Revival – noun.
1: An improvement in the condition, strength or fortunes of someone or something
2: A restoration to life or consciousness
3: An instance of something becoming popular, active or important again
4: A new production of an old play or similar work
It is sadly only the last definition that describes Eminem’s ninth studio album, as the downturn in quality that he has been on over the last decade continues (with a handful of notable exceptions). When The Slim Shady LP burst into the public consciousness at the turn of the century, it heralded Marshall Mathers as a true musical maverick – all the while guided by his mentor, Dr. Dre. Fast forward 18 years and instead of collaborations with Dre, we have Ed Sheeran and P!nk. How times have changed, and not for the better.
Revival begins with ‘Walk On Water’, his duet with Beyonce where he recognises the impossible position that his early records put him in. “It’s the curse of the standard that the first of the Mathers discs set…will this step be just another misstep to tarnish the legacy, love or respect I’ve garnered?” It is one of the most honest and mature tracks on the album – the fact that it is also one of the better tracks is not a coincidence. The persona of Slim Shady was always akin to being a cartoon character of course, and it is one that is probably best left in the past – when he raps of having Ivanka Trump in the boot of his car, or of chopping up a woman to leave in the front yard of Making A Murderer’s Steven Avery, it just doesn’t sit well in a world where #metoo shows the scale of misogynistic (and worse) issues.
Revival works best when it deals with the real world. Although some commentators have described it as a more politically aware album, Eminem has always had that tendency – way back in 2004, he released ‘Mosh’ as a diatribe against George W. Bush on the eve of the U.S. Presidential elections. These days of course, Bush seems like almost a fond memory. ‘Like Home’ is a blistering assault on Donald Trump (“Someone get this Aryan a sheet, time to bury him so tell him to prepare to get impeached…Can’t denounce the Klan, cos they play golf with you”) while ‘Untouchable’ deals with the Black Lives Matter movement and the inherent unfairness of the system (“Having black skin is risky, cos this keeps happening throughout history/African-Americans been treated like shit, and I admit there’s been times where it’s been embarrassing to be a white boy”). However, this is also an album on which he raps: “I swear when I get up, I’m never gonna let up til everybody eats my turds”. Rather than be amusing, it is more frustrating that this side of his character lets down the more thought-provoking elements.
While the production values also show a similar facet of being stuck in the early 00s, producer Rick Rubin does add a few little coats of gloss throughout – samples of The Cranberries, and Mark Wahlberg’s deliberately awful singing from Boogie Nights at least raise a smile amidst an album of flat beats and forgettable samples. It is the addition of Ed Sheeran though, that jars the most. God knows what Eminem would have made of Sheeran back in his early days, and his inclusion here on ‘River’ smacks of chasing radio airplay – a depressing thought about one of hip-hop’s great innovators.
Yet, at the end, ‘Castle’ is a stunning track based around a series of heartfelt letters written to his now-adult daughter Hailie, while ‘Arose’ is a daring finale that shows more ingenuity than all of the preceding 74 minutes put together. While he says that he is “100% finished, fed up with it, I’m hanging it up”, it dangles the tantalising hope that if only he could put Slim Shady to bed forever, then the raw and unmatched talent still remains. It’s always the hope that kills you and keeps you coming back for more though.