was scarred by the experience with that predator-producer. Now here comes Eminem. A much bigger name than that producer. Eminem could be seen as the definition of a “gatekeeper,” just in terms of power and influence. It would be very very easy for him to be a predator. (Well, maybe not now. But still.) But when Eminem reached out to Reyez to collaborate, he wanted her for her music, her voice, her talent. You can hear his respect for her in every comment he makes about her. Eminem is not perfect, and his relationship to women is often … ambivalent, to say the very least … but that’s on the personal side. Professionally, his reputation is good. Not unblemished, whose is, but overall, it’s solid. His lyrics may be (and often are) maniacal, but you don’t hear stories every other day about him being an asshole, or getting sloppy at parties, or being “inappropriate” with interns or reporters or younger collaborators. Never. He’s barely on social media so whatever personal life he may have is completely unknown. But you also just never hear anything about him personally. Either 1. he is a monk or 2. he has every hookup sign an NDA or 3. he’s generally a good guy (heh) who has his flaws – he’s jealous, insecure, depressive, whatever – but he ISN’T a predatory asshole. I mean, in this world where everyone knows everything about everybody else, these are the options. The only way we can gauge who he is personally is through what he DOES. So let’s look at that, just in terms of Reyez. A lot of men get nervous when they hear songs like “Gatekeeper.” I am sure many industry professionals were terrified by that song, even if they knew she wasn’t singing specifically about them. They, too, may have crossed the line at one time or another, they, too, may have been predatory – even without meaning to, or even if they just THOUGHT about it. Many men, when confronted with these “Me Too” stories – reacted in ways defensive, irritated, implicated by association – declaring “NOT ALL MEN ARE LIKE THIS.” etc. If Eminem felt those things, we have no way of knowing. What we DO know is what he told us. He heard the song and he thought, “Jesus CHRIST this girl is AMAZING.” This suggests to me that he knew the song was true. He has friends who are women, women who are also singers and performers. He’s not an idiot. He has three daughters. He knows what goes on. So here’s Eminem, consciously choosing (in my opinion) to use his gatekeeper-status for good, like “Do not fuck with her. I have her back.” It’s powerful.
Reyez was asked why she thought she and Eminem clicked so deeply as artists in their collaborations. She said, “He lives in the same place I do.”
It’s that place I mentioned before: searing honesty and – crucially – a willingness (and not just a willingness, but an open desire) to “tell on themselves,” to reveal themselves in their less-than-flattering moments. As I said above, people seem to think that saying “I’m sad and lonely” is brave. Go to Tumblr. Every single bio on every single Tumblr lists the sadness and loneliness of said person. If everyone is saying it, then it is no longer “brave” to admit it. In that environment, what would be really brave would be to say “I am happy and well-adjusted”. But to admit something people DON’T want to admit, to share things people will judge you for – like pettiness, like falling in love too hard with a toxic person, like obsessing on a man, like sleeping around – that’s a rarer brand of honesty. I mean, Reyez’s song “DO YOU LOVE HER” starts like this:
I should’ve fucked your friends
It would’ve been the best revenge for the fire that you started
I’m trying to heal, but it’s a process
They told me I should cut my losses
But there’s a stranger where my heart is
That’s the first line: “I should’ve fucked your friends.”
This is the kind of shit people don’t want to admit to. Pettiness and recklessness are judged, sometimes most harshly by those who call themselves progressive or tolerant. One can only imagine Eminem’s reactions to those lines: Holy shit that sounds like something I would say!
So he invited her to come to Detroit, to meet up and see if there was anything they wanted to create together. Imagine Reyez getting that call.
Eminem did just one interview to promote Kamikaze, and that was with Sway, one of the hosts on Shade 45, Eminem’s radio station. The whole interview is great, but here he talks about Reyez, how he first heard her, and what happened when they first met:
So Reyez arrived at Eminem’s studio in Detroit. She spent the night before praying, praying that inspiration would come when she met him, that her creative powers would be at her fingertips, and need no coaxing to come out. She spoke about this in an interview:
This is a strange coincidence, but as they sat there, talking about their work, playing clips of what they were working on for one another, they realized that they both were working on similar-ish songs. His was called “Good Guy” and hers was called “Nice Guy.” They had basically been writing these separate songs simultaneously! He was wondering if she had anything to add to “Good Guy”, if a hook or a chorus came to mind. He played her his verses. She listened. Her prayers paid off. Inspiration came quickly, and she immediately started writing/singing what would eventually be the hook and the chorus. It’s incredible, when you hear the final version, to consider that she wrote it spontaneously.
Reyez is a songwriter who thinks in metaphors, who sees things visually – her songs are filled with startling imagery. (See again: “Gatekeeper.”) So here she was, under the gun, so to speak, listening to Eminem’s lyrics about a passionate relationship gone really bad, where both parties cheat on each other, it’s a cycle of infidelity – to get back at each other – and then forgiveness … like they’re competing in being the worst partner ever. He raps at the outset:
Used to be your Romeo but we both were jilted
A couple of times, so we had a slippery slope to deal with…
I like how he loops in Vincent van Gogh and also spells out the first three letters of “envelope” – so that the “n” and the “v” sound like “envy” – he’s so clever:
A severed earlobe
Mailed to you in an E-N-V-elope would be dope
But what kind of lengths can you go?
Pull a Vincent van Gogh, just to convince a damn ho
The words “good guy” show up at the end, as he comes to terms with the fact that she’s with a new guy now, a guy she got a boob job for, a guy she tied her tubes for. Ouch:
Hurts me to my core, but the pain I’m in
After you, I swore to make the gray skies end
Here come the rays, like when you get a pay hike and
Am I the good guy or do I just play like him
And hope that he dumps you?
So Reyez listens to this, hoping the faucet of inspiration – she thinks of it as a faucet – will open up, will not come out drip by drip but instead FLOW. And it flowed. At the end of the song (the song closes with her, not with him) suddenly a female voice comes in, a raspy deep voice with her own prosody, pronunciation, which works in counterpoint to his. If he’s dark, she’s dark too.
But I love to consider the PROCESS aspect of this, how inspiration works, and how one thing (his verse) suggested another thing (her verse). That she listened to him, absorbing the information, absorbing the imagery he put out there, the words, the phrase “good guy”, what that meant to her, absorbing the THEME Eminem was going for, in the midst of the flood of words, the theme of guilt and recrimination and infidelity, and then … inspiration came, and what she wrote was:
Since you bought the jury, they’ll call me guilty, they’ll call me guilty
You bought the jury, they’ll call me guilty, even though you know the real me
Can’t be the cheater, convincin’ nonbeliever
And I ain’t in my feelings, I’m out but I let you say that you’re the good guy
‘Cause this ain’t what love looks like
You can’t be the cheater, convincin’ nonbeliever
And I ain’t in my feelings, I’m out but I let you say that you’re the good guy
Play like you’re the good guy, play like, play like
Play like you’re the good guy
No wonder Eminem loves her. No wonder hip hop artists, in general, have fallen in love with her, and embraced her as one of their own. THAT’S “adding” to what he did. (This is the improv rule “Yes And” at work in songwriting.) Her lyrics are so RICH. It’s so NOT what you expect. It speaks directly to what he was saying, but it also flips it, elaborates on it, gives it a different spin. It’s her side, his side. She adds to the story he was telling. What she does here couldn’t even be called a “hook” or a “chorus.” It only appears once, and it closes out the song. It really is its own verse. This is also new for him, in terms of collaborations with female singers. Rappers who show up on his tracks get their own verses, that’s part of hip hop culture, one of the funnest parts. But Eminem “used” her differently in this track. He let her close it out. He let her have the last word.
Here’s the final version.
It’s such an interesting pairing. It’s even more interesting when you see the crazy video they did for the song, where it starts with her crawling out of a grave on the lawn, staggering back into the house to kill him. They proceed to battle it out physically, all through the mansion, before she kills him, throws him in the SAME grave where he put her, and then … and THEN … she crawls INTO the grave, to curl up next to his dead body.
THIS is where these two meet. This kind of Romeo-Juliet thing is something they both understand, write about, and connect on. It shows up in each of their collaborations (three so far, and hopefully there will be more.) Here’s the video (directed by the aforementioned Peter Huang):
So I want to point out again that to the majority of Eminem fans, Reyez was a complete unknown. To see this video, to have no idea who she was, to see her take such a prominent role … was amazing. Also: it’s HIS song. She’s a guest on HIS song. And yet here she is, the lead of the video, AND … she kills him. She joked later, “I murdered him on his own shit.” lol
Here’s a little behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of the video:
Now on to “Nice Guy” (which precedes “Good Guy” on the album, but they recorded it second). “Nice Guy” was a song SHE wrote. It’s mostly her. In other words: on his own album, he included a song written primarily by someone else, where HE is the guest artist. This is … not normal.
“Nice Guy” is about a bad relationship (what a shock). She starts with this beautiful sweet almost sing-song melody about how he’s “such a nice guy”:
You’re such a nice guy, a nice guy
You’re faithful, you don’t lie
After the club, you go back home, right.
Then, out of nowhere, she screams, like a crazy person:
(Because “Nice Guy” precedes “Good Guy”, it was this craziness that introduced her to the album.)
Then suddenly, the mood changes so much it’s like she’s started another song altogether. Gone is the melody. Now it’s spoken-word. A male voice, aggressive:
Suck my dick, you fucking suck, man
Suck my dick, you fucking suck, man
I hope that your heart get hit by a semi-truck
Suck my dick, you fucking suck man
You see why she and Eminem are kindred spirits.
Then, suddenly, the mood changes again, the sound changes again, it’s yet another song. Now she’s in a kind of “nyah nyah” sing-song mode, even more … psychotic-sounding.
I hop in your whip and take a sip, then I gun it
I don’t, I don’t got my self-control, I hope that you running
I’m bipolar with the switch-up just as quick like you cumming
I don’t, I don’t got much self control, I hope that you running.
Oh, he’s running! Because you are scary! Now, suddenly, Eminem arrives, echoing this last section, in the same “nyah nyah” sing-song, telling his side, which, of course, is all over the place emotionally, because this relationship is bad news. They’re torturing each other.
I’m not a cheater, but if I’ma be accused, might as well be
You tell me you’ll take me back when hell freezes but females be
Rushin’ me outside my telly, temptation overwhelms me
Like my monthly bill from Sprint, they chargin’ me for a selfie
Fame is part of his life. He has a hard time with it. And fans are so entitled they charge you for a selfie with them. Then, he undercuts what he just said:
Chargin’ me, so I gave my hotel key.
Then he undercuts again, sort of a casual aside:
I was tryin’ to be nice.
You give the fan “rushing you” your hotel key because you were “tryin’ to be nice”? Is that what you tell your girlfriend? He knows this is ridiculous. He has no defense. But she keeps accusing him of cheating, so what the fuck, I might as well just cheat. Reyez comes in again, how she started, that pretty melody, telling him he’s “such a nice guy”, he’s “faithful”, he doesn’t “lie” … although now, because of everything that’s happened since then in the song, she sounds unhinged.
The unhinged quality gets even scarier when she repeats the “Suck my dick” refrain.
Then comes the “nyah nyah” section again:
I play your music while you suffer like I’m Carmine Coppola
You’re tied up in the basement while I chill on your sofa
La próxima yo sé que mejor me quedo sola
Estas de buenas que yo ya vendí mi pistola
I love that line: “You’re tied up in the basement while I chill on your sofa.” Also … Carmine Coppola? The composer? Who did the famous score for The Godfather? Is that who she means? What the hell? I love that she goes into Spanish too … but it’s alarming. She said she should have stayed alone, and it’s a good thing she didn’t bring her gun. (Echoes of Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”: “The smartest shit I did was take the bullets out of that gun.”) So this woman isn’t just a pissed-off lover. She has tied him up in the basement while she plays his music upstairs!! That’s SO sick.
Now it’s Eminem’s turn. Eminem starts with his emotional state. He’s too sensitive. He’s a “wreck.” He can’t take a joke. But … she’s saying abusive horrible shit to him. He sucks at sex. He’s “gross.” He “stinks.” And when he echoes her words, saying horrible shit about himself, she doesn’t correct him! How dare she!
I’m an emotional wreck, weak, everything over-affects me
When you joke it upsets me, you say I’m no good at sex
And you think I’m gross and unsexy.
I need Scope ’cause my breath stinks,
You hope that I choke on a Pepsi.
Bitch you was supposed to correct me.
Infidelity is, again, the theme, just like it was in “Good Guy.” His girl is clearly cheating and she’s doing it right in front of him, but then disrespecting him by giving him bullshit excuses: she’s house-sitting (in “knee-high boots”?), she has pink eye. He knows she’s lying.
Been texting you since three, I still get no fucking reply.
You say you sleep alone, but yet your mattress is king size
Fuck you going in those knee high boots? Cut it out, bitch.
I doubt that you’re going to house-sit in that outfit, and those skin-tight Levi’s.
Every word that comes out your mouth’s a fucking lie.
Oh, it’s spring time, time for you to have a fling like a slingshot.
You say “don’t come over” ’cause you got pink eye.
But I think I got just the thing.
Why don’t I bring my fucking bat and just swing by?
Stop texting her. She’s clearly not into you.
So … it ends there. That’s the song. It’s a crazy song, and it doesn’t really “go” anywhere, it circles the drain, it’s a cycle. Eminem has a couple of relationship songs in his discography – but not too many (outside of the ones for his wife). Most of the time, though, when he sings about relationships it’s usually a double-entendre for how he feels about music, the industry, hip hop itself. But sometimes there’s no “double”, like here. These two songs, back to back, are extremely revealing – and revealing in a way that’s NEW, for this extremely personal artist. “Nice Guy” is really “out there” stylistically, with its three-part structure, her screams, her Spanish, and the imagery she puts out there – chilling on the sofa, relieved she hadn’t brought her gun, flashbacks to the relationship – how he came too quick – which Eminem himself rapped once about, because there’s nothing about himself he won’t say – the emotions here are soooo ugly and toxic.
Here’s the song.
There’s this weird idea that Eminem is stagnant artistically. That he’s just some dude at the top, self-involved, and he’s almost 50 now, so – by default – he’s out of touch. Anyone who listens to “Nice Guy” will be stopped in their tracks. This is not like anything else. In his career, for sure, but also … in general? Like … you can’t place “Nice Guy” alongside much else and say “This is like that song.” “Nice Guy” is really out there. It sounds like a song that should have been on HER album, not his. SHE’S the star of the song, not him.
Eminem fans can be … intense. The real hardcore ones feel a sense of ownership over him. They can be annoying. But it’s been heartening to see how they’ve embraced Jessie Reyez. These tracks sort of looped her in to that world, and many people went on to look up the rest of her work, because she was so intriguing. And if EMINEM liked her, then that spoke volumes, because they are Stans and they do what he tells them to do. Okay, j/k. But basically what happened is what he hoped would happen. Millions of people discovered her because of those tracks and went racing out to find out more.
And to those of us who had discovered her on our own, through “Gatekeeper” or her early EPs, it was thrilling that he loved her so much he collaborated with her, in such a unique “out there” way. Like I said, these tracks sound like they are THEIRS, not HIS where she’s just a guest feature. They are duets.
Reyez summed up her experience with him:
He’s been authentically himself, no matter what. In the face of a world where people are so prone to scrutinise a hair that’s out of place, where people are prone to scrutinise someone whose opinion goes very much against the grain, he’s never, and you don’t have to agree with everything he says, but he’s been fearless forever. I got to work with that legend.
Meanwhile, she was beginning to put together her solo debut, a full album this time. She was set to go on tour with Billie Eilish. Things weren’t just happening for her. She had arrived. By this point, the “gatekeeper” is far in the past, and she has surrounded herself with friends and supporters, people who love her work and have helped her make it happen. When she talks about her work and her successes, she usually says “We.” It’s been a group effort. There was a lot of excitement about her album. I’m not sure when the official release date was supposed to be, but it was sometime in the spring of 2020. Then Covid hit. She quarantined with her parents in Toronto. I follow her on Instagram, and she’s always posting, and has a level of engagement with her fans that’s heartening to see. As I said, she was really tortured about whether or not to release the album. Would it be bad form, to try to promote herself, in the midst of this worldwide tragedy? (The fact that she would even ask that question speaks to who Reyez is as a person.)
But she decided to release it. Her album helped me get through that first hard month of quarantine. I listened to it over and over again.
The first track is “No One in the Room”. The song starts:
I’d go to church every Sunday
But teenage love still took my virgin skin
And the night after my first time I cried, ’cause I
Thought Heaven wouldn’t let me in.
You can’t manufacture honesty like this.
“Worth Saving” is an anthem (and she sings the hell out of it). It’s easy to get swept away by her unique voice, but listen to these lyrics. This is exactly what I’ve been talking about, ad nauseum.
You trying to leave while you can, before I get too sad.
OUCH. I feel the wince of self-recognition!
“Ankles” grabs you from the first line, and never lets you go. Her voice is sometimes beautiful. Her voice is sometimes harsh. She tells it like it is, either way.
“Figures” had been around for a while – I think it was on one of her earlier EPs, from 2016. So it’s good to have it included here, for a larger audience, because it’s such a good song. Reyez writes great songs in what I call the “bad sport love song” genre. Being a bad sport in love is not a particularly admirable quality. You aren’t acting like a role model when you’re a bad sport. But GOD there’s a relief when you finally say, “Fuck it, I’m not a role model, and I’m PISSED.” The video for “Figures” is great.
Here she is performing “Figures” live:
And the fourth song on the album is another duet with Eminem. Eminem appeared as a guest on her debut album. All hell broke loose.
Reyez talked about how the collab came about:
We’ve been wanting to work together again since [we made the “Good Guy” video]. So then when I had “Coffin” it just made sense. We sent it over. And when I heard he liked it, I was like, “Yeah, okay”. And then when I heard that he was going into the studio to record it, I was like, “Yeah, okay”. It wasn’t until I had the vocals that I was like, “Holy shit, Eminem is about to be on my debut album”. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it until we had the vocals.
I’ve been in an endless loop with “Coffin” ever since it came out. This is Reyez in doo-wop mode. The sound is haunting and emotional, with those musical echoes to the past woven through, bringing up associations, love songs from days gone by, yearning. But she’s not just a songwriter. She’s a storyteller. “Coffin” is about an accidental double-suicide, a kind of Romeo and Juliet situation. Here’s how I see the plot of the song, because it is a plot.
The couple have been fighting all night. She writes a suicide note. She says she yearns for a “coffin handmade for two.” He makes her want to jump off the roof because “I love you to death.” So she goes up to the roof, imagining what will happen next, presumably what she wants to happen: her boyfriend will see her falling through the window, and race downstairs to save her. He will catch her, apologize, the two will “go back to bed.” To start the cycle all over again. But as she stands there, her man – who has read her suicide note – races up to the roof – he can’t live without her – and he races right by her, jumping off the roof, hitting the ground below.
You listen to this whole thing, RIVETED over what will happen next.
We fought until the sun rose
And I still ain’t been to bed
And while you got your eyes closed
The devil wakes up in my head…
I’ll probably see you through the window
While I’m falling past the fifth floor
That image is so messed up!
The song is so complete in and of itself, even without Eminem’s cray-cray verse coming up: these two locked in “suicidal love roulette” – who’s gonna jump? does he think she’s already jumped so he jumps to “meet her there”? It’s not clear. And as fucked up as all this is, it is a love song. Reyez sings next, repeating these lines:
Maybe Buddha’s got it right
We reincarnate every time
And I’ll find you in another life!
She’s belting now, showing her vocal power, but in the final “life”, her voice trails off, and there’s a little echo on it … it’s tremendously sad. “I’ll find you in another life” could either be a promise or a threat.
Eminem then arrives, and at first he sings. A controversial choice, particularly on a track with such a good singer! Some people don’t like it. I’m in the minority of people who likes it when he sings, and I also think his voice has gotten much better (the first time I realized he could sing was on “Hailey’s Song” off The Eminem Show, where he says “I can’t sing.” But he can. No, it’s not a trained voice, or a pretty voice … but it’s his, and he’s not trying to be anything other than what he is. He sings like he speaks.) Anyway, he picks up on what Reyez has given him in the song thus far:
I don’t really wanna fight
I just wanna spend the night
But I don’t wanna spend the night
Actin’ out, “Love The Way You Lie” [sound of glass shattering]
Often when people do guest spots on other people’s albums, they just say whatever, they go off, they do their own thing. Doing “guest spots” or “features” is a huge part of the culture, but what’s your role as a guest artist? Sometimes it’s a pure flex. You’re showing up on someone else’s track, and you want to prove yourself, or try to better the person whose song it is. That’s part of the fun of it. There’s a whole “who won?” sub-culture, a/k/a the “versus” culture. People are still arguing about Jay-Z and Eminem’s “Renegade.” When Eminem’s a feature, the joke always is that he “bodies” the person whose track it is. Yelawolf’s “Best Friend” is a perfect example. It’s Yelawolf’s song on Yelawolf’s album. But Eminem comes on and makes it sound like it’s HIS song, and it’s Yelawolf who is the guest.
But what is interesting about the guest verses he does – whether it’s “Majesty” with Nicki Minaj, “Best Friend” with Yelawolf, or with Jessie Reyez on “Coffin” – he accepts the parameters set by the primary artist and fits himself into their scheme. He seems to enjoy working within the limits set by someone else. Writers know that CRAZY shit happens when you are given a writing prompt. The limit somehow creates a space where there are no limits.
And so back to “Coffin”: Eminem is limited by the themes and images established by Reyez. Also, this is not a generic song, even though many of the feelings are universal. You love someone too much, you feel like you can’t live without them, okay, we all understand. But Reyez is more creative than that. She sets up this whole scenario, a whole PLOT, it’s like a mini-motion-picture unfolding. (I also wonder, too, if part of the inspiration for this was the music video for “Good Guy”, where the two of them do crash out of a window together, and land in a sprawled pig-pile on the patio below.) So Eminem doesn’t come on and just do his own thing, going off on a woman in his life, or whatever. He has listened very very closely to her lyrics. To the STORY. He has picked apart every word of her song, and he includes many of those words/images in his verse. There are many images of death/suicide, and one suicide image has a particularly vicious Eminem spin on it:
I feel like blowing my fucking head off
After I write you out of my will.
“We fought until the sun rose” is Reyez’s “writing prompt” to Eminem, so he proceeds to give us some pretty shocking visuals of what that looks like:
But this shit just went awry
Hit me in the eye, bit me in the thigh, then begin to cry
I’m at the end of my wits
His rhymes are nuts. Not only do the ends of lines rhyme, but every syllable rhymes with other syllables.
“this” “shit” “hit” “in” “bit” “in” “begIN” “wits”
“awry” “eye” “thigh” “cry”
“went” “in” “in” “begIN” “end” (he bends vowels to make them rhyme)
He told me that you hate me
And you blame me
And you said that you wish that you were dead
This gives a picture of a very high-maintenance man. Eminem is extremely high-maintenance as a partner, which he has admitted to from the jump. Monogamy is a big big deal to him. He is jealous and insecure. His love is possessive. He is haunted by women cheating on him, and here, in this relationship, the woman accuses him of infidelity, constantly, nagging him, assuming he’s cheating, when he isn’t, and it’s driving him nuts:
I know we’ve had our challenges still
I keep trying to salvage it. You
Wanna sabotage it, I’m down to the hilt
But you think I’m fucking around on you, chill!
It never changes, I doubt if it will.
Cheat on me then say, “How does it feel?”
Reyez established the haunting image of a hand-made coffin built for two. Eminem reiterates the image:
Bitch how could you?
Almost had a child with you
Would’ve settled down with you
Now put you in the ground and bury myself with you.
Then he gives a vivid image of a couple pulling each other down. She’s drowning, he holds out his hand to help, she pulls him down. This is so TRUE.
I don’t get you, it’s as if you’re drowning
I stick my hand out, but you fool me
You’re just trying to pull me down with you
After all this chaos, he loops himself into the story she’s told. She takes the elevator to the roof, shouting again about how they better make a coffin for two. No way can one of them jump and the other be left behind. They must die together. Eminem ends with the word “fools” and when he says “fools” he draws out the “oo” sound, and it’s a scream, as he plunges off the roof. His voice sounds like he’s falling.
‘Cause if you jump I’m jumpin’ with you
And neither one of us have nothin’ to lose
But each other we’re just a couple of fools….
I have no idea if Eminem is familiar with Les Miserables (I would think not, but you never know), but when Javert sings his final song, out on the bridge, tormented with the waste of his life, and he finally jumps … the same effect is used to give the illusion that he is falling.
Reyez comes back in, creepily, but lovingly – it’s creepy BECAUSE it’s loving – saying over and over, a chant of longing:
‘Cause you make me wanna
Jump off the roof
‘Cause I love you to death
Just like a fool
We’ll need a coffin
Hand made for two
‘Cause I love you to death
Just like a fool
At long last:
As I said above, Eminem has a way of coming onto other people’s tracks for a guest feature, and obliterating the memory of whose song it is. He turned Yelawolf into a guest artist on Yelawolf’s own song. This is not Eminem’s fault. You ask him to be featured on your own track, you expect it. He’s not going to go easy on you. He’s going to bring his A-game. But here … on “Coffin” … he does not do that. This is a pure collaboration, and HE fits into HER scheme. He accepts the limitations imposed on him by what she has already written, using the same imagery – moving up (to the roof), and moving down (to the ground – drowning – pulling him down). The other notable thing is that you could remove Eminem’s verse and “Coffin” would still shine. (The same cannot be said for Yelawolf’s “Best Friend.” And I like Yelawolf. But I’m just saying … everything Yelawolf does on that song is prologue to Em showing up.) “Coffin” though … Reyez is the headliner, not Eminem. And call me crazy but I think the prospect of this thrills Eminem.
Reyez’s first album came out in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. She couldn’t tour. She appeared on the late-night TV shows, performing songs while sitting in her parents’ bathroom (good echoes!) or in a local botanical garden.
It was sad that this major artist couldn’t take this shit on the road, just when she started popping. But the world has opened up again … and we are able to gather together again. We need our artists. We need them now more than ever. Into the pain and isolation and worry of March 2020 came Before Love Came to Kill Us. Her songs are so powerful and so human, her songs are about intimacy, skin-to-skin, closeness … they were a reminder of what matters in the world. Even when we connect and we hurt each other, it’s worth something. Connection always is. As she says, it’s all about “being human in public.” We have forgotten what that looks like. Social media requires you show only the best, most socially acceptable side of yourself. I don’t think we have even begun to comprehend the impact this has had on us, spiritually. More now than ever, be wary of the people who always seem like they have their shit together, who make a big point of letting us know their road is the high road, be wary of the people who present as always making the right, the best, the healthiest choices. Or, fine, I won’t tell you what to do. If you respond to that shit? Go for it. I, however, have always been alienated by it. There’s a reason Gena Rowlands is my favorite actress. Talk about being human in public.
I’ll close with this. In August, 2020, to kick off the NBA playoffs, Reyez, in an orange parachute-suit, and a black face-mask with the words “BREONNA TAYLOR” on it, walked out onto the open-air ledge of the CN Tower in Toronto, and attached herself to the harness clipped to the railing above. It was sunset. Captured by a cameraman to her right (who was also strapped to a harness), as well as a hovering drone, she sang both the American and the Canadian national anthems.
The symbolism should be lost on no one that she knelt to sing the national anthem.
Jessie Reyez is only 32 years old. We have so much to look forward to. (Her recent album is also fantastic. I wrote this when she only had the one album out.)
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.