It is with great regret that I tell you this: Eminem still likes to rap about butts sometimes. Here’s something he says on “Remind Me,” over a sample of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll”: “Your booty is heavy-duty, like diarrhea.” Here’s something he says on “Heat,” over a sample of Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly singing that “feel, feel, feel my heat” song from Boogie Nights: “Lady, you remind me of my raps on that Relapse shit / Cuz you got an ass thick as them accents / Two asscheek implants, call that an asset / Cuz you could stick a glass on it, it’s massive.” (On that same song, he also offers this: “Grab you by the [meowing noise], I hope it’s not a problem, in fact / About the only thing I agree on with Donald is that / So when I put this palm on your cat / Don’t snap, it’s supposed to be grabbed / Why do you think they call it a snatch?”) Those are really the only two songs on Revival, Eminem’s new album, where he raps about butts. They’re enough.
You’re going to hear that Revival is Eminem’s mature album. In some ways, that’s true. There are moments on Revival where Em attempts the same kinds of honest public unburdening that Jay-Z pulled off on 4:44. Eminem has been mining his personal life for his vivid, lurid, bloodthirsty story-raps for nearly 20 years, and Revival wants to be the great reckoning, the moment where he takes stock of his life and career and all the things he’s done wrong. He spends one entire song apologizing to his ex-wife Kim, even admitting to some truly despicable acts: “You hit me once, and that I would use / To continue the pattern of abuse / Why did I punch back? / Girls, your dad is a scumbag.” He spends another apologizing to Hailie, his daughter, for putting her in the public eye since she was a small child, using her voice on songs where he’s graphically rapping about murdering her mother. On “Arose,” the album’s final track, Em drifts back to a 2007 moment where he overdosed and almost died, imagining himself making up with various family members, including his mother, on his deathbed.
That’s an admirable impulse, and there’s urgency and sincerity in Eminem’s voice when he unloads all this heavy stuff. And elsewhere, Eminem, who’s always been cognizant of himself as a white person making a fortune by taking part in a predominantly black artform, gets into the apocalyptic state of the world in 2017. On “Untouchable,” he goes in on police brutality and on the fear and misunderstanding that underlies all of it. He takes the long view, rapping about the country’s legacy of systemic inequality. And since Eminem is literally the most popular rapper who has ever lived, maybe some white kids will hear a song like that and readjust their thinking accordingly. Likewise “Like Home,” the Alicia Keys collab where Em spends the entire song targeting Donald Trump, something he already did in a viral BET Hip-Hop Awards cipher a few weeks ago. Where most stars of Eminem’s stature are staying away from politics, speaking in only the vaguest and most general terms, Em is going all the way into the fray and throwing his elbows around. He’s clearly been thinking about the responsibilities that come with being this huge, transcendent star, and he’s adjusting his message accordingly. He’s got good intentions. You’ve got to give him that.
But remember that Em’s anti-Trump freestyle started like this: “That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I dump it on Donald Trump? / Probably not.” That’s a fucking stupid line, and the freestyle was full of clangers like that. The same thing happens on “Like Home.” The strings are swelling and Alicia Keys is pounding pianos, and it’s all built to sound like this grand, cathartic orchestral swell, and then Eminem comes out with something like this: “He looks like a canary with a beak / Why you think he banned transgenders from the military with a tweet?” Or this: “This man just praised a statue of General Lee because he general-ly hates the black people.” The same thing happens when he tries to get into the problem of racism: “Why is it they treat us like dryer lint? / We just want a safe environment for our kids.” Eminem is overthinking this shit, throwing in all this showy and pointless wordplay whenever he can. He’s using 82 words when six would work just fine. He’s just vomiting out imagery, losing his point in the process. Good intentions are one thing. Good execution is something else entirely. And Eminem can’t write a simple polemic without making me want to smash cinderblocks over my own head in embarrassed frustration. That’s a problem.
And then there are the moments where Eminem’s intentions aren’t so good. It’s hard to take his newfound wokeness seriously when, a song or two later, he ejaculates something like this: “Just escaped from the state pen for raping eight women who hate men.” Or this: “I’m still copping a feel like Bill Cosby at will / Popping a pill, then spill Oxy in Jill’s coffee.” These aren’t even funny jokes or well-constructed rhymes. They’re dumb, empty attempts at mining a vein of shock value that Em tapped out 15 years ago. It’s hard to even imagine why they still exist. Lines like that are just forced, desperate puerility from a rich 45-year-old dad who thinks he has to give his audience what it wants. They’re a made-for-Netflix Adam Sandler movie. They’re just sad.
What once made Eminem great wasn’t the murder-talk or the soap operatics or even the verbal gymnastics. It was the pure joy he took in yammering bullshit and twisting language. He knew he was getting away with shit, and he was going to make sure you knew it, too. Here was someone who’d been beaten down for his entire life, who suddenly had the ear of the whole world and who was going to use that power to make fart noises. But Em is beaten down in different ways now. He spends his first single and album opener “Walk On Water” stressing out publicly about the idea that nobody wants to hear him rap anymore: “Every album song I was spazzing the fuck out on / And now I’m getting clowned and frowned on.” He’s operating from a place of anxiety and fear. That old glee is long-gone, and you can hear its absence. So even when he bursts out with a technically staggering triple-time flow like the one on the nyah-nyah-nyah marathon “Offended,” it feels flat and sad — all those syllables adding up to nothing.
And these days, his writing is just bad. He calls himself “the Simon Cowell of rhyming foul.” He threatens to “put you in your place like a realtor, boy.” On the relationship song “River,” he tells of a girls who “says maybe she’ll be my Gwen Stacy, to spite her man.” (There’s also a Captain America/”capped in America” pun. Eminem has been watching the Marvel movies.) Musically, too, Em has lost the taut and frantic bounce of his first few albums; they aren’t even a distant memory anymore. At this point, I’ve even come to miss the gothic string-churn of Em’s mid-’00s music. These days, he’s using character-free producers like Alex Da Kid and coming up with soupy, lightly orchestral striver-pop anthems that leave no impression whatsoever. He brings in a parade of deeply bland guest stars (Ed Sheeran, the X Ambassadors guy) to sing hooks that don’t hook anything. On “Walk On Water,” he gets Beyoncé to sing the sort of rotely inspirational time-killing chorus that usually goes to the Skylar Greys of the world. When Rick Rubin shows up with those Joan Jett and Boogie Nights samples, they’re cartoonishly silly, but at least they liven things up for a few minutes at a time.
The saddest part about all of this: Revival is probably the best Eminem album in a decade. Four years ago, on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 Eminem was rapping in Yoda voices and making blowjob noises and pretending to shoot a police dog during a skit. He doesn’t do any of those things on Revival, and he also manages not to let off with any homophobic epithets. There are only a couple of rape jokes! That’s progress! He sounds more focused and motivated than he has in a while. He clearly cares deeply about the act of rapping. But his music continues to be a pure endurance-test slog. Revival is a glaringly clumsy 79-minute word-salad lurch. That’s just all Eminem knows how to make now. It’s who he is.