Revival is work to listen to. This isn’t anything new from Eminem—2009’s Relapse was work, too, as was 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, and I’ve argued that his best albums are work to get through as well. Revival’s novelty is that it is work to listen to with no reward. Listening to The Eminem Show was (once) necessary for keeping up with conversations about popular music; Relapse was a colossal misstep but still an event that demanded recognition. Revival has been out for a little under two months and currently sits at #16 on the Billboard 200, having debuted at #1 and been in a consistent freefall ever since, losing ground to new Swift, new Kendrick, and old Post Malone. The public has spoken, and while they are willing to indulge Eminem’s temper tantrums, they don’t care to give him as much of their attention as he’s asking them.
In that sense, it’s hard to judge how much of a failure Revival is with respect to Eminem’s catalog of work. I’d still argue Relapse was worse on account of its critical success flying in the face of its lousy contents, sending a message to up-and-coming artists that Eminem’s shit output is the route to acclaim and stardom; Revival is a bad book in a library while Relapse is the Burning of the Library of Alexandria. If we’re judging each album based on the quality of the individual songs, though, Revival is so much worse.
It’s a culmination of all of his faults in one record. The opening track, “Walk on Water”, can’t be appreciated by anyone who’s been keeping track of what Eminem has been saying for the past twenty years (unless you’re willing to afford him a substantial degree of goodwill, which I’m not because of Relapse). Over a piano line more appropriate for a Hallmark commercial than a song made by someone who once posed for a picture with a lit stick of dynamite covering his privates, Eminem begins with “Why are my expectations so high?”, a line that reads as great comedy on the page but is supposed to be played for drama. Setting aside that celebrated artists are often expected to have their next work be better than their past work, it was only one album ago that he boldly and loudly declared himself a rap god, meaning that we’re either supposed to disregard, forget, or forgive him for what he said on the last album. Whether we’re supposed to deify the man or regard him as a humble person changes at his convenience; that he also says “I’m not God-sent” in spite of that the first verse of his breakout single ended with “God sent me to piss the world off” suggests that the man does not remember the words he’s put in his own songs.
I can understand two rebuttals that aim to put this song in a more positive light: that Eminem is a complicated artist that makes complicated music, and that his work in execution is far more cogent than how it might appear on the page. I buy neither rebuttal. Eminem is not complicated, he just knows how to portray himself in any given light at a glance. This is a man that was able to successfully frame backlash against his casual homophobia and misogyny as “picket signs for my wicked rhymes”, so when he advocates for Black Lives Matter, it all rings hollow because, even if he’s earnest in his beliefs, I can’t shake that he’d be singing a different tune if opinion polls indicated All Lives Matter would go over better with key demographics. Bullies are great at framing narratives to best suit them; that he’s not a Trump fan is the biggest shock of Revival.
That Revival sounds terrible, too, is not a unique quality among Eminem albums. He’s never had anything close to a defining sound, instead opting to either ape popular trends or let his buddies do the heavy lifting with the production, and if you’re wondering which method Revival leans on, guest turns from Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys, and X Ambassadors (continuing their downward spiral from being the hottest under-the-radar act of 2012 to just being knockoff Imagine Dragons) should give away the way the wind blows. The worst parts of Revival, however, come when Eminem steers away from pop tropes and into ambitious territory, most fully realized with “Untouchable”, which registers as Eminem just getting around to listening to El-P’s “The Nang…” and thinking that inverting the pace and adding more rock elements to it will make for engaging listening. I get the impression, between the inexplicable trap numbers, the pop tunes, and the rock sludge, that Eminem has been trying to keep up with the times but doesn’t understand why any of this stuff has found an audience and believes he can get away with not caring to find out by merely invoking the tropes.
Look, there’s so much more that’s wrong with Revival, but going any further in dressing it down feels like I’m putting more effort into this review than Eminem did in making his album. His greatest asset when he was starting out (aside from his technical ability) was his visibility, and now that any artist can attract a following without leaving their room, Eminem has little to offer anyone. Danny Brown’s last two albums are better manifestations of the sort of complicated, even vile sort of slanted rap that Eminem was working with at his artistic peak; lower the parameters to just talking about white rappers doesn’t help because El-P’s work as half of Run The Jewels is soundtracking trailers for the next Marvel joint. We don’t need Eminem, and Eminem is a rich man that can’t keep up with the scene. Eminem, please stop making music.VERDICT: DISOWN
Read past editions of Own It or Disown It.