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.

Usually, pop stars make music that works in conversation with the rest of pop music. Sometimes, big stars rip each other off. Sometimes, they consciously swim against the tide, pushing away from the prevailing trends. When he first emerged, Eminem felt like a reaction to everything that was happening in pop music and in the larger culture. The rise of streamlined commercial rap, the naked gloss of the early teen-pop boom, the ascendance of anti-social nu-metal catharsis — all of it seemed to find its reflection in the vivid, self-loathing, hyper-violent music of this foulmouthed, babyfaced white kid. But then something funny happened. Eminem removed himself from the pop-music conversation without losing his pop stardom.

Every Eminem album is a reaction to the previous Eminem album. That’s always been the case. As a self-obsessed, self-critical writer, Em is constantly trying to patch up his own perceived weaknesses. In the process, he’s perpetually disappearing deeper into his own self-created aesthetic. The playful transgression of his early records gave way to churning, gothic syllable-storms. Eminem might’ve worked with the newer rappers who caught his ear, or he might’ve made random pop-culture references that seemed to be out-of-date by the time the music came out, but his music became less and less engaged with any mainstream, whether rap or pop.

In 2009, Eminem released Relapse, his first album in five years. In that time, Em battled addiction, depression, and family issues, and he came out the other side with an exhausting record of bad jokes and horror-movie imagery. Em recorded the whole LP with old producer Dr. Dre, and he got to #1 with “Crack A Bottle,” a deeply awful pre-album leak with Dre and 50 Cent. Relapse sold millions and inspired a weird little cult, but Eminem knew that it wasn’t his best work. Within a year, Eminem disavowed Relapse, and he made another album that was even bigger.

Recovery, the album that Eminem released in June 2010, sounds nothing like the rest of that year’s hits. Maybe that’s for the best. I can’t imagine what might’ve happened if Em had tried to address the zeitgeist — if he’d internalized all the things happening with Katy Perry, Kesha, Justin Bieber, and the Glee soundtrack. Eminem was plenty familiar with the big rap stars of that moment, the Kanye Wests and Drakes of the world, and he worked with all of them. On Recovery, he brought in some of those guys’ favorite producers. But Recovery doesn’t really work in conversation with those records, either. Instead, it sounds like Eminem crawling further and further up his own ass. It didn’t matter. Recovery was still the year’s best-selling album.

“Not Afraid,” the first single from Recovery, doesn’t sound like a hit. It’s a motivational stadium-rocker, but not in the “Eye Of The Tiger” sense. Instead, it sounds like a guy ranting at himself, trying to find the necessary willpower to keep going. Eminem talks to his fanbase on the song, but more than that, he talks to himself: “I’m doing this for me, so fuck the world.” Evidently, the world, or at least a significant portion thereof, loved it.

At first, Eminem was going to make a sequel to Relapse. Upon his return, Em found himself rapping all the time, overflowing with lyrics, and he just wanted to keep going. At a certain point, though, Eminem realized that he didn’t want to continue with his Relapse direction. Em’s newfound sobriety was changing him, and he didn’t want to keep cracking the same bloodthirsty jokes — or, at least, he didn’t want to keep cracking those jokes all the time. Eventually, he ditched a lot of the music that he’d made for Relapse 2, and he decided that his next album should have a new title and a new concept. Recovery was born.

On Recovery, Eminem repeatedly bashes the album that he’d just released, as well as the one that preceded it: “Them last two albums didn’t count/ Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing them out.” On “Not Afraid,” Eminem repeatedly reassures his audience that he’s fully locked-in and that he’ll never disappoint his core again. He also says, “Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ehhhh.” I agree with him, and I also think the Recovery CD is ehhhh. The two albums are just ehhhh for different reasons.

On Recovery, Eminem raps with stern-faced, humorless verbosity. Even when working with great rap producers — Just Blaze, DJ Khalil, Dr. Dre again — he flattens the tracks out into the same dead-eyed beige stompers that he’d been relying on for way too long. When he does try to joke around, the punchlines are terrible: “Girl, shake that ass like a donkey with Parkinson’s.” The rest of the time, he sounds like he’s huffing and puffing to no effect, making motivational anthems more for himself than for anyone else. But I don’t think that’s entirely true of the singles. I like some things about the singles.

“Not Afraid” started off as a beat from the Jamaican-born, Toronto based beatmaker Boi-1da. As a teenager, Boi-1da got his start by producing a couple of tracks from Room For Improvement, the 2006 debut mixtape from local rap phenom Drake. At the time, Drake was still playing teenage shooting victim Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Nobody had Drake pegged as a future rap star, except perhaps Drake himself. For the next few years, Boi-1da produced tracks for Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall and for American stars like G-Unit and Lil Wayne. When Drake joined Wayne’s Young Money crew, Boi-1da kept working with him, and he produced “Best I Ever Had,” the mixtape track that became Drake’s big breakout. (“Best I Ever Had” peaked at #2. It’s a 7. Drake will appear in this column many times.)

In 2009, while Drake’s popularity was surging, he spearheaded a posse cut for the soundtrack of LeBron James’ documentary More Than A Game. Boi-1da had originally sold the “Forever” beat to Kardinal Offishall, and Kardi had recorded a song over that beat. But it didn’t make the cut for Kardi’s album, so Boi-1da gave the beat to Drake instead. Drake assembled an all-star lineup for the track, with Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Eminem all joining him. “Forever” became inescapable, thanks to Drake’s uglier-than-hell CGI Sprite commercial, and it peaked at #8. (It’s a 6.)

Eminem loved Boi-1da’s “Forever” beat, and he invited Boi-1da to submit more tracks for Recovery. Boi-1da made the initial “Not Afraid” beat with fellow Canadian producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett, but Eminem kept changing it. Em’s regular collaborator Luis Resto added pianos, guitars, and more orchestration. Eminem did some more production, too, and he brought in a choir to help him sing the hook and the bridge. Maybe that’s why “Not Afraid” has the rainswept bombast of so many other Eminem tracks. Even when he works with an ascendant young talent like Boi-1da, he makes the track sound like a beat that he would’ve made himself.

On “Not Afraid,” Eminem talks about sobriety and about the new lease on life that he feels. On the chorus, Em asks us, the listeners, to holler if we feel the same as he does, but this is still an internal-monologue song. Em insists that he’s got the fire in his eyes — or, as he puts it, that “he’s got the urge to pull his dick from the dirt and fuck the whole universe.” (I hope he wipes it off first.) Plenty of Eminem’s wordplay is tortured and overworked: “Quit playin’ with the scissors and shit, and cut the crap/ I shouldn’t have to rhyme these words in a rhythm for you to know it’s a wrap.” For the most part, though, he keeps his worst latter-day impulses in check, and he turns in a pretty decent workout song.

Eminem’s chorus for “Not Afraid” is legitimately catchy — the kind of thing that’s fun to sing when you’re in a big crowd of people. (I saw Eminem play Comerica Park, Detroit’s baseball stadium, in 2010, so I can confirm that “Not Afraid” sounds good in this context.) As a hook-singer, Eminem has always been a little underrated, though I think “Not Afraid” would work better if he brought in a real cathartic belter for that part. Imagine, for instance, if Chester Bennington sang that hook. He would’ve killed that. Still, “Not Afraid” is a well-structured song. Most rappers don’t write bridges, but Em’s “Not Afraid” bridge might be the best part of the track, especially when he hits the following verse with the post-rehab real talk: “It was my decision to get clean, I did it for me/ Admittedly I probably did it subliminally for you.”

Look, it’s nice to hear someone owning up to past mistakes and trying to become a better person. I think that’s why “Not Afraid” hit a nerve. People had been watching Eminem struggle with public attention for a decade-plus, and we were invested in his story. With “Not Afraid,” Eminem finds a way to bring people into that. It’s still a turgid march, and I don’t like it anywhere near as much as the cartoon-funk bugouts that made Eminem famous in the first place. But I can understand why “Not Afraid” did what it did.

“Not Afraid” also invented a new visual language for Eminem. In director Rich Lee’s video, Em doesn’t wear any wacky costumes, and his hair is its natural color. The clip shows him falling from rooftops and flying through the air in a mostly-abandoned cityscape. When he sees his reflection in car windows, it’s distorted and alien. Eventually, the whole city falls away — the special effects are pretty impressive — and Em zooms off into the sky like Neo at the end of The Matrix. There are worse visual metaphors for feeling alone in the world and overcoming your own self-annihilating urges.

“Not Afraid” sold nearly 400,000 downloads in its first week, and it debuted at #1. A week later, “Not Afraid” fell from #1, as Usher’s putrid “OMG” retook the spot. But when Recovery came out a few weeks later, it sold nearly a million copies in its first week. Eminem didn’t carry himself as a pop star, but that’s what he was. We’ll see him in this column again soon.

GRADE: 6/10