“Headlights” by Eminem (ft. Nate Ruess)
Eminem can be a loudmouth at times. This was especially true earlier in his career when he even attracted the ire of politicians and society at large. But millions of fans felt him nonetheless, deeming some of the statements he made as speaking to the realities of the society we live in.
But other comments have not been so easily forgotten, particularly when it came to Shady dissing specific individuals. One needs to only look at his more-recent beef with Nick Cannon in 2019/2020 as a prime example of Eminem disses gone wrong. And as is well known, Slim has even crossed the sacred line of negatively criticizing his own mother on record. He did so on quite a few tracks, most notable amongst them being of course 2002’s Cleanin’ Out My Closet. But at the end of the day Eminem has proven that he does in fact have a normal human heart. For not only has he grown to absolutely detest the aforementioned song, but he also sought to make things right with his mother, once again on record, via 2013’s Headlights. In fact someone like Eminem actually stepping back to apologize to someone he offended in such a manner, even if it’s his own mom, was deemed “most shocking” by the likes of Rolling Stone.
Like Cleanin’ Out My Closet, Headlights is primarily biographical in its approach. Eminem sets off the track by once again harping on his less-than-ideal upbringing. Or looked at alternatively, even if he is apologizing to his mom it is still pretty clear that he harbors ill feelings about the way she treated him during his childhood. But this time, in the chorus he shares the blame for their fractured relationship.
Meaning of “Headlights”
Meanwhile, the title of the track is symbolic of their separation. In other words the “headlights” fundamentally symbolizes the two of them driving away from each other or more specifically Debbie driving away from Eminem.
But at the onset of the first verse, Marshall finally comes clean by taking the fault of the situation as it stands onto himself. He admits that he has the tendency to say things without ‘thinking about who what he said hurts’. He then references Cleanin’ Out My Closet directly and goes on to clarify that he ‘doesn’t hate’ his mother’. Rather he esteems her along the same lines that most sons tend to regard their moms. He then states his desire for the two of them to dead their beef.
Then Shady kinda 360s by recounting an incident in which his mother kicked him out of the house in the dead of winter. So again, the listener is made aware that there are some things she did back in the day which still bother the rapper. But that being said unlike Cleanin’ Out My Closet, on this occasion he acknowledges that his absentee dad was largely responsible for the hardships they faced in life. And pretty much the passage is dual-toned throughout, dealing with the family’s tough past in addition to Em’s desire to make amends with his mom.
He then begins the second verse by stating that he does not approve of the current, broken state of their relationship. Indeed he painfully notes she has not even been a part of his children’s lives. And he admits flat-out that he “was angry” with her, perhaps “rightfully” so. But still, now Eminem understands that he went too far in terms of the things he said about her in the past. He has come to realize that despite her mistakes, his mother, Debbie Mathers, ‘did her best to raise’ both him and his brother, Nathan. And he goes on and on in traditional Eminem, personal-life revealing fashion.
But the gist of what he’s saying is that in the years since Cleanin’ Out My Closet and other such tracks, he has come to understand that the absence of his father put an unfair burden on his mother. But unlike his dad, she did not desert the family. So at the end of the day he has come to appreciate her efforts, despite the pain he may have experienced throughout.
Next comes the bridge. In it Slim Shady, led by Nate Ruess, states that he is not afraid to die. The way this ties into the overall narrative is apparently along the lines of now that the rapper has made peace with moms, he feels a sense of spiritual relief. But also he is saying that even if he does perish, his legacy will live on via his “little girls”. Indeed if there’s anything fans of Eminem know it’s that just as much as he’s hated his mother on record he has conversely loved his daughters. But seemingly he is making such a statement within the context of Headlights to point to the idea of him being a loving father, i.e. not wanting his daughters to go through the types of struggles he experienced in childhood.
So conclusively, we can say that this is bit of a complex, albeit real, song. We know that it’s primary purpose is for Eminem to tributize his mother, someone whom he partially built up his career by dissing. But at the same time let’s just say that whereas forgiving is possible, forgetting ain’t as easy. And as such Shady is still bothered by some of the things he and his brother went through, at his mother’s hands, during their childhood.
Facts about “Headlights”
Emile Haynie and Jeff Bhasker, the producers of Headlights, are also amongst the track’s writers. And the other songwriters are Eminem, Nate Ruess and Luis Resto.
Headlights was the first time Eminem teamed up with Nate Ruess, a singer from Arizona.
Spike Lee himself directed the music video to this song. Fittingly it was released on Mother’s Day of 2014. Moreover said clip served as a venue in which Eminem and Debbie Mathers were able to reunite.
Although Headlights is not listed amongst Eminem’s classics, it did experience notable success. For instance, it went Platinum in the United States and Australia. And the song charted in a handful of countries, including making an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles Chart.
Headlights was released on 5 November 2013 as part of Eminem’s The Marshall Mather LP 2. The labels that put it out are Interscope, Aftermath and Shady. And a couple of months later, they reissued the tune as the fifth single from that project.