This is the second time I've been compelled to write about Marshall Mathers in 2017. Having received death threats (yes, seriously) from overzealous Stans the first time around, perhaps it would have been better to leave well enough alone, but hey. At the time, 4:44 had taken whatever tepid patience remained for Eminem's years of floundering and thrown them out the Maybach window with a great album, nay, a return to form, from an aging rapper who'd spent years seeming creatively tapped. The question loomed: why can't Slim Shady just figure this shit out?

Busy with college in 2009, I had little interest in (or time for) critical takes on rappers, so I never saw, and shudder to imagine, the balking as 'We Made You' burped Eminem's return to the world. If there's a true, “great” issue for the rapper in the past decade, it's a lack of a real identity. On Relapse he returned (complete with the accents!) as the horrorcore influenced, crazed drug addict, altering to the pop music as motivational speaking of Recovery, which might have felt natural, had he not reverted to his old antics on the ill-advised, legacy tarnishing sequel The Marshall Mathers LP 2.

To be sure, many of the best pop stars have stayed afloat through constant reinvention, but Mathers' moves have felt far more akin to fumbling in the dark than concerted artistic decisions.

Consider this: when did Eminem become “the fast rapper”? He was certainly wit over vocal performance on his earliest efforts, it's true 'Rabbit Run' was impressive and that The Eminem Show saw an upgrade in flows, but this was still hardly the strained acrobatics of “Rap God” and such efforts. This breathless Shady began to rear his head on Recovery, only to become more pronounced in features soon after (see 'All She Wrote' with T.I.). It nearly feels like a smoke show, Mathers himself distracting from the lack of intent in his words with bells and whistles.

If nothing else, we once knew who Marshall Mathers was, or, at least, the persona he presented to the world. Critical reassessment in recent years has often tried to take away even his prior relevance from him, leaving perhaps the one area in which I will argue for Mathers until blue in the face.

It is painfully true that his early albums haven't aged well. This does not mean that they didn't perfectly speak to their moment, however embarrassing that may at times be now. His witty juvenelia spoke to millions of kids and teens (and adults) on the absurdity of the era. However absurd culture grew, he had a more ridiculous claim to shame it with. He once spoke volumes by satirizing those who actually thought the way he joked.

Over time, he's come to simply barf out the “gags”, the humor gone, the ignorance often feeling disturbingly real. Then, the 2016 election happened. Hark! Trump. Society at large hasn't been more rope for Eminem's perspective since his prime.

It's easy to forget, but Mathers once made his meal ticket intentionally making his largely white audience uncomfortable with themselves, fully willing to call out their contradictions and complicity. When he bellowed, “Trump's a bitch!,” on Big Sean's 'No Favors', a word from Eminem hadn't felt so cathartic in years. Granted, he for some reason still felt compelled to “run over a chick”, a few bars later (sigh), but calling the barb itself juvenile misses the point. Slim Shady was responding to the Trump culture in the only language it understands, the sort of language that gets under its skin.

So, when he freestyled exclusively about Trump and his ilk at the BET Awards, roasting his own fans in the process, however clumsy some of the presentation was (A coffee pot, Em?), it seemed Marhall at least had a pulse again. He even managed to get a positive take from Pitchfork for the first time in god knows how long. An Eminem album pointedly making his fanbase ill at ease, addressing the white arrogance and fear all too prominent in our frightening current reality? I'd take it.

That only makes what's happened since all the more baffling. As everyone and their conservative uncle has already pointed out, 'Walk on Water' is not a good song. To put it mildly. It is, at least, interesting to dissect. With the hushed way with which it was rolled out, whispers of greatness from Rick Rubin himself (who also produced), it seems all involved really felt Eminem had, I suppose, come down from the mountains to truly talk to the people.

It's hard to imagine how they reached such misguided delusions. It nearly does seem Mathers was attempting his own 4:44 moment, admitting weakness, etc, etc. Why then, it's so devoid of any personality or wit will remain a mystery. For a rapper so obsessed with bending syllables and verbal acrobatics, he doesn't manage one memorable line for a damn Beyoncé collaboration. The sentiment at its core isn't without merit, but rather than the moment of honesty he aimed for, he delivered an extended pity party.

Undeniably, part of the problem is the presentation. Rubin seems to have felt the message was so powerful that he should leave the “beat” at nearly nothing, an egregious error even had the words hit home. However, the deeper issue is, with no disrespect to the Beyhive, the hook.

Beyoncé is, as always, sheer power and acquits herself perfectly, but she's doomed by Skylar Grey's songwriting-as-drama. Eminem once surrounded himself with the likes of Dr. Dre and the Bass Brothers, and his recent albums have shown those near him strongly influence his work. The likes of Grey and producer Alex da Kid have piled on unnecessary aspects to his work, time and again. Her overly emotional, try-hard choruses beat the listener over the head with feelings, and they might work wonders for a more streamlined popstar, but stick out like jagged glass on Eminem tracks.

What's more, had Eminem really wanted to say something different, it's baffling why he chose to coat it in the 10th imagining of 'Love the Way You Lie'. Whether his Rihanna collaborations or the more recent, tiresome gasps with Sia, Eminem has made this song. Again and again.

The real mystery? Who are these songs for? It's clear he doesn't get any joy from them, grim faced, forcing them out with obligatory, soulless 'inspirational' anthems-as-verses. Talking with a friend who helps run an A.A. Program, he pointed out that the slogans that undeniably mean a lot to those in the program, don't necessarily lend themselves to great art. Still donning his sobreity necklace, it's an understandably important aspect of Mathers' life, but “Just keep going” and the like, should such thoughts rule his mindset, explain away some of the “Not Afraid”-esque repetition of his material. It doesn't, however, answer for his clear lack of interest or belief in them.

They continue to chart out of (I imagine) a mixture of lingering fame/respect and the tightfisted pop forcefulness of their design. Yet, does anyone sit around saying, “Man, this is the Eminem song I want him to make for the rest of his career”? Perhaps some teens making statuses after break ups. Not most of us. Eminem sits around, miserable, forcing out music no one wants.

With the tracklist for upcoming album Revival now having been revealed, it seems Eminem is loathe to change. For a man rapping about trying to appease his fanbase, he's stubbornly clung to a pop format that couldn't feel more incongruous to his message and persona. In interviews he dons shirts boasting old school rap albums, in freestyles, he often goes acapella to drive home the tired point that he is “real rap”, and doesn't understand the current scene. Then, somehow, on record, he alters to the rapper on autopilot who thinks featuring the King of Bland™ Ed Sheeran is a good idea (or at least puts up with it), who lets Alex da Kid slip on his unloved band X Ambassadors.

Granted, perhaps Revival will drop and be pop brilliance, but is anyone anticipating that outcome? Some argue that Eminem sees no other route to remain relevant than to include the pop brigade, that his lyrical skills just aren't appreciated in the current climate. Meanwhile, Kendrick Lamar gracefully manages to balance artistry and pop-relevance. Lamar himself has said Mathers loves his work, praising the focused nature of his albums. How he can listen to those, and still turn in his own dead eyed records is beyond understanding. He clearly requires more of an awakening than a disappointed, worried fan base can provide. In the mean time, it just appears Eminem remains completely lost, yelling at no one, taking three year breaks before forcing out albums no one wants to hear. Honestly, it's just sad.