Hi, my name is, what? My name is, who? My name is — *chika-chika* — another white dude who first fell in love with rap thanks to Eminem.
Though my tastes have expanded since then, much like the rest of us privileged horde, I religiously followed his career through the ups and down, all the way to his new album Revival.
I’m not here to litigate his personal life, but in terms of his artistic output, his biggest asset has remained the same: relentlessly ingenious lyrical wordplay. The fluctuating part of his musicianship has always been his producing. Early in his career, Dr. Dre’s minimalist G-funk largely defined his sound, in addition to his destructively flamboyant attitude mixed with an (often shallow) handling of more serious issues.
In the intervening years, the latter has trumped the former in terms of Eminem’s focus. His personal maturation has led to a more resonant awareness in his lyrics of his sociopolitical place in the national hip hop landscape, while musically he’s moved on from his intricately simple roots to experiment with other genres, often erring too far on the side of overproducing.
All of this is on full display in Revival. Lyrically, he engages with deep (…well, they’re at least deeper) ideas regarding America (peep the album cover) and relationships. His thoughts on current race relations somewhat feel hollow coming from a white guy, though there’s a chance that a fair number of his listeners will be (sadly) more responsive to this type of discourse coming from someone who looks like them. If so, Eminem deserves commendation at the very least for even marginally elevating otherwise comfortable minds.
He’s still more adept than most at verbally excavating the trials and tribulations of troubled relationships, which he often chronicles through rather masterful storytelling. Revival contains a few of these sorts of ballads, basically all the ones with a popular female crooner: “Like Home” with Alicia Keys, “Tragic Endings” with Skylar Grey, “Nowhere Fast” with Kehlani, and “Need Me” with P!nk. Unfortunately, each suffers from a case of diminishing returns, sounding like cheap knockoffs of earlier, superior versions such as “Love the Way You Lie,” his hit collaboration with Rihanna from Recovery, probably my favorite of his latter day albums.
The list of unexpected guests and features stands as a testament to how much of Revival is stepped in other sonic influences besides hip-hop, particularly rock. But all of them tend to obscure the sheer strength of his words. Whereas the beats on such seminal tracks as “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me” are catchily stripped down to give Eminem’s breakneck speech as much room as possible to freely and joyously roam, the producing throughout Revival draws attention away from his strongest suit.
Though I respect any artist trying to grow and thus change their craft, I can’t help but miss old Eminem, he who reveled in debaucherous fun. What’s missing on Revival are the wicked fun tracks, the ones that allowed him to throw caution to the wind in favor of reckless abandon rife with pop culture references. These songs too-often dabbled in indefensibly politically-incorrect jargon, but I see no reason why Eminem couldn’t return to his old self while still maintaining his newfound commitment to remain inoffensively unoffensive. Plus, they’d heighten the resonance of the other socially-conscious tracks through juxtaposition.
Who knows if Eminem is capable of pulling off (hehe) his old style again, or if he’d even want to. Throughout Revival, he raps about his difficulties with the artistic process, of trying to clear the high bar of expectations established by his previous work. I would never ask a musician to blindly adhere to past success. But after years of musically deviating from what made his legions of fans first fall in love with him, perhaps it’s time he revives the Real Slim Shady for the 2010s.