Just when Eminem seems done for, he always manages to claw his way back into the cultural conversation. Marshall Mathers’s most recent act of career resuscitation came this October, when his a capella anti-Trump freestyle at the BET Hip-Hop Awards won praise from those desperate to hear celebrities risk alienating their fan base with unambiguous political statements. Em’s sudden interest in the state of the nation colors much of “Revival,” but in the absence of any other compelling new ideas, his good intentions fail to salvage the album.
The excessive run time of “Revival” (19 songs, 77 minutes) gives Eminem room to touch on pretty much every style he’s tried over the past few albums. There’s the Rick Rubin-helmed classic rock rips of “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” (“Remind Me,” “Heat”), ham-fisted ballads about toxic relationships straight from the “Recovery” playbook (“River,” “Need Me”) — even a regrettable return to the accent-heavy horrorcore of “Relapse” (“Framed”). Meanwhile, the trap-influenced beats of “Believe” and “Chloraseptic” coax some of the old Slim Shady swagger out of Eminem; it’s enough to make you wish he’d let modern producers push him out of his corny comfort zone for a whole album. Yet the absence of a single guest MC confirms that, rather than engage with modern hip-hop, Eminem would rather just rap, at length and on his own terms.
While Eminem once switched between comedy and tragedy so fluidly that listeners often confused one for the other, on “Revival” he makes the intentions behind every song tediously obvious. The sex-rap groaners of “Remind Me” and “Heat” are so goofy they might as well be written in Comic Sans, while the shock-jock gags of “Framed” and “Offended” sound more like pandering to the puerile element of Mathers’s fan base than genuine expressions of antisocial angst. Throughout, the rapping is as technically impressive as always, but many of the more complex rhyme schemes come out stilted, and at some point following the endless barrage of verbiage just feels like work. The same flaw sinks his protest songs; though his musings on racism, white privilege, and our president’s flaws are ideologically solid, the tracks they’re yoked to just aren’t musically engaging enough to rope in the unconvinced.
For about a decade now, Eminem has been too big to fail, too driven to stop, and too old (or, more likely, stubborn) to change. “Revival” succumbs to that deadly combination, failing to restore Eminem to the heights that his hand-wringing verses on “Walk on Water” make clear that he still badly craves. What’s moderately enjoyable for two or three songs at a time becomes a slog over the course of 19, and unless he learns how to self-edit and pushes himself to grow artistically, Eminem’s probably doomed to keep making albums like “Revival” forever.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley