In his latest, emotionally charged single, “Walk on Water,” Eminem and songwriter Skylar Grey manage to capture everything I’ve come to believe about Prince, the intoxicating power of holding a mic in hand, the pressure to keep up the facade, and the difficulty of remaining relevant during a long career.
Interviewed about “Walk on Water” by legendary producer Rick Rubin on his new podcast, “Broken Record,” Eminem admits, “It’s a very mortal song.”
Beyonce liked the song well enough to lend her voice to it. She sings in the chorus, “I walk on water, but I ain’t no Jesus … I walk on water, but only when it freezes … I’m only human, just like you.”
In the Rubin podcast, Eminem explains that when an artist starts out, there’s a blank canvas. By about the seventh album, he says, the canvas is filled, and there are fewer places to go that you haven’t already been. Yet, fans continue to expect something new from you. Or, as the song goes: “Take your best rhyme … and now outdo it, a thousand times.” Eminem then incorporates sound effects of himself ripping up paper and cursing in frustration while scribbling lyrics, something that Prince, as reigning king of the overly literal sound effect, would have loved (minus the cursing). How much more Prince-like can an Eminem song be?
The pressure to top yourself over and over again in a world where musical tastes blow like the wind is certainly a challenge that Prince faced during a 39-studio-album career. And perhaps, fans who still lament the break up of the Revolution after the Purple Rain tour will gain an understanding of why Prince made the decision to move on. Longevity in the music business means reinventing yourself, something Prince did constantly.
Even with reinvention, time moves on. “Am I lucky to be around this long?” Eminem asks, lamenting,“The crowds are gone.” While Prince was still selling out venues, he might have felt similarly in the latter years of his career, when the general public was disinterested, his songs were no longer played on the radio and he wasn’t selling albums in any significant number. Sadly, it was only after Prince’s death that a massive surge in record sales made it clear that he was a seriously under appreciated artist.
Despite waning public interest, it’s hard to let go once you’ve been on top. Eminem asks, “How do I ever let this mic go without a fight? As long as I’ve got a mic, I’m godlike.”
Yes, and people would much rather believe that Prince was a godlike, heaven-sent, flawless, guitar-playing sex idol than a mere mortal who worked relentlessly to master all aspects of the music industry. Let’s face it: if we conceded that Prince was human like us, then we’d also need to admit that we too could achieve that level in our own chosen fields, if only we worked hard enough. We all have enormous potential. But instead, we’d rather take the pressure off ourselves by placing Prince, or Eminem, or Beyonce, on a pedestal, and projecting all of our fantasies and wishes and dreams onto them. Problem is, no human being can bear that burden. Or, as Beyonce sings in the chorus, “I don’t think you should believe in me the way that you do, ’cause I’m terrified to let you down.”
The remarkably raw lyrics of “Walk on Water” are underlined by the production’s lack of vocal processing or doubling, a style that was incorporated on Prince’s final album, Hit n Run Phase 2, which was released two years ago this week. The album featured songs with dry vocals with no doubling, delay or reverb, which is in stark contrast to most of Prince’s earlier work. For artists with less vocal ability than Prince, the lack of processing reveals the limitations of their voice, which is certainly the case in “Walk on Water.” Still, there’s something admirable about letting your audience hear your voice, flaws and all. Although Prince began to incorporate a more pared-down style on his final album and during the “Piano & A Microphone” tour, he never allowed himself to fully let his guard down or expose cracks in the facade.
Near the end of the song, Eminem declares: “I’m not God-sent … And I’m not Prince.”
No, Eminem, you’re not Prince. But you’ve done something that fans longed for Prince to do and in doing so, you’ve bravely tapped into a vein that captures so much of what Prince experienced. Recording this song must have felt like undressing in public. In doing so, you’ve taken a first step toward opening a real discussion about the dangers of celebrity worship and fame. Best yet, you’ve given your fans an honest song in a dishonest age.
Listen to “Walk on Water” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1WpP7iowLc.