In April 1999, the massacre at Columbine kicked off several rounds of hand-wringing about violent video games, music that referenced or was thought to encourage violence, and so on. Marilyn Manson had to weather a bulk of the blowback. Eminem, a white rapper from Detroit whose debut album had just become a massive hit for Interscope, also found himself in the crosshairs of politicians and protesters and concerned parents.
On that first record, Em had rapped about the first family: “Hillary Clinton tried to slap me and call me a pervert”; “If I said I never did drugs, that would mean I lie and get fucked more than the president does.” (In the video for its first single, “My Name Is,” he’d also dressed as Clinton and stood at a podium to rap the line “I’ll fuck anything that walks”; afterward, Clinton/Em leaves the podium with his pants around his ankles, and a Lewinsky figure crawls out and wipes her mouth.) By the time Eminem finished his second album, The Marshall Mathers LP, it was just over a year after Columbine. He famously rapped––and allowed Interscope to censor––about the killings:
“I take seven kids from Columbine, stand ‘em all in line
Add an AK-47, a revolver, a nine,
A Mac-11, and it oughta solve the problem of mine
And that’s a whole school of bullies shot up all at one time.”
“Kids” and “Columbine” were excised from even the explicit copies of Marshall Mathers. In the next four bars, he raps about NSYNC and “this whole Y2K thing.” But he circled back to Clinton elsewhere. There’s “Remember Me?” (“Two kids, 16, with M-16s and ten clips each / And them shits reach through six kids each / And Em gets blamed in Bill Clinton’s speech to fix these streets?”) and there’s “Who Knew”:
“I’m supposed to fix up lyrics while our president gets his dick sucked?
Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts, make fun of gay clubs, men who wear makeup
Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor
Quit trying to censor music––this is for your kids’ amusement.”
In a way, Bill Clinton was a natural foil for Eminem: each was from the poorer rungs of white society, and each enjoyed a reputation (largely among white Americans) for being popular with black Americans. But when Eminem came out, furious and hilarious and basically apolitical, he was pushed back against by a pearl-clutching political class that he found to be full of hypocrites and sellouts, chief among them Clinton.
Much of Em’s work during his massively successful and endlessly controversial early period––especially on the chaotic and frequently brilliant Marshall Mathers––is about that sort of hypocrisy in our public discourse. The performed morality. It’s why he was able to shrug off the protests from gay rights groups: activists attacked the literal readings of his language. The beginning and end of Em’s on-record gay bashing was to be a punkish provocateur; he couldn’t have asked for better press. Em was able, at the turn of the century, to become the biggest and most consequential act in pop music because he understood a cultural climate that was earnest and played by a set of agreed-upon rules––and decided he would do the exact opposite.
Revival is the third in a trio of painfully earnest pop albums, each one an apology of sorts for various misdeeds, including at times the albums that came before them. In the middle of his career, Eminem took a five-year break that we now know was marked by a prescription drug addiction that nearly killed him. The last album he made before that hiatus, 2004’s Encore, was an ill-conceived mess that marked the end of his cultural chokehold. When he reemerged in 2009 with Relapse, he was rapping discursively, in faux-Arabic accents, about imagined kidnappings and the biographical minutiae of 20th-century serial killers. It, too, was a mess, but there were twenty- or sixty-second stretches of technical virtuosity that made it a gripping listen, and one song, “Deja Vu,” that ranks near the very top of his entire catalog. It’s a close look at the low points of his addiction, delivered in a knowing lilt.
Less than a year later, Em had disowned it. “Not Afraid,” the mawkish self-help single from Recovery, announced a no-frills, self-consciously transparent new direction. Em was sober, a father in middle age, and aware he was past his commercial prime. But that turn left a creative vacuum at the center of his music. His major-label career had been defined by his well-worn Slim Shady persona, with its cartoon violence and gleeful moral relativism. (Even Infinite, a formative independent record he recorded in 1996, was a sort of costume exercise: at one point he mentions his little brother is trying to learn his mathematics, and Em sounds for all the world like a Five Percenter.) On 2002’s The Eminem Show and during a gasps of lucidity on Encore, he had leveraged his government-named self against his constructed identities, but that worked largely because he was such a massive tabloid figure.
And so he struggled. Recovery is driven by the type of cookie-cutter songs that kick around the major label machinery: hooks already in place, clean concepts, shimmering, Clear Channel-approved beats emailed for your convenience. There are interesting confessions (an aborted beef with Lil Wayne among them), but his writing and once-chameleonic technical abilities had atrophied: he was rapping in shouted, stilted cadences and writing clunky biography full of groaning puns and scatalogical nonsense. It’s sold almost ten million copies worldwide.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2, from 2013, has a few inspired moments, like the opener “Bad Guy,” where he slyly acknowledges the album’s title as a sad publicity stunt. But it’s also weighed down by paint-by-numbers pop and Call of Duty co-ventures. On “Rap God,” he re-raps the Columbine line from the original Marshall Mathers, and this time it makes it past the standards department, which he cites as an example of his diminished stature. It’s probably worth noting that the best and best-received song from this period in his career is a b-side where Em raps over “I Got Cha Opin.”
Revival opens with its sprawling, drumless lead single, “Walk On Water,” on which Beyonce sings about being human and Em can be heard crumpling notebook paper, frustrated. The song’s notable in that it addresses his creative shortcomings not as a series of one-off misfires, but as a constant, Sisyphean slog. It’s not a particularly effective song, but it’s intriguing, because it feels naked the way the 12-step Recovery work felt calculated.
Unfortunately, the record falls victim to Em’s worst musical impulses. “Believe” is him slipping in and out of contemporary flows; at one moment early in the song, he says “Now my community’s gated, and I made it, and my neighbors say ‘Hi,’” and he tweaks the formula just enough to make it his own, even folding in his long-cogent perspective on how his race bolsters his public image. But after that, he’s stuck in his stiffest, clumsiest mode. That half-translation of Migos et al comes to a head on the next song, when he shouts “I conned her into / Ripping the condom in two,” in something that sounds like a cross between outright parody and that Steve Buscemi gif.
In his prime, Eminem was a master technician: wordy but musical, darting around Dre’s negative space, his voice warping and bending and snapping back elastically. Today he’s often stuck in one gear, barrelling mechanically through a beat, nearly yelling. The list of head-poundingly dumb punchlines is too long to include here; it would also probably miss the point to do so because, in his defense, Em seems to revel in just how dumb they are. But your mileage is going to vary when the guy is saying things like “Your booty is heavy-duty like diarrhea” over the “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” riff.
The other problem with Revival is that, for stretches, it seems to be constructed cynically, focus-tested for Spotify: a sterile Ed Sheeran feature here, Pink and Skylar Grey churning out centrist pop hooks there, X Ambassadors doing Imagine Dragons-lite on a song meant to apologize to the ex-wife he murdered twice on record. This is probably the most confounding thing about modern-day Eminem––the fact that, though he seems most energized when retreating into a cocoon of ‘90s true-school aesthetics, he feels drawn to the ghosts of TRL.
Where the album succeeds is at its very end. The two-song suite of “Castle” and “Arose” is structured as a series of letters to his daughter, from the financial worries before her birth, to his creative struggles in her infancy, and later to the hospital bed where, ten years ago this month, he almost lost his life. The verses are heartfelt, and the hook on “Castle” makes explicit one of the major themes of his work, which is that fame––the weapon he turned so effectively on Clintons and clown posses––has isolated his family and destroyed most of his closest relationships.
Like a lot of artists, Eminem found 9/11 and the Iraq War to be politically galvanizing. The Eminem Show, which came out at the beginning of the summer in 2002, frequently dropped the artifice of The Marshall Mathers LP, knocking on TV screens from the inside. “Square Dance,” which he opens by noting he's "no friend of Bush," is a vicious dressing down of war mongers and the Administration. Two years later, during the re-election push, he distilled his arguments into the messy single “Mosh”: “No more blood for oil / We got our own battles to fight on our own soil.”
W. Bush clarified Em’s political stances in a way the sordid Clinton boom years couldn’t. He wasn’t really the jester anymore: he was a Serious Artist, respected by Serious Critics and Slate columnists, Oscar-winning and multi-hyphenated. The battle lines were clearer than ever.
It was also during that post-Mathers LP period that Em was forced to fully unpack the role race played in his rise. From the beginning, he’d been clear-eyed about his place in American pop culture, which included references to his whiteness, but was focused mainly on smirking free-speech arguments. On “White America,” he’s as direct as possible: “Look at my sales / Let’s do the math––if I was black, I would’ve sold half.” He also treats the song like a reveal, earned after three years of stardom, that he knows the id-level reasons he’s caused so much hysteria among white middle Americans. He shouts it, gleefully, on the chorus: “I could be one of your kids!”
A year and a half after The Eminem Show, The Source unearthed two tapes of a young Eminem (how young exactly is the topic of some debate), one railing against black women and the other featuring the n-word. This was the next salvo in Em’s long war with the magazine, but the ripples reached far beyond the group of people who cared about a rapper’s feud with a declining publication.
The scandal fueled one of the most genuinely stunning pieces of his catalog. “Yellow Brick Road,” from Encore, opens with some close biography of Em’s teenage years, including his early trysts with Kim and his meet-cute with Proof, the close friend and collaborator who would be killed, tragically, two years later. But you come for the third verse. In it, Em––Marshall––is in high school, a rap-obsessed kid who’d saved and scrounged for the shoes LL had just endorsed. But MC Shan put a stop to that (“Puma’s the brand, ‘cause the Klan makes Troops”); this was also the beginning of full-blown Afrocentrism in hip-hop. Apparently, X Clan’s To the East, Blackwards hit Marshall’s Detroit high school like a bomb, and he was worried that he’d go the way of 3rd Bass. Then he recounts a scene that makes you wince: he and a couple white friends walking into the mall with Black Power medallions on, not understanding why they were getting mercilessly clowned.
They retreated back to a basement and, Em says, recorded the freestyles that The Source later broadcast. (At the time they were revealed, which was a year before Encore came out, the magazine reported that the tapes were from 1993, which would make Em 20 or 21, and therefore out of high school; someone from Em’s camp initially told the Times that they were from ‘88, which is inconsistent with “Yellow Brick Road,” given that X Clan came out in 1990.)
This was consistent with how Em talked and, apparently, thought about race, at least as it pertained to his own life. The promotional materials for 8 Mile hammered the idea that the titular road was the dividing line between white and black Detroit, and that he straddled that divide; he was someone who passed through each world, not quite at home in either one. This is a far cry from how questions of race are usually framed and parsed in 2017. The prevailing belief today is that no internal experience can separate a white person from whiteness, with all its material and political benefits. On “Untouchable,” which he boldly picked as the album’s second single, Em tries, gamely, to engage with this idea. It’s clumsy––it’s a six-minute song where the syntax keeps jerking around––but it’s impassioned and empathetic, remedial though some of its arguments may be.
And now: Trump. Em announced the album with an acapella missive from the BET Awards. Dubbed “The Storm,” it’s a rap song that Keith Olbermann loves, and it takes direct aim at a president who’s overcome a damning audiotape of his own. Finally, some wrote, someone could challenge Donald Trump on his own level. Eminem was rich, famous, powerful, white: everything Trump respects and fears.
But this isn’t the Iraq war, or the post-Lewinsky moral hangover. We are not playing by agreed-upon rules. The White House is stoking Nazism and then lambasting reporters who dare ask the most benign questions about it––we’re a long way from “no more blood for oil.” Eminem in 2000 would probably be well-suited to this; Eminem today is moving, as a human being and as an artist, as far away from that arena as he can. As is evidence on “Castle” and “Arose,” he’s writing about his life in a neat, ordered way. That’s natural, understandable, and healthy––he’s taking stock of the toll public life had on his family and his organs, and he’s looking for meaning at home and in the outside world. He’s apologizing to his mother and ex-wife. He’s not going to rap about sneaking in through the East Wing to put cyanide in Trump’s Diet Coke, and he’s not going to put out a goofy single that spoofs the Russian pee tape.
And yet Revival still feels like a missed political opportunity. Em can still get caustic, but his approaches to what he clearly considers serious songs and his goofier material are totally distinct from one another. It robs the serious stuff of its levity and wit, and robs the lighter fare from any bite it might otherwise have. Its one Trump-centric song, “Like Home,” is a treacly piano number with Alicia Keys. The sentiments are nice, but there’s nothing clever about it, nothing that would rile up Trump’s base (to say nothing of Trump himself), nothing that Keith Olbermann hasn’t already tweeted.
It’s hard to listen to Revival and not yearn for the tic-riddled chaos of Relapse, or even Encore. Those final two songs are easy to admire, but at 77 minutes, it feels nearly impossible to get to them in the first place. And who, exactly, is the audience for this record? “The Storm” and “Untouchable” suggested that it would challenge the portion of Em’s fanbase that leans right, but it seems more concerned with challenging for Rap Caviar supremacy. Em keeps popping up in documentaries in Onyx shirts, in photos repping King Sun, on BET recreating Public Enemy single covers. Where is Buckshot? He’s a reclusive rap nerd with endless time and resources; it would probably be a joy to hear him doing no-stakes exercises over more Black Moon beats, or to see him call up Redman, or indulge whatever weird creative urges he felt would derail his career when he was in his twenties.
Of course, it’s possible that that’s not what he wants to do––that he’d rather dominate the pop charts like he did circa Clinton and W. But when he was on TRL every day, he was doing it with styles and perspectives that were original, not with X Ambassadors. On “Walk On Water,” he frets that he’ll be unable to reach the standards he and his fans have set, but he doesn’t seem to consider the ways that he might be boxed in by format. Em (or those around him) still have very rigid ideas about how an album from him should be structured, and what commercial safeguards should keep it from going off the rails. Maybe this is because Relapse was so poorly received. I’m guessing. But for as often as Em is sold to us as being raw and unfiltered, it would be nice to finally hear him when he’s free from worries about Billboard or building a legacy.
Paul Thompson is on Twitter.