Only Eminem would open an album with a feature from Beyoncé and waste it.
Only Eminem would open an album with a feature from Beyoncé (who breathes life into the tired Skylar Grey-penned hook on lead single “Walk on Water”) and waste it by spending the entire track lamenting his place in the modern hip hop pantheon.
His latest album, Revival, is meant to be a spiritual successor to the contentious outings Relapse and Recovery. But where the former was an indulgent mess and the latter an occasionally inspiring change of pace for an artist entering a new chapter in his career, this new release is a bloated mess. At 19 laborious tracks, there’s no less than three different albums all vying for attention within this runtime with none ever emerging the clear victor. The result is a muddled, overwrought patchwork quilt peppered with palatable moments but otherwise characterized by cringe-worthy punchlines and a nagging sense of desperation.
No one would argue that Eminem is a gifted lyricist on a purely technical level, but one would have to reach all the way back to 2002’s The Eminem Show to find a body of work where he sounded like anything other than confused about his surroundings. Sure his skill for delivery and performing are nearly peerless, but more so than most, his brand of rap music is a specifically youthful venture; only an angry teenager could wield such a boundless sense of invention when exorcising such immature demons. Shock value, violent sexual imagery and tortured introspection worked fine for a bleach blonde perpetual 17-year-old, but Marshall Mathers is 45 now. It’s clear he wants to find new things to rap about without falling back on the Slim Shady persona, but he’s yet to find anything of real substance.
There are a few Eminems on this album. First, we’re introduced to the insecure elder statesman who turns on the radio and can’t fathom young listeners who would rather spin Migos and Lil Yachty than hear another one of his breathless exercises in verbal dexterity. Tracks like “Believe” and “Chloraseptic” showcase Em trying out modern feeling flows, but they have the relative charisma of a scientist in a lab coat dissecting something alien. This isn’t who he is or what he does and it shows. This is an Eminem who overthinks every lyric to the point of exhaustion, one who, in the absence of meaningful targets or relevant subject matter, aims his lyrical horsepower squarely at fart gags and groan-worthy turns of phrase. This Eminem is basically a dad joke stretched thin.
Worse, there’s the cruise-control Eminem, the one who finally turns his brain off and feels confident enough to just let loose. Unfortunately, letting loose just means he indiscriminately rattles off rapid fire rhymes about nothing in particular. A song like “Offended” might excite the diehards who want to screenshot RapGenius to prove their fave can still spit with the best of them, but it’s formless and without purpose. In these songs, Eminem is Yngwie Malmsteen, only he’s noodling with his pen and pad instead of a guitar. Virtuosic flexing is an end in itself for some artists, but there’s something deeply depressing about watching a middle-aged man masturbate because he’s too tired of trying to figure out how to make you cum.
The only Eminem here who functions is the one literally nobody but Billboard prognosticators is happy to see: the easygoing radio hit machine who churns out middle of the road rap ballads with the stylistic texture of Wal-Mart country tunes; the one who collaborates with Pink (“Need Me”) and Ed Sheeran (“River”) and associates with Skylar Grey non-ironically (“Tragic Endings”). These songs exist solely so the inhabitants of dysfunctional middle American relationships have lyrics to quote in Instagram captions after getting into an argument at Applebee’s. As boring and repetitive as these tracks are, they’re also the ones that work the best.
Alex Da Kid, the producer who first turned Em onto this format, makes inoffensive beats based around cavernous drums and soaring hooks, so there’s little room for the self-proclaimed rap god to travel up his own asshole with too-clever-by-half verses. He just has to stay in the pocket until the pretty lady starts to sing. This is the same Eminem who tries in vain to make amends for decades of gross lyrics about rape and spousal abuse, but whose sincerity is hard to swallow for its self-serving myth remaking. This is a guy who apologizes to his ex-wife Kim on “Bad Husband” with a hook from X Ambassadors that repeatedly humblebrags about being an amazing father.
Two of the most cohesive songs come from an Eminem both sides of the political aisle have been begging to stay dormant since 2004’s “Mosh”: the polemicist who turns his vengeful gaze towards society’s ills. On the Cheech and Chong-sampling “Untouchable,” he turns in a surprisingly coherent concept record about police brutality and racial inequality that would be considerably more impressive if it was coming from anyone other than Eminem. It pairs well with “Like Home,” the Alicia Keys-featuring Donald Trump dis record nobody asked for. It’s laudable to hear Em try to leverage his considerable privilege to say something meaningful, but it’s hard to hear him try and not chuckle at the dissonance.
But it’s the final Eminem this album could have used more of, the one who plays around over two big Rick Rubin-helmed cuts, “Remind Me” and “Heat.” The former chops up a Joan Jett sample while the latter samples Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly singing in Boogie Nights, but both are super low-stakes efforts centered around courting women. They’re slight, innocuous and only intermittently uncomfortable, but they’re something else very little on this album aspires to be: they’re enjoyable. Eminem thinks fans want Migos over him because they’ve moved on from lyrical hip hop and don’t want to have to think, but really they just want to occasionally have a good time.