There is a vivid, unnerving glimpse of the polarizing dynamo Eminem once was on “Framed,” one of the best songs on his new album, “Revival.”
She’s unaware in no underwear, she’s completely bare
Turns around and screams, I remember distinctly
I said, “I’m here to do sink repairs.”
Chop her up, put her body parts
In front of Steven Avery’s trailer and leave ’em there
The song is both excellent and reprehensible, a reminder of how sui generis Eminem felt at the beginning of his career, and how poorly he has aged. Four years after his last album, Eminem, 45, has returned at a time when the anger of white men is at the center of the country’s political discourse, and when, in response, efforts to prioritize decency and justice are louder than they have been in decades.
In this climate, Eminem — always a flashpoint, often a pariah — feels familiar. But the Eminem of “Revival” is only slightly attuned to the current moment. Apart from some scathing commentary about President Trump, he is mostly interested in extending old narratives here — about his troubled relationships with his ex-wife and daughter, about imagining gruesome scenarios of sex and violence, about his own struggles to be something more than a wastoid.
“Revival” is probably the best of his recent albums, but like much of his post-peak output, it is a mix of the entrancing and the mystifying, full of impressive rapping that’s also disorienting. Consuming it in one sitting is triathlon-level exhausting. He’s so beholden to his own aesthetic, and so uninterested in how the rest of hip-hop actually sounds (apart from the lo-fi “Chloraseptic”), that his music verges on outsider art.
As a technician, Eminem hasn’t changed much over the years, but gone is his sense of whimsy, his puerile gift for social rebellion, his underdog thirst. Most of this album’s first song, the miserable hymn “Walk on Water,” is devoted to anxiety about not being up to the task of topping his old self: “If you bitches are trying to strip me of my confidence/Mission accomplished.”
But when he just raps unencumbered, he’s capable of sparks, like on “Chloraseptic,” which feels like a high-wire rhyme exercise:
It’s gonna be heads flying like Dez Bryant
With a TEC-9 against Rex Ryan
Now watch me set it like correct time
All you get is sloppy seconds like a Timex
He’s also at his best here when engaging with familiar familial traumas, particularly on the three-song cycle that closes the album: “In Your Head,” with its dolorous Cranberries sample, and “Castle” are both pleas for understanding to his daughter, Hailie Jade. And the final song, “Arose,” is an imaginative look backward at his unchecked early days and the obstacles that nearly undid him. This Eminem, the one preoccupied with his own pain, is a dazzling storyteller with ample territory to mine.
On “Untouchable,” over an alluringly frenzied beat reminiscent of the Bomb Squad, Eminem puts similar intensity in service of a gripping narrative about racial friction, rapping from the perspective of a bigoted white police officer: “You better show your hands/And put our minds more at ease/Or get shot in the thyroid, comply or die, boy.”
Eminem has always been keenly attuned to the way whiteness has figured into his success, but here, for maybe the first time, he’s also seeking to disentangle himself from its most problematic shades. This echoes his vigorous anti-Trump performance at the BET Hip Hop Awards in October, in which he said that Trump supporters were no longer welcome in his fandom.
The anti-Trump sentiment continues here on the well-intentioned and outlandishly corny “Like Home,” in which Alicia Keys sings a toothlessly uplifting chorus while Eminem likens the president to Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. But his giggling promise on “Heat” to “Grab you by the (meow!), hope it’s not a problem, in fact/About the only thing I agree on with Donald is that” suggests the two men may not be as far apart as he’d like to think.
Or maybe he just liked the way that rhyme sounded more than he disliked what it implied. This is a foundational Eminem struggle: how he sounds often steers what he says. He’s still prone to using extreme voices to get his feelings across, and he puts rhyme scheme above all else, interrupting thoughts, lines and even words in the process.
But what has long felt like extreme facility with language is beginning to feel like an uncontrolled fire hose. His verses run to unusual lengths, and lack the familiar buildup and release of tension that ordinarily shape pop. And no one loves a homophone like Eminem, making for a woeful number of double entendres on this album.
“You’re always stuck at your pad, it’s stationary”: get it? “I’m swimming in that Egyptian river, ’cause I’m in denial”: get it? “I just got the air about me, like wind chimes”: get it?
Eminem is so obsessed with the particularities of rhyme that his songs can lack forward momentum. The less Dr. Dre has been involved with his production, the less Eminem has been interested in actual songcraft — on almost half of the songs here, he starts rapping within the first few seconds, with little or no setup, flooring the gas pedal with no concern for structure. When he seeks emotional balance, he leans on a female singer to deliver an anodyne chorus, a cheap ploy that rarely works.
This is a gimmick that late-career Eminem has milked again and again for pop relevance, but it is one of his weakest modes. And though it has resulted in some successes — namely, his pair of hits with Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie” and “The Monster” — it is not effective on this album.
Instead, the answer to the question of what a middle-aged Eminem should sound like is elsewhere. “Remind Me” and “Heat” are both produced by Rick Rubin in the style of his earliest work: doltishly big rock riffs with boom-bap percussion. Unfortunately, Eminem chooses to rap garishly about the female physique on both songs, but rhythmically, the beats suit him.
There is recent precedent for this: On “4:44,” Jay-Z — three years older than Eminem, and still searching for his own middle-age-appropriate sound — found a lane of yesterday’s hip-hop he was well-suited to, and stuck to it, albeit with an emotional wisdom Eminem only occasionally achieves.
In the way that country singers often revert to traditionalism after they’re done pushing against the genre’s boundaries, Eminem may well be on his way to becoming a rap classicist. He’s already barely concerned with the sound of now, and perhaps he knows if he focuses on the sound of then, he might be able to finally escape prying eyes and critiquing ears.
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