The DJBooth Slack chat has always been one of the most spirited places for music debate, none more so than when Eminem is the topic of conversation.
Last Friday, I found myself in a strange—if not frustrating—position, halfway defending Eminem’s new single with Beyoncé, “Walk On Water,” while most of the rest of our staff didn’t feel as, let's say, emotionally neutral.
After just 15 minutes, our various reactions to the song—from Yoh’s claim that Em has become a more personable Macklemore to Andy wishing upon a hip-hop star that Em would make music with El-P or DJ Premier—felt like an encapsulation of Eminem's biggest problem: he's no longer crafting artistically satisfying music.
Personally, my reaction to “Walk on Water” went from “I kind of like this song” to “I don’t actively hate this song,” yet, ultimately, my feelings never reached either end of the emotional spectrum.
Accompanied by a Beyoncé chorus that touches on the concept of being God-like but only in the eye of the beholder, Eminem's lyrics (“Always in search of the verse I haven’t spit yet / Will this step just be another misstep?”) are often noble in their sincerity and purpose. In some instances, he appears lost and frustrated (“Every album song I was spazzin' the fuck out on / And now I’m getting clowned and frowned on”) with his current position in hip-hop.
Compared to the lyrical word vomit and Ann Coulter violation rhyme schemes of years past, this level of self-reflection is quite pleasant, but when coupled with the bass-less piano keys, strained violin chords that plead with you to understand their anguish, and an excruciating self-seriousness, it's impossible to listen to “Walk On Water” without acknowledging the emptiness of its entire being.
Enmeshed within every conceptually progressive and emotionally vulnerable verse of “Walk On Water” is the very real sense that Eminem, a rapper who spawned one of the most culturally provocative and commercially successful acts in the history of music, has become woefully uninteresting.
For years, Eminem has searched for what he believes fans want to hear from him, only to perpetually find himself chasing a hallucination of recovered artistic glory and nuance. His biggest hits of the last decade all attempt different things, yet they all have reached the same endpoint. “Not Afraid,” Eminem’s first “comeback” single on Recovery, was a more mature Slim Shady but felt like nothing more than gym workout fodder. “Love The Way You Lie,” an absolutely abysmal return to Em’s storytelling side, used a Rihanna feature to sell records while hiding its conceptual gimmicks. “The Monster,” featuring yet another Rihanna guest feature, found Em channeling the once dark side of his persona that spawned so many hits, only to come up dreadfully short.
Make no mistake, these songs were all commercial successes and remain some of the highest-charting songs in Eminem's catalog. Artistically, though, songs like “Not Afraid,” “Love The Way You Lie,” and now “Walk on Water,” highlight the disconnect between who we knew Eminem to be and who he has become. No matter what kind of material he concocts, we are constantly asking Marshall for something different.
This is neither a critique nor a defense of Eminem, but rather a statement of facts. On “Walk On Water,” Eminem himself laments his verses on Tech N9ne's “Speedom” and Big Sean’s “No Favors,” aware of the fan dissatisfaction that surrounds them. In his prime, Eminem became one of the most popular artists on the planet not just for his ability to craft singles that catered to the masses, but because he knew how to exploit the hypocrisy of the very pop culture cycle he seems intent on pleasing now. Records like “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” and “The Way I Am” aren't just noteworthy selections in his catalog, but blueprints outlining the inner workings of the entire Slim Shady persona.
On “Walk On Water,” for as sincere as Eminem wants you to believe he is, one can’t help but notice his formulaic approach to self-reflection, in which every ounce of introspection feels heavy-handed and duplicitous. If Em is as self-conscious of our jokes and as self-aware of his own mistakes as he indicates on the record, why does “Walk On Water” only feel like a slight turn left on a very wide road headed nowhere?
Like recent songs from Macklemore and Logic that entice audiences with this same copy-paste emotional approach, “Walk On Water” is not tasteless enough to be bad, but not original enough to be considered objectively good, either. The song feels trapped in an artistic no man’s land, a place where fans have no idea how to process or converse about Eminem and his music without feeling dissatisfied.
What struck me the most about our staff Slack chat was the overwhelming desire to hear Eminem try something else, something new. It wasn’t just that a song like “Walk On Water” wasn’t good enough, but that it was too safe an artistic choice for Em to make. Frustratingly, when Eminem has ventured away from safe in the past, he still can't seem to find any peace.
After the release of Encore, arguably the worst album of Eminem’s career and a directionless mess of past iterations of Shady trying to coexist, many fans desired for Eminem to expand his material past the immaturity and rage he had channeled effortlessly for so many years. After Relapse, the desire was for him to not lose himself in his own dark thoughts and concepts, yet, after Recovery, we only wished for something more conceptually and sonically fulfilling. When Em pivoted toward rapping as technically proficient and lyrically volumizing as humanly possible, such as on Marshall Mathers LP 2 tracks like “Rap God” and “Groundhog Day,” and even as he attempted to regain the prowess of his cultural critiques, his impact remained trapped within the image of a rapper that wasn’t there anymore.
On “Walk on Water,” Em laments, “Why are expectations so high? Is it the bar I set?” which seems to only recognize half the problem; it isn’t that the bar is too high to reach, but that Eminem is no longer competing in the same event.
Even when Eminem has pivoted toward politics, an arena that spawned lyrically potent and conceptually important songs like “Square Dance” and “Mosh,” the response has remained polarizing. Last month, after he used his BET freestyle to attack President Trump, Eminem, despite being highly-praised by several late-night hosts, faced criticism instead of basking in the glow of a culturally uniting moment. Though his lyrics hit hard in the moment, they pale in comparison to the finest political commentary of his career, and the offbeat nature of his rhyme schemes only highlighted its awkwardness instead of its impact.
As other grown-man rappers, like JAY-Z, find their groove reflecting on their deepest flaws, Marshall Mathers appears incapable of pulling off that same feat without facing criticism.
Is it him?
Is it us?
Or is it simply a case of one emperor whose clothes could only fit him for so long before his nakedness became an inevitability?