With his legacy on the line, Eminem needs to deliver one more banger of an album.
Eminem’s most recent release, Revival, hit streaming services and store shelves amid much hype and speculation. Had the man known as Slim Shady finally crafted the comeback album that many of his hardcore fans – if not the hip-hop world at large – had been craving for what feels like forever?
Based on the listener reaction and resulting album sale numbers, the answer was a resounding “no.”
Despite debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in the closing moments of 2017, Revival marked a huge drop-off in sales for the rap giant. With 267,000 Sales Plus Streaming (SPS) units moved during its first week on the market, it represented Em’s worst debut from a stats perspective since 1999’s The Slim Shady LP. To make matters worse, several critics echoed fan disappointment in the record, calling it one of the poorest efforts of Mathers’ career.
Sure, a ballad-heavy album that features high-profile snoozers such as “Walk on Water,” “Bad Husband” and “River” was bound to upset those hoping that Eminem would use his brief hiatus from the game as an opportunity to return to the fray with more ammunition than ever before. However, bogged down with warmed-over thematic elements and clunky rhymes, Revival proved to be a far cry from the rapper’s glory days.
Having built his reputation on his unmistakable vocal delivery, Em still has his moments – most recently during his guest verse on Nicki Minaj’s new single “Majesty.” The rap empress has gone so far as to say that his performance on her album will go down as “one of the best verses in history.” Even going as far back as 2013’s “Rap God,” there’s little doubt that Eminem still has the skills, and then some. The issue, or debate, isn't centered around that; rather it's a question that relies moreso on his production choices and method of vocal delivery. Heavy-handed and tiresome beats don't necessarily make for an exciting vocal delivery, either. His voice has changed with age, to be sure, but even so, it's not like he can't bust out a more high-pitched flow or cadence when he so desires. There are many message boards across the internet discussing and dissecting this phenomenon-- we'll save our own dissection of that for another piece.
The question we are wondering today: Does Eminem have yet another comeback attempt in him? More specifically, have music consumers at large still got an ear for what he brings to the table, or have they simply grown tired of an Eminem who isn’t quite as fiery as he used to be. Using Revival as a platform to get far more overtly political with his music than he has in the past, maybe his suddenly woke persona isn’t doing his legacy any favors either.
In fact, it’s a legacy whose relevancy is up for debate in certain circles. On the one hand, you have guys like Dave East who still count songs like “Stan” as part of their all-time top five. Conversely, you have others who have dismissed Em as a has-been, especially considering the shots he took at his own popularity in the lyrics to “Walk on Water.” It turns out publicly displaying his insecurities in such a transparent way didn’t sit well with his major supporters, who prefer their Slim Shady as a guy who uses anger and bravado as a means to wrestle with his demons.
That edginess seems to have slowly seeped out of his system this decade, replacing it with a carefully harnessed moodiness that he used to great effect on the Rihanna duet “Love the Way You Lie,” as well as the dozen or so times he’s tried to rewrite that hit. There are times when his writing remains compelling and even emotionally arresting but, even with that lyrical prowess, those obvious attempts at a mainstream resurgence have been a string of (mostly) ugly misfires.
Perhaps Eminem’s downward spiral, at least in the court of popular opinion, can be explained as a natural byproduct of changing times, changing trends and, most importantly, the aging process. On a sonic level, hip-hop barely resembles the climate that Mathers dominated with records like The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show; now, the emcees at the top of rap’s totem pole rely on a more subdued kind of melancholy to drive their music. By trying to move closer to that center, Em may have also undermined the very quality that made him so unique as an artist in the first place.
That said, I have a hard time believing that the Michigan native would be content to let the dying embers of his music career rest on an album as widely ignored as Revival was. Even with a bunch of familiar faces assisting the rap legend on the production side of things, including fellow influencer Rick Rubin, the pieces just never gelled right. There was no out-and-out banger to speak of on the LP, nothing to fully satisfy Eminem fans until his next solo studio release. It was a thud that didn’t go unheard for even the most casual of music consumers.
For that reason, I believe that Eminem has one more tour of duty in him. His status as arguably one of the greatest rappers of all time deserves a better curtain call – one that garners an ovation instead of disquieted murmuring. Most of all, nearly twenty years after The Slim Shady LP debuted in stores, Em is a man who clearly still has something to prove. That conversation used to revolve around his lyrical and personal transgressions, with human rights groups and other organization lashing out on the regular. Now, instead of worrying about his voice being silenced, he must demonstrate that it still matters.
When his BET cypher first aired and the resulting fervor it was met with on social media mere moments later. Vocal delivery aside, this was the Eminem that hip-hop fans had been longing to see for what feels like an eternity – energized, pissed off and pulling absolutely no punches. When the much-hyped album that followed failed to live up to that teaser of a performance, the letdown was real yet hopefully not permanent.
Even considering all of this, Eminem’s place in music’s history books has long been guaranteed. He will be a trending topic when he drops something new, regardless of whether it is deemed "comeback" material or not, simply because of his name and the history attached to it. However, like the Washington Wizards era of Michael Jordan’s career, the rapper should be mindful of letting things fade out so unceremoniously. It’s not the ending anyone wants and changing that narrative is more than possible – it’s needed.