Monday, December 18, 2017

album review: 'revival' by eminem

So do you ever have the feeling before going into a movie or game or record that while you desperately hope it's going to be good, you know deep down it probably won't be? That slow, sinking feeling as your rational mind overrides the sense of hype and the feeling that nothing could live up to your expectations, even if they aren't all that high?

Yeah, that's how I felt going into Revival - and if anything, it was even worse because I've been an Eminem fan for decades. I'll admit to being one of the fans for whom Eminem was my introduction to more hip-hop, that can rattle off multiple Eminem songs from memory - and not just the singles but deep cuts and diss tracks too. And as I grew and matured as a critic and heard so much more hip-hop and Eminem's flaws came more sharply into view, it also led to a different sort of artistic appreciation for even his worst projects - while Encore is far from good it was the sort of record that understood its purpose of artistic suicide, and I still hold Relapse is criminally underrated to this day, where Slim Shady was revealed to be as perverse and deranged as he always was before, this time without any veneer of 'cool'. And even though I'd likely agree with the assertion that Eminem becomes less impressive as an artist the more hip-hop you hear, I don't think even the best in the game would deny his talent for wordplay, his charisma, and his uncanny knack for mainstream crossover success.

And thus, when I heard Em was looking to get more political for his upcoming record, not only was I not surprised I was also extremely encouraged. For many white people Eminem was one of the few rappers they would listen to or cite as a favourite, he spoke across demographics and genres and he's never been uncomfortable speaking truth to power, especially given how much he continued to identify with his working class roots in Detroit. But in the lead-up to this release - and especially after the track and feature list was released - I had a really bad feeling going into this, with names showing a lot of potential for pop crossover but few if any of the relevant acts making conscious hip-hop right now. You'd think someone of his stature would use this opportunity to put some names over instead of pass over more production to Alex da Kid and hooks to goddamn Skylar Grey - an artist who has never been interesting or compelling and who has been neutering the power of Em's hooks for too long - but if Eminem wasn't willing to venture out of his comfort zone to make his political statement, this could be pretty rough. But again, I'm an Eminem fan, I've defended records from him that many brand as legendarily terrible - can I defend Revival?

Honestly... no, I really can't defend Revival beyond isolated moments, because this is the sort of record that has so many mishandled creative decisions that I'm not sure how anything salvageable could have been pulled. The record that springs to mind the most as an apt comparison to this is 50 Cent's Animal Ambition back in 2014, an utterly mishandled "comeback" that doesn't seem to grasp the performer's strengths against badly chosen production, corny hooks, and content that is nowhere near as interesting as the performer thinks it is. And while I will not consider this the worst thing I've heard this year, I won't deny that this is a real disappointment, with the few brighter moments not redeeming an avalanche of bland mediocrity and outright garbage.

And we have to start this conversation with Eminem himself, and I'll say it again: as a performer, he still has a remarkable amount of emotive charisma and intensity. Even if it might be utterly misplaced - and there are a few places where it definitely is, and we'll get to that - Eminem still has enough presence to grab the listener's attention, and he'll always be a rapper who can string together rhymes with skill and dexterity. But at the same time, I've always considered the ability to rap as the baseline of talent, and by the time we have the second song 'Believe Me' as he struggles to force his multisyllabic bars into a triplet flow, it's hard not to see Eminem struggling to keep up with the times, or at the very least not showing the same dexterity with flows he demonstrated in the past. And on some level this confuses me: for as much as Eminem professes to pay attention to modern hip-hop and for as good of a rapper as he is, I'm a little stunned that his delivery can feel this disjointed; even on more traditional verse structures he can sound staccato and off-kilter, and not in a good way. And while he might not be reintroducing the accents that peppered Relapse, there are definitely points where you can tell he's overselling his vocal delivery, not helped by some of the most godawful vocal production I've heard all year. Seriously, whoever mixed and mastered Eminem's vocal pickup on this record should be taken behind the woodshed, because when it's not muddy or faded in awkward ways, it's not even as crisp or clear as his frequent guest hooks - and considering there are no guest verses, let's blow through these pretty quickly: Beyonce is the biggest saving grace on 'Walk On Water', it's a damn crime PHresher gets nothing to do on 'Chloraseptic', Alicia Keys deserved better on 'Like Home', Skylar Grey ends up recycling Recovery-era garbage on 'Tragic Endings', Kehlani is utterly pointless on 'Nowhere Fast', Ed Sheeran deserves to be more of an Eminem target than a featured guest, X Ambassadors remain an utterly worthless group and their hook and production on 'Bad Husband' is nauseating, and Eminem got more to do on 'Revenge' with Pink on her record than he does on their collaboration here. 

So might as well take a look at the production here, consistently the weak point with Eminem's work in the 2010s and it's no less true here. Again, the biggest issue remains the utter lack of subtlety: when Eminem tries to get conscious on 'Like Home' or sentimental like on 'Walk On Water', 'Nowhere Fast' or 'Arose' he goes for overwrought pianos, swelling strings, and sampling LeAnn Rimes that clashes awkwardly with the clumsily mixed and too-heavy percussion. When he's trying to tell stories about his bad relationships like on 'River' or especially 'Bad Husband', he sticks with turgid alt-rock tones that are more Shawn Mendes than anything with real edge or grit - why that caterwauling chipmunk tone is drizzled all over the hook, I have no idea. When he goes for modern trap tones like on 'Believe' and 'Chloroseptic', it's a little stunning that with his vast wealth he can't buy a trap beat that can match the atmosphere of your average Metro Boomin or Zaytoven beat - again, the mixing just feels cheap and clumsy, and it sure as hell doesn't have the weight of dissing mumble rappers who often have beat production! But we need to cut to the meat of this: the rock sampling. It starts early with a incredibly misplaced Cheech & Chong sample on 'Untouchable' and it just gets worse from there - and what I find infuriating is the waste of it all, that Eminem can clearly afford to license samples from Joan Jett on 'Remind Me' or The Cranberries on 'In Your Head' or both Run DMC and the Beastie Boys on 'Heat', and the most he'll do is graft his verses against a choppy approximation of their hook. Now granted, Eminem has done this before going all the way back to 'Sing For The Moment', but that never felt as slapdash and wasteful as it does here, taking perfectly good songs and running them into the meat grinder of ugly percussion and fuzz that adds nothing. Now you'll also get a few horrorcore-leaning deep cuts like 'Framed' with the warped guitar work or the twisted sample behind 'Offended', but in both cases the hooks are utterly obnoxious or on 'Offended' can even be bothered to match the general cadence of the rest of the song, something even Relapse and Encore consistently executed!

And now we have to get to the content, and for as much as it would be easy for me to just string up a list of atrocious bars across this project that rarely if ever show the wit and humor that made Eminem tolerable even at his worst, as a fan I'm going to try to go deeper. And the first thing that needs to be established is that in terms of theme or dramatic arc, as much as he tries to set up his diminishing fame, faltering bars and real insecurity on 'Walk On Water', to pay this off we'd need to see Em either hit a new height of quality or see some form of renewal, going in a new direction. Instead, what's more galling about Revival is how much of it plays as a retread of the past: horrorcore that reads as rejected b-sides from Relapse, assertions of hip-hop dominance that increasingly lack teeth as Eminem refuses to name names - which baffles me considering that'd be an easy way to spark up the controversy he craves and clean the clocks of some weaker targets - toxic relationship songs desperately trying to bring back the success of 'Love The Way You Lie', and even a closing set of songs replaying the overdose event that we already saw on 'Deja Vu' on Relapse, along with messages to his daughter and late friend Proof where it appears even after 'You're Never Over' he still hasn't found closure! Then we have the political commentary that comes on 'Untouchable' and 'Like Home'... and again, this is one of those points where Em's near-complete abandonment of subtlety hurts him, as well as his refusal to get any guest rappers to help speak to these issues or even just elevated thanks to Em's tremendous platform! And look, I get how Eminem painting with a broad brush on these tracks and is primarily targeting his white fanbase who'll refuse to engage otherwise... but the snide tone, the hectoring lyrics, and the very surface approach to messier issues is a far cry from how deep a song like 'White America'
could cut, or even the anthemic rage of a song like 'Mosh'. 

Now one of the reasons the political tracts mostly worked in the past was the presence of the Slim Shady alter-ego, the twisted virulent id of white America that said all the things the audience never wanted to admit about themselves in its sick satirical picture. But without that lens and subtlety in place on Revival, the thematic contradictions are a lot messier and a lot less excusable - in other words, it's a lot harder to take swallow Eminem's politics when on the topic of women he says he 'made strides with those rape lines'. And while I get all of 'Offended' is attempting to scandalize the audience, we live in the era of Filthy Frank and Run The Jewels, getting scatological and talking about all the women you want to assault for pure provocation just feels like punching-down: lazy and overdone at this point, especially if you want us to take any of your hyper-earnest political commentary seriously! Or hell, take any of your songs about relationships or women seriously, between you squeezing in bad puns and poop jokes into 'River', a song about infidelity and abortion, or 'Bad Husband' where we get a phoned-in, 'many sides' reconciliation with Kim, or any of the asinine trashy hookups of 'Remind Me' and 'Heat' overloaded with dad jokes in the cheap followup to 'W.T.P', yet seemingly with less self-awareness! But I'll give Em this, on songs like 'Walk On Water' and 'In Your Head' he somewhat understands how his own sloppy framing in the past meant the deeper message behind Slim Shady was missed - and yet his belligerent refusal to really accept any responsibility for what he's done and then continue so much of the same behavior without any excuse for it hollows out any point he's trying to make, especially when the technique and music is worse than ever!

Look, I can't tell you how much I was desperately trying to like this record - I feel like Yahtzee Croshaw reviewing Duke Nukem Forever - but Eminem entrenching himself behind a wall of mirrors shows a rapper forever living in the reflection of a legacy that with every lackluster record continues to diminish. And while he might be vaguely aware of this, his attempts to swivel out of the skid don't address the naked self-obsession at its core and thus with every clunky beat, misshapen flow, or badly chosen reference things just get worse. Nathan Rabin once referred to Eminem as the 'Charles Foster Kane' of pop music, to quote: 'a defeated titan nursing old grievances from a giant, empty palace of a home that had devolved into a ghoulish realm of unfulfilled potential' - and that was in 2004 off of Encore! But that record at least had a consistent throughline and a few standout tracks, something Revival painfully lacks. So yeah, even though it pains me as a fan to say this, it's Eminem's worst record and is getting a very light 4/10 - I really can't recommend it. And at this point, I think Eminem should forget about any sort of pop appeal and go straight back to the underground - get on some beats with actual grit and complexity, forget about Trump 'paying attention to him', and try to get out of his own head. Maybe then - probably only then - will we see some actual quality.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're dead fucking wrong about Skylar Grey, I think she's always been interesting and criminally underrated.

    Personally I don't get the hate for this album, Bad Husband didn't feel "phoned in" to me at all, believe it or not it's not always ONLY the man who can cause problems in a relationship ya know!

    I can still take Eminem's political commentary seriously even if I don't agree with all of his views on women, nothing contradictory about that.

    I don't think Em needs to accept responsibility for shitheads misinterpreting his music.