Eminem’s rollout of his grand return to music has been less than stellar. The ads promoting the album have been an ad parody of medical commercials, the first single was met with a lukewarm response despite featuring the always perfect Beyonce and all of that has seemingly forced Em to go back to the drawing board and regroup. Expectations are lower than they’ve ever been for an Eminem album, an odd occurrence since the 45-year-old is widely considered as one of the best ever at his craft, but dwindling relevance and a tired sound will do that to even the best of artists, and now, it seems Marshall and the powers that be behind him have reverted to their final recourse: They sold out.
The new Eminem album was rumored to be a part of a large-scale plan for Universal Music Group, the conglomerate that oversees Em’s label home, Interscope records. When HitsDailyDouble reported rumors two heavyweights — Em and Sam Smith — would be dropping albums, they were supposedly going to release them in tandem, on consecutive weeks to drive up the company’s bottom line in a dominant Billboard year for all of UMG’s subsidiaries. Now, after the release of the tracklist for Revival, it feels more than ever like Em’s album is just some corporate chess move more than an artistic expression that has been brewing inside Marshall Mathers for over four years.
The irony is that the kind of star who that reasoning would be applied to is someone like Taylor Swift — but her album never felt like that, even as it was rolled out like a massive, big-budget production with tons of teasers and announcements and glitzy music videos. No, instead, it always felt like Taylor — who some believe to be the most vanilla of all of the world’s massive popstars — had something to get off her chest and a statement to make, and she did so over and over in sonic form.
Now, it’s Eminem who is the company shill popstar, and it’s his album that looks like the money-grabbing corporate move with shallow motives and even shallower music. It looks like, for all intents and purposes that Em has decided — similarly to Drake — that his music is simply a commercial product, meant to be marketed to the masses, rather than an art form meant as a form of expression for an artist.
The Revival tracklist reeks of industry and label-forced collaborations, and prewritten songs with names and voices tacked on later. Em himself admitted as much about the album’s kind-of-sort-of lead single “Walk On Water,” which came already prepackaged with a Skylar Grey chorus. Mismatched names like Ed Sheeran, Kehlani, X Ambassadors and Alicia Keys all seem to have come to fruition in similar fashion: The label had a song, Em liked it enough to rap on it and later they found a bigger, more buzzing name than Grey’s to replace her in the name of album sales and commercial appeal.
And the phrase “commercial appeal” doesn’t necessarily mean selling records either. Eminem is going to sell records regardless, he’s the highest-selling rapper, ever, and his legions of fans worship him. But as he’s been accused of — and he’s even confronted the accusations — Em seems to be making music for commercials, be it Call Of Duty or some random Hollywood film. Don’t be surprised if the trailer for the next Transformers movie or something comes equipped with Eminem rapping “motivational” lyrics over a cheesy production before Ed Sheeran or Pink sing a pre-written chorus about never giving up and fighting through adversity.
It all makes business sense, of course. Em is one of the few artists who can still make a fortune off selling actual albums, and selling the rights to use his inspirational music in movie trailers, or video game or where ever else they may end up is just another lucrative revenue stream that can and should be utilized when it’s available to an artist or label.
Compare Eminem’s approach to his closest contemporary, Jay-Z, and it’s a stark contrast, two very different approaches for what a rapper nearing his fifties can do in this business. Jay battened down the hatches, hiring one producer and ripping through an album in a matter of weeks because he had something to get off his chest. Jay unfurled an album about maturing, facing his demons and growing as a man, father, and a husband.
It’s not necessarily the subject matter that makes the approach different from what Eminem is doing, “Walk On Water” seems to point at him dealing with some of the same issues, it’s the fact that Jay’s felt more genuine and never felt like a quick money grab for a man who clearly has plenty of cash. It felt like Jay needed to express himself in some way, and it just had to be music because he’s a musician. There were no guests, save for a Damian Marley guest spot and a secret appearance from his wife Beyonce. Those guests served to complement Jay’s art, while Em’s guests feel like the result of label machinations rather than some artistic expression. Jay felt tortured, and in need of a release, Eminem feels like an employee fulfilling his duty and moving along.
This, of course, could all be proven wrong with a meaningful album full of collaborations that feel surprisingly natural. But, come on, Ed Sheeran? Eminem in 1999 would have been calling Sheeran every despicable name in the book and throwing tomatoes at him and mooning a look-alike Sheeran in the music video. Not that Eminem isn’t allowed growth, the pop-star bashing, immature, crude Marshall of yesteryear can’t last for twenty years, nor should it. But the forced collaborations don’t seem to be about maturity, there’s something else at work that signals not only the end of the old Eminem but the beginning of the new, corporate entity who serves only one purpose: To help a conglomerate make money. If Eminem is sacrificing his art to do so, and sell his music for movie trailers and NFL commercials, it’s his prerogative, but it’s a shame.
Now, well, we’ll find out on December 15.