In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine crowned Eminem the "King of Hip-Hop," a play cousin of rap's coveted G.O.A.T. title, or Greatest Of All Time. Em was in between projects at the time: Relapse and Recovery arrived in succession between 2009 and 2010, and he wouldn't deliver his eighth (and most recent) album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, until 2013. It's a glaring example of how the Detroit-based rapper (born Marshall Bruce Mathers) seems to remain on everyone's minds—even when he's nowhere to be found.
His ninth studio album, Revival, is perhaps the most anticipated album of 2017, despite its dubious release date. With the recently-released "Walk On Water" with Beyoncé and an internet-buzzing performance on Saturday Night Live, Eminem is once again thrust back into the spotlight. Let's not forget his 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher verse where he dismantled Donald Trump bar-for-bar. Considering the crossroads we are currently at within hip-hop, is Eminem's Revival going to save music or are we simply asking for too much?
Eminem is hip-hop's sole example of how a blue-collar trajectory can lead to a legendary status. He lacks the come-up tales of other living legends like JAY-Z or even Nas who both sold drugs in their early days (though Jay's was far more extensive). Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane too, though both theoretically represent the turning point of violating one of Biggie's "Ten Crack Commandments"—never get high on your own supply. Em didn't have a life of crime (though domestic violence ran rampant), despite being surrounded by it in Detroit. He didn't have some prison tale he could lean on, nor did he have noteworthy gang ties that he could casually allude to in his music. He came from a trailer park, went the idyllic rap route of battling and building his lyrical dexterity, and became famous because of it.
He's never worn his success on his sleeve and, despite being a millionaire, we rarely ever hear about it in his music. We don't know which designers he wears, which cars he drives, only which pills he's popped to numb the pain of fame. For that, he's the most accessible rap superhero, an artist who has suffered from depression and anxiety and has used narcotics as both an addict and a patient. His mental anguish is not melodramatic like Drake's nor is it a hallucinogenic badge of honor like Future's. He manages to still remain human, even when he's calling himself a "Rap God." And that's really because it's his only chosen ammo. He probably won't dress better than you, but he'll rap better than you, which is why the superlatives tossed his way are usually received without the blink of an eye (from both himself and his fans). He is the only white rapper rarely ever referred to as a "white rapper," a feat within itself.
However, his Revival teaser being "Walk On Water" suggests we are in for another iteration of Marshall. We've already met the irreverent sharp-tongued jester on The Slim Shady LP; the lyrical monster that presented himself through The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show, Encore, Relapse, Recovery, and The Marshall Mathers LP 2; and the gifted producer. This time, he may be disgruntled and sober. His opening bars on "Walk On Water" reflect upon how his reputation may even eclipse his talent:
Why are expectations so high? Is it the bar I set? / My arms, I stretch, but I can't reach / A far cry from it, or it's in my grasp, but as / Soon as I grab, squeeze / I lose my grip like the flyin' trapeze.
So much of his depression has been conjured up from the burden of living up to his own hype. And now, given rap's shaky ground, that pressure could turn coal into a diamond. It's understandable, since Eminem is truly the only cross-generational rapper who can reach everyone simultaneously.
JAY-Z openly leveled up to adult rap with 4:44 this year, and while Lil Wayne has arguably inspired the current regime of young rappers, his scattered loosie tracks aren't nearly enough to suggest he's a contender. Gucci Mane is America's current Sweetheart, so his only connection to "the kids" (much like Wayne) is through his back-catalog. It's all on Eminem now, who has a two-decade fanbase complete with a story that hits Millennial and Generation-Z artists right where they need it.
He's rapped as a functioning addict at times, and while having come from the worst and achieving the best, he always looks miserable. That omnipresent sadness about him is found in the younger artists of today like XXXTentacion and the late Lil Peep. But while older fans rarely take the youth seriously both in lyrics and lifestyle, Eminem is taken very seriously. For that reason, so much is riding on Revival, as unrealistic as those expectations are. Eminem can rhyme about depression but can't save everyone from suicide, nor can he impeach Trump by calling him a "bitch." He's told us time and time again that he's not out to save the world (listen carefully to "Stan"), but we never seem to listen. If Revival isn't everything we hoped for, then perhaps that will be the wake-up call.
It's not to say that Eminem can't live up to his often self-imposed hysteria. He exists under a microscope of his own making, leaving him more apt to recklessly not give a fuck about what flies out of his mouth. That alone makes him win by proxy, where other top-of-the-class artists are often muted by best business practices. However, Revival may be just what we need; while Kendrick Lamar is doing the work of the Lord by socially charging up the Black community, Eminem has the luxury of bouncing over to the partial Trump-supporting white community and doing the same while still speaking to the Black community as well. He's politically driven, mentally tormented, and at times addicted—to pills, love (or lack thereof), and violence. It's a tall order of darkness, yet a mirror of society, proving that even if Eminem's bar is set too high, his realism will still be all we need.