Cherwell

‘Revival’ review – mature and compelling as ever

Months of teasers stacked on top of years of anticipation came to a climax on Friday when Eminem finally dropped his new album Revival. His ninth studio album sprawls across 19 tracks that range from rock and gospel to pop and the foundation of barbed hip hop, aiming to boast something for everyone. The titular shift in Eminem that is realised in this album was first glimpsed by stolid Stans when he sported a tougher look in the form of a gruff beard, obscuring the youthful mischief of the self-professed ‘Criminal’ who defined the noughties. Now, at 45, Eminem is struggling with that legacy. “But how do you keep up the pace/and the hunger pangs once you’ve won the race?” Eminem queries. As someone who has constantly had to prove something, he wonders how to prove himself when his name is already etched in the annals.

Revival marks a more mature phase as Eminem can no longer find fuel in attacking his Mum, Kim and Moby. Instead he delves into unlikely alcoves; from Trump takedowns and self-doubt to the remorseful and reconciliatory. He still approaches rap as a presentation of his immensely contradictory character and the psychological conflict it gives rise to, something which only seems to be exacerbated by the Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers split persona. Eminem notes in ‘Framed’, a nod to the Shady horrorcore rap of Relapse, “three personalities burstin’ out of me, please, beware”. While this complexity is compelling, it can at times seem contradictory as he oscillates between comedy, tragedy and fury sometimes within the space of a sole song. Yet, it is refreshing to be confronted with wracked insecurities and concerns as opposed to the clichéd boasts of wealth and women that punctuate a lot of contemporary rap.

Beyoncé’s haunting voice opens the album in ‘Walk on Water’, a largely beat-free track that is scattered with sounds of paper being crumpled and expletives that stress Eminem’s faltering confidence. “Kids look to me as a god, this is retarded” he reflects, tormented by the dizzying expectations of fans, expectations Eminem only propped up with messianic tracks such as ‘Rap God’. On a first listen, Revival seemed underwhelming. Yet, you can’t help but wonder whether this is owing to the four Eminem-empty years that preceded it, or the exorbitantly high mark Eminem has set for himself, something ‘Walk on Water’ reveals he is acutely conscious of. The album grows better the longer you immerse yourself in it, owing to the provocative gift of its writer. He is still a consummate wordsmith, with an astounding command of narrative and rhyme with dizzying wordplay that continues to jump out even on the second or third listen. Convoluted double entendres (“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”) show how he continues to delight in the mischievous complexities language can offer.

It is in Eminem’s clever, quick and verbose masterstroke ‘Offended’ that his impressive technical ability reaches its peak. The verbal fireworks explain and exemplify his skill, with each polysyllabic surge cementing it. The track culminates in a frenetic and blistering spectacle of speed, akin to the supersonic passage of ‘Rap God’, that similarly aims for the record books. At this point in Revival Eminem seems to have a resurgence of confidence, as he charges into ‘Nowhere Fast’ blasting “I feel sorry for this beat/Sympathy pains for this track”, almost assaulting the beat with aggression. Kehlani provides the atmospheric chorus that is dispersed across the Eminem features, leaving listeners unsure whether collaborators such as Ed Sheeran and Alicia Keys are a transparent attempt to garner chart success, particularly given the fact they seem like people Eminem would have looked on with derision a decade ago.

The political anger of Eminem’s freestyle assault on Donald Trump earlier in the year is translated into ‘Like Home’ and ‘Untouchable’. While Eminem previously incorporated a political discussion into ‘Mosh’ and ‘White America’, the sustained political narrative of these tracks is unprecedented. It seems that Eminem is aligning his own revival with that he wishes to see in the American political climate as he calls “Someone get this Aryan a sheet/Time to bury him, so tell him to prepare to get impeached”. The use of the reversed American flag on the album cover and the description of the “star-spangled spiel” in ‘Untouchable’ demonstrate Eminem’s current apathy for respecting the flag and anthem when it seems to offer no respect in return. Eminem moves from commenting on modern politics to the modern rap game in ‘Believe’ and ‘Chloraseptic’. Eminem’s take on the modern trap beat in the former could initially elicit a wince; it is simply too harsh a departure from his norm, conjuring up more of a Migos mood than a Slim Shady one. It seems the slow tempo is an attempt to overcome the critiques of his choppy flow he mentions in ‘Walk on Water’. Yet, a high point emerges in ‘Chloraseptic’ from the detailed Shady description of how he will kill the likes of limp mumble rappers with the wire of a notebook filled with their weak rhymes.

Eminem has no qualms about exploring the poisonous relationships he first narrated in ‘Love the Way You Lie’ and ‘Space Bound’, with the self-lacerating narratives of ‘River’, ‘Need Me’ and ‘Tragic Endings’ recreating such harmful pairings.  Yet, as ever, it is when Eminem explicitly turns the spotlight on himself that the effect is most dramatic. When Eminem raps “But I’m sorry Kim” in ‘Bad Husband’ you can’t help but sit up, realising the track is an apology to his twice ex-wife Kim Mathers, similar to the ‘Headlights’ apology to his mother in The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Eminem’s turbulent relationship with his high school sweetheart has been a subplot to his career, provoking some of his most violent material, and so it is astonishing to tangibly detect how dramatically he has altered.

Revival truly saves the best for last, finishing in a remarkable spectacle of raw emotion. The closing one-two punch of ‘Castle’ and ‘Arose’ again shows how Eminem is most arresting when he goes deep within himself. ‘Castle’ is told as a series of letters to Eminem’s daughter Hailie, complete with the background sound effects of pencil scribbling on paper, reminiscent of ‘Stan’. Eminem jumps from his perspective before her birth, before moving to the height of his fame, and lastly to the moment he overdosed on methadone in 2007: at the track’s close the silence is punctuated by the sound of pills being swallowed and Eminem collapsing. What follows is one of Eminem’s most powerful and poignant songs to date. The reality of the moment in hospital spills out as he recounts how “I go to make a fist, but I can’t make one, I’m frozen stiff/I yell, but nothing comes out, I’m crying inside, I shout”. The album title is strongly felt here as the beat switches back to ‘Castle’ once Eminem insists “to rewrite a mistake, I’m rewinding the tape”. Compared to the close of the previous track, ‘Arose’ ends with the sound of a toilet flushing.

Eminem is often defiantly vulnerable, ready to point out his own failings before others have the chance, as shown in the climactic rap battle of 8 Mile. The emotion and power of Revival are largely owing to his willingness to pick the scabs of his pressures and insecurities while remaining linguistically agile. After all, who doesn’t love a good geometry pun: “This love triangle left us in a wreck, tangled”.