Can an artist’s genius just vanish?
According to Eminem’s toughest critics, himself included, it can. He makes his self-doubt plain, and acknowledges the naysayers, on the Beyoncé-assisted piano ballad “Walk on Water,” the first single and opening song from his first album in four years, Revival: “If you bitches are tryin’ to strip me of my confidence, mission accomplished.” There couldn’t be a starker contrast to “Rap God,” off 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which was a six-minute clinic of lyrical and technical wizardry, fueled by complete confidence.
As the best-selling rapper of all time, Eminem, now 45, has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and though he can’t please everyone, he sure tries. Sonically, Revival is all over the place, from fluffy pop-rap to propulsive rap-rock (built on samples of songs like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the Cranberries’ “Zombie”) to straight-up trap-influenced hip-hop. It could’ve been a total mess, but despite the occasional choppiness of the flows and the few clunky lines, early songs “Believe” and “Chloraseptic” (featuring NYC rapper Phresher) quickly establish that Eminem is not only still relevant, but still a world-class rapper.
Em saves his more purposeful words, which follow his Trump-skewering freestyle on October’s BET Hip Hop Awards, for elsewhere. While the conceptual second single “Untouchable” fails as a song, with that grating sample of Cheech & Chong’s “Earache in My Eye” ruining the chorus, at least it’s a commendable look at white privilege, police brutality, and racial injustice. Elsewhere, on the Alicia Keys collaboration “Like Home,” Em eviscerates Trump for his racism and incompetent response to the Charlottesville protests. Keys’ skying, spangled chorus virtually guarantees that the song will become Revival’s biggest hit, while Em’s verses make it as potently vitriolic as YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT.”
In addition to the album’s more politically motivated moments, Revival has made headlines for its personal content, too. On its final three songs, from “In Your Head” to “Arose,” Em reflects on the negatives of his image, apologizes to his daughter Hailie for publicizing the ugliness of his relationship with her mother, and painfully relives his near-fatal 2007 methadone overdose. The placement of these songs at the end of the album suggests that Em wanted to leave the impression that he’s still capable of revelatory writing. In that, he succeeds.
If the whole album was as focused as that final sequence, Revival would be an unqualified triumph. It’s not. Tracks like “River” and “Bad Husband,” which respectively feature Ed Sheeran and X Ambassadors, feel splattery and disjointed, more like the product of audio files haphazardly swapped via email than organic in-studio collaborations. Em also gets in his own way by rapping for overlong stretches that dull a song’s musicality, or else saying some seriously ill-considered shit. “Grab you by the (meow!), hope it’s not a problem, in fact/ About the only thing I agree on with Donald is that,” he raps on “Heat.”
None of these flaws are surprising; 2010’s Recovery and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 had similar issues. But on Revival, Em sounds vital enough that he can leave the worries of “Walk on Water” behind for now.