It’s odd for Marshall Mathers to release a new song, “Walk on Water,” that points out that he’s only human — odd not because it counts as a change for him, but because he’s done it so often before. Nearly 20 years since he exploded into prominence with The Slim Shady LP, the artist is still grappling with the facts that (a) he’s human and (b) being human is an unhappy business. He’s not poor and unknown anymore, but his looks are downcast all the same. Sales are fading, fame is draining, and the tirades aimed at him for hating women have worn him down. For all the multiple personalities and narratives of change (relapse, recovery, his upcoming Revival), the truth is that Eminem has always been a curiously static figure. Once upon a time, he learned how to rap. Then, he learned how to channel his genius in rap in a manner that appealed to the public. Events have come and gone and tastes have changed since then, but Eminem remains the same being — a membrane of rhymed speech exposed to relentless pressure from within and without.
“Walk on Water” isn’t a great song, but aside from the lovely (and generously donated) Beyoncé hook, it isn’t meant to be. In place of a beat there’s a somber piano and some strings, and in place of rapping there’s a kind of rhymed conversation that might remind listeners more of Macklemore than Marshall. It comes off as a prelude to an album, which is exactly what it is; certainly, the final words seems like the beginning of another, more aggressive song. There’s no way to know for sure until Revival drops, but “Walk on Water” at least offers up the possibility that the old dog could pick up a few new tricks. His haters have always wanted him to be quiet, and maybe, for once, he’s listening.