Since its arrival in 2000, “Stan” never really left. Stubborn, persistent, and culturally malleable, the song’s name, concept, and story structure took on a life of their own. Almost two decades later, the word is so ubiquitous there are likely millions of modern stans that have never listened to “Stan.” If they did, they might well be horrified to be compared to the skinny, out of control character staring back at them.
The third single from The Eminem Show is now double platinum, garnered two high-profile dictionary entries, and launched a subgenre onto itself. Eminem made a sequel (so did Lil Wayne; it was called “Dear Anne” and was terrible). The Dido-sampling song and its woke-before-woke-was-a-thing message went on to inspire countless offshoots, the most popular (and recent) of which is Joyner Lucas, who’s sustained an entire career built off recreating Eminem’s most popular faux-biographical, rage-filled song (see: “I’m Not Racist” and “Devil’s Work”). That’s why the existence of Joyner’s “What If I Was Gay?” — featuring Eminem — isn’t surprising.
To Joyner and Eminem’s credit, it seems the pair likely knew never to release “What If I Was Gay.” However, they were victims of an unfortunate leak this week, and the internet did what the internet does: listened to a leaked studio demo. As you might predict based on the title alone, the five-minute track is an underbaked and misguided attempt for the two rappers. In its capacity as an unofficial successor to “Stan” — emotional man questions some aspect of his life, said man cries out for help that never comes, and he commits suicide in a last-minute plot twist delivered by a different narrator — is a failure to capture 20-year old lightning in the world’s most structurally unsound bottle.
The first two verses feature Joyner playing a character questioning their sexuality. No matter how well-meaning the intent is, the hackneyed lyrics sound exactly like what would happen if a straight man tried to describe what he thinks the gay experience is like over a beat that would have been left on 808s & Heartbreak‘s cutting room floor:
But on the real, what if I told you that I was brave?
I grew up different than I was raised
But still, what if I told you I’m out of place? Wait
What if I told you that I was gay?
But it’s Eminem’s part that genuinely sends the song off the rails. From the moment Em asks, “What if I told you I’m homophobic?” it’s clear nothing good will come of this verse. The Detroit rapper plays the best friend to Joyner’s character but, since it’s Eminem, he can’t help but drop a line like, “I’m white, but I’m gettin’ mixed feelings like Logic.” As the story unfolds, Em’s character transitions from arguing about genetic flaws in chromosomes to asking God for help. The verse ends with a final twist that’s supposed to be revelatory but instead rings with a sad hollowness: “What if I’m a hypocrite who is afraid to just face truth / What if I told you I’m gay too?”
That lyric is presented like it’s a bombshell. The man who spent the entirety of his career dropping homophobic slurs, but also performing at The Grammys with Elton John just rapped, “What if I told you I’m gay, too?” 20 years ago, the moment would’ve likely been seen as revolutionary. In 2019, its intentions are easy to parse. Eminem built the foundation of his career on shock and awe, but for the latter half of his career Mathers’ singular power to say the unexpected has waned, and relied on going to increasing lengths to recapture that spark.
“What If I Was Gay?” means very little when we’re only one year removed from Eminem rapping, “Tyler create nothin’, I see why you called yourself a f****t, bitch” on “Fall,” because he didn’t appreciate some of Tyler’s tweets. Instead of two straight males spending five minutes trying to answer “what if I was gay,” maybe the world would be better off with them answering, “who is this song really for?”