I have problems with Eminem. I’m disappointed by many of his releases since 2004, by the way he has often misdirected so much of his lyrical venom, by his reliance on artless shock value. Yet I remain fascinated by him, because anyone with a passion for the putting-together of words can appreciate that Marshall Mathers has talent. When he works with producers who know how to handle him, such as Dr. Dre or the Bass Brothers, and has someone to discourage his sillier lyrical choices, he can produce some truly interesting music. With Revival, there was hope that Eminem might be about to release something in the vein of Jay-Z’s recent 4:44 – a mature, consistent and sonically interesting album. Single ‘Walk on Water’ demonstrated Mathers’ awareness of his flaws. Hopes were exacerbated. Yet the song displays plenty of the same issues that have been evident for years: an ugly, choppy flow; a repetitive quiet-quiet-LOUD-LOUD delivery. It’s musically unimpressive, too, with weak mixing and an instrumental which is pretty, but generically so. ‘Walk on Water’ is the first track on Revival, and does not set the bar high – yet still, what follows rarely tops it.
other early tracks centre around good ol’ rappity-rapping
The other early tracks centre around good ol’ rappity-rapping, with little attempt at musicality or storytelling. Bars should be where Eminem shines, but here, it’s mostly dull. A few genuinely corny-funny lyrics are ruined by plenty of painful punchlines (“Simon Cowell of rhyming foul” sounds like something I would have written when I was fifteen and thought I could be a battle rapper) and that same choppy flow. Political track ‘Untouchable’ has some clever lyricism and a passionate message, but these are largely lost in awful electric-guitar instrumentation and unlistenable squeaky-scream delivery.
The middle of the album is a messy slog of generic pop instrumentals and producer Rick Rubin’s uncharacteristically awful pseudo-Beastie Boy rock samples. Particularly offensive: ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’-sampling ‘Remind Me’, which posits that “your booty is heavy duty – like diarrhoea”, and pop-political anthem ‘Like Home’, an unoriginally-stated anti-Trump sentiment delivered over a faux-inspirational instrumental and an overproduced hook. But there is hope. From among this plethora of poppy-choppy trash springs dark horse ‘Framed’. Its eerie beat and creepy delivery accompany the blackest of lyrical humour in one of the best tracks on the album, but sadly, it’s followed by ‘Heat’, an unfunny rappity-rap sex track which adds nothing. This theme runs throughout Revival. It never settles into consistency, whether of quality or tone: the occasional well-executed moment is inevitably drowned in the garbage that mires it, and pop tracks are mixed in with horrorcore are mixed in with rappity-rapping, leaving no sense of structure. It feels less like an album than a random gathering of B-sides.
But it finishes strongly. The two-part finale of ‘Castle’ and ‘Arose’ discusses Mathers’ relationship with his daughters and his drug addiction, and they are Eminem at his best. The instrumentals are low-key and emotive, the flow natural, the delivery nigh-tearjerking, the lyrics personal, endearing, powerful. Briefly, we glimpse the artist who wrote ‘Stan’ and ‘Mockingbird’. If only he’d shown up earlier. But then, in a last hurrah of poor decision-making, emotional powerhouse ‘Arose’ ends with the sound of a toilet flushing. It’s hilariously appropriate for the album in just how inappropriate it is for the song.
something I would have written when I was fifteen and thought I could be a battle rapper
Revival is a microcosm of Eminem’s recent career. It’s like talking with someone who is probably clever and interesting, but who has no idea how conversation works. They make comments completely inappropriate to the subject; they ramble nonsensically about whatever comes to mind. The moment you’ve settled into one lane, they switch. You suspect someone needs to sit them down and teach them how to express themselves. Yet, from among the ill-thought out dross, the occasional nugget of gold appears. It’s just enough to give you hope for more. So there you find yourself: cringing, staring, searching. As much as you want it to be over, you can’t quite look away.