After 20 years in the game, Eminem is at an interesting place in his career. At this point, everyone has seen all his tricks. Meanwhile, rap radio has changed a lot in the four years since he last released a record, and he’s always been about shock value and pop culture references. So it is with eyes very wide open that he’s released his ninth album, Revival (Interscope Records).
The album was prefaced by the single “Walk on Water” featuring Beyonce, which seemed to hint that Revival would be a more introspective and mature outing from Eminem. Over a drumless track punctuated by sounds that invoke that he’s writing and tearing up letters as he’s performing, the track seems designed to head off criticism before it starts. Call it the “8 Mile strategy,” where he says it about himself before you can. Fittingly, it’s also the opening track on the album. As a statement of intent, it’s effective. As a song, it’s fine, but the combination of two of the biggest stars in music shouldn’t just be fine. The biggest problem is that the Beyonce role could have been played by anyone. It seems more like a box to check rather than a true collaboration. It’s also a bit of a head-fake, as Revival seems to be exactly the Eminem album you’d expect.
Well, not entirely. There are some new wrinkles. The Slim Shady/horrorcore aspect seems largely tabled. Even on “Framed,” which is the closest to the Shady of old, the gleeful psychopath is absent, replaced by a character whose actions are a result of drug use and who seriously believes he’s being set up. While in the past the first-person was “him,” here it’s clear that he’s a character. A more mature version of Eminem is also present. Re-examining the relationship with his ex-wife Kim, who fueled many of the scorched-earth aspects of the early albums, as well as how his life has affected his daughter Haille, Revival shows that the 45-years-old is capable of getting his grown man on. Sure he’s tackled such subjects before (on 2004’s “Mockingbird,” for example), but here it has a different weight. In addition, Em is more explicitly political, turning the fury he once displayed for Limp Bizkit and boy bands towards Washington and police brutality.
On the flipside, Eminem can’t seem to leave the juvenile attitudes behind. On “Offended,” he gleefully leans in because that’s what’s expected from him. But his punchlines are on a dad joke level. And do you want Eminem sex rhymes? Well, you’re getting two songs worth. There’s seems to be a huge hedging of bets, like he needed to make sure not to completely alienate longtime fans.
The biggest problem with Revival is that its identity is all over the place. At a patience-testing 77 minutes, the album swings wildly from one place to the next. He goes from ignoring current music trends to forge his own path to jumping feet first into them. It’s telling that the guest singers have such a large presence and the only rapper assist comes from Phresher on the very trap “Chloraseptic.” Eminem has worked with Rihanna on his two biggest latter day singles, but it’s strange to hear Ed Sheeran on a track. The songs aren’t bad, but they do seem to feel obligatory rather than inspired. The problem is that because Em can do so much, he tries to do it all, and it winds up being too much. Though the collaboration should be a slam dunk, of the four tracks produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, one, “Walk On Water,” is okay; another, album closer “Arose,” is a strong song; and two, “Heat” and “Remind Me,” may lead you to throw your listening devise across the room.
The upside is that Eminem is rapping his ass off on Revival, with a stunning amount of new technical flows and cadences and just verbally doing things that are legitimately awe-inspiring. The problem is that it all never really comes together. Taken in bits and pieces, Revival is the record you’d want from current day Eminem, but as a whole, it doesn’t live up to its name.