Four years ago, the very first thing I wrote for Bearded Gentlemen Music was a review of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2—a now infamous review in which I gave the album 0 out of the possible 5 stars, got shit on by a few people in the comment section, and was called a ‘faggot,’ among other things, by Eminem’s fans on Twitter when the piece was shared via social media.
Because apparently, the ‘Stans’ as they are commonly called, do not have a sense of humor.
When I heard the good news earlier this fall—that Marshall Mathers himself was returning with a brand new album, Revival, slated for a late December release, I immediately sent a message to Jon, one of the co-founders of Bearded Gentlemen Music and my very patient editor for the site, that simply said, “May I please review the new Eminem album? Because I can’t wait to get called a ‘faggot’ on the internet again.”
I’ll begin with an updated version of a statement I made in my piece on The Marshall Mathers LP 2—the Eminem of 2017 needs us more than we need him.
A woman I work with, who is roughly my age, was mentioning to me that she was playing an Eminem song in the car for her son who is around 12—she immediately regretted this decision once she remembered just how much profanity was included, but her son seemed unfazed. “Nobody listens to Eminem anymore,” he told her.
So I’ll ask it again, as I did in 2013, who is Eminem’s intended audience? Who does listen to Eminem—new Eminem, mind you—in 2017?
Following his maligned but well meant freestyle against Donald Drumpf at the BET Awards, speculation of a new album began in late October with a mysterious and slowly rolled out attempt at viral marketing; then came the album’s cumbersome and directionless first single, “Walk on Water,” an appearance as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” culminating with the release date for Revival, along with the release of a second single, “Untouchable.”
What if I told you that Revival is Eminem’s ‘political’ album—or at least, his attempt at a ‘political’ album?
Would you welcome that kind of thing with open arms, and say ‘Welcome to the resistance,’ the same way the Insane Clown Posse1 were lauded in the wake of the March of The Juggalos?
Would you nod your head in minor agreement, thinking ‘Sure, that sounds about right’?
Or, would you wince? Would you grimace so hard that it hurt your face? Would you contort your expression in such a fashion that it looked like you sat in something sticky at the same time as eating a kumquat or raw quince?2
I stop short of saying that Revival is the worst album I’ve ever listened to, but it should come as no surprise to you that it isn’t good.
It’s absolutely bloated—a staggering 19 tracks, it boasts a cavalcade of guest appearances from people like frequent collaborator and protégé Skylar Grey3, Pink, Alicia Keys, and of all people, a marquee name like Beyoncé, and head scratchingly enough, Ed fucking Sheeran.
Beyonce shows up on the aforementioned “Walk on Water”—a beatless track structured around keyboard tinkling, that finds Mathers taking a long, hard look at the latter portion of his career, grappling with the fact that he may not be as successful or as relevant of an artist as he once was during the early 2000s. There is a sound effect that runs throughout “Walk on Water” of paper being ripped and crumpled—really driving the point home that Mathers is struggling to write something he thinks is good enough for his listeners.
Her appearance, if anything, is more of a cameo. She sings the song’s refrain, and probably enjoyed cashing the check she was handed for the little work she contributed.
Where once Mathers proudly proclaimed he was a ‘rap god,’ now, he’s not so sure—“I may walk on water, but I ain’t no Jesus,” Beyoncé belts out in this song. And now, with all this doubt, he’s confesses later in the song that he’s not even “God sent,” a sharp juxtaposition and an admittedly clever callback to “My Name Is.”
At this point, you may be thinking, “I thought you said this was an attempted political album.” Yes, I did say that—and it is. It’s not all self-pity and maudlin wallowing over what it’s like to be a once successful performer but now a hollow shell of your former self.
That’s just how it begins.
As a whole, Revival is unmerciful in its self-indulgent length (it’s 77 fucking minutes long) and as a performer, Mathers is unrelenting. These words simply cannot leave his mouth fast enough and he spits them like his life is absolutely depending on it. With that regard, I can see why his ‘Stans’ get upset when someone is like, ‘This new Eminem album is trash.” Even within the trash, there is something buried deep down that is admirable. So yes, Mathers’ technical abilities are worth commending. He ran rap very quickly, putting great effort into the cadence of each word and where the emphasis of a syllable lands.
However, rapping with such exuberance, speed, and volume doesn’t mean that what he’s rapping about is, like, good. Or interesting. Or worth listening to.
As I was listening to Revival, it struck me early on that listening to Eminem rap is like when you go to see a performance of a play written by William Shakespeare.
Depending on the theatre company—whether it’s a community based outfit, or a well known stage in a major city—there may be people in the cast who don’t quite have a grasp on what their lines actually mean. They haven’t done the legwork to find a contemporary translation, or attempt to decipher it themselves. So, in performing, the text simply becomes words they are saying, void of meaning. And because it’s Shakespearean text, they think if they say them fast enough, and loud enough, people will buy it, or be impressed with it.
I’m sure Mathers believes in every word he’s frenetically shouting and uttering, but there are moments when he gets so caught up in his own abilities that it comes off like he’s going to strain something as he pats himself on the back—as if to say, ‘LOOK AT HOW FAST I CAN RAP YOU GUYS. LOVE ME AGAIN. I AM RELEVANT.’
The thing about Revival is that the cringe inducing moments just don’t stop.
They are as relentless, if not more relentless, than Mathers’ delivery. Before it slides into the second track, he adds a surprisingly coarse punchline to “Walk on Water” by yelling “Bitch I wrote ‘Stan,’” as if that’s supposed to mean anything to anybody 17 years after the fact. On the double shot of “Believe” and “Chloraseptic,” Mathers proves he’s not out of touch with what the ‘kids’ are listening to these days but doing his best impression of Migos—and it’s really tough to tell if he is doing this in earnest, or if it’s some kind of weird meta-joke thing. Either way, I listened in disbelief as a 45 year old white man tried his best to incorporate that stuttering and skittering flow to his lyrics.
It is, as you can imagine, difficult to sit through.
Mathers spends a bulk of Revival balancing this newfound ‘wokeness’ with business as usual. The political messages come in the form of the album’s second single, “Untouchable,” as well as the attempted emotional manipulation of “Like Home.” “Untouchable” is inexcusably terrible—featuring Mathers yelling over relatively generic rock instrumentation, rapping about racism and white privilege. And again, much like his Drumpf freestyle, I’m sure he means well with a song like this, but I think the last thing that a movement like Black Lives Matter needs is Eminem name dropping them in an absolutely horrible song.
And in a surprising turn, on “Like Home,” Mathers discusses Drumpf’s attempt to ban transgendered individuals from entering the military—something I’d never expect from the same rapper that barked, “Hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes,’” at one point in his career.
But people can change, I guess.
Remember Mathers’ ex-wife, Kim?
The one he wrote two songs about killing and commemorated her with a ‘rest in pieces’ tattoo? The woke thinking continues as he ruminates on their tumultuous relationship with “Bad Husband,” where he apologizes for the mess he made of their marriage, while the vocalist from a band I’ve never heard of—the ‘X Ambassadors’—contributes the song’s refrain.
But a character (or caricature) like Eminem can only be so forward thinking for so long, and the rest of Revival dips right back into familiar territory—mostly being a notorious lothario who apparently loves a girl with a big ass. He also opts for some surprising sample and interpolation choices, including The Cranberries’ 1994 single “Zombie” on the late arriving “In Your Head,” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” on the obnoxious “Remind Me.”
Revival concludes with two songs that attempt a serious tone
The first of which is dedicated to his daughter, and details the internal struggles he has felt as a father trying to raise a child while in the spotlight; the second—which is structured around, of all things, “The Rose” by Bette Midler—recalls a nearly fatal drug overdose from the end of 2007.
Despite its best efforts—its self-aware lyrics, its ‘wokeness,’ and its bids at being heartfelt—Revival is a gigantic mess of a record because it can’t decide what kind of record it wants to be. Is it forward thinking and of the times? Is it cartoony and bombastic like the Eminem that people are familiar with? Is it a ploy for Top 40 success with songs like the Pink featuring “Need Me”? It can’t be all of those things. It could be one or two of them, but by arriving as unfocused as possible, Mathers tries to do a lot of things at once and succeeds in doing all of them very badly.
Certainly, the ‘Stans’ of the world will disagree—the legion of loyal Eminem fans who have already changed their Twitter bio photo to Revival’s album cover will tell me that I’m just doing it wrong—that I’m not listening to it hard enough, or that I went into it predetermined to hate it4, or that I am simply a ‘faggot’ with no taste.
For those who were so upset by my negative review of The Marshall Mathers LP 2, ask yourselves this—four years later, how often do you listen it? You were so quick to defend its merit at the time, but is it something you revisit regularly, or is it just another folder of mp3s taking up space on your hard drive?
Who is the intended audience for Revival? Who is still a loyal Eminem fan, nearly 20 years removed from the auspicious Slim Shady LP?
I have a friend who is a rapper and producer—he has been for the entire decade I’ve known him, and he told me once that Eminem was the first artist who inspired him to pick up a pen and put it to paper.
We all get inspired at different times in our lives, through different people. When I was in my very early 20s, I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer—both of which directly contributed to me wanting to become a writer. However, Foer’s last novel, 2016’s Here I Am, was probably one of the most atrocious books I have ever had the misfortune of reading. Does that change how I feel about his earlier work? I don’t know. I’ve been too afraid to go back and re-read those books to see how poorly they may have aged. I want to hold on to that original inspiration, and how those books originally struck me.
Eminem doesn’t seem like he makes the kind of music that grows with you.
It’s not the kind of thing you take with you as you grow up. It stays where it originated and where it first impacted you. Maybe his music doesn’t grow at all—or, maybe, as you can hear on Revival, there’s an attempt at growth, but it is stunted, resigned to be the same as it ever was.
This album isn’t a career killer, but arriving this late in the game for an artist that could have happily called it a day after 8 Mile and gone out on top—you have to ask yourself what the point is. Who is the intended audience for Revival? I think Mathers himself spends nearly 80 minutes wondering that very question, shouting as loud and as quickly as he can, hoping to find anyone who will listen.
1- It seems worth mentioning that both Eminem and the Insane Clown Posse both hail, originally, from Detroit. ICP famously put out a diss track against Em titled “Slim Anus,” to which Em responded with the charming line, “Slim Anus? God damn right Slim Anus. I don’t get fucked in mine like you two little flaming faggots,” on the song “Marshall Mathers,” pulled from the LP of the same name. I wonder if they have since squashed their beef.
2- A quince is a variant of a pear. It is extraordinarily sour. Please never eat it raw.
3- The transformation of Holly Brook to ‘Skylar Grey’ is a fascinating one. Once a budding singer/songwriter, Brook transformed herself into Skylar Grey in 2010, switching her sound and aesthetic completely.
4- Please know that I went into The Marshall Mathers LP 2 with an open mind and it didn’t work out; this time around I knew I was going to hate this album.
If you enjoy wasting your time and money, Revival is out now via Shady, Atftermath, and Interscope.