How The Digital Age Impacts Eminem’s Artistic Fulfillment

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“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 “insecureRevival.

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.