Alex Swhear isn’t here for dad rap.
The Eminem Show has better songs than “Sing For the Moment,” but none are more pivotal. Em gnashes his teeth at enemies real and exaggerated, stuffy censors and nightclub bouncers alike. With heavier themes in mind, he stumps for his gun rights, advocates for free speech, and empathizes with kids whose home life is as broken as his own. He bridges the gap between the uncompromising fury of The Marshall Mathers LP and the fertile middle ground where his rage is more palatable for Red State America.
It’s an olive branch masked as a call to arms. Flipping Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Eminem’s musical bedrock seems ostensibly sacrilegious, but actually enhances the mission statement. You can’t pin down the song’s precise impact, but it likely sold a few thousand Aerosmith greatest hits records and raised the eyebrows of countless suburban dads. It also marked one of the first times—outside of goofy lead singles—that Eminem clearly crafted music for someone other than himself. It read like an attempt to quietly negate the sentiment that his music wasn’t truly art.
Flash forward thirteen years. Marshall Mathers can still fill an arena but generally doesn’t feel like doing it; his fifteen Grammy’s accumulate dust on a shelf somewhere in his Detroit mansion. He remembers that sampling a revered radio hit can be an effective tool but has no recollection of how to do it. After 65 punishing minutes of Revival, his ninth album, he tries a trick similar to the Aerosmith lift. The results couldn’t be more divergent.
“In Your Head” plucks The Cranberries’ “Zombie” from its upper echelon of beloved ’90s pop songs loved by Andy from The Office. Here, it’s saddled with what might be Em’s most unpleasant flow on the entire record—a choppy, halting shout that mistakes volume for emotion. Em doesn’t have much to say here beyond the usual platitudes about his relationship with hip-hop. If he did, perhaps a venerated radio classic could work as a seasoning. As it stands, though, these particular songs make no sense together. They’re a tone-deaf arranged marriage that lands with all of the subtlety and precision of an amateur DJ mashup.
“Remind Me” is even more egregious. Rick Rubin repurposes Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock N Roll” as an extraordinarily unsexy sex song. Its legendary riff is demoted to background noise for groaners like “Your booty is heavy duty like diarrhea.” “Heat” is tonally similar, packed with overeager come-ons (stuff like “I gotta meet her like a taxi” and “I’m trying to jump your bones to the marrow”). It samples one of the intentionally bad, coked-up Dirk Diggler songs from Boogie Nights—an idea so audacious that it shouldn’t work, and absolutely doesn’t. Both songs land in the same wheelhouse as “So Bad” and other songs where Em tries and fails to write about sex casually. He sounds like the middle schooler who definitely has a girlfriend, you just haven’t met her yet because she goes to another school.
Revival’s offensive sample selection is only the beginning of its problems. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure Haunted House book where every door opened is the wrong one, a baffling collection of miscalculations posing as a consensus-building late-career triumph. During the promotional cycle for Revival, Em has signaled that he intentionally approached its recording with diplomacy: “What I tried to do was diversify,” he said in a discussion with Elton John for Interview. “I’ve tried to make a little something for everyone.” Few would expect Em to remain as intractable as he was when he wrote “Kill You,” but Revival’s slavish commitment to compromise strips him of the personality that made him a global phenomenon.
A numb lack of self-awareness guides many of Eminem’s worst artistic decisions. But lead single “Walk On Water” makes it clear that critical backlash to his last few records not only registered but also drew blood. Backed by a Beyonce hook that almost certainly wasn’t worth its price tag, “Water” finds Em wracked with anxiety to the point of physical illness. He sounds keenly aware of his subpar material but also resentful towards a perceived ever-looming specter of unfair expectations.
Em is punching down here, locked in trench warfare with snarky YouTube comments, but it’s his most explicit reckoning yet with his downward trajectory. “Water” doesn’t quite work—it isn’t a fun listen, nor does it cut as deeply as it might—but it suggests a self-awareness that may have yielded marginal improvements.
Revival is improbably every bit as bad as its most recent predecessors but even less focused. Encore brandished the unfunny juvenile humor of “Puke” and “Big Weenie.” Relapse embraced self-consciously zany murder fantasies about Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Recovery alternated between toothless power-pop ballads (“Love the Way You Lie”) and cringeworthy wordplay (“I solemnly swear to treat this roof like my daughters and raise it”).
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 leaned on blind nostalgia for its predecessor and double-or-triple-time “Rap God” flows in lieu of substance. Revival opts for all of the above, claiming to have learned lessons from past sins but gamely wading back into territory that should have long since been abandoned. The forceful backlash to Relapse’s cartoonish true crime porn marked an inflection point at which each new Eminem album reacted to what came before it. This triggered Em’s unbecoming transition into a sort of puppy-dog populist, fearful of risks and guided only by the familiar.
This backward-looking strategy stifles Revival before it can even get off the ground. Em’s writing has always been rich with self-congratulatory references for super fans (“Stan,” “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” and “Mockingbird” all get name-dropped here) with little merit to those not heavily invested in all things Eminem. This is why “Bad Husband,” yet another chapter in the Kim saga, exists, and why it’s ultimately so fruitless. Em and Kim finalized their divorce eleven years ago. It was litigated exhaustively. We don’t need a new Em/Kim song anymore than we need a new Alanis Morissette/Dave Coulier song, but it’s positioned here to be a hard-hitting emotional centerpiece.
Too much of Revival is consumed with re-exploring that sort of well-worn territory with little discernible motive beyond the warmth of familiarity. Even when the songs manage to grasp a surface-level competence, they collapse under Em’s writing. The Ed Sheeran-featuring “River” reimagines “Love the Way You Lie” with an abortion twist it doesn’t bother to flesh out. With its ex-lax puns and corny Spiderman references, it’s impossible to take seriously.
“Tragic Endings,” “Nowhere Fast,” and “Need Me” are indistinguishable, the same copy-and-paste pop trifles he’s been coasting on for years that usually feature Skylar Grey or Pink or Rihanna or who even cares, really. They reek of gratuitous overtures to pop radio from an artist who long ago transcended the need to cater to a mainstream he had already conquered. But even if Em had a skeleton of a pop hit on his hands, he would vandalize it with scatological nonsense: “Since I’m manure, she’s a sewer, and this time this piece of shit’s running through her” barrels midway through the otherwise somber climax of “Tragic Endings.”
Revival is more interesting when it looks outward as it does with “Untouchable,” a sprawling exploration of race relations, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have criticized Em’s approach as exploitative, but that feels unfair; “Untouchable” is engaged, ambitious, and thoughtful in spurts. Unfortunately, it still does too much wrong to truly gel—including but not limited to a regrettable Cheech and Chong sample, clunky lyrics (“Why is it they treat us like dryer lint?”), and guitars straight out of an ad for a monster truck rally.
The other overtly political song, “Like Home,” misses the opportunity to keenly dissect the political climate the way Em did post-9/11. A different version of this song could have worked; for starters, Em’s pre-album freestyle “The Storm” also aimed at President Trump and hit its target substantially harder. But he insists on cloaking the song in generic flag-waving, robbing it of much-needed venom.
In 2016, Democrats gambled that the stark gloom of “Make America Great Again” could be slayed by the blind patriotism of “But America is already great.” The earnest Alicia Keys hook here similarly misreads the moment. The result is a missive with admirable intentions and some good lines, but little bite. It’s nearly the limpest possible form of #TheResistance, landing on the spectrum somewhere in the neighborhood of an indignant Lena Dunham tweet.
For all of Revival’s stumbles, it does momentarily offer glimmers of the markedly better album that could have been. Em dances through “Believe” with the same technical dexterity that made his peak performances so dazzling. “Castle” and “Arose,” which close the record, are collectively as compelling as anything he’s released in years, tying together his rise to fame and his 2007 drug overdose on what he believed would be his final Christmas. “Arose” in particular is strikingly vivid, with Em tied down in a hospital bed, unable to lift a finger, recounting missed birthdays and the 2006 murder of Proof that deepened his addiction.
These occasional bright spots pose a question: Is Eminem capable of making a good album in 2017? Revival’s highlights suggest that it’s within the realm of possibility. Perhaps more disciplined writing and a carefully calculated thematic arc could birth a late-career gem that Eminem could be proud of. He might use the concept of “River” but discard its thin pop structure and poop jokes. He would avoid littering the tracklist with serial killer fantasies and crass rock samples. He wouldn’t shy away from politics, but his writing would be tighter. We would hear the introspection of “Walk On Water,” but he would probe the root of his shortcomings rather than merely acknowledging that they exist.
The problem is that Marshall Mathers doesn’t have any idea what fans want, what critics want, or (most crucially) what he wants. Every one of his projects since 8 Mile has been stymied with this crippling uncertainty. While he hasn’t outright resisted change, his instincts have generally failed him, enabling new flaws to smother whatever strides he made in the right direction.
Eminem’s talent is indisputable, and even at low points, he remains a fascinating voice in hip-hop. Until he figures out how to leverage that voice as an elder statesman of the genre, though, he’s likely to remain lost—unsure of where to go or what to say or how to say it. Revival suggests that he’s as adrift as ever.