Graham: Eminem’s ‘Revival’ is overlong, stagnant
The rapper’s ninth album is not the fresh sound its title promises
It’s called “Revival,” but for Eminem, his new album is more of the same.
Nine albums in, we know what to expect from a visit with Slim Shady: self-examination of his legacy and his level of motivation; updates on the holy (and often unholy) trinity of women in his life: his mother, his ex-wife, and his daughter; a few joke-rap songs; some horrorcore rhymes about murder and mutilation; a temperature-taking of the nation’s political climate. (The celeb-skewing bowshot was mercifully jettisoned after the bottom-scraping “We Made You,” from 2009’s “Relapse.”)
We get all of this on “Revival,” and we get a lot of it. The album weighs in at 19 tracks and nearly 78 minutes, which is as thick and dense as the heaps of Mom’s Spaghetti being served this weekend at Em’s pop-up shop at the Shelter in downtown Detroit.
A third of the tracks on the album could go, and no one would miss them. Eminem albums have always been around 20 tracks, a length that was easier to stomach when “The Slim Shady LP” was released in 1999. Listener habits have since shifted away from full-length CDs to streaming, and with that, the album experience has grown more compact. The bloat here is palpable and self-indulgent to boot.
Further, the record is exhausting, with Eminem piling on rhymes and metaphors and double entendres that over time take on the din of white noise. “I’m better than I ever was,” he boasts on “Nowhere Fast,” and technically, he may be right; there is a lot to unpack here, rhymes so complicated that they could be broken down like algebra formulas. But that hardly makes for an appetizing listening experience.
“Revival” — Em’s first album in four years, following 2013’s “The Marshall Mathers LP 2” — opens with the Beyoncé-featuring “Walk on Water,” a beat-less mid-tempo ballad where Eminem frets about his perfectionism, real and perceived. It’s treacly, but hints at an inner fire in the outro, when Eminem reminds listeners he’s the MC who wrote “Stan.” (He did, but he also wrote “Fack.”)
Beyoncé is one of many voices from the pop world entering the fray here: Ed Sheeran, Pink, Kehlani, Skylar Grey and X Ambassadors also make appearances on various ballad rap dramas. (2 Chainz, whose cameo was scrapped from the album’s final cut, Instagramed his displeasure with the slight but later deleted his comments.)
Alicia Keys shows up on “Like Home,” the album’s biggest lightning rod, a scathing Trump attack that picks up the ball from Em’s earlier Trump diss from October’s BET Hip-Hop Awards: “Someone get this Aryan a sheet/time to bury him, so tell him to prepare to get impeached,” Em says, and that’s just the first line. Things get much hairier from there, but Keys’ chorus and producer Alex da Kid’s backing track ultimately paint a hopeful canvas, and the song’s patriotic, pro-America stance shines bright over Em’s furious anti-Trump rhymes.
It’s not the only place where Trump is mentioned on the album, and members of his family and administration get name-checked as well. Ivanka Trump winds up in the trunk of Em’s car in “Framed,” an embarrassing shock-rap throwaway that wastes a clever “Making a Murderer” reference and focuses on the proper procedures to follow when murdering females. Slim Shady has never played by the rules of PC culture, but releasing a song about killing women at this particular time in our culture feels particularly tone deaf.
He’s kinder, ironically, to ex-wife Kim Scott, who has often caught the brunt of his most vile ire. “Bad Husband” is like “Headlights,” his “Marshall Mathers LP 2” apology to his mother, recast as an atonement for the way he’s treated Kim over the years, but it’s nearly undone by its clunky, X Ambassadors-assisted chorus, which separates “good dad” and “great father” like they’re not two ways of saying the exact same thing.
Rick Rubin, who produced Em’s 2013 hit “Berzerk,” doubles down here and gives Em two old-school rock tracks to rhyme over, the Joan Jett-sampling “Remind Me” and “Heat,” which borrows from Dirk Diggler’s rock-goof headbanger in “Boogie Nights.” Both tracks find Em rapping about his taste in women, and both land with a thud.
“Untouchable,” a messy message song about Black Lives Matter and racism in America, takes on big concepts with mixed results as it swells past the 6-minute mark. Better is the closing pairing of “Castle” and “Arose,” which begins with the former as a series of letters to his daughter and ends with the latter detailing Em’s near death after his 2007 methadone overdose.
“Arose” finishes with him rewriting the final lines of “Castle,” a clever timeline-busting structural concept that puts him in charge of the way his story is told. It’s a reminder that he’s the MC who wrote “Stan,” and “Revival” could use a few more of those.