I’ve been an Eminem stan since the moment I first heard “My Name Is.” It was a cold winter morning (for South Texas standards) in 1999, and just before leaving for school, Tyrese (yes, Fast & Furious Tyrese) introduced a new video on MTV Jams from some “cat named Eminem.” It was phenomenal, an absolute masterclass in blending dark lyrics with cartoonish beats. The infectious chorus remained stuck in my head for the remainder of the day.
Not that I expected much when purchasing Eminem's major label debut, The Slim Shady LP. Sure, “My Name Is” was a cute novelty track, but no way Eminem could put together an album’s worth of comparable material. This was true to an extent, considering “My Name Is” actually ranks among the lesser tracks on The Slim Shady LP – one of the darkest, most desperate albums in the history of hip-hop.
If The Slim Shady LP was crafted by a man who knew here stood his only shot at escaping poverty and squalor, its follow-up – The Marshall Mathers LP – starred a man who wasn’t going to miss his chance at superstardom. You know the story from this point … MMLP was a critical and commercial smash, followed by another in 2002’s The Eminem Show.
You get the point; I was, am and will remain an ardent follower of Eminem, no matter the turns he elects to take in his career. And yet, I find myself in a unique case in the present day; for the first time in history, Eminem is about to release a new album, and I don’t really care.
The album is Revival, Eminem’s ninth studio album, and it’s scheduled to drop on December 15. The lead single features Beyoncé, and it’s nothing special. Rather, it features Eminem in a rare position – that of a try-hard. Whereas his previous material – particularly his first three records – felt effortless, “Walk on Water” feels like an artist attempting to create a memorable track and whiffing badly. Hell, Eminem likely didn’t set out to make “Lose Yourself” an all-time anthem, and that only makes the song greater.
Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve been skeptical of an Eminem single that was born from an album I quite enjoyed. “Berzerk” wasn’t a personal favorite, but The Marshall Mathers LP 2 – while a bit bloated, as Eminem’s latter-day records tend to be – is a solid addition to Slim Shady’s discography. “Not Afraid” is a solid enough track, but it ranks low in comparison to other material from Eminem’s underrated comeback album, 2010’s Recovery.
But this, well, it feels different this time. It’s not just that “Walk on Water” feels forced and unnecessary; it’s that the collective sense among music fans is that no one was really clamoring for a new Eminem single in the first place. Personally, MMLP2 (while flawed) felt like a nice way for Eminem to bid adieu. The man who once said goodbye to Hollywood could now say goodbye to the genre he helped redefine.
Instead, Eminem showcased a political freestyle at the most recent BET Awards, and “Walk on Water” surfaced shortly thereafter. A medley performance on Saturday Night Live took place recently, thus fueling rumors that Revival’s release was eminent. And just this week, the man himself confirmed as much, when Eminem announced that Revival would drop December 15.
Now, make no mistake, Revival will move product. Few artists are an absolute guarantee in today’s musical climate. Drake. Taylor Swift. Beyoncé. Adele. The list is short. And yet, Eminem’s latest will no doubt debut atop the charts and eventually move millions. But, more importantly, will it be any good? Like Jay-Z, who weathered a slew of duds before finally getting it right with 4:44, can Eminem find that magic one more time and show these young cats in the hip-hop game what the genre’s elder statesmen are truly capable of? Is Revival going to garner comparisons to Recovery (good) or Relapse (bad)?
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There’s really no way to tell, considering Eminem and his team – particularly in today’s social media age – have kept the details on Revival relatively tight-knit. No songs, “Walk on Water” notwithstanding, have leaked, and little information exists, save for Rick Rubin and Skylar Gray’s involvement as producers. And perhaps this is part of the reason the anticipation for Revival feels somewhat tempered. Taylor Swift put out three singles before Reputation even dropped, giving audiences a chance to gauge what they could expect. Eminem, meanwhile, dropped one single and left us to our own devices.
Maybe this isn’t the worst thing. Maybe Revival will grant Eminem the opportunity to show the world why he mattered in the first place, why he was the most important pop star on the planet for a 4-5 year stretch, and why, at one point, he was legitimately considered dangerous by certain members of the American public. Or maybe this will be Em’s 4:44 moment, a chance to reflect on a life and career that featured ups and downs aplenty and do so in a way that pleases fans and critics alike. If anything, “Walk on Water’s” somber, whimsical tone almost portends as much.
Either way, Revival arrives in a little over a week’s time, and no one knows what to expect. Eminem is back after a four-year break. Did we miss him, did we move on, or is it a little bit of both? Did artists like Kendrick Lamar and Drake permanently usurp Em’s relevance? Or does one of the most iconic artists in hip-hop history have one more classic in a catalog that already features many?
No one knows for sure. What we do know is that Shady’s back, back again. Here’s hoping he brought his best with him.