After a number of days spent listening to Eminem’s new album, Revival, I’ve emerged with two observations that are not as related as I’d like them to be. The first is that Eminem, currently 45 years old at the end of 2017, still has a great album in him somewhere. The second is that Revival—a remarkably ambitious, wildly uneven work that sprawls to nearly 80 minutes in length—is not that album, and is in fact awfully far from it. But it represents an artist trying to grapple with himself and a world he made in ways that feel honest and genuine, which in a case as troublesome as Eminem’s is at least worth some points for effort.
Back in October, Eminem gave a fiery denunciation of Donald Trump during a freestyle at the BET Hip Hop Awards that went viral for not wholly positive reasons. It was a lyrically clunky and uncomfortably self-serious performance, a discombobulating about-face from a rapper who’d spent much of his career gleefully assaulting anything resembling earnestness. But when he closed the freestyle by telling any of his fans who’d supported Trump to go fuck themselves, it was a genuinely stirring statement from hip-hop’s most prominent Caucasian, one that any number of massively successful white stars who’ve built careers from the musical traditions of nonwhite people have thus far studiously avoided making.
Eminem’s scorched-earth campaign against Trumpism continues on some of Revival’s strongest tracks, including the anti–police brutality screed “Untouchable” (“No one oversees these cops/ all we see is ’em beat charges/ we done seen ’em beat Rodney King unconscious and got off/ so we don’t need all you crooked police officers’ peace offerings”) and “Like Home” (“Didn’t want to piss your base off did ya/ Can’t denounce the Klan, ’cause they play golf with ya/ You stay on Twitter, way to get your hate off/ Nazi, I do not see a way y’all differ”). The album finds Eminem taking stock of his own whiteness and excoriating American hypocrisy and inequality to degrees that aren’t often found on any album at the top of the charts, where Revival is almost certain to land next week.
What makes this so much more notable than, say, Macklemore’s “White Privilege II,” which covered much of the same general territory back in 2016? One reason is that Macklemore sucks, and Eminem, while not the genre-defining genius that his most vocal fans like to claim he is, is the most widely admired white rapper in history and one of the most celebrated and gifted MCs, period, ever to pick up a mic. More importantly, Eminem’s got real skin in this particular game, in more ways than one. I have little doubt that many of the neo-Nazis and assorted cretins who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, last August are, or at least were, Eminem fans: As Justin Charity recently noted, Slim Shady was the musical blueprint for the curdled, I’m-so-oppressed-by-anyone-who-finds-rape-jokes-offensive stance of so many young white men on the internet. This is a legacy he needs to reckon with, and he appears to be trying to do so. The fact that it’s thus far mostly resulted in music that isn’t very good should not be grounds to dismiss the impulse.
Revival frequently collapses under the strain between its political ambitions and its commercial ones, like a big-budget action film that also wants to be a message movie. It’s chock full of special guests who serve little purpose other than being famous. Beyoncé shows up on the album’s first track and lead single, “Walk on Water,” providing a gospel-infused vocal hook that sits awkwardly against the track’s themes of middle-aged angst and self-doubt. “Like Home,” with its scathing denunciation of Trump and white supremacy, is paired with a patriotic hook sung by Alicia Keys that’s completely out of place. There are collaborations with Ed Sheeran and X Ambassadors, artists whom 15 years ago Slim Shady would have rapped about stabbing to death on a far better album than this one. There’s also a small army of producers credited on Revival, including Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, Dr. Dre, and Eminem himself, but the beats are mostly underwhelming, and the sheer breadth of contributors leaves the album feeling sonically incoherent. Rubin flips Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n Roll” for the bawdy “Remind Me,” a riff so obvious it feels like self-parody. Scram Jones nicks the hook of the Cranberries’ “Zombie” for “In Your Head,” an inspired sample that’s undone by the rest of the track’s overstated drums, bass, and guitars.
In many ways the problem of Revival is a generic one, trapped between the desire to be a serious rap album and the commercial dictates of blockbuster pop, a tension that’s haunted Eminem’s career for years now. The underground world of showy freestyles and organized MC battles that he emerged from back in the 1990s was pretty much the least pop-friendly milieu imaginable, rooted entirely in technical virtuosity and avant-gardism for avant-gardism’s sake, deliberately niche-y and immensely nerdy. He’s recently seemed hellbent on returning to it, as on 2013’s “Rap God,” a six-minute tour de force of sheer technique that I found nearly unlistenable. Revival keeps up the flashy wordplay but too often falls back on groan-inducing, out-of-time pop culture references: “I am to rap what blue jeans mean to Bruce Springsteen,” from “Chloraseptic,” or “So she’s been on the web lately/ says maybe she’ll be my Gwen Stacy, to spite her man” on “River.” (If you haven’t gotten the pun yet, say the last part out loud.) And the less said about the album’s fixation on fecal matter that’s captivated the internet as of late, the better.
It also feels like, in the newfound urgency of his politics and his apparent desire to atone for his past, he’s lost touch with his greatest strengths. The most compelling Eminem was never the peddler of anthemic mega-hits like “Lose Yourself” or “Love the Way You Lie.” Rather, he’s one of music’s greatest satirists, a razor-sharp critic of our culture with a peerless eye for that culture’s dark sides. What made a track like “Stan”—overexposed to be sure, but also a masterpiece—so extraordinary was Em’s effortless ability to ventriloquize the disaffected fan, an ability that clearly sprung from discomfiting sense of kinship, shifting from a grin to a grimace like a twisting knife. That side of him is mostly missing from Revival, where he seems to be working primarily in two registers: the ludicrously profane shock-jock routine that feels joyless and mechanical, a pose he can strike in his sleep and often seems to here, and the politically engaged, morally outraged voice of sanity that’s genuinely powerful but is drowned out by dissonances in music and marketing.
Eminem is the highest-selling hip-hop artist in history, and if that fact doesn’t make you at least slightly uncomfortable, then it should. It certainly makes him uncomfortable. “I’m not God-sent/ Nas, Rakim, ’Pac, B.I.G., James Todd Smith,” he rattles off on “Walk on Water,” an I’m-not-worthy genuflection to hip-hop canon that Eminem has been reciting almost obsessively in one form or another for years. But his influence over the last 20 years of rap has been incalculable. Revival’s best tracks are its last two, “Castle” and “Arose,” the former of which traces Eminem’s relationship with his daughter throughout his professional ups and downs, and the latter of which details his near-fatal struggle with substance abuse. Neither of these subjects are new territory for Eminem, of course, but they stand as a reminder of just how much of rap’s 21st-century turn toward tormented introspection is Eminem’s legacy, just as much as the trolling and shock-mongering is. He’s an immensely important artist who still has things to say that only he can say, and I hope he continues trying to figure out how, because those things are important. Revival is an album with so many flaws that it suggests Eminem has an awfully long way to go to get back to making great music, but for the first time in what may be forever, I feel like I’m unequivocally rooting for him.