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Eminem is aging, for better or worse. From the first piano clink of the Rick Rubin-produced “Walk on Water” featuring Beyoncé, Marshall Mathers grapples with what it means to age gracefully in hip-hop for him and his “stans.”
The first bar we hear from Eminem is a question: “Why are expectations so high?” The confidence and exuberance of Slim Shady are nowhere to be found in the somber track. Over the course of three verses Eminem discusses the world critically passing him by and what his legacy means in 2017.
The lyrics show an Eminem dealing with what he — and potentially the world — see as an MC who is a shadow of himself: He’s calm as he steels himself for criticism (“Knowing that no matter what bars I come with you’re gonna harp, gripe and that’s a hard Vicodin to swallow”) and finds a stark contrast between the current moment and those of his former selves: “There was a time I had the walls by the balls, eating out of palm/Every album song I was spazzing the fuck out on/ Now I’m getting clowned and frowned on.”
Perhaps, the two most telling parts of the song are when he acknowledges the takedowns of his contribution to Big Sean’s “No Favors” and harkens back to his “‘Til I Collapse” verse to make a point of doubting his place in the rap legend pantheon: “But if you bitches are trying to strip me of my confidence/Mission accomplished/I’m not God-sent/ Nas, Rakim, Pac, B.I.G., James Todd Smith, and I’m not Prince, so…”
Generally, fans are used to songs like “The Real Slim Shady,” “Without Me,” and “Just Lose It,” which are drenched in Shady’s signature pop culture punchlines over a kinetic beat. But what we need Eminem to be now, is different than the artist he was in the past, and “Walk on Water” breaks the mold of the traditional Eminem first single.
The overwhelming response to his Trump freestyle during the BET Hip-Hop Awards proved that for many, Mathers is someone they look to for cultural commentary. If Beyoncé’s hook can teach us anything, it’s that Mathers the man isn’t a religious figure, but a vulnerable star learning how to face an uncertain future like the rest of us. It’s hard to say what Eminem has in store for fans, but one can hope that he’ll continue to work out his feelings about his next chapter as he approaches it.