“I think we’re confused about what’s going to make us happy. Many people think that material possessions are really at the center of the bull’s eye, and they expect that gratifying each desire as it arises will somehow summate into a satisfying life.”
That quote comes from Minimalism, a Netflix documentary which follows two people going on a book tour, telling hoards of people about how their ceaseless trek up the corporate ladder brought them no fulfillment — and how they decided to give it all up for a life surrounded only by things that they truly need. It sounds like something Eminem should watch, because he’s currently looking like rap’s highest-profile example of artistic unfulfillment.
Shady admits that he had no idea where his figurative bullseye is on the “Walk On Water” single from Revival. After millions of album sales, dozens of plaques, awards and other material barometers of success, he sounds as unsure of himself as an artist who had never accomplished a thing. He sounds unsure what those accomplishments even mean relative to his happiness throughout the “insecure” Revival.
His honesty highlights the virulence of the echo chamber that is the modern hip-hop social mediasphere. The endless noise and dissenting opinions can gradually poke holes in the freedom that artistry thrives off — and that toxicity is only worsened by the demands of record executives looking to squeeze every cent out of their assets. Revival is full of pop stars like Pink and Ed Sheeran, which looks the complete opposite of what we could have expected when he rhymed, “I’m not Mr. N’ Sync, I’m not what your friends think” on 2000’s “The Way I Am.” Perhaps though, we should have absorbed that line as a clue that he was too concerned with what people think.
Throughout Eminem’s career, he’s expressed frustration with balancing the demands of being a top-tier artist and wanting to just rhyme. It’s telling that “The Way I Am” was released to radio after “The Real Slim Shady,” a placatory song that he did hours before turning in The Marshall Mathers LP. He vented, “I’m not gonna be able to top ‘My Name Is’” on “The Way I Am,” but he was wrong — “The Real Slim Shady” was his biggest hit to that point. That moment created a tradition of chasing monstrous, mass appeal first singles, which has slowly turned into his baseline approach for nearly every single. How much does Eminem appreciate that circumstance? It’s worth noting that Joe Budden, a Shady signee, questioned how much Eminem was involved in the Revival rollout on his former slot on a Complex show.
Though he probably won’t garner too much sympathy with millions in the bank and a life infinitely better than the world’s many sufferers, it’s worth considering that the novelty of being such a talented white rapper vaulted him past the stratosphere of would-be peers such as Redman, Masta Ace, and other lyricists he stylistically resembles. He got way more than he ever wanted. It seems like Eminem would have always been just as happy signed to Rawkus Records and rhyming on the underground circuit as he was on sold-out world tours with Dr. Dre. His image and music sold like big-time pop stars though — and is expected to keep doing that, by any sonic means possible. The tug-of-war between wanting to be a “rap god” and chart-topper has to be draining.
“Walk On Water” is possibly the most glaring example of his qualms… because the song wasn’t good. It marks the first time that the mass appeal strategy didn’t work. After hearing “The Way I Am,” I know I selfishly wished that he could rhyme about being stressed out on every single because the sh*t was dope. But the underwhelming hip-hop ballad that is “Walk On Water” — and the rest of Revival — shows that maybe we should heed the uncertainty that Eminem and other artists express while trying, seemingly, to please everyone but themselves.
As a lyricist, Eminem is a maximalist, a master of slant rhyme who once reeled off the myriad of ways you can rhyme orange. Like “everyday” people who reach a midlife crisis, it feels like he’s now reckoning with the figurative clutter of packing bars to the brim for 20 years and still feeling unsatisfied by the trappings those rhymes accrued, whether sales or swathes of fans who argue about what he needs to do with his art all day online.
His career trajectory is the worst case scenario of what can happen, not only when raw artistry converges with the demands of the music business, but when artists chase unattainable and unquantifiable respect.
It’s not just him. His own partner-in-rhyme 50 Cent called an album Before I Self Destruct. Jay-Z is a GOAT but for years dealt with insecurities about his place relative to Biggie, who has been dead for years. Most prominently, we’ve seen Kanye West have a mental health crisis at the end of 2016. So many of his fans and observers saw it coming in part because of his ceaseless discontent. He complains during almost every award season about him — or Beyonce — being overlooked. He wants to create art with Drake who he has always admired, but boardroom beef between Tidal and Apple is in the way.
During an infamous 2013 interview with Sway, Kanye sounded direly afraid of being “marginalized” until he was out of his “moment.” Was he referring to the same kind of moment Eminem spoke of on “Til I Collapse?”
“Music is like magic, there’s a certain feeling you get
When you real and you spit, and people are feeling your sh*t
This is your moment, and every single minute you spend
Tryna hold on to it because you may never get it again
So while you’re in it, try to get as much sh*t as you can
And when your run is over, just admit when it’s at its end
Because I’m at the end of my wits with half the sh*t that gets in
I got a list, here’s the order of my list that it’s in
It goes Reggie, Jay-Z, 2Pac and Biggie
Andre from OutKast, Jada, Kurupt, Nas, and then me
But in this industry I’m the cause of a lot of envy
So when I’m not put on this list, the shit does not offend me
That’s why you see me walk around
Like nothing’s bothering me”
When he asks, “why are expectations so high?,” on “Walk On Water,” he pretty much confirms how bothered he’s now become by the constant demands of sharing his moment with fans who “stripped him of confidence.” It’s a question not only to us consumers but to himself. The third verse reflects on the “time I had the world by the balls, eating out my palm.” He seems haunted by the idea that he can’t grasp that feeling again.
It sounds like the struggle of so many of us who achieve, feel the momentary sense of accomplishment, and ultimately become existentially unsatisfied by the arbitrary expectation to continue achieving, producing at all cost. So much of that is influenced by outside forces such as family and friends who think they’re helping us but further billow our pathway to contentment with (sometimes backhanded) advice and piecemeal observations of how we should live our lives. Our spirit then becomes an oasis for anxiety. Extrapolate that by millions, then you’ve got Eminem.
What Em — and so many of us — must reconcile is that the sense of accomplishment can be everlasting when it’s not be defined by others. As much as us fans bracket the time period of a “run” by qualifiers such as sales, award nominations, and even critical acclaim, we can acknowledge that none of the banter that takes place actually means anything once the debate is over. So artists shouldn’t get consumed by it. Even if the billion dollar music industry has clouded our perspective, the truth remains that the nature of artistry — and really, existence — is an internal quest for fulfillment, unencumbered by any outside barriers.
That’s why one of his best friends, Dr. Dre, has been locked away every day in the studio for the past 17 years. He probably hasn’t even released 5% of those creations, but he seems content with that because he loves the creative process, not the potential profits of those creations. That’s why he had no problem eventually admitting that Detox was never coming out. His wife said in the Defiant Ones HBO documentary that the idea of time doesn’t exist to him, which basically gives the idea of a moment the finger.
There’s no reason an artist as thoughtful as Eminem can’t eventually get it all in perspective — as hard as that may be in a world that chooses to quibble about Jay-Z’s ticket sales instead of the fact that he’s getting to travel the world performing the most cathartic project of his life. It’s hard to keep the muck of outside opinions and external expectations at bay, but it’s vital, lest you become beholden to them like Eminem has. He’s slowly gone down the mass appeal rabbit hole to the point where he’s now the exact pop star he would have mocked 18 years ago.
The circumstance doesn’t feel as simple as him intently deciding to “sell out”, since he could care less about the benefits of “selling out.” He’s just cornered by the magnitude of his fame and relenting to the pressure of chasing the unquantifiable in hopes of bringing that “world by the balls” moment back. He’s going through the motions like so many of us do, just on a world stage. But a glimmer of hope exists on “Walk On Water,” as he reflects a simple formula for success as a rapper: “take your best rhyme, outdo it, now do it a thousand times.” If he can hone in on that for the next album, he’ll be just fine — never mind what we think.