Another politically motivated Rust Belt blond, Paul Newman, once said “a man with no enemies is a man with no character.” And few musicians could boast more of either than Eminem, the poison-tongued, potty-mouthed scourge of Lynn Cheney, boy bands, clown posses and eventually – on a string of self-auditing post-rehab albums – himself. But, at 45, he hasn’t had a good pop-culture feud in ages, and his pill-popping days of vice are behind him. Eminem has long been pushed to the edge and all his foes are dead. “I only go to meetings court-ordered from a shrink,” he jokes on a Revival pick-up line.
The title of his ninth LP implies a nostalgic return, and its most electric moments do look back, suggesting a confused and conciliatory man taking stock of his own legacy – the kind of honesty that’s always made him one of hip-hop’s most compelling memoirists. Album-opener “Walk On Water,” featuring vocals from Beyoncé, wonders if that legacy can still be built upon. Eminem details his own missteps and self-doubt over a mostly beatless track as the sounds of crumbling paper and errant swears underscore his lack of confidence. That confessional power also comes out as he revisits another favorite theme: his failings as a dad. The LP’s last two tracks, “Castle” and “Arose,” form a powerful suite that moves from his days as a struggling dad penning letters to his unborn daughter to the pill-hazed superstar screaming about her loss of privacy. He raps from the hospital bed where he was shuttled after a 2007 methadone overdose and apologizes for all the things he won’t get to see her do. It’s a mini-series working like the raw docu-drama of open-hearted goosebumpers like 2004’s “Mockingbird,” proving that, when he lets you peek inside, Eminem still carries emotional heft.
The majority of Revival is, well, a revival: a collection of labyrinthine raps without much of a narrative arc. Lyrically, Eminem mainly falls back on old tricks. But what tricks they are: part Big Daddy Kane, part Eddie Van Halen, part Marquis de Sade. He can still be the same booger-flicking shock-rocker, just in a dirty old man’s body. “Believe” and “Chloraseptic” are the type of boast-heavy rap-a-thons that no fan of Run the Jewels would shrug at; Em even has a go at a Migos flow. On “Heat,” he unleashes a ridiculous litany of dirty puns (“You got buns, I got Asperger’s”) and the type of convoluted double entendres that would make AC/DC feel like underachievers (“Sorry if I’m being graphic, but I’m stiff as a statue/You sat on a shelf, I feel like I’m a bust/Maybe I’m ahead of myself”). He’s a triple-X LL Cool J on “Remind Me,” rapping about boobs ‘n’ butts while Rick Rubin flips Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
“Framed” and “Offended” return to 2009’s Relapse: self-consciously ultraviolent splatstick with sexual assault jokes on parade and pop culture punchlines updated with Bill Cosby, Ray Rice and Steven Avery. It will ultimately be for the listener to decide whether these songs land as an exploitation flick made of intricately stacked syllables (“In Hamtramck, got the panoramic camera, Xanax, a banana hammock and a Santa hat”) or a disgusting, unnecessary display of misogyny (“Gotta stab a bitch at least eight times/To make it on Dateline“) that’s more distracting than transgressive in the #MeToo era.
Eminem’s solipsism also gets interrupted by world events. Here, he follows his insane anti-Trump freestyle from the BET Awards with the huge piano-ballad screed “Like Home,” hooked around a soaring vocal from Alicia Keys: “All he does is watch Fox News like a parrot and repeat,” Em raps. “While he looks like a canary with a beak/Why you think banned transgenders from the military with a Tweet?” “Untouchable” even goes beyond vitriol to offer ideas: hire more black cops, the crap stops.”
However, at 77 minutes, Revival is a heavy listen, going deep on ballads with guests like Ed Sheeran and X Ambassadors. But a certain indulgent messiness has always been part of the Eminem experience. “River” (with Sheeran), “Tragic Endings” (with Skylar Grey) and “Need Me” (with Pink) are self-lacerating narratives about powder-keg relationships, each seeming like an attempt to recreate the lighters-up majesty of Number One hits like 2010’s “Love the Way You Lie” and 2013’s “The Monster.” On the Cranberries-sampling “In Your Head,” he says sorry to his daughter for forcing her grow on record with the fucked-up character of Slim Shady. When Revival‘s confessionals work, it’s proof that, when the real Marshal Mathers stands up, he can still pull us into his evocative dramas.