I don’t know the first thing about rap, but I know that Eminem is awesome. It’s not just his devilish delivery, his introspective lyrics, or his self-aware sense of humor that makes Eminem such a powerhouse. Instead, like all fantastic and memorable musicians, he has the courage and creativity needed to evolve his sound.
I knew all of Eminem’s hits like “Stan” and “Without Me,” but I decided to delve into his extensive discography only a few weeks ago. Like listening to any artist with more than three full-length albums, listening to all of Eminem’s stuff takes a lot of work. It’s hard to give all of his material enough attention to remember it well, especially since most of his LPs are upwards of an hour long.
But diving into an artist’s huge back catalog is well worth the effort if that artist or group changed their musical style over the course of their career. In fact, I think that the only artists worth paying any attention to after their first couple releases are the ones who make a clear attempt to be creative.
Take Eminem as an example. On his first two major releases, The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem’s songs are generally stripped down and have relatively simple hip-hop beats. The rap vocals, on the other hand, are anything but simple, with Eminem throwing out a stream of memorable rhymes. There are plenty of good rap vocalists out there, but Eminem’s lyrics set him apart. Every song is either funny or profound, and Eminem’s early work addresses everything from attempts to censor his music to the emergence of other white rappers, whom Eminem calls out for copying his style and image.
Eminem’s two most recent albums, however, Recovery and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 are a major style shift for the trailblazing, “do what I want” rapper. Now his music is much poppier, with Eminem bringing on the likes of Rihanna and Pink to belt out the choruses on the tracks “Love the Way You Lie” and “Won’t Back Down,” respectively. His songs aren’t biting attacks on the world and the industry any longer; now they are catchier and more accessible a wider assortment of fans.
I applaud artists for changing it up like that. Some people might look at Eminem’s shift and call him a “sellout,” claiming that he’s just taken the easy way out by making poppier music to sell more singles. That’s the wrong way to look at it. After a tremendously successful first album, the hardest thing to do is to look at that success and ask “Ok, how do I let go of that creative energy and find something else that will work?” It takes guts to be different in the music industry, but the best artists make it work and change it up again and again.
Artists can improve their sound even after bad reception. Seahaven, for example, got a lot of criticism after their first full-length album, Winter Forever, hit on the same themes and sounded very similar to their first EP, but without the same level of energy. Seahaven’s second full-length came out earlier this week with a completely new style for the band. Early Seahaven is chock full of distorted power chords and other heavy rock musical styles, but their recent stuff is an extremely subdued stroll through space with droney guitars and somber vocal delivery.
Fans not only need to be more accepting of their favorite artists’ style changes, they need to embrace the changes. A new sound and new musical concepts are signs of creative energy, signs that the artist still cares about impressing someone out there with something they’ve never done before.
The worst kind of band or artist is one that does the same thing over and over again. Those artists might have moderate success for the duration of their career, but they won’t be remembered for it. To impact a genre, musicians have to take risks.
Sometimes a new product isn’t as good as the old stuff, but that doesn’t matter. Artists are just people—always changing. To demand that their artistic output stay the same for the duration of their career is to deny the fundamental fact that they will grow and their ideas about what their work means will change.
All artistic works are judged in context. Nothing can be reviewed just “for what it is.” The best context to apply to a band’s new album is comparing it to what that band did before. It’s a fair benchmark because it asks bands to improve only in their own terms.
I may sound demanding when I say that nothing is impressive unless it differs from before, but that’s the only way progress is made.