Eminem doesn’t sound revived at all on ‘Revival’ — a first-impressions review
As much as Eminem has become an easy punching bag, there's no denying that the run of The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show is one of the finest runs in all of hip hop. That's why we keep giving him a chance as he continues to release half-assed comeback attempts (with thinly veiled titles like Encore, Relapse and Recovery, and the ol' sequel trick). He's like rap's Weezer or Metallica -- the classics are so good that we're still holding on to the hope that some of that brilliance will resurface. His latest comeback attempt has yet another unsubtle title (Revival), but it comes on the heels of the most newsworthy thing Eminem has done in years: the BET freestyle where he said he doesn't want any Trump fans as Eminem fans. As others (like Vince Staples) have noted, Em's lyrics weren't so hot in the freestyle, but you kinda do have to give some credit to an artist who presumably has (had?) a huge Republican fanbase for saying something like that. Assuming he was going to carry this anti-Trump agenda over to Revival, it seemed like the album might be kinda respectable. At least compared to when he rapped about punching Lana Del Rey in the face.
And yes, Em addresses the racism and police brutality that's been in the news in the Trump era on Revival (but that's always been addressed in rap music). He examines his own white privilege on "Untouchable" and takes more shots at Trump on "Like Home," but it's hard to take any of it seriously when a few songs later ("Heat"), he raps "Grab you by the meow, hope it's not a problem, in fact / About the only thing I agree on with Donald is that / So when I put this palm on your cat / Don't snap, it's supposed to be grabbed." It'd be a little more tempting to give his offensive lyrics a pass and take his attempts at wokeness more seriously if he hadn't actually done this better years ago anyway. 2002's "White America" examined white privilege and took shots at the government way more effectively than any song on Revival does, and it sounded way better too. It's nice that Eminem hates Trump, but that doesn't forgive his current inability to write music that's fun to listen to.
Speaking purely about the sound, the biggest problem with Revival is that Eminem is taking this power ballad stuff way too far. He surely realizes the lasting impact of "Stan" and "Sing for the Moment," because now he's applying that formula to almost every song. (And he wants to make sure you remember that impact too, hence the bitch, I wrote "Stan"! outburst that he throws at the end of the Beyonce-featuring "Walk On Water.") The only guest rapper is Phresher (and even he is only given a chorus), and the other guests are all singers who are brought in to put radio-ready choruses on those power ballads (Beyonce plus Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys, X Ambassadors, Skylar Grey, Kehlani, and P!nk). He also reprises the "Stan"/"Sing for the Moment" formula of sampling a famous song for the chorus, this time by using The Cranberries' "Zombie" on "In Your Head." Em got some real emotions and impactful messages across on "Stan" and "Sing for the Moment," and those songs remain classics for a reason. But even when Em gets humble about his career on Revival, or raps about his daughter or his several troubled relationships, his emotion doesn't resonate like it used to. He can still rap impressively fast, but his lyricism is clunky and he's lacking the energy and the spirit that he had in his prime.
"Stan" and "Sing for the Moment" also worked because they were the exception, not the rule. Those songs stood out on albums that had shit-talk like "I'm Back" and "Business" or jokey hits like "The Real Slim Shady" and "Without Me." On Revival, there's really only one song where Em sounds like he's having fun: "Remind Me," which was produced by Rick Rubin and samples "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" in that classic Rick Rubin rap/rock way. I've never actually been sure what the ideal Eminem album would be at this point in his career -- "reviving" his old sound never seems to work and trying to fit in with modern-day sounds (like when he awkwardly tries on a trap-style cadence on "Believe") is even worse -- but I might actually take an entire album of Em spitting over hard rock songs, Beastie Boys/Run-DMC style. Save for its indefensible lyric about sexual assault, "Heat" is probably the album's second most fun-sounding song and that one's also a hard rocker with Rick Rubin at the boards. (Em and Rick Rubin tried this out on MMLP2 too, but it's even more effective on Revival.) Obviously they aren't reinventing the wheel with this kind of stuff, but it's one kind of revival that Eminem actually excels at.
The ideal Eminem album would also be a lot shorter if it's gonna be as one-dimensional as Revival is. It's the same length as Eminem Show and a bit longer than Slim Shady LP and Marshall Mathers LP, but those albums had entertaining skits, they had Marshall and Dr. Dre going back and forth with each other or D12 showing up for a song, and they had Em bouncing back and forth between different personas, moods, and attitudes. If you had to skip a weak track here or a severely offensive track there, you were almost guaranteed to hear some fire on the next one. On Revival, most songs drag just as much as the one before them, and the whole thing becomes one long, draining blur.