Eminem On 'Revival': 'I Speak To Everybody'

Dec 16, 2017
Originally published on March 30, 2018 9:47 am

Eminem has been called many things: brilliant, controversial, shocking. Throughout his double-decade career, he's been criticized as much as celebrated. One thing that's not up for discussion: He is the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time, with 15 Grammys, two certified diamond-selling albums and an Academy Award to his name.

It's been more than 18 years since Em's first Top 40 hit, "My Name Is," catapulted the young Detroit MC to mainstream success. On the new Revival, his first album in four years, the 45-year-old artist focuses in on a few things a grown man like him might have on his mind. With pop-leaning guest appearances from the Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran, Revival finds him taking a more politic stand than he ever has before in his music, touching on politics, racial disparity and his own mortality.

Eminem spoke with NPR's Michel Martin from Detroit about why the writing process for Revival took him two years, his feelings about President Trump and where he feels he fits into hip-hop's canon. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Michel Martin: The last time you talked with us in 2010, you had just released Recovery, and you were actually in recovery: You'd come to terms with an addiction problem and gotten through an overdose. And so the first and most important thing is, how is your health?

Eminem: I hope it's good. I wish I had a better answer than that. I exercise regularly, I run, I try to lift weights as much as I can and eat the right things. So, yeah, I think I'm good.

There's a lot on Revival that I want to talk about, but let's start with the cover art: It's a kind of translucent American flag with what appears to be a man holding his head in his hand, kind of like a posture of grief. Why this image for the album cover, and why the title?

Well, the title just kind of made sense with everything that the album was about, and as the songs started coming together, it started making more and more sense to call it that. The cover is me with my head down, because as much as I love our country, we got s*** that we gotta work on. We got s*** that we gotta get better at. It's kinda like, I love our country; I'm upset with it right now.

Was this an epiphany moment for you, or is this something that's been building for a while?

It's something that's been building for a while. Watching the Trump thing has been ... frustrating.

What part of it has been frustrating?

All of it! What part's not been frustrating? I think I made it pretty clear on the album how I feel about him, so I don't want to go off on a tangent because I'll never stop. But I think that, just watching how this unfolds and watching what happened with Obama and watching all the steps we took forward ... it feels like we've taken just as many steps backwards as we had forward and we're right back to where the f*** we were.

You know, in the very beginning, I kind of felt like, "You know what, why not? He seems like a smart businessman. Maybe he can help with the deficit or whatever." And then I start hearing him talk. And the more he talks, the more his true colors are showing. I was watching the thing live when he was saying, when Mexico sends their people, they don't send their best, they're sending rapists and murderers. And looking at it like, "Yo ... is he? He can't say that."

In case anyone isn't sure of how you feel, before the new record came out you performed a freestyle on the BET Hip Hop Awards aimed at the president, which got a lot of attention. Was that something you had planned?

Well, we had been in talks with some people at BET. The original plan was to go there and perform it live, as it was happening — [but] the question was brought up about people in the crowds with cell phones, would it leak out before anything was in its proper context or whatever. I kinda knew what I wanted to say, but then the plan got switched around once everyone was worried about that, so we filmed here in Detroit. The whole concept of the video, the way it was shot, was kind of a take on Public Enemy's "You're Gonna Get Yours," the single cover. But to me, that was one element of what I have to say about him. It was more to get his attention, to see if he would say something back, and then I got some ideas.

Did it feel risky to you? I ask that because, in 2016, Michigan was supposed to be part of that "blue wall," the safe area for Democrats, but then it went for Trump. It was close — 47.6 percent to 47.3 percent — but Michigan went for Trump. And I know the people of that state are very important to you. A lot of fans, I think, particularly some of your white fans, feel that you speak for them and to them. And you made it very clear, "If you're on the fence, I'm telling you which side to use." Does it feel like you're walking out on a limb? Or does it feel like this is where the community is, so this is where you need to be.

First of all, for anyone who thinks I speak for them, it doesn't matter what nationality — I speak to everybody. I speak to everybody who is even remotely like me. So, to me, it's not a black or white thing. It's just me saying where I stand, regardless of whatever the risk is. To me, it was more important to say what I need to say, and whoever is riding with me, cool. And whoever's not is just not! I don't know, man.

At the end of the day, if all is said and done and I can help change some minds or try and open up some eyes and make people realize that this guy is not doing what he said he was going to do for you ... The people who voted for him maybe thought what I thought in the beginning. And then they were willing to just look past every other thing that he's talking about, because Trump talks a good one. But if you're not one to go fact-check if what he's saying is true when he throws all these statistics out — "Unemployment's been down and it's the lowest in history and the stock markets are ..." Like, if you're not willing to fact-check, you might just believe it. And then he's telling you anything that is remotely anti-Trump is fake news. Anything that's good for him is the real news. There's this alternate reality that he's created for himself and the people that still follow him. So, my goal is to hopefully change some minds, or just say "Screw it," because if that person didn't like me to begin with, I don't know if I'm going to gain a fan.

Tell me about how the idea came about for the song "Untouchable." It's like a scene from a play, where people are talking to each other, but really past each other, or maybe from across a wall. You can sort of envision both of them talking to us, but not even hearing each other. Tell me what you were thinking about.

Well, if you remember, about two years ago, it felt like every other day you would wake up and see the news that another black man is getting shot by the police, and killed for basically nothing. Seeing the thing that happened with Michael Slager and Walter Scott, being shot in the back ... and then walks up and places the taser on the side of the guy, like he's already got his story of what he's gonna say.

And then Philando Castile, when he's reaching for his wallet, trying to tell you, "I have a gun, but I have a license to carry it," and gets shot and killed. ... It was one of those things that kept building up and building up and I wanted to say something about it for the longest time, but I needed to make sure that — I wanted to word it correctly. I want to make sure I make all my points, you know, the right way.

Do you feel you got there?

I hope.

There has been pushback on the blogosphere, people saying this is where everybody is right now, that these are not new thoughts.

No, they're not new thoughts. They're for sure not new thoughts. ... I'm not talking about, "All police are bad." I'm saying that this is the perspective from the racist white cop. This is what got me infuriated, and two years ago got me so flustered I couldn't even write about it because my thoughts would get too scattered. When I get flustered sometimes I just get mad and I can't think clear. I needed to be able to calm down a second, and put the thoughts to the page because, like I said, I wanted to make sure that I worded it the right way. But if people don't feel like I worded it the right way, I don't know.

Do you feel you're helping people see it who didn't see it before? Or is it more about you wanting to be clear about where you stand?

Well, both, but it's more about hopefully being able to open people's eyes with it. Between this song and, I feel like, Joyner Lucas' song, "I'm Not Racist" — actually, that's a funny story because I got the heads-up that that song was coming. I don't know Joyner personally, but we have a mutual friend, and he actually ended up calling my friend Royce da 5'9", and telling him he wanted me to see this video. And when it came out, it was really, really good and it was super powerful. And I felt like, you know what? Hopefully between his song and mine we can open some eyes and maybe keep the movement going, and the conversation.

There are lots of stories in the news right now about women being abused, or not being happy with how they've been treated, in the workplace. You know for a fact that throughout your career people have listened to your lyrics and wondered about your attitude toward women. Now that you're at this stage of your career, do you look back on anything differently? Is there anything you wish you had said differently? Does this current discussion touch anything in you that makes you rethink some of the things you've said?

Well, for one I think that it's cool that these women took a stand, for sure. Because I know that that s*** goes on and if women are put in a position where somebody in a position of power is telling them, "If you wanna move up the ladder this is what you're going to have to do," it's messed up.

As for me, I feel like I've always kind of rode the line of the tongue-in-cheek. I believe as human beings we all have different sides to us; serious sides, dark humor sides, whatever. So that's kind of why I've always put the disclaimer out there. I feel like people should be able to know by now when I'm joking and when I'm not, depending on the tone of the record. I think that it pretty much should be common sense, aside from the fact I have daughters.

Kids are our harshest critics. Now that yours are old enough to listen to your music, do any of them have opinions they want to share with you?

Not really, because they know that dad is just dad. ... This is what happens: When I'm writing, sometimes an idea or a line will pop in my head, and I'll be like, "Yo, that thought is messed up." And I either laugh to myself or I say, "You know what? That might be just going too far." So, have I ever took it too far? I probably have, who knows. There's times where sometimes I don't think I took it far enough. Depends on what it is.

I just got asked about, how come I took shots at pop singers in the beginning and I'm not doing it that much anymore? And my answer to that was, somebody's name hasn't really fell into the rhyme scheme. If somebody's name pops up in my head and it rhymes with exactly what I'm saying, that's kind of the art to it. As an artist I feel like I can't really just be one thing. I don't want to be one-dimensional because there's so many different angles that I feel like I could write from.

You say in the song "Castle" that you're done, and we hope that's not true. How would you describe this point in your career?

I don't know. I'm at a funny place, you know? Hip-hop has been around for a long time but I don't know if it's really been around long enough to see how long someone could actually go for. You've still got guys like me and Jay-Z. Redman still has it, to me. I'm not sure what I'm going to do next, but I'm still passionate about music, and hip-hop.

Radio producer Adhiti Bandlamudi and web editor Sidney Madden contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

I mentioned earlier Michel Martin is out today, but we couldn't keep her out of the studio for today's final conversation. And we should warn you, you'll hear some colorful language which has been bleeped.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Our next guest has been called many things - brilliant, controversial, shocking. He's been criticized as much as he's been celebrated. But here's one thing that's not up for discussion - he's the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time with 15 Grammys and an Academy Award to his name.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY NAME IS")

EMINEM: (Rapping) My name is chicka-chicka-chicka (ph) Slim Shady. Hi kids, do you like violence? Want to see me stick 9-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?

MARTIN: We're talking about none other than Marshall Mathers, as he's better known, Eminem. It's been more than 18 years since he hit the big time with that song. He's 45 now with a new album out that focuses on some things that a grown man, like he is, might have on his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTOUCHABLE")

EMINEM: (Rapping) As I kick these facts and get these mixed reactions as this beat backspins, it's like we're drifting back into the '60s. Having black skin is risky 'cause this keeps happening. Throughout history, African-Americans have been treated like shit. And I admit, there have been times where it's been embarrassing to be a white boy, white boy.

MARTIN: That's "Untouchable." It's a new single from Eminem's ninth solo studio album titled "Revival." And we're joined now by Eminem, Marshall Mathers, from Detroit. Mr. Mathers, thank you so much for speaking with us.

EMINEM: I will never get an intro that good again.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

EMINEM: As long as I live, I will never get that again.

MARTIN: Well, we do our best.

EMINEM: That was incredible. Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I was looking up the last time you talked with us. And you talked with my colleague Guy Raz back in 2010 when you had just released "Recovery," and you were going through some things. You had just come to terms with an addiction problem. And you had recovered from an overdose. And so the first and most important thing is, how is your health?

EMINEM: I hope it's good.

MARTIN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

EMINEM: I wish I had a better answer to that. No, I'm good. I'm good. I think I found out I'm allergic to myself.

MARTIN: Meaning?

EMINEM: I don't know, like eating healthy and stuff like that was something that I never really got into until I got sober. And then it's amazing how your life can change by just like eating the right things and not eating the wrong things, not eating medicine.

MARTIN: Do you like this new person?

EMINEM: I'm OK with him, I guess.

MARTIN: All right. So talk about "Revival." There's a lot that I want to talk about. Let's hear what you had in mind. You know, first of all, I mean, let's talk about the title. And also, let's talk about the cover art. It's an image, for folks who haven't seen it yet, it's kind of a translucent American flag with what appears to be a man holding his head in his hand kind of like a posture of grief. And why this image for the album cover? And why the title?

EMINEM: Well, the title just kind of made sense with everything that the album was about. And the cover, you know, is me kind of with my head down because, you know, as much as I love our country, we got [expletive] that we got to work on. So it's kind of like a - I love our country, I'm upset with it right now.

MARTIN: Was there an epiphany moment for you, or is this something that's been building for a while?

EMINEM: It's something that's been building for a while. And watching watching the Trump thing has been very frustrating.

MARTIN: What part of it's been frustrating?

EMINEM: All of it. What part's not been frustrating? In the very beginning, I kind of felt like, you know what? Why not? He seems like a smart businessman. You know, maybe he can help with the deficit or whatever, right? And then I start hearing him talk. And the more he talks, the more his true colors are showing. And it's, you know, I was watching the thing live when he was talking about, you know, when Mexico sends their people, they don't send their best. They're sending rapists. They're sending murderers, you know. Like I was almost like, yo, he can't say that.

MARTIN: Well, in case anyone isn't sure of how you feel about President Trump, even before the new record came out, you performed a freestyle at the "BET Hip Hop Awards." And this is what you said. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMINEM: 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. And if you can't decide who you like more in your split, on who you should stand beside, I'll do it for you with this - [expletive] you.

MARTIN: You got a lot of attention for that. And I was wondering, did it feel risky to you? The reason I ask is that in 2016, Michigan was supposed to be part of that blue wall, the safe area for Democrats, but the state went for Trump in the end. It was close, but, you know, Michigan went for Trump. And, you know, I know that people in that state are very important to you. A lot of your fans, I think particularly maybe some of your white fans, feel that you particularly speak for them and to them. And I'd wondered, do you feel like you're walking out on a limb? Or does it feel like this is where the community is, so this is where you need to be?

EMINEM: Well, first of all, as far as anybody who thinks that I speak for them, to me, it doesn't matter what nationality. Like, I speak for everybody. Regardless of whatever the risk it is, to me, it was more important to say what I need to say. And whoever's riding with me, cool. Whoever's not - whoever's not is just not, you know. And my goal is to either hopefully change some minds or just say screw it because if that person didn't like me to begin with, I'm not going to - I don't know if I'm going to gain a fan.

MARTIN: Well, here's another one in which I found - I was interested because here you - it's like you're taking on two different personas and they're talking to each other. It's called "Untouchable." Let's play a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTOUCHABLE")

EMINEM: (Rapping) Black boy, black boy, we don't get your culture. And we don't care what our government's done to [expletive] you over, man. Don't tell us your attitude's a result of that. Balderdash, where'd you get the chip on your shoulder at? Why you kicking that soda can? Pick your pants up. We about to roll up and throw your [expletive] in the van cuffed. You don't have to know our plans or what our intentions are. Our cards are close to our chests, you better show your hands.

MARTIN: It's like a scene from a play - right? - where people are talking to each other maybe across the wall or talking past each other. You can sort of envision both of them talking to us but not even hearing each other. Tell me what you were thinking about.

EMINEM: Well, if you remember, about two years ago, there was a time when it felt like literally every other day - every day or every other day you'd wake up and see the news and another black man is getting shot by police and killed for basically nothing. Seeing the thing that happened with Michael Slager and Walter Scott and being shot in the back from like 50 feet, 60 feet away, and Philando Castile, when he's reaching for his wallet trying to tell you I have a gun but I have a license to carry it, I'm reaching for my wallet, and get shot and killed in the front passenger seat in front of his wife and kid, it was very infuriating.

And it was one of those things that kept building up and building up. And I wanted to say something about it for the longest time, but I needed to make sure that I want to word it correctly. I want to make sure that I make all my points, you know, right way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTOUCHABLE")

EMINEM: (Rapping) And that's racism, the fear that a black face gives them - a subconscious racist. Wait, why are there black neighborhoods? 'Cause America segregated us, designated us to an area, separated us, section-eighted (ph) us. When we tear it up, the only time attention's paid to us. And education sucks. And every day's another Freddie Gray for us, a levy breaks or fuzz.

MARTIN: So now you're trying to open up awareness about this. I know you're familiar with all the stories that have been in the news about women not appreciating the way they have been treated in various places, you know, in Hollywood, in the newsrooms and so forth. And you know for a fact - you know that throughout your career, people have listened to your lyrics and wondered about your attitude toward women. And I wonder now that you're kind of at this stage of your career, do you look back on anything differently? Is there anything you wish you had said differently, or I don't know, rethink some of the things that you said?

EMINEM: Well, you know, for one, I think that it's cool that these women took a stand, for sure. And women who were put in a position where if somebody in a position of power is telling them, if you want to basically move up the ladder, this is what you're going to have to do is [expletive] messed up. I'm sorry. I know I'm not supposed to cuss.

But that being said, as for me, I feel like, you know, I've always kind of rode the line of the tongue in cheek. You know, I believe as human beings, we all have different sides to us - serious sides, dark humor side, whatever. That's kind of why I've always put the disclaimer out there. And I feel like people should be able to know by now, you know, when I'm joking and when I'm not. Aside from the fact I have daughters.

MARTIN: You do. Have any of them ever - you know, kids are our harshest critics, right? Did any of them ever have opinions that they want to share with you?

EMINEM: About my music?

MARTIN: Yeah.

EMINEM: Not really.

MARTIN: No?

EMINEM: Because, you know, they know that dad is just dad. When I'm writing, sometimes an idea or a line will pop in my head. And I'll be like, yo, that's - the thought is messed up. And I either laugh to myself or I say, you know what? That might be just going too far, you know.

So the argument that - have I ever took it too far? I probably have. Who knows? And then there's times where sometimes I don't think I took it far enough, depends on what it is. And as an artist, I feel like I just - I can't really - I can't just be one thing. I don't want to be one-dimensional because there's so many different angles that I feel like I can write from. So I can't just be boxed into one thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ON WATER")

EMINEM: (Rapper) It's true. I'm a Rubik's, a beautiful mess. At times juvenile, yes. I goof and I jest. A flawed human, I guess. But I'm doing my best to not ruin your expectations and meet them. But first, the...

MARTIN: How would you describe this point in your career?

EMINEM: I don't know. I'm at funny place, you know? Hip-hop has been around for a long time, but I don't know if it's been around really long enough to see how long someone can actually go for. So you've still got artists like me and Jay, Redman still has it to me. Like, I feel like as long as I'm passionate about it, which, you know, I could say obviously I am, I'm not sure what I'm going to do next. But I don't know. I'm still passionate about music, so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ON WATER")

EMINEM: (Rapping) But when I do fall from these heights, though I'll be fine, I won't pout or cry or spiral down or whine. But I'll decide if it's my final bow this time around because...

BEYONCE: (Singing) I walk on water, but I ain't no Jesus. I walk on water.

SUAREZ: That was NPR's Michel Martin speaking with rapper Eminem about his new album "Revival."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ON WATER")

BEYONCE: (Singing) 'Cause I'm only human just like you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.