On December 15th, Eminem released his ninth studio record after a four-year hiatus. Revival marks an important return for the hip-hop juggernaut–now a bit older, more politically conscious, and with several years of sobriety under his belt. In October, speculation mounted that the rapper was on the brink of releasing new music after a freestyle attack on Donald Trump aired on the 2017 BET Awards. And while each one of his records has garnered fairly positive reviews from critics, has peaked at number one on the Billboard 200, and sprouted several hit singles, it feels as if Slim Shady has struggled in recent years to find the footing he once had during the earlier days of his career. But somehow Revival feels different. The cast of characters is still the same. Slim, Kim, Mom, and Hailie all make their obligatory appearances. But the shift in tone here is within the artist himself. With this record, Eminem seems to deeply ponder his purpose in the world. And now, he’s perhaps more unsure about it, more nervous about it than ever. The result is something triumphant, awkward, and at times uncharacteristically desperate.
The album opens with “Walk on Water”–a testament to just how much weight Eminem’s name carries in the music industry, as the song features Beyoncé. More of an introduction than a full album cut, this track is all about accepting mortality and renouncing one’s godliness. “Always in search of the verse I haven’t spit yet, will this step just be another misstep, to tarnish whatever the legacy, love, or respect, I’ve garnered…kids look to me as a God, this is retarded. If only they knew it’s a façade and it’s exhaustive,” he bemoans. And as Beyoncé sings the refrain, “I walk on water, but I ain’t no Jesus. I walk on water, but only when it freezes,” we get the sense that Eminem has come to terms with the fact that he can’t quite live up to himself anymore. The angry, foul-mouthed, incredibly famous Slim Shady is dead, and what’s left is just the man who created him.
Revival continues with “Believe”–a thunderous, anxiety-ridden questioning to Eminem’s fans. It comes across as somewhat of a warning, as if he’s telling his audience that the proverbial script is about to flip. The content is maturing. The statements are getting political, and this is his line in the sand. Will you stay on his side? But what’s next is perhaps the most uncomfortable moment of the whole record. In the third track, “Chloraseptic,” we have a song that takes several listens to process. While the verses are pretty fun and very typical Slim, the hook is indescribably…not. Instead, we get something that sounds more like a Travis Scott throwaway. And here is where the desperation comes in. The flow feels forced; an ambivalent attempt at sounding current over original. The thing that made Eminem stand out at the beginning was the fact the he didn’t sound like anyone else out here, and here he is doing just that. It’s an awkward, unnecessary attempt at exemplifying mainstream rap by the very person who catapulted it to the mainstream in the first place. And even though it grows on you after a few spins, “Chloraseptic” is a creative low point for the record despite its catchiness.
The political tone escalates with “Untouchable.” While race has always been a conversation piece of his career, Eminem underscores many of the tensions currently felt in America here. Lyrically, the track is pure genius. He observes, “They called it a Kaepernick tantrum if you didn’t stand for the national anthem…this whole nation feels like a plantation field, in a country that claims that it’s foundation was based on United States ideals, that had its natives killed, got you singin’ the star spangled spiel, to a piece of cloth that represents a land of the free they made people slaves to build.” Musically however, the song comes across like more of a confused Beastie Boys record, perhaps re-done by Insane Clown Posse. But then again, hasn’t that kind of always been his sound? Even still, there’s a weird dichotomy that exists as you get the sense that while the message has matured, Eminem hasn’t quite figured out the best way to deliver it.
Through the middle of the record things get more internalized. With a feature by Ed Sheeran, “River” feels so radio friendly that you’d swear it’s already a hit single. And here, as Slim begs for forgiveness for his sins, and what follows is perhaps Revival’s most frivolous moment. The endlessly fun, brilliantly-sampled “Remind Me” is a clever love letter to Joan Jett, and the many sharp-tongued, inappropriately-behaved, fake-breasted women that Eminem probably enjoys playing with. But bringing the album to its political height is the titular “Revival” and “Like Home” that follow. In a continuation to what he started on the BET Awards, Eminem lambasts Trump and encourages his fans to follow suit. “Someone get this Aryan a sheet, time to bury him so tell him to prepare to get impeached, everybody on your feet, this is where terrorism and heroism meet,” he pleads. And as Alicia Keys reinforces that sentiment on the hook, “Here’s one for the only place that really knows me, for the cracks in the road that drove me, there’s no place like home,” what’s surprising is the notion that Eminem is actually standing up for the real America. And Slim Shady, he’s sitting down for once. This is a man that’s grateful for the opportunities he’s had and is genuinely concerned for his country. This is a side we’ve never really seen of Eminem before, and it’s…a lot different.
As the album wraps up with a series of somewhat predictable but still enjoyable fillers, with features by pop heavyweights like Skylar Grey and Pink, one of the most notable moments of the third act is in yet another brilliantly sampled track: “In Your Head.” What Eminem has always done, perhaps better than anyone else in hip hop, is include pop and alternative music into his creations (see Dido). It’s what’s given him the more melodic, more radio-friendly aesthetic over other rappers–the very thing that could be responsible for his massive following to begin with. Here, it takes form in the choice of “Zombie”–the 1994 grunge hit from The Cranberries. And as the curtains draw for Revival; it’s the perfect throwback as the rapper reflects on the overdose he suffered on methadone in 2007.
Revival is an imperfect record. It’s littered with tired moments–the never-ending saga of his relationship with Kim, the continuous anxiety that fans will turn on him, the recalling of his tragic upbringing in Detroit just to name a few. But in between is the emergence of something–someone–refreshingly mature. On the surface, Revival is a reassurance to fans that the man who wrote “Stan” is still capable of the same kind of chart-topping, ear-worming bangers that he’s always been known for. But at the core there are glimmers of an unpolished, never-before-seen artist who’s palms are still very, very sweaty. Perhaps he’s just getting started.