How does Eminem's "Revival" fare within his discography?
I’m old enough to remember Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” video premiering on Much Music. My young, impressionable mind was captivated by the carnival-esque beat, effortless flow, and no-fucks-given demeanor, and from that moment on I found myself invested. The Marshall Mathers LP and Slim Shady LP were purchased swiftly thereafter, and so began a compelling, rewarding, and frustrating journey. Five albums later, Eminem delivered what many have already started hailing as his worst album yet - Revival.
Across the internet, Revival has already been the subject of several scathing verbal take-downs. Critics seem to have discovered a sense of childish glee in tearing down the once mighty Eminem, pinpointing every flaw with an almost smug sense of relish. That’s not to say Revival isn’t worthy of criticism, because there are certainly some notable flaws. Yet the ongoing narrative surrounding the project seems almost masturbatory; who can find the most original way to clown on Eminem today? In some ways, it goes to show that Eminem hasn’t lost his ability to elicit a strong response from both fan and critic alike.
In truth, this was a tough review to write. I should preface, I have been an Eminem fan for the bigger part of my life, and have watched him rise and fall throughout the course of a tumultuous career. My opinion on the man’s music has not always been popular, as evidenced by the controversial top Eminem song list I wrote earlier this year, and I actually tout Relapse as his strongest post Eminem Show project. Yet for the first time, I found myself generally unmoved by Eminem’s latest body of work.
While Recovery and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 both contain some notable gems, they also spearheaded a tonal shift in Eminem’s music. The nightmarish production of Relapse (courtesy of an on-fire Dr. Dre & Dawaun Parker) was phased out, as Em began gravitating to a different musical aesthetic, opting for stadium-friendly motivational reflections. In other words, Dre, out, Alex Da Kid, Skylar Grey, & Rick Rubin in. And while Eminem himself has come to reflect on Relapse poorly, in many ways, it has proceeded to age quite nicely; ask the myriad fans who feel “Framed’ was the Revival highlight for confirmation.
Suffice it to say, Revival is, by far, Eminem’s most pop-friendly album to date. While previous albums merely flirted with the sound, Revival has bought a ring and proposed to it. Therefore, if you’re somebody who finds no pleasure in the production of “pop-rap,” you’ll find no solace here. Personally, I’m not a fan of that style, even when it is executed reasonably well, like on radio-wet-dream “River” with Ed Sheeran, or the bittersweet lamentations of “Bad Husband.”
Yet the enjoyment you’ll derive from Revival is contingent on your tolerance for this brand of hip-hop, and if you’re not exactly here for the sugar binge, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself struggling through the middle section. The album hits a low point during two rock-rap missteps, “Remind Me” and “Heat,” which employ classic rock samples and some lyrical white-trash courtship’. It’s hard to defend Em’s reliance on Rick Rubin upon hearing these two tracks, and one wonders what Dr. Dre had to say about Revival’s most obvious fumble. Aside from the aforementioned, Pink collaboration “Need Me” feels superfluous, as does the Cranberries sampling “In Your Head.” The latter finds Eminem covering some interesting ground, but it feels familiar at this point.
Yet for all the faults, Eminem does remain one of the most fascinating characters in the rap game. His life story has been as engaging as his music, and throughout the years fans have (perhaps reluctantly) found themselves invested in the lives of his mother, daughter Hailey, and ex-wife Kim. While Em buried the hatchet with his mother on the emotional MMLP2 stand-out “Headlights,” he remains haunted by unfinished business with Kim & Hailey, whom he addresses on “Bad Husband,” “Castle, and “Arose.” While the former does veer a little too close into the zone of pop-sentimentality, the latter two are among Revival’s strongest tracks. Conceptually and lyrically, the closing pair find Eminem in excellent form, and longtime fans will no doubt cite these two as album highlights; even the maligned Rick Rubin turns in a haunting, “When I’m Gone”-esque instrumental on “Arose.”
Eminem has made it clear that Revival was meant to be an album catered to all elements of his fanbase. Yet while the intention is no doubt noble, the execution clearly favors those who preferred “Love The Way You Lie” over “Must Be The Ganja.” As a result, the moments in which Eminem is actually spitting bars are few and far between. “Chloraseptic” featuring Phresher feels like a spiritual successor to “Rap God,” while the IllaDaProducer laced“Offended” finds Eminem at his most effortless, scathing, and hilarious. Personal favorite “Framed” is especially glorious for any self-respecting Relapse fan, as even the notorious accent seems to tease a return. Here’s hoping that Eminem can see the positive response to “Framed” and find it in his heart to bless us with the “fifty-sixty” songs he recorded during the Relapse sessions.
At the end of the day, Revival falls victim to its own conceptual ambition. As a result, the highlights are lost in the shuffle, and tend to be forgotten while discussing the album as a whole. Unfortunately, the lowest points tend to come one after another, and the barrage admittedly does start to feel relentless. It’s hard not to feel a little frustrated after the puns continue ad-infinitum, and there’s no disputing that as an album Revival falters more than it soars.
But is it as bad as the internet-at-large seems to have concluded? Hard to say. Personally, I won’t exactly be queing it up on rotation, but there are certainly a few tracks worth revisiting. Yet it’s hard not to look to his fellow “Renegade” Jay-Z, who recently delivered the excellent and mature 4:44 mere months ago. It’s hard not to wish Eminem had taken a page out of Hov’s book, taking things back to basics for one final, poignant, moment of clarity.