Words by Stan Sy
Eminem is a living legend at this point. At 45, he shouldn’t really have anything left to prove. When he deified himself as a Rap God four years ago, nobody really questioned it because he cemented his status as one way before that.
Yet at the same time, he’s trying to remain relevant—to get people talking about Revival in the weeks leading up to its release. And what better way is there to scream, “I’m back!” than to drop a new single with Beyonce (!!!) singing the hook?
When Eminem released “Walk On Water” last week, it seemed like he did an about-face from all the braggadocio and swagger from much of his previous work. The Eminem we got was more raw. Instead of hearing from Slim Shady, we heard from Marshall Mathers as he reflected on his legacy and how people will ultimately remember him, while also pondering on how critics have just gone berserk on him through the second half of his career so far.
On the first listen, the song sounds like a breath of fresh air, especially since Eminem doesn’t go out of his way to bash the Dick Cheneys, Chris Kirkpatricks, and Mobys of the world. He trades them in for shout-outs to the rappers he respects, from 2Pac, Nas, Rakim, The Notorious B.I.G., and LL Cool J. At the same time, he wonders out loud why people expect so much out of him and his music. (Why are expectations so high? / Is it the bar I set? / My arms, I stretch, but I can’t reach)
He raps about feeling the pressure to come out with the next mic-dropping verse, to the point that he himself no longer feels satisfied about anything he’s written—questioning his own confidence in the process. (It’s the curse of the standard / that the first of the Mathers discs set / Always in search of the verse that I haven’t spit yet / Will this step be just another misstep / to tarnish whatever the legacy, love or respect I’ve garnered?)
Beyonce’s hook nails the humanity that Eminem is describing within the verses—specifically the insecurities that hide beneath the adoration and respect that people shower upon superstars like them. (I walk on water/ but I ain’t no Jesus / I walk on water / but only when it freezes)
His cadence on this track is evocative of that freestyle from last month, where he dissed U.S. President Donald Trump. But instead of angrily cussing anyone or anything out, it sounds more like a spoken word performance where he bares his soul to anybody who’d listen.
While Eminem does display a vulnerability that isn’t foreign to long-time listeners of his music, the idea that his confidence in the one thing that has come to define him—his work—is shaken is a stark contrast to the untouchable deity he touted himself as in The Marshall Mathers LP 2 from 2013. For example, in “Rap God,” he gloats about attempting “lyrical acrobatic stunts,” referring to his ability to make words that don’t rhyme sound like they do in his verses. And in the third verse, when Eminem raps at “supersonic speed” a la Busta Rhymes, he calls himself “superhuman” and asserts that he’s “made of rubber”, remarking that any shots fired his way just ricochet off him and end up getting stuck where they came from.
Contrast that with “Walk On Water,” where Eminem presents himself as a sympathetic figure. He pulls the curtain back on his art and puts his insecurities on display, wondering if he ever even left a mark on this world at all. He goes so far as to ask if he deserves the luck of being alive up to this point, especially when the people that once loved him seem to have gone away and moved on—thinking out loud if he should do the same.
And yet for all of Eminem’s reflecting, there’s a sense of being tone-deaf within the track. For starters, his use of the word “retarded”—an old habit dating back to a lot of his previous work, most recently in The Marshall Mathers LP 2—in 2017 shows a lack of social awareness that comes with the times.
But what’s more jarring is the coda, which turns the song’s tone and theme on its head. Whereas Eminem spent five minutes coming to terms with his humanity, he suddenly reverts to being Slim Shady once again as if to say, “Fuck y’all. Just kidding. Lol” A coda is traditionally used to enforce a feeling of finality, to complete a track. Eminem uses it differently to make you question whether or not he genuinely felt what he just rapped about. The verses that preceded it leave a feeling of insincerity, like they were part of a PR stunt meant to draw your attention until he could put his mask on once again.
Despite the fact that Eminem himself said in the same song that it was “exhaustive” to keep putting up his “Rap God” facade, he goes back into Rap God mode and reminds everyone that he is still the mad genius who wrote hits like “Stan.” While the jarring coda could very well just be part of the song that eventually segues into the next track on the upcoming album Revival, having it on the initial release itself doesn’t do “Walk On Water” any favors. Instead of ending the song with a lasting image of Eminem seemingly turning the page on this chapter of his life and career—one where he feels he had to put on that mask and is willingly taking if off—he eschews that and willingly puts it back on to prove more people wrong as he is wont to do.
Hearing an Eminem collaboration with Beyonce in 2017 should be something worth celebrating. Beyonce surely didn’t need this. Eminem might have, though one could argue that anything he puts out at this point in his career is gravy. “Walk On Water” does its job of getting ears on the product and hyping up the larger mainstream audience for his highly-anticipated comeback album. But it falls short of truly capturing that feel of a flawed man finally maturing after we’d watch him grow, crash and burn, and then get back up right before our eyes.
Just when you thought you’d seen a new side to Eminem—one that he’s finally let us see for ourselves—he pulls the rug from underneath, as if to say, “just kidding lol.” Maybe that’s the most human part about it all, that the rap god we deified ultimately revealed his humanity as he grasped at straws to remain relevant in a world that’s seemingly moved on without him.
FEATURED IMAGE: via Billboard.com