FORBES reports: Nobody should have to remind Eminem of his immense stardom.Since 2000, the Rap God has launched six consecutive studio albums to the top of the Billboard 200, two of which—2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP and 2002’s The Eminem Show — have been certified diamond in the United States for shipping more than 10 million copies. He’s notched five No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, with another 12 piercing the Top 10. He’s the bestselling rapper of all time and the bestselling artist of the 2000s, moving more than 30 million units in a 10-year span. Eminem’s commercial dominance isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s an objective fact.
So why do his latest moves seem plagued with self-doubt?
On Tuesday (Nov. 28), the rapper announced a Dec. 15 release date for his new album, Revival, and… nobody reacted strongly one way or another. Music blogs published their obligatory news posts; Spin hit the nail on the head by describing Revival as “Eminem’s moderately anticipated ninth album.” The announcement came two weeks after “Walk on Water,” his lukewarmly received Beyoncé collaboration that peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned a barrage of Twitter roasts from members of the Beyhive who compared his confessional raps to the likes of Macklemore.
This was a curious reaction for hip-hop’s most dependable hit-maker. Each of Eminem’s post-hiatus releases—2009’s Relapse, 2010’s Recovery and 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2—became the bestselling rap albums of their respective years. But they also drew their fair share of criticism, as writers and fans alike questioned Eminem’s relevance as he approached two decades in the music industry.
In the four-year gap since The Marshall Mathers LP 2, younger rappers whose stars had been growing finally blossomed into bona fide superstars. In 2016, Drake’s Views shifted a staggering 1.04 million units in its first week; his 2017 playlist/album hybrid More Life shifted 505,000 units in its first week. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. debuted atop the Billboard 200 with 603,000 units, the second-highest debut week of the year and his third consecutive chart-topper. J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive went platinum with no features, as did 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only.
All the while, music publications began to portray Eminem as an easy punchline, suggesting his undisputed commercial reign may be coming to an end.
The fourth quarter of 2017 hasn’t treated Em well, though he’s partially to blame for that. During October’s BET Hip-Hop Awards, he dropped “The Storm,” a scathing freestyle in which he lambasted Donald Trump. He questioned the president’s integrity and dared him to respond (“Trump, when it comes to givin’ a shit, you’re stingy as I am / Except when it comes to havin’ the balls to go against me, you hide ’em) and delivered an ultimatum to his pro-Trump fans: “And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his / I’m drawing in the sand a line / you’re either for or against.”
The performance was raw, as legitimate freestyles should be, and had moments of genuinely inspired lyricism. But it’s hard to believe Eminem faced any tangible risk by throwing down the gauntlet, because it’s hard to believe his diehard fans would stop buying his records just because they hold opposing political views. Besides, one “woke” freestyle can’t absolve the rapper of his history of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.
Trump, a notorious trash talker on Twitter, has yet to respond to Eminem—and frankly, he’s pissed about it. “I was and still am extremely angry, and I can’t stand that motherfucker, and I feel like he’s not paying attention to me,” Em said in a recent interview on SiriusXM channel Shade 45. “I was kind of waiting for him to say something… and for some reason, he didn’t say anything.” But in a year when so many artists of color—Lamar and Joey Bada$$, for example—have released more nuanced takedowns of the president, Eminem’s outrage over Trump’s silence seems petulant and unnecessary.
Meanwhile, “Walk on Water” did little to instill confidence in fans about the direction he’ll take on his new album. Eminem questions his place in hip-hop’s pantheon and bemoans, “It’s the curse of the standard / That the first of the Mathers discs set / Always in search of the verse that I haven’t spit yet.” Beyoncé’s plaintive chorus reflects the frighteningly high pedestal upon which Eminem’s fans have placed him: “I walk on water, but I ain’t no Jesus.”
These are valid fears for a 45-year-old rapper who’s watching his turf become overrun by artists he inspired. Jay-Z grappled with similar issues on his latest album, 4:44. But where Jay used his elder statesmanship as an opportunity to reflect on wealth, infidelity and blackness in America, Eminem mostly comes off as doubtful and self-pitying on “Walk on Water.”
All of this amounts to little more than speculation. It’s entirely possible that Eminem’s cooked up an album full of bangers and he’s waiting to unleash the goods all at once. Either way, Revival will almost certainly debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and set Twitter ablaze. Critics will make last-minute revisions to their year-end lists. Eminem might announce a supporting arena tour; tickets will disappear in minutes. In the end, there will be little difference between “biggest rapper alive” and “one of the biggest rappers alive.”
But this time, as Eminem enjoys his perch atop the mountain, he’ll have to watch his footing and jostle for a good view.