Eminem’s ninth studio album Revival has been one of the more anticipated releases of late 2017.
Slim Shady hadn’t delivered an album since 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, and in the weeks leading up to Revival’s release, there seemed to be strong evidence that Em was prepped to deliver a political firebomb aimed at addressing Trump’s America and the current cultural climate. Following his much-talked-about cypher at the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards, there was widespread discussion as to the role of hip-hop’s most celebrated white rapper in this age of Black Lives Matter, MAGA and #MeToo. The public expected a raging, topical Eminem, and the release of the album’s American flag artwork seemed to confirm it.
Despite the pre-release buzz, however, Revival isn’t the commentary-driven release many may have expected. The album’s political focus is mostly on the first half, with Em pondering everything from white privilege to Trump support in ways that feel sincere, but not quite revelatory. “As I kick these facts and get these mixed reactions / As this beat backspins, it's like we're drifting back in / To the sixties, having black skin is risky / ‘Cause this keeps happening throughout history.”
But once you get past the midway point on Revival, it’s clear that this is pretty much standard Eminem, in terms of subject matter. He reflects on the glare of superstardom, gets occasionally murderous, muses on fatherhood and even apologizes to his ex-wife, Kim. The rapper’s first album in four years isn’t a bold new direction inasmuch as it’s Eminem trying to squeeze himself into music’s cutting edge by showing all that he can do, creatively.
On “Believe,” he’s even awkwardly attempting to work his hyperkinetic flow into trap beats. But it doesn’t reinvigorate his art—he’s simply trying too hard to please too many listeners. Whereas The Marshall Mathers LP 2 sounded disengaged, here Em sounds like he’s doing too much, and he is saddled with some of the most ill-fitting production of his career.
“Why are expectations so high? Is it the bar I set? / My arms, I stretch, but I can’t reach / A far cry from it, or it's in my grasp, but as / Soon as I grab, squeeze / I lose my grip like the flyin' trapeze…”
The Beyoncé-assisted first single “Walk On Water” drew mixed reactions when it was released in November. The somber, piano-driven track featured Eminem bemoaning the adulation of his fans. It’s a song that should have more power than it does, with Em delivering his rhymes as pages in a notebook audibly flipped, as Bey coos the chorus. But it doesn’t gel: Beyoncé sounds disconnected from Em’s verses and the quiet production never pushes the drama of the lyrics to any heights.
“Remind Me” is produced by Rick Rubin and sounds like a throwback to early 2000s Em (or mid-‘80s Beastie Boys)—an arena-ready hook over a familiar rock sample (Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock & Roll”) that recalls his hits of yesteryear, like “Sing For the Moment and “Crazy In Love.” The result is cheesily out of place here, a transparent softball for the radio. Most of the more accessible songs here—from the Skylar Grey feature “Tragic Endings” to “Need Me” with Pink—feel like overly-familiar riffs on the bombastic emoting of post-2010 Em hits like “Love The Way You Lie.” There’s the slow-building rage and quasi-anthemic choruses, but the formula has been yielding diminishing returns for years. Only “River” with Ed Sheeran is distinct and it’s because it goes for a subtler sound.
Em calls out Trump most directly on the Just Blaze-produced “Like Home.” Rapping for “Someone get this Aryan a sheet,” Em delivers a quasi-sequel to his 2004 anti-Bush track “Mosh,” with Alicia Keys joining in for the hook. “Untouchable” sees Em rapping from the perspective of both a racist white cop and a black man—and it’s one of the few moments on the album that sounds inspired. But again, these socially aware moments are few and far between.
Em is mostly still navel-gazing. And it’s not all that interesting here.
On “Bad Husband,” he ponders how anyone can be good at parenthood while being terrible at marriage. “Offended” feels like the kind of track Em can churn out in his sleep, as he takes aim at industry posers and those who still have a problem with him and his music—with a chorus of “I hope you offended / You can try to hold me down, but you better let me up / ‘Cause you’re only gonna make things worse / I hope you offended / ‘Cause I swear when I get up, I’m never gonna let up / ‘Til everybody eats my turds.”
The Fredwreck-produced “Framed” is the standard Marshall Mathers misogynistic murder anthem that no longer shocks or surprises—it’s just an exercise in Eminem doing what people expect from him at this point. On an album that seems to want to highlight his maturity as a man, this kind of track feels rote and creatively bankrupt.
Things get most compelling near the end. Em once again dedicates a track to his daughter, Hailie. The 22-year-old has been a fixture in her dad’s music since she was an infant, and here he recites letters that he wrote to her when she was in her mother’s womb, and as his star began to rise when she was a toddler. “This is your song,” he says in the chorus. “I just want you to know that I ain’t scared / Whatever it takes to raise you, I’m prepared / To do whatever, to do whatever.” The album closer “Arose” acts as a sort of sequel to “Castles,” with Em imagining his death and declaring, “Little ladies, be brave, take care of your mother / Smile pretty for pictures, always cherish each other / I’ll always love ya, and I’ll be in the back of your memory / And I know you’ll never forget me.”
Em has said that with Revival, he tried to include “a little something for everyone,” and therein lies the album’s ultimate misstep: it’s a scattershot collection that features the 45-year-old Em awkwardly incorporating everything from trap music to angsty pop-rock into his his musical repertoire, but he doesn’t sound particularly inspired over any of it (and sometimes it’s embarrassingly forced). Eminem has always been an introspective rapper, but his observations here don’t reveal very much that he hasn’t laid bare for years. We know he’s conflicted about race and how he’s benefitted from his; we know he’s wrestled with how to be a suitable father; and we know he’s been overwhelmed by fame and his fans. Here, he’s tried to present classic Eminem subjects in slightly new clothes, and the results are decidedly lukewarm.
Eminem’s latest won’t make anyone forget the brilliance of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. or JAY-Z’s 4:44. Despite his still-strong commercial standing and somewhat befuddling recent award show wins, lots of former fans decided long ago that Eminem has run out of significant things to say. He’s an excellent rapper who has proven himself more than capable of delivering compelling art, but his approach grows more and more out of step with where hip-hop is heading. That’s not to say Slim Shady should dive headfirst into “mumble rap,” but as other rap elder statesmen deliver work that finds them pushing their art to new places, Em can’t be so satisfied with lame puns and tricky rhyme patterns that he ignores everything else.
Revival isn’t as political as perhaps fans expected it would be. But it’s a failure because it’s nowhere near as inspired as fans hoped it would be.