I’m not sure how rap grudges and running battles came to be called beef but I love it as a word for them – juicy, red meat with inescapable macho connotations. The actual minutiae of rap beefs are strictly fans-only in most cases, playing out on album tracks and mixtapes often involving arcane or petty counter-accusations. The most famous ones – like Jay-Z vs Nas, which Eminem references in this song – leave tracks which are touchstones of a rapper’s discography (and the most infamous ones leave people dead). But this is the first time a track centering on a hip-hop feud has hit No.1 here.

“Like Toy Soldiers” is an unusual take on the genre, though – very much Eminem having his beef and eating it. The track is an extension of two quarrels – one with Ja Rule and his Murder Inc. crew, which was itself an offshoot of Ja Rule’s beef with 50 Cent, but which Eminem took personally after Ja Rule brought up his daughter; the other with Benzino, whose magazine The Source gave an Eminem album 2 mics, leading to an ongoing feud between Eminem and the publication. (Benzino himself was well below Eminem’s weight class as a rapper but The Source was still significant). Not content with that, “Like Toy Soldiers” also digs into a third major beef, the long-running (and deadly) quarrel between Dr Dre and Death Row’s Suge Knight – this one a vendetta Em wants to join through personal loyalty to Dre but has been warned off from. (“Suge” is the word censored from the track)

If all this sounds exhausting, that’s the point of the song, which is Eminem counting the cost of all this strife, asking “how did we get here?” and answering the question in loaded terms that are half descriptions of his fights, half counter-blows. It’s certainly not, as I’ve seen one commentator claim, Eminem walking away from his beefs – for one thing it’s from the record with (according to Rap Genius) the largest proportion of personal attacks in his whole career. But it is him regretting them, regretting the outcomes, and generally fretting that he’s damaging hip-hop not elevating it with this nonsense.

It’s a sentiment that’s agonised over at length in the verses and much more pithily expressed in the chorus, a big repurposed chunk of Martika’s 1989 hit “Toy Soldiers”. The last Eminem hit to centre so prominently on a sample was “Stan”, and in both songs the sample works as punctuation between tense, knotty verses – but where “Thank You” was an ellipsis, “Toy Soldiers” is an exclamation mark, the catharsis for the tension the verses build up. It’s also far more pointed – whatever Eminem’s regrets, hypocrisies and anger over the feuds he’s involved in, the “Toy Soldiers” chorus puts it plainly: rappers are beefing, fighting and ultimately dying in what amounts to a game played for other people’s entertainment.

Big, familiar samples were in fashion, too. “Toy Soldiers” is a direct response to Ja Rule et al, but it also feels like an indirect response to Kanye West, whose productions for Jay-Z and others often made heavy, expensive use of old hits, and whose own early singles mixed borrowed hooks and choruses with West’s thorny, self-conscious musings on his own life, art and beliefs, to enormous critical acclaim. Eminem’s recent big hits rode on strong but simple beats which worked like gym equipment for his verbal displays and persona-shuffling: they stood or fell by what he was doing. Here he’s letting the sample do most of the hook-bearing work while the verses tap out an ominous, martial rhythm.

I think it works extremely well – the verses showing Eminem hurt, angry, self-justifying but also trapped in a situation; the chorus acting as a summary and a sweep of the sword to cut the emotional Gordian knot. The fact that Eminem’s continuing the beefs even as he’s supposedly renouncing them could tangle the song up but it stops it being merely pious: the whole idea is that this stuff is tempting to get into, and difficult to get out of. It’s also just better to hear him rapping in storytelling mode than the more rigid punchline-dispensing style of “Just Lose It”.  The specifics of the feuds drag the song down a little – even if you really enjoy hip-hop beef, and I don’t, these aren’t compelling examples. But the Martika sample blasts through the details and reminds me that they aren’t the point – “Like Toy Soldiers” works mostly on vibe.

Score: 7

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