On Revival, Eminem Tries Everything, But It Doesn’t Always Work

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Bless Eminem’s heart. He saw democracy going up in smoke, and his immediate response was to start writing diss tracks for the president. That’s how Em processes the world. He prods until he finds the joke that makes you maddest and then plays you for a fool and a square for getting worked up in the first place. It’s won him dozens of battles in the past, but Trump is a more formidable sparring partner than the rapper seems to think. Both are shock jocks; their language is coarse and brutish, but they ask you to believe that there’s a sweetness animating it. When they get in trouble for their words, the immediate defense is that animosity was never the intention, that their hearts are in the right place, even when their sound bites suggest otherwise. (Em’s dry response to a Rolling Stone question about offensive lyrics in the 2013 single “Rap God” — “I think people know my stance on things …” — is the same brand of accountability-free deflection White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sells on television every week.) The rapper and the politician both shot to the forefront of their respective fields on a wave of irreverence and Middle American disenfranchisement. Squint, and the MAGA bros’ theater of disdain for “snowflakes” and PC culture looks like a mirror image of the “FCC won’t let me be” rhetoric of “Without Me.” It’s no surprise that Trump has declared himself a fan of Eminem in the past, or that, challenged by the rapper in the BET Hip-Hop Awards freestyle “The Storm,” he knew that the single-most-infuriating reaction he could give was radio silence.

“The Storm” was a bust for a few reasons. The challenge at the end for Trump-supporting fans to buzz off seems lacking in a certain self-awareness. Eminem spent nearly 20 years cultivating an audience that prides itself on not giving a fuck. If no one skated after the Bill and Hillary Clinton digs in the ’90s or the George W. Bush lines in the aughts, they won’t be going anywhere soon. Even if “The Storm” did manage to scare off a sect of Republican fans, the guy’s already sitting on truckloads of their money. The loudest criticism of “The Storm” is that it is a lyrical performance designed specifically to dazzle that in fact did not. The freestyle’s opening couplet — “That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not” — inspired dozens of Twitter gags, a reaction that seemed to rattle the artist, who is no stranger to criticism but still sheepish about admitting when he screws up on the job. This fall’s follow-up, “Walk on Water,” is a rarity in the Eminem canon for centering the idea that perhaps the rap god is not infallible after all, that maybe what he does isn’t as cool as it used to be. At a glance, it looked like smart staging for a 4:44-style album where Eminem would reckon with the approach of middle age and the sense that his brand is to modern rap fans what Yes and Genesis were to the punks: loud, old news.

Follow Em for any stretch of time, and you’ll learn that a lead single is usually a pump fake. “The Real Slim Shady,” “Without Me,” and “Just Lose It” were pipe-cleaning lyrical exercises. “Not Afraid” suggested a 12-step narrative Recovery ditched less than halfway in. Revival isn’t the self-effacing grown-man rap album “Walk on Water” hints at, nor is it the political diatribe you might expect after the American history lessons of the follow-up single “Untouchable.” It toys with being both, but it’s sunk by its own kooky wordplay and childish sense of humor. Revival suffers from the same malaise “The Storm” did. Eminem’s mastery of internal rhyme is so tight it suffocates. He’s so committed to pulling off breathtaking stunts with syllables that he forgets to make sure the full sentence flows as neatly as the internal rhymes do. The habit slows promising verses to a grinding halt on nearly every song on the album: See the killer open to “Chloraseptic,” which gets derailed in less than ten seconds: “Instinctive nature to bring the anguish to the English language / With this ink, you haters get wrote on … like a piece of paper.” It gets worse: “This rap shit got me traveling place to place, you barely leave your house / Cause you’re always stuck at your pad … it’s stationary.” The stationary/stationery gag is clever wordplay but stone-dumb lyricism.

The Eminem who was once praised by a poet laureate for his use of language built his rep on macabre storytelling that balanced outrageous wordplay with keen character study. Look back to The Slim Shady LP’s “My Fault,” which sets up its unfortunate pawn in just a handful of lines: “Susan, an ex-heroin addict who just stopped using / Who loved booze and alternative music / Told me she was going back into using again / I said ‘Wait, first try this hallucinogen.’” The story quickly descends into madness, but the tightness of the images and rhyme schemes keeps it from feeling flung together. That version of Eminem comes and goes on Revival. “Framed” is old-school evil genius: “Second murder with no recollection of it / Collecting newspaper articles, cutting up sections from it / Memory’s too fucked to remember, destructive temper / Cut my public defender’s jugular, then stuck him up in a blender.” “Offended” is another flurry of breakneck murder raps: “You claim if you get knocked by the cops you’ll give ’em not even a statement / Walk in the arraignment, shoot the bailiff, karate kick the plaintiff.”

“Like Home” is the song here that’ll probably draw the most headlines. The verses flatly invoke Hitler in calling Donald Trump a Nazi and a white supremacist, making for the most pointed jab at the president by a hip-hop artist since YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump.” It’s a peculiar protest rap because each verse somehow lands in an optimistic space just in time for Alicia Keys to barrel into the chorus invoking the shrill patriotism of “Empire State of Mind.” “Like Home” is the damning Trump attack “The Storm” failed at and the message of hope “Untouchable” is too mired in verbal parlor tricks to sail out. (It’ll be interesting to gauge the response, since it has largely been artists of color enduring the full fury of the right-wing outrage spire since Beyoncé sunk the cop car in “Formation” and Kendrick danced on top of one at the BET Awards. I have a sneaking suspicion that this song’s optimism is an insurance policy against the angry wingdings who’d jump up and call it anti-American. Time will tell.)

For every song that gets off a string of gobstopping turns of phrase, there’s another that dies hard trying to impress. The garish sex rap “Heat” rattles off lines that barely land: “Let’s get turnt like a shish kebab / Twist it, ma, like an air-conditioning knob.” “[I] said my dick is an apple / She said put it inside her.” (Get it? Apple cider?) The album is littered with couplets so dumb that they seem reverse engineered with the express purpose of making witty double entendres out of homophones, like the verse in “Walk on Water” where Em says “pressure in-creases like khakis.” This is the kind of humor you stumble across in grade school and weaponize against friends and family for days until someone takes you aside to inform you what a moron you’ve sounded like all week. The line in “Offended” where Em says he’s “twice your age but acting half it” is one of the album’s most honest.

Revival’s production is more obnoxious than any of these teenage word games. Whenever Dr. Dre isn’t involved, Eminem’s production expresses a grating reliance on loud, obvious samples. This is a rapper who got a chance to rap with Lil Wayne and picked a Just Blaze flip of Haddaway’s “What Is Love?,” who let the whole chorus to Aerosmith’s “Dream On” ring out between the verses of “Sing for the Moment” in lieu of writing a hook of his own. 2014’s Marshall Mathers LP 2 lured Rick Rubin back to making rap beats and turned him loose on classic-rock tunes from the Eagles’ Joe Walsh and Billy Squier, and Revival tries to rekindle that magic. The idea is intriguing early on, as “Untouchable” turns Cheech and Chong’s classic comedy rock song “Earache My Eye” into a treatise on white privilege and the pitfalls of neighborhood policing. But elsewhere, the Def Jam co-founder serves ill-advised chops of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the terrible song Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler sings in Boogie Nights. If you haven’t died of embarrassment already, “In Your Head” lays its raps out over the Cranberries’ “Zombie.”

When the beats here aren’t repurposing strange bits of rock ephemera, they’re either playing it straight for a gushy radio ballad or burrowing up into the confines of grimy boom bap. The album schedules these songs without respect to an overarching mood: I refuse to believe there is a single human that won’t groan somewhere in the stretch that zips from the delightfully sinister sample-based rap of “Framed” through the austere strings and drums of the Kehlani collaboration, “Nowhere Fast” and the lascivious butt rock of “Heat.” Revival’s production is deliberately, frustratingly dated, and the sequencing feels exhaustingly haphazard, like a forgotten Now That’s What I Call Music disc dug up out of a closet.

Rap fans have already taken to calling this one of the year’s worst albums, but they’re prone to thinking in extremes. To fall as hard as Revival does, you also have to catch some serious air. Em tried an awful lot here, and he bricked a lot as a result. But let’s celebrate what works: If you can set aside the choppy cadence and the “Started from the bottom like a snowman” lede, “Believe” is actually a chilling trip inside the head of a rapper trying to stay lyrically “hungry” when he’s rich enough to never have to work again. “Bad Husband” is the penitent public apology Em’s ex-wife Kim deserves for all the times he pretended to murder her in a song. “Castle” and “Arose” deal with the effects of the rapper’s drug addiction on his children, reimagining the scene of a Christmastime 2007 overdose as his own untimely death and offering tear-stained apologies to everyone in his family, even the ones he’s cursed on records. It’s creepy — imagine if Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts” had a second half where he delivered his own eulogy and farewells as he died — but it’s the purest, most affecting emotional outpouring on an Eminem album this side of “Mockingbird” and “Like Toy Soldiers.”

Eminem could do this all the time. He could commit fully to poignant, technically sound, emotionally grounded rap music instead of posting these increasingly idiosyncratic event albums every three years that shrewdly play to several different audiences but come out pleasing very few. But he wants to be the horrorcore ghoul, the Top 40 singles artist, the underground rap head, the political analyst, the classic rock goof, and the old-school hip-hop enthusiast at the same time, and the split allegiances are destroying the quality of his albums. It’s like Em’s second-guessing his place in the game, pandering so hard to the #BARS crowd that he sounds more like a stuttering car engine than a human being, all the while calling on the whole heavenly host of pop -hart closers to make sure this thing has legs on the radio. The harder he pushes himself to secure a legacy as one of the best and most successful rappers of all time, the further away from the effortless smut of the early days his music lands. His touch is ostentatious and overbearing now, like an overly long guitar solo. Revival is like an 80-minute rendition of Van Halen’s “Eruption”: It’s a molten, frantic, masturbatory display of raw craft that teeters across the line between genius and dreck. I wish he’d rein it in, but Eminem’s entire kingdom is built on the idea that he never will.

On Revival, Eminem Tries Everything, to Mixed Results