Biases out of the way first and foremost, I will admit that I am not a huge fan of Rick Rubin. I think some of the work he did during a particular era was impressive for its time; however, the legacy after that point in the ‘80s leaves me scratching my head to say the least. Whether it be his part in the loudness wars, or the multitude of artists unhappy with the way he directs talent, it just seems to me as if trouble follows Rick anywhere shortly after he arrives. As such, I’ve wanted to discuss his involvement in Eminem’s career for a while. It was a short lived and bizarre pairing that often gets skipped over when talking about what went wrong in Eminem’s career post-hiatus. It was also one that led to many questionable decisions, the first true flop in Eminem’s career, and likely forever tarnished the long term perception of hip-hop’s highest selling artist.
Rick Rubin served as the main executive producer on two of Eminem’s albums: The Marshall Mathers LP2, and Revival. These two releases came out during the 2013-2017 era of Eminem’s career, which I would argue was an extremely rough time period for the Detroit emcee. To understand why it was so difficult, it’s important to consider the context of the few years before this stretch. Regardless of the criticism Recovery faced at the time, it along with Bad Meets Evil’s Hell: The Sequel put Eminem back on top of the world after stumbling out of the re-launch with Relapse. A key thing to keep in mind during this time is that Dr. Dre was involved in Recovery, but had started to fall away from executive production duties. Just Blaze was often leaned upon in that position during the recording process and he handled it extremely well, but it also very clearly was not a completely Dre guided album. Hell: The Sequel came out the following year with oversight from Mr. Porter, and won over many fans who didn’t vibe with Recovery’s mainstream inspired production. Despite this success, things quickly began to falter in terms of public endearment. The fixation on the Recovery formula was being applied to too many guest features on Eminem’s behalf, and seemingly stunted the Shady Records debut albums by Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf. To put it lightly, fans seemed pissed off with the direction of both his music and the music his label was releasing.
It had been bubbling up quietly for a while, but the sentiment of “I miss the old Eminem” really took hold by 2012. To my personal recollection, I felt as though the guest appearance on Rihanna’s “Numb” was the point that the sound had fully jumped the shark for most people. The next record was going to need to be different if it was going to be received positively.
The next Eminem album cycle rolls around in 2013, and in my opinion this is where things really started to fly off the handle. As a fan at the time, the news releases just felt like they got stranger and stranger. Eminem had dyed his hair blonde again and it looked weird, we were getting a sequel to The Marshall Mathers LP, and for some reason Rick Rubin would be behind the boards as executive producer. Rick at this point had allegedly fallen out with many of his former acts in the rock industry over ego and creative differences, but started to find his way back into hip-hop via Jay Z and Kanye West. The reception to him coming in to handle The Marshall Mathers LP 2 felt very mixed. Rick Rubin certainly had throwback appeal to a lot of older rap fans, but with Dr. Dre playing such a pivotal role in the first release, it was jarring and kind of wrong. Due to the title and some tracks that were genuinely refreshing, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 would ultimately punch above its weight class in terms of sales. Yet, the musical direction started to feel purposeless. The album failed to establish a sound for itself, never mind a sound that felt remotely fitting as a sequel. There was a blend of classic rock samples, Recovery’s pop flavored anthems, midwest speed rap, and Alex da Kid for whatever reason (but that’s another story). And while the creation of all these sounds can not all be faulted to him explicitly, it was clear that Rick Rubin did not have the focus as an executive producer to reign in an artist as chaotic as Eminem; moreover, his own rock based production on the album was extremely simplistic and out of place. “Rhyme or Reason” and “Berzerk” are both fun tracks, but the later cuts brought very little to enhance Eminem’s spastic style around this time. Making matters worse, they opted to turn away from vocal layering and reverb on Eminem’s vocals, leaving him sounding dry and less impactful. I walked away thinking that The Marshall Mathers LP 2 rode an extremely passionate effort behind the mic to being as decent as it was, but the executive direction was not there to make it an iconic release. That’s not to say it was a failed experiment though, I thought the album itself was pretty alright. The important thing is that each one of the minor problems on MMLP2 reared their head again in a much heavier way just four years later when they no longer had the novelty of nostalgia.
Nothing particularly noteworthy happened from 2013 until Revival saw the light of day in 2017, but a few things did point to positives in the future. Eminem released a label collective project to celebrate 15 years of Shady Records, and a soundtrack to tie in with the movie Southpaw. Both were incredibly forgettable, but he was experimenting with new flows and instrumentation with a more familiar dark and dramatic mood. He had also all but moved entirely away from working with Rick Rubin, and by 2015 it felt as though Eminem may have found himself again. He absolutely shredded features on “Best Friend” by Yelawolf and “Medicine Man” by Dr. Dre. These tracks had an urgency and spark behind them that had been largely missing on the second Marshall Mathers LP. I found it really encouraging, but unfortunately come time for Revival, Dr. Dre was taking a break post-Compton and Rick Rubin once again found himself in the executive producer’s seat. This would be both his second effort with Eminem, and an absolute unmitigated disaster.
The issues with Revival started right out of the gate with a botched promotional period, and this blame does rest solely on Shady Records. It was announced as an easter egg in a promotion for Yelawolf’s Trial By Fire, tastelessly undercutting his more immediate release on the label. At this point Shady Records had public issues with Slaughterhouse (in particular, Joe Budden) and it was optically a highly questionable choice. Shortly after, Eminem began his media rounds and they did not inspire a lot of confidence in the project. He sounded very unsure about Revival, speaking about the fact that he hoped it had something for everybody on it. To me and my friends, it felt very ominous and as it turns out, it sort of was. To give credit where credit is due, Eminem did not phone it in or rap particularly poorly on any of Revival’s tracks. I honestly think he showed up rather impressively on a good chunk of the album, and songs like “Framed,” “Castle,” “Arose,” and even “Walk on Water” showed to me that he still had it in him as an emcee. However, every single executive production decision on this album was so bad, that it overshadowed and ruined any positives that could have been gained from it being released. As much as I believe that producers and studio staff should get more credit for taking part in the creation of fantastic music, I think that a producer like Rick Rubin should similarly take a lot of heat for the carnage that was Revival.
A good executive producer will help in the selection of instrumentals to set the tone for an album, and to put it frankly the beat selection and flow throughout Revival was bad. There was no attempt at forming a style or lane to take it in, it’s just presented as a schmorgish board of different production. It was hard to sit and just listen to it because it changed gears so abruptly every couple of songs. The funny thing is, it almost would not have mattered if Rick had helped Eminem find a direction for this album, because the audio was so rough on most tracks that it would be physically unpleasant to listen to them regardless. Not only are the already mostly tepid instrumentals mixed to the point of clipping and having no bass, but the vocals are so poorly handled that it was kind of shameful. Eminem sounded muddy or distant on most tracks, and you could hear him moving around to breathe or look at lyrics due to none of the audio being properly leveled. Rick Rubin is known to like a raw feeling to the music he is involved in and if this was his idea of raw then I think that philosophy needs to be thrown away, because Revival sounded like rough demos at best. To make matters worse, Rick’s own beat placements on the album were probably the worst offenders of being out of place. They’re simple, loud, straight up classic rock loops that came across half-baked and way too in-your-face compared to most everything else. Eminem took most of the blame for Revival failing in the eyes of the public, but in the end I think it was the production issues which made it unsalvageable. That sits on Rick Rubin and his guidance of both the creative process and team behind the music. Nevertheless, the damage had been done. Eminem now had a true flop under his belt, and it was clear that the Rubin experiment had properly failed this time.
Following this the two would quietly part ways, and Dr. Dre would step back into the executive role for Kamikaze, Music to be Murdered by, and the expansion disc Music to be Murdered by Side B. Reuniting with Dre fixed a lot of the issues that had been plaguing Eminem throughout the years that brought The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and Revival. There was a newfound sense of focus behind the construction of his albums, plus the production choices definitely steered back toward a modern take on what Eminem was known for back in 2002-2003. Vocals were suddenly treated with importance again, receiving the appropriate studio care to ensure they sounded large or impactful. Eminem himself definitely pushed his game after Revival, but I think a big part of that is that Dr. Dre is known for being demanding and pushing his artists. That extra attention to detail was not there during the Rick Rubin era, and it shows. I feel that the allure of working with an older icon can blow up in an artists face, and this was definitely one of those situations. Rick wasn’t with it anymore, and his idea of how to present music was too far removed from both Eminem’s pre-established track record and the general climate of hip-hop at the time to ever be long term successful. It’s too bad that this awkward business relationship happened at a time when faith in Eminem’s music was waning among listeners already, because it drove the levels of distaste through the roof. In my opinion he’s had three great projects since, and still is yet to recover in the eyes of many fans from the damage caused by the stint he was produced by Rick Rubin. It was insane to watch something that simply did not work spiral out to such an immense degree, and nearly cost Eminem his fanbase.