Two decades ago, when he first rose to prominence with The Slim Shady LP, rapper Eminem – aka Marshall Mathers III – attracted as much attention for his darkly comic characters and personas as for his skills at twisting and spitting rhymes at lightning speed. Now, as Mathers releases his ninth studio album, Revival, he finds himself recognised by fans and critics alike as a master of his craft with his musical appeal extending beyond the hip-hop realm and pushing firmly into the pop world.
Ostensibly Revival is a confessional album, with Mathers baring his soul and reflecting on issues of self-doubt, the cost of fame and success, his relationships with his family – which have played out as much in the public sphere as the private – depression and substance abuse, politics, and his legacy. At forty-five years of age, it is perfectly natural that Mathers would be concerned with such matters and turn his skills to exploring these. At first listen, Revival is a strong album with only the occasional ribald joke marring the overall quality of the record, but subsequent listens reveal that the album wears thin very quickly.
Opening track, and lead single, Walk in Water holds up to repeated listens, aided by Beyoncé’s vocal contribution although Mathers vocals are engagingly earnest and direct, as does Untouchable which offers an insightful and considered discussion on blue-on-black violence in American and the black lives matter protests. In Your Head builds itself around the core refrain from The Cranberries 1994 hit Zombie to discuss emotional instability while also setting up the album’s climax in the pairing of Castle and Arose. Castle and Arose may have represented a stronger closing to Revival had Mathers not blurred the lines between himself and his lyrical personas throughout the preceding seventeen tracks, despite specifying this muddying of identities as a problem he needs to address. Whether this is a failure on Mathers’ part or an ingenious piece of performance art is hard to discern, although it feels like the former.
A weakness in the musical backing also becomes apparent upon multiple listenings, with guest appearances from Ed Sheeran (River), Alicia Keys (Like Home), X Ambassadors (Bad Husband), Skylar Grey (Tragic Endings), Kehlani (Nowhere Fast), and P!nk (Need Me) pushing the album awkwardly in a pop direction. Chloraseptic featuring Phresher offers the only straight-up-and-down hip-hop guest spot on the record. Mathers’ penchant for horrorcore asserts itself on Framed and Heat, two songs that tonally sit at odds with the rest of Revival. If Mathers had been able to maintain focus on raw, emotional honesty, Revival may well have been an astounding album, one that demonstrated a depth and maturity matching his technical prowess, but as it is the album is an uneven, unsatisfying, sprawl