When Eminem made a surprise appearance on last October’s BET Hip-Hop Awards to freestyle a long anti-Donald Trump rant, the performance was surprising for a number of reasons. After years spent out of the spotlight, the parking garage-set display showcased a looser, more heartfelt side of the rapper than his recent records have allowed; it saw him tackle politics with sincere fury, even at the risk of alienating his own red state fanbase; and it offered a rare glimpse at the onetime battle rapper performing entirely a cappella.
As it turns out, that last part might have been the most important. On his very long, jagged-edged, oddly sequenced ninth album, “Revival,” Eminem remains one of the most accomplished technical rappers of his generation, but his taste in beats and subjects lets him down mightily. Leaning on charisma-free collaborations, histrionic productions, and nearly half a dozen attempts to rewrite his 2010 hit “Love the Way You Lie,” “Revival” is a messy, ultimately exhausting misfire. It’s a shame, because Eminem still has plenty to say, but even his newfound political consciousness can’t steer him away from some of his worst instincts.
Kicking off the album with a wash of piano and a gossamer Beyonce hook – a far cry from the “Slim Shady does not give a f— what you think” preludes of his heyday – Eminem stretches himself most obviously in “Revival’s” opening stanzas. First track “Walk on Water” is a treatise on artistic frustration, as he despairs of never again reaching the heights of his early-2000s peak over the sounds of pen scratches and wadded-up notebook pages: “It always feels like I’m hitting the mark / ‘Til I go sit in the car, listen, and pick it apart.” Eminem has been compulsively examining his own place in pop culture for virtually as long as he’s had one, but this glimpse at his nagging imposter syndrome adds an intriguing wrinkle. “Believe” continues in the same vein, with Em casting himself once again as an underdog confronting a musical landscape in which he may no longer be welcome. Neither song fully works, but by laying his own struggles for middle-aged relevance on the line so early, one starts to hope “Revival” might continue in the vein of Nas’ “Life Is Good” or Jay-Z’s more recent “4:44,” in which both rappers took bold stock of their own legacies.
Alas, the record’s molasses-thick middle stretch sees him fall back into some deep ruts. Musically speaking, the ballads “Nowhere Fast,” “Tragic Endings,” “Need Me” and “Bad Husband” all blur together into a sort of soupy muddle – barely distinguished by phoned-in choruses from Kehlani, Skylar Grey, Pink and X Ambassadors, respectively – with only the latter standing out thanks to some lacerating lyrics in which Em dissects his failed marriage to ex-wife Kim Scott in much the same way 2014’s “Headlights” offered an olive branch to his other frequent on-record nemesis, his own mother. These attempted heartstring-tuggers also brush up awkwardly against tracks like the lazy horrorcore splatterfest “Framed” and the water-treading “Remind Me,” on which producer Rick Rubin chops Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” into a “Licensed to Ill”-style headbanger, only for Em’s joyless sex rhymes and a fairly ghastly chorus to turn it into hash.
Perhaps no two songs sum up the album’s incompatible sensibilities better than “Offended” and “Untouchable”: The former is a display of pure technical virtuosity and bad taste, as Em rattles off rapid syllables like a hip-hop Eddie Van Halen without saying anything of consequence; and the latter sees him attempt his most expansive take on race relations and privilege since “White America,” without ever locating the song’s rhythmic or melodic center. There’s no reason Eminem’s late-breaking wokeness can’t coexist with his old-school crudity, but his songs that rely on shock-tactics and pop culture trolling rarely tend to age well, and it’s disappointing to see him expend so much talent in the service of nothing much at all, while tracks on which he does have something to say wither on the vine. (On that note, the album’s Trump-baiting broadside “Like Home” fares even worse, burying its worthwhile messages in groaner puns, bombastic production and an anodyne Alicia Keys hook.)
It’s not until the final two tracks of the album’s 77 minutes that the promised revival arrives. On “Castle,” Eminem tries to come clean with his daughter Hailie, and the often questionable ways he wove her into his early narratives; on “Arose,” he recounts a brush with death after a 2007 methadone overdose, and works himself into near hysteria as he ponders all the people he’s let down, from family members to his deceased former collaborator Proof. His grief feels entirely genuine here, his self-reflection cuts deep, and for once the melodrama of the production is entirely consistent with his lyrics. “To rewrite a mistake / I’m rewinding the tape,” he raps as the album winds down, and one wishes he could have taken a second pass at the rest of this record too.