As legend has it, Marshall Mathers used to want to rap so bad as a teenager he would sneak out of his school, walk a ways through town, and sneak into another high school that his friend Proof attended just to engage in lunchroom freestyle battles. Those class skipping sessions were the anthesis of the legendary battles that were recreated on the big screen for 8 Mile, the semi-autobiographical tale of a troubled man who wanted nothing more than to rap and be revered for his skill. That innate desire to simply rap and be lauded for the skillful approach to the art has been the story of Eminem’s career, and in the later stages it has plagued him and transformed him into a robotic, rambling machine of non sequiturs that rhyme impeccably and make almost no sense.
Em’s obsession with proving his skill has manifested itself into an unhealthy preoccupation with rhyming and playing with words, and he even once discussed his frustration with the fact that the word “orange” has no true rhymes on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper. “People say that the word orange doesn’t rhyme with anything, and that kind of pisses me off,” he told Cooper before tossing out a series of words that rhymed with a reconfigured pronunciation of the word orange. “I put my orange, four-inch, door hinge in storage and ate porridge with George,” he blurted out on command, ironically detailing the most fatal flaw of the second half of his career. It was an impressive display, but ultimately a series of words that were meant to rhyme, above all, sacrificing all meaning and significance of how they actually connect to say, well, anything.
What makes all of that frustrating is that Eminem was always at his best when he had something to say. Whether it was a political statement, a biting analysis of culture or a scathing look at himself, whenever he had something meaningful to get off his chest it was always more exciting than his lyrical exercises.
On Revival, Em does have something to say, but too often his greatest attribute is getting dragged down by his most glaring insecurity. Even 20 years into his career, after he’s proven time and time again that he’s one of the most talented MCs to ever touch a mic, Em is still on a rampage to prove just how good he can rap. What that’s done in the latter stages of his career is dragged down his flow, slowing it to an annoying halt as he carefully and frustratingly over-pronounces words and raises his octaves at the very moment he’s rhyming his syllables, as if to make sure the listeners won’t miss exactly what he’s doing.
Em falls back into this stunted, choppy flow throughout the album at random points, but most glaringly on the second verse of “In Your Head,” one of the many places he choses to talk directly to his daughter Hailie. “Hailie, baby, I didn’t mean to make you eighty, percent, of what I rapped about,” he says, raising his voice to a scream at every hard E sound, and sloppily ending lines at odd points, mid-sentence just to continue his rhyme pattern. Maybe, just maybe, finding a way to end each complete thought within a bar would be just as skillful a display as beating us over the head with how he’s rhyming every other syllable, but clearly Eminem doesn’t deem that as interesting as whatever he’s going for here.
What makes that weird display even more tiresome is that, for the first time in years, it seems like Eminem has rediscovered the grasp of flow that made him such a supernova in the 90s and early 2000s. Despite Em’s tendency to revert back to his choppy, I-Am-Rhyming-Right-Here-Can-You-Hear-It? flow, the return of that grasp of flow is one of the redeeming qualities of Revival. On several songs, like “Tragic Endings,” with Skylar Grey, where he flows effortlessly and seamlessly within the instrumentation his voice sits on top of. Flow is a core tenet of rap, and it should be a given, not an accomplishment, but that’s just how far Em has fallen in the second half of his catalog.
There are other problems with the album, like uneven production that ranges from laughable, like on the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” sampling “Remind Me,” to potent but odd-fitting, like the trap-esque beat Em uses for “Chloraseptic.” Some of the guest appearances are predictably bland, like Kehlani’s inspirational commercial-ready chorus on “Nowhere Fast,” even if Ed Sheeran shockingly provides a brief, passioned and beautiful respite from lines like “Actually, just shit on my last chick and she has what my ex lacks,” on “River.”
But, the main problem with Revival is Eminem. Sure, there is technical rapping prowess, but after 20 years, the content has grown stale. A 45-year-old man lamenting over the failed, toxic relationship from his 20s doesn’t feel enlightening, it feels pitiful and exhaustive. A wealthy man nearing his 50s, looking for pity as he sloshes around mansions, full of regret isn’t relatable and doesn’t incite sympathy. And that same man then reverting back into his old ways for bouts of immaturity, rape jokes and fantasies is just plain weird and stale.
Even when he attacks Donald Trump, as was rumored and all but confirmed with his infamous freestyle at the BET Awards, Em still prefaces it with “You don’t have to agree,” a cop out that strips the song of some of its venom. Then, he can’t help but use some of Trump’s scandals for cheap jokes, saying “Grab you by the (meow!), hope it’s not a problem,” on “Heat,” before adding “In fact, about the only thing I agree on with Donald is that.” It’s contradictory, as Eminem has often been, and as you realize it’s a middle-aged man juggling those contradictions for cheap humor and to appease fans of decades old immaturity, you finally do start to pity the man, not for the angst he’s going through, but for the pathetic levels he has to stoop down to.
Still, as an all-time talent like Eminem is wont to do, there are moments of sheer brilliance on Revival, most notably the album’s final two songs “Castle” and “Arose.” Seeing as his daughter Hailie, and his slain friend from the old lunchroom battles, Proof, are the muses for each song, that the album’s brilliance lives there isn’t all that surprising. It’s here that he plays with the album’s concept of revival, and on “Castle,” Em pens a series of letters to Hailie during different stages of her life, culminating with one last letter moments before his 2007 overdose. “Just know, that I’m a good person, though they portray me as cold,” he raps to his daughter just before swallowing the pills that would lead to that overdose. “And, if things should worsen, don’t take this letter I wrote as a goodbye note, ‘Cause your dad’s at the end of his rope.”
Revival is an album full of regret, full of forced growth and a man realizing the error in his ways far too late. It follows many of the same beats as Jay-Z’s 4:44, which makes sense as both men are at similar points in their careers, where they’ve topped the mountain and can only see precipitous drops behind and ahead of them. It’s only on these final two songs that Em’s execution of these same concepts ever feels as earnest as Jay’s, as most of the rest of the album wallows in Em’s obsession with words, rhyming and proving that he’s doing it at a high level.
On “Arose,” Em imagines a world after his overdose, where he lays in a hospital bed, heading towards death and finally seeing his friend Proof again. He offers advice and atonements to everybody, including his mom, Kim, his brother, Proof, and of course his daughter. Finally, Em fights his fate, and has his final revival of the album, rewinding to the final letter to Hailie and rewriting his own history by flushing the pills and his demons. It’s genius from one of rap’s foremost sages, and a pulse of honesty and reflection from one of the most transparent acts in the last twenty years of music. “Arose” and “Castle” are portions of the album that the message of “Walk On Water” promised, an album full of realization from an artist who has spent his entire career immersed in sophomoric humor and demented imagery for shock value. Eminem finally grew up on Revival, but unfortunately listeners have to slog through an hour of muck to get to the clearest waters of the second half of his career.
In another universe, where Eminem realizes he has nothing left to prove lyrically and has nothing left to show off mechanically, there’s a beautiful album being made. There, in that alternate reality, Eminem’s struggles with regret and growth come off just as poignantly and sincere as they do on Revival‘s final two songs. That album is probably shorter, more streamlined and completely stripped of weak attempts to harken back to an era of Eminem and Slim Shady that Marshall Mathers has grown past a decade ago. In that reality, Marshall vividly and fondly remembers those lunchroom battles with Proof, but doesn’t have that same chip on his shoulder anymore. In that reality, Eminem doesn’t care what rhymes with orange, and Revival is much better than the disaster it devolves into before the final two tracks.
Unfortunately for Em and his fans, we don’t live in that reality, we live in the one where Revival is a mistake, a random mash of immaturity, vanilla attempts at atonement and random, sprinkles of magnificence. Eminem is one of the greatest rappers of all-time, by any estimation, and the sooner he realizes it the better.