You may want to say that it sounds like vintage Em, but what does that mean? Marshall Mathers has had so many different sounds over the years that it’s hard to pinpoint what kind of artist he is.
Is he the original bleach blonde smart-ass with a relaxed flow, witty one-liners, and clever puns from the late ’90s when he was just emerging and featured on countless tracks? What about the rap superstar that was at the top of the game, blistering MCs, devouring microphones, and taking home diamond plaques, Grammys, and even an Academy Award from 2000–2003? Maybe the period that began with Encore and ended with Relapse in which he struggled with both his fame and addiction problems as his weight ballooned and he nearly died from an overdose, but that provided some of his most honest and heartfelt songs? Or how about his approach since 2009, when he discovered his penchant for cheesy rock samples and stadium anthems mixed with a triple-time flow and lyrics full of homophones?
On Revival, his first full-length album in four years, he tries to balance and combine all of these in an attempt to create a bouillabaisse of all of his different sounds.
There’s “Chloraseptic” that is closer to straight spittin’ from the early days; “Castle” and “Arose” sound like the honest, soul-searching period between Encore and Relapse; “Framed” sounds like it came from the Relapse sessions; “Tragic Endings” with its screaming verses and pop star on the hook could fit on Recovery; “Remind Me” and “Heat” are more in line with what he’s been doing since The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and Shady XV; and “Walk on Water” doesn’t employ a beat, something he’s preferred in his freestyles over the past few years (“Shady CXVPHER”; “Campaign Speech”; “The Storm”).
Whether this approach sounds like the best-of-all-worlds or comes across as disjointed and fractured depends upon your taste.
From a technical standpoint, he’s never been better. A class could be taught on how Eminem creates his verses. He can bend any word to his will and he’s still challenging himself, as evidenced by his attempt to emulate Migos’ flow on “Believe.” And even if the puns sometimes feel like there should be someone saying “Get it?” after every line — “Even my cheap shots are overpriced / But this middle finger’s free as a bird” — there’s something impressive in his wordplay that has been there since the beginning.
Like so many things in life, it comes down to timing.
For more traditional hip-hop heads that were around when he first burst onto the scene, classic Eminem is early Slim Shady, certainly pre-Encore, when he was rhyming over Dr. Dre beats. Yet, a sixteen-year-old today hadn’t even been born when The Marshall Mathers LP took over the world, so to many of them, the Eminem with which they’re most familiar is the one that has been around since Recovery.
Eminem admits as much: “Sometimes I’m trying to appease people who think, Man, I miss when Eminem was raw…The truth is that going from one subject to a completely different one is a balancing act and I’m trying to give something to everyone.”
So, for a forty-five year-old multimillionaire that skyrocketed to fame by mocking pop stars with gross-out metaphors but whose biggest hits in recent years have been more traditional singles that featured pop stars, it must be tough to choose a direction to follow on a full-length album. It must be difficult to try to give something to everyone.
In fact, it may be impossible.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.