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.