Eminem is a walking contradiction, at once meticulous and utterly messy, both in character and in lyric. His politics are complicated, his rhymes often puzzling. The illustrious Marshall Mathers has without a doubt left behind a prickly portfolio that ranges from aggravating dark male anger to poppy bops to at times mind-bending twists of verse. He is, by most measures, one of the greatest and most problematic hip-hop artists of his era.
Eminem has since more or less fallen out of the zeitgeist, nowadays reserved for workout playlists and the occasional surprise appearance on shuffle. In “Walk on Water,” the new prelude to his upcoming album Revival, Eminem wants us to know he’s well aware of his tumble down into irrelevance, but that he’s not satisfied with it. The new ballad — moreso a sneak peek for Revival than a true, standalone single — doesn’t sound a whole lot like Eminem. There’s no playful twang or aggressive sharpness. Instead, subdued and somber, Eminem reflects on the artistic pressures of his legacy against the noise of tearing paper and a simple piano in place of a beat. The song’s pensive tempo is, as many have pointed out, much more Macklemore than Marshall, in an unsettling way.
If not for Beyoncé’s gracefully tapered hook, the track would be exceptionally boring, both lyrically and musically. If “Walk on Water” is meant to introduce the new tone and artistic tension of Revival, then we may be gearing up for a softer, more mellow Eminem, albeit not a particularly interesting one. There isn’t need for alarm, though: The song’s outro ever briefly teases at the familiar cockiness of Slim Shady (“But as long as I got a mic, I’m godlike/So me and you are not alike/Bitch, I wrote ‘Stan’”), alluding to the possibility of conflict rather than sheer contemplation in Eminem’s upcoming work.
Artists who outlast their prime tend to either gracefully fade out of relevance, blunder loudly enough to undermine their previous success or — on rare occasion — make a glorious comeback. Eminem is, laudably, aware of the crossroads he’s approaching, particularly at this exact political moment. How he chooses to exist in it is still to be seen.
Pegah Moradi is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.