Let’s give credit where it’s due: Eminem’s first album in four years does not contain the lyric “I even make the bitches I rape cum.”
But it does feature “Just escaped from the state pen for raping eight women who hate men.”
The thing is, Eminem’s most successful heir, Tyler, the Creator, had just reached his 20s when he decided he couldn’t rap things like “rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” anymore. Just six years later, Tyler, who used to call people “faggot” liberally in his rhymes, particularly his absentee father, is making year-end lists for Flower Boy, an album on which he regularly alludes to a queer lovelife.
It took Eminem until age 45 and album number nine to stop using the word “faggot.” He doesn’t have any invective for his longtime estranged mom on Revival either. He does, however, rap about his ex Kim again, 18 years after he fantasized to the world about dumping her body in a river with his daughter helping on “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” and 17 years after the prequel “Kim” shook the universe in its unflinching, cinematic portrayal of an abusive relationship at its most toxic, changing rap forever. Nearly two decades on, in “Bad Husband”, he apologizes to Kim and confesses to the largest rap audience on planet Earth that he used to punch his daughter’s mother, and used her as an excuse for his own abuse, even going as far as to state “Girls, your dad is a scumbag.”
It should be chilling, gut-wrenching, one of the most powerful moments in a career of many. Instead, like nearly all of his time on the mic during Revival’s lung-collapsing 80 minutes, the words are rushed, stumbled over, shoved awkwardly into an overstuffed verse … kind of like overhead luggage. He doesn’t rest on “scumbag,” shoehorning in the excess ad lib “I’m confused because–” before the outsourced chorus returns. It’s almost like he can’t sit with his own confession for a moment, like he’s not making eye contact as he tells it. The words are still brave, in their way, but what good is it if he botches the delivery?
One reason why Jay Z’s 4:44 was one of the year’s absolute high-watermarks, and a landmark for confessional rap, is because he focuses on an inside voice, appropriately soul-searching production, and making sure every word is consumed with the exact gravity he intends, even the funny ones. His incredulous “…okay” after reprising one of O.J. Simpson’s most infamous quotes (“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”) spoke volumes. To say that Eminem fails tonally on Revival is a grave underestimate; he never sounds right on these 19 songs. He often barks with the same vituperative cadence that he used to kill Kim on record in the first place, which makes sense when he’s taking aim at Trump and far less when he’s cataloguing his failings as a human being. He forces the listener to pay more attention than his thorny constructions now deserve; in other words, you won’t be happier for having squinted through a batch of weeds like “Like a real thin joint it comes on Quilted Northern/ In a built-in toilet/ Bitch, I told you I’m a dog/ I wouldn’t heal with ointment” in Em’s attempt at a Migos/Cardi flow on “Chloraseptic”.
“Why are expectations so high? Is it the bar I set?” he asks on Revival’s opener and first single “Walk on Water”, which features Beyoncé singing a generic messianic chorus with all the enthusiasm of an extortion victim. It’s incredible in the worst way that, after she passed Kanye’s mantle of the most vital musician in the world, she still has to duet with Ed Sheeran (presumably just to achieve her first No. 1 hit of the 2010s) or lend credibility to this out-of-touch rageaholic’s redemption narrative. Nevertheless, he did set a high bar. Peak Eminem made music something it had never been before, upping rap’s technical skill ante by dozens while introducing gripping morality plays rendered far more uncomfortably and vividly in their grotesque detail than any gangsta rap record to date (or any country or rock or R&B record either). No, it’s not an exaggeration to place the lifelike mastery of “Stan” or “Kim” on the same wavelength as “A Day in the Life”.
He was also hilarious, more often than you may remember. 2004’s much-lambasted Encore now plays like a gulp of fresh air. Eminem may have been in the throes of an addiction that almost killed him a decade ago, but he effortlessly skipped from rhyme to joke to goofy celebrity impression, as if he was Jim Carrey in The Mask. There isn’t a single laugh on Revival; the closest thing is maybe “I’m so narcissistic/ When I fart, I sniff it,” and his delivery is often arthritic, cumbersome, devoid of spaces to pause and laugh if he were to accidentally cause such a thing. This leaves a song like “Remind Me”, which cuts little pieces out of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” like the redacted portions of a memo so that Eminem can peer through its eyeholes, sounding completely dead in the water as he tries to convince us that he’s a man who appreciates butts. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” is more appealing than a Joan Jett desecration containing the words: “That booty is heavy duty like diarrhea.”
It must be said that the production here is absolutely awful, that someone this removed from the landscape needs someone more in-tune than Rick Rubin to sample the Cranberries’ “Zombie” artlessly on “In My Head” or lay a bad impression of Ryan Lewis’ piano beneath “Walk on Water”. The guests don’t sound at all like Eminem’s friends or collaborative peers; they sound like called-in favors. If Pink or Beyoncé has a deeper relationship with the artist, their parts certainly don’t show it. Alicia Keys’ quite-pretty chorus on “Like Home” is easily the most sonorous thing on the record, but so what? Eminem’s verses are like a brick through stained glass. The sound of him is so unceasingly ugly at this point that it’s a wonder why all these singers are on hand (yes, Sheeran’s here too) trying to balance him out with sugar. Why not just lean into the hideousness and bring out hard rockers and firebrands? Hardcore vocalists, thick-necked rappers, System of a Down, surely Rubin’s got a Rolodex more imaginative than Skylar Grey to dust off. That said, when he takes this advice, you get a track like “Framed,” where his slow-motion yelling of the title aims for an unholy hybrid of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Pee-Wee Herman, and somehow still falls short.
Yet even those agitprop moments manage to be inappropriate. The six-minute racial-profiling diatribe “Untouchable” is no epic, just a drowning mess of poorly-landed rhymes like “Here come the swine/ Trying to clean up the streets from all these mi-norities” and a generous helping of Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye” that doesn’t help Mr. Mathers’ schoolyard chanting of “black boy, black boy, we don’t like the sound of you” sound any more cutting and less like something his most misguided fans are likely to repurpose disgustingly. The song’s best points, such as “Throughout history, African-Americans have been treated like shit,” can’t even be called great lyrics, really. They’re just straight readings of facts that he may be nobly reaching some of those misguided fans with. It was good of him to try, but he taints his own intentions so often that you can’t call it successful.
He compares himself to Bill Cosby on “Offended”, completely undermining anything else the song has to level at deserving, should-be easy targets like Mitch McConnell, Kellyanne Conway, or the president. When he references Anna Nicole Smith, who’s been dead for 10 years, to reference her boobs on “Remind Me”, there’s no empathy or parallels, despite the fact that the closing track, “Arose”, is a hypothetical farewell to his kids if he had died from the pill overdose he survived the same year Smith died. (Even the title “Arose” is wretched on paper, a word that’s never isolated and so obviously contorted, that even on the page it reads as a laborious setup, in this case because the tune samples Bette Midler’s “The Rose”, which doesn’t make it any less of a dangling verb.)
The pile of self-thwarted attempts to say something meaningful and jokes either so old they could take a long walk off a short pier (Two consecutive lines in “Need Me”: “I’m swimmin’ in that Egyptian river, ’cause I’m in denial/ Say I don’t eat shit, but I got a shit-eatin’ grin when I smile” – and that’s one of the introspective ones) or so convoluted it’s hard to believe they exist (“I’ll put you in your place like a realtor, boy”), combined with the length of the project, the wait since his last record, the anti-chemistry of the cameos, the indifference of the production, which amounts to poorly mixed karaoke much of the time, makes Revival unquestionably one of the most infuriating and irritating listens of a year when few people want to hear half-assed soliloquies by men.
Revival was undoubtedly a huge personal project for Marshall Mathers – most of his albums are – but how should we feel that it’s easier to listen to him threatening to rape his grandmother on The Marshall Mathers LP, that there’s more for our souls to soak up from the vivid misogynistic murder he depicted on “Kim”, more to laugh at? Many believe that Eminem’s been unlistenable since 2004, but those folks are urged to return to Encore, where he apologized for past racism without tying himself in knots, and utilized slapstick and novelty sound effects like an actual entertainer. Or even The Marshall Mathers LP 2 from just four years ago, where he made a few of the same moves and actually had fun, like reflecting on his career over Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” or busting out a classic Rick Rubin Beasties beat for “Bezerk”. It’s a genuine shame, but Revival is the most pleasureless record he’s ever made, so stymied by his worst tendencies that like many other inept apologies from 2017 it only points out how much further he has to go rather than how far he’s come.
Essential Tracks: N/A