Eminem, the best-selling rapper of all time, returned at midnight with Revival, his first album in four years. The new LP sprawls across 19 tracks, touching on rock, gospel, pop and, of course, hard-bitten hip-hop. Eminem veers from sassy to self-deprecating, dependent to dismissive, murderous to politically conscious, uncontrollably lusty to borderline repentant, sometimes all within the same song. He raps over skeletal, golden-age beats courtesy of Rick Rubin and stirring piano ballads from longtime collaborator Alex da Kid; he teams up with locally known artists like Phresher as well as global stars like Beyoncé, Pink and Alicia Keys. Across it all, Eminem remains intent on convincing listeners that he’s still at the top of his game: “Will I ever fall off/That day’ll never come.” Here’s a guide to understanding the album’s producers, songwriters, guests and key themes.
1. “Walk On Water” feat. Beyoncé
Back in 2000, Eminem opened The Marshall Mathers LP with a sarcastic public service announcement: “Slim Shady does not give a fuck what you think!” It got nastier (and funnier) from there. But that was the old Marshall, and it turns out the new Marshall really does give a fuck what you think. Revival starts in a way that would have been unimaginable in the old days, with solemn piano chords, an honest-to-god gospel chorus from Beyoncé, and Eminem earnestly asking, “Why are expectations so high? Is it the bar I set?”
There’s no punchline. This is a serious, vulnerable track about the doubts that nag at a rap god late at night. He’s heard your criticisms of his latter-day work, and they hit home. In the second verse, he makes the stakes he’s chosen for Revival explicit, referencing the critical and commercial high-water mark of the original MMLP (“It’s the curse of the standard/That the first of the Mathers discs set”) and describing his writing process in relatable terms: “It always feels like I’m hitting the mark /Til I go sit in the car, listen and pick it apart/Like, this shit is garbage!”
Beyoncé comes through with humility and grace, and storied producer Rick Rubin (along with co-producer Skylar Grey) provides a sound that’s closer to the albums he made with Johnny Cash than the tougher-than-leather Run-DMC/Beasties beat he served up for “Berzerk” on Em’s last album. Mathers plays along, bringing a thoughtful tone and flow to match.
Then he snaps out of it in the track’s final seconds: “Me and you are not alike/Bitch, I wrote ‘Stan’!”
Trappish snares and a minimal piano line give Revival‘s second track a more contemporary feel – this is the sound of a rapper in his mid-40s doing his best to keep up with the kids. He’s pretty comfortable in this new setting, even sneaking a not-groanworthy use of the word “lit” into his first verse. A bit later, he gets off some great internal-rhyme runs in a thuggish-ruggish Midwestern cadence: “But I still remember the days of/Minimum wage for/General labor/Welfare recipient as a minor/Look how government assistance has made you!” That verse builds up to one of his more memorable recent solo choruses, with shades of “The Way I Am” and “Cleaning Out My Closet.” The lingering questions that he emphasized on “Walk on Water” are still in the picture here (“Man, in my younger days, that dream was so much fun to chase….But how do you keep up the pace and the hunger pangs once you’ve won the race?”). But he’s off and running now.
3. “Chloraseptic” feat. Phresher
Fans flipped out when they saw that the only guest MC featured on Revival‘s tracklist was Brooklyn’s own Phresher, best known for his street hit “Wait a Minute,” which blew up about a year ago and subsequently got remixed by everyone from Remy Ma to Riff Raff to 50 Cent to Royce da 5’9″. The latter connection likely explains how Eminem ended up calling in a hook from the NYC up-and-comer. “The record is about just spitting, man…Just cutthroat, at your throat music,” Phresher told Complex, adding, “It’s raw as fuck.”
True enough, Eminem gives a revved-up performance, dubbing himself the “Simon Cowell of rhyming foul,” memorably declaring “I’m Schoolly D, you’re Spoonie Gee” and providing a detailed description of how he plans to murder you using the wire from a notebook full of your weak-ass rhymes. The rumbling beat from his old friend Denaun Porter (a.k.a. Kon Artis from D-12) brings out his energetic, mischievous side.
If any alt-right Eminem fans out there were hoping to forget about his Trump dis at the BET Hip Hop Awards, here he comes with even more vitriol. This six-minute song is Em’s most ambitious political statement ever, expanding and deepening the critique of American racism that he started outlining 15 years ago on “White America.” He spends the first half of “Untouchable” rapping from the perspective of a racist white cop, laying out exactly how he profiles and terrorizes black communities. The guitar-sampling beat from longtime cohorts Mr. Porter, Emile and Mark Batson makes this part of the song feel something like verse two of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” with the viewpoint shifted to the state trooper’s side.
Then the beat switches to a moody piano loop, and Eminem raps from the perspective of a black American man in 2017. He gets fired up denouncing police brutality, segregation, hiring discrimination, flag-waving hypocrisy and other forms of systemic racism: “Fuck your Republican views/Pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, where the fuck are the boots?” It’s a lot to take in, and early reactions to “Untouchable” from within the rap world have been divided.
5. “River” feat. Ed Sheeran
According to Ed Sheeran, much of “River” was recorded in March 2016 while he vacationed at actor Russell Crowe’s farm in Australia. “I used the studio at Russell’s house,” Sheeran told Billboard. “Played the drums on it, and then played the guitar, and then recorded the thing and wrote the chorus and did the piano on it, and then sent it off and then didn’t hear anything back.” Produced by Emile Haynie, the final version of “River” opens with Sheeran’s lament about being “a liar and a cheat,” then flows into Eminem’s lyrics about one-night stands, and the guilt and recriminations that follow. “Now that I got you I don’t want you/Took advantage and my thirst to pursue/Why do I do this dirt that I do?” he asks.
6. “Remind Me” (Intro)
7. “Remind Me”
The cheeky hard rock of “Remind Me” is reminiscent of his 2013 single “Berzerk”: Both rely heavily on a sample of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock & Roll.” And just like that Billboard top 3 hit, he uses “Remind Me” to unleash his horndog id, crowing about a big-booty woman with silicone breasts as big as the late Anna Nicole Smith’s. “Excuse me ma, I’m just too raw,” he raps. Still, he avoids referring to his conquest in derogatory terms, and the track seems more fun-loving than an expression of Slim Shady’s misogynist impulses. In a conversation with Elton John for Interview magazine, he talked about his relationship with the track’s producer, Rick Rubin. “[Rubin and I] were talking about a song or something, and he said, ‘I don’t really consider myself smart enough to know what everybody’s going to think, so I just do what feels right for me,'” Eminem remembered.
8. Revival (Interlude)
9. “Like Home” feat. Alicia Keys
With a soaring chorus from Alicia Keys and production from Alex da Kid, “Like Home” continues the anti-Trump war that Eminem kicked off on last year’s single “Campaign Speech,” and reignited during the BET Hip-Hop Awards. “This chump barely even sleeps/All he does is watch Fox News like a parrot and repeats/While he looks like a canary with a beak/Why you think he banned transgenders from the military with a tweet?” he raps. (Critics of Eminem’s past lyrics about LGBTQ people may be surprised at his implicit support for transgender soldiers.)
Eminem also takes some blame for Trump’s past appearance in “Shady Convention,” a mock political video ad that promoted his then-new Shade45 satellite channel. “Take it back to the Shady national convention/Wish I had spit on it before I went to shake his hand at the event/Or maybe had the wherewithal/To know that he was going to try to tear apart/Our sacred land we cherish and stand for.” When he spoke to Elton John for Interview, he elaborated on his antipathy towards Trump. “As long as he’s got his base, he does not give a fuck about anybody else in America. But guess what? There’s more of us than there are of them. I still feel like America is the greatest country to live in. This is my opinion. But we have issues that we need to work on and we need to do better.”
10. “Bad Husband” feat. X Ambassadors
Eminem has often picked at the volatility of male-female relationships in uncomfortably scabrous terms, most memorably on his 2010 hit “Love the Way You Lie.” But the Alex da Kid-produced “Bad Husband” has a disturbing ring of truth, if only because it mentions Hailie Jade Mathers, Eminem’s daughter with his ex-wife Kim Scott. “We carry on with our public spats,” he raps, perhaps referencing to the avalanche of tabloid press that chronicled Eminem and Scott’s tumultuous relationship in the late Nineties and early Aughts. “You hit me once, and that I would use/To continue the pattern of abuse/Why did I punch back?/Girl, your dad is a scumbag,” he raps as he alternates between addressing Hailie and Kim. Then he continues a pattern of repentance for using his family as artistic fodder that started with 2013’s “Headlights,” his memorable apology to his mother. “But I’m sorry Kim/More than you can ever comprehend/Leaving you was fucking harder than/Sawing off a fucking body limb.” A chorus and backing arrangement from X Ambassadors, the “Renegades” rock band that first worked with Em on “Wicked Ways,” conjures a melancholy sound of redemption.
11. “Tragic Endings” feat. Skylar Grey
Eminem remains in his comfort zone – exploring a vicious codependent romance – on the arena-rap ballad “Tragic Endings.” “There’s just something ’bout her/ That makes me not able to function without her,” Eminem admits. But don’t think this is happily-ever-after: “The idea of seeing me happy destroys her in itself,” he raps. “To see me falling to pieces brings her joy.”
The claustrophobic hook of “Tragic Endings” is provided by Grey, a frequent Eminem collaborator. She helped write the rapper’s Number One smash “Love the Way You Lie” along with “Tragic Endings” producer Alex da Kid; she also penned Revival blockbuster Beyoncé collaboration “Walk on Water.” She works in lockstep with Eminem on “Tragic Endings” to drive home the suffocating nature of this relationship. “I’m dying to breathe and all you do is strangle me,” she sings. “What a relief.”
For “Framed,” Eminem reaches back to early tracks like “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” in both sound – relying on the simplest of beats, just two guitar licks and an unchanging drum loop – and violent content: The rapper offers advice here on how to get away with homicide. “When murdering females better pay attention to these details or you could be derailed,” he warns. “Better wear at least three layers of clothing or be in jail.”
Back in “’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” Eminem was driving through the night with his longtime antagonist – and ex-wife – Kim dead in the back, but this time he envisions tangling with Eighties supermodel Christie Brinkley and the President’s daughter: “Dog, how the fuck is Ivanka Trump in the trunk of my car?” “Framed” wraps up with a half-hearted declaration of innocence. “There’s a missing person, so what? He’s got nothing to do with me/ I’m almost certain I was framed.”
13. “Nowhere Fast” feat. Kehlani
Eminem faces off with a frantic string section, agitated hi-hats and the apocalypse on “Nowhere Fast,” defying terrorist attacks at one moment and his rap competition the next: “For MCs it’s a funeral when I’m devising this rhyme/ Cause I’m awake and you’re mourning, that’s why I rise and I shine.” Eminem may be 45 years old, but he has little interest in reflecting on his own mortality. “To the pine box: Bitch, fuck you,” he raps. “I’m better than I ever was.”
Kehlani joins Eminem to provide the atmospheric melodic accompaniment that he appears to favor everywhere on Revival. She sings sentimental lines about living fast and dying young: “Never looking back and we’re never getting old/ ‘Cause the skies are black but our hearts made of gold.” “Honored to be on this album, and in such amazing company,” she wrote on Instagram when Eminem shared the Revival track list earlier this month. “I can’t wait for the world to hear this.”
After slamming President Trump throughout Revival, Eminem finds surprising common ground with him in “Heat,” one of the album’s lustiest songs. “Grab you by the [meow sound effect], hope it’s not a problem, in fact,” he raps. “About the only fact I agree on with Donald is that.” Eminem is single-mindedly priapic here, so even when he takes a moment to shout out this track’s producer, Rick Rubin, he twists the tribute into a pick-up line: “Come on, little mama, you’re hot enough to melt Rick’s beat.”
Rubin provides the sort of skeletal rap-rock accompaniment he served Eminem four years ago on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 track “Berserk” – distorted guitar and scratching vinyl sputter high in the mix. The primary riff is pulled from the Boogie Nights soundtrack’s “Intro (Feel the Heat),” a song performed in the film by John C. Reilly and Mark Wahlberg. “Heat” also ends with a brief snippet of Boogie Nights dialog from Wahlberg’s character that fits easily next to Eminem’s verses: “It’s my big dick, so everybody get ready right fucking now.”
“Offended” features Revival‘s most technically impressive passage, a blistering display of speed near the end of the song– countless syllables crammed into 12 or 13 seconds – that aims for the record books. The rest of the track rises from the same fertile ground as “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” and “Bad Influence,” old songs in which Eminem turns listeners’ hatred of him into a badge of honor – or maybe a suit of armor.
As always, antipathy spurs him to cross even more lines and break even more taboos; here he describes himself with allusions to men accused of sexual assault (Bill Cosby, R. Kelly) and child murder (Justin Ross Harris). And yet again, Eminem guns for Trump, still annoyed that the President did not reply to his BET freestyle. He also goes after Ivanka and Melania. “Shit’s on, bruh,” Eminem declares. “… Ivanka, stiff arm her/While I’m hittin’ on Melania/And this song’s for all ya.”
The MC alternates between hard, low rapping and nursery-rhyme sing-song on “Offended,” borrowing his hook from a bleak source – “The Knife Game Song.” The taut, jumpy, brassy “Offended” instrumental was crafted by Illa da Producer, who also helmed Lil Pump’s “Pinky Ring” and French Montana’s “Have Mercy.” Eminem takes a moment to compliment the beat-maker’s work, noting that, “These drums and hard snares bring out the worst in me.” “I’m so narcissistic, when I fart, I sniff it,” he adds a few lines later. “Do a fake dab to smell my armpits with it.”
16. “Need Me” feat. Pink
“Need Me” is Eminem’s second collaboration with Pink. But in contrast to the playful “Revenge,” off of her October album Beautiful Trauma, “Need Me” is a bombastic power ballad dominated by Alex da Kid’s cavernous percussion. Pink sings two verses and choruses before Eminem comes in for the song’s one lengthy, intense rap verse. But something happens in the first half of “Need Me” that’s rarely been heard in Eminem’s many collaborations with female singers: he harmonizes with Pink, his voice gradually appearing during her second verse. Darting in and out of the track’s lurching waltz rhythm, Marshall vents about a dysfunctional relationship: “Starting to think we were made for each other/ But one of us in this relationship is raising the other/ You remind me of my mother.”
17. “In Your Head”
“In Your Head” opens with Dolores O’Riordan’s voice beamed in from 1994 as a sample of the Cranberries hit “Zombie,” and runs underneath the entirety of the track. The song is produced by Scram Jones, a New York-based MC/producer who’s been chopping samples for Jadakiss, Ghostface Killah, and others since the early 2000s, but has never worked with Eminem before.
Em spends most of “In Your Head” castigating himself over career missteps: “Fuck it, I’ve done enough in this rap shit, Recovery brought me nothing but back to where I was/ And perhaps this could’ve been my victory lap if I wasn’t on the verge of Relapse.”
18. “Castle” feat. Skylar Grey
“I built this castle, now we are trapped on the throne,” Skylar Grey sings at the opening of “Castle.” Each verse of the song is a letter, complete with pencil and paper sound effects echoing “Stan.” But this time, the letters are from Marshall Mathers to his daughter Hailie; the first letter is a few weeks before her 1995 birth, the second is a year later, and the third is on her 12th birthday. The third verse ends with Eminem at a low point in 2007, overdosing on methadone and nearly dying. “Your dad’s at the end of his rope/I’m sliding down a slippery slope/Anyway, sweetie, I better go, I’m getting sleepy…Love, Dad, shit, I don’t know.”
“Arose” opens with a loop of “The Rose,” the title song from Bette Midler’s 1979 album and film of the same name. Picking up where the narrative of “Castle,” ended, Eminem is recounting his 2007 overdose, speaking to his family and to his longtime D12 groupmate Proof, whose 2006 death “tore me in two.” Four minutes into “Arose,” Eminem declares “To rewrite a mistake, I’m rewinding the tape” and the song abruptly stops, and the third verse of “Castle” begins again. But this time it ends differently, “I’m pledging to throw this methadone in the toilet.” The album concludes with a new day dawning, and the sound of a toilet flushing.