While best known on early albums for his colorful, darkly comic fantasies, there has been a refreshing emotional honesty about family relationships and personal insecurities throughout Eminem’s long and storied career. That sense of laying your soul bare, alongside a much-vaunted latent politicization, lies at the heart of Eminem’s 2017 album, Revival.
Opener “Walk On Water” reveals a rapper full of vulnerability and self-doubt. Beyoncé opens the track with the graceful, gospel-infused chorus, and her exultation of “I ain’t no Jesus” provides the perfect introduction to a song which details Eminem’s struggles to live up to his fan’s unrealistic demands. “Why are expectations so high?/Is it the bar I set…/It’s the curse of the standard/That the first of the Mathers discs set…/Will this step be just another misstep/To tarnish whatever the legacy, love or respect I’ve garnered?” he raps before delivering a powerful reminder of his abilities: “’Cause I’m just a man/But as long as I got a mic, I’m godlike…/B__ch, I wrote ‘Stan.’”
Elsewhere, repentance takes center-stage. Eminem has issued apologies in his music before, most notably to his much-maligned mother in 2013’s “Headlights,” but on “Bad Husband” he takes the opportunity to say sorry to ex-wife Kim Scott for his past misdeeds: “You hit me once, and that I would use/To continue the pattern of abuse…/But I’m sorry, Kim/More than you could ever comprehend.”
That thoughtful tone continues on “Castle,” an ode to the other significant female that has colored Eminem’s life and informed his lyrics over the years: his daughter Hailie. The song takes the form of three letters: one written just before her birth; the second a year later; and a third, heartrendingly, from a hospital bed in 2007, just after his overdose. Unsure he’ll make it through, Eminem declares, “And if things should worsen/Don’t take this letter I wrote/As a goodbye note/’Cause your dad’s at the end of his rope/I’m sliding down a slippery slope/Anyways, sweetie, I better go/I’m getting sleepy, love, Dad.”
This personal soul-baring is at odds with the political rage that many were primed for in the wake of his sensational, Trump bashing performance at the 2017 BET Awards. In the six months between that tirade and the release of Revival, however, Eminem’s political fury remained unabated.
“Untouchable” finds him once again expounding on current events, rapping about the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and the history of racism in the United States. He’s scathing in his assessment of his homeland. “Throughout history, African-Americans have been treated like s__t/And I admit that there have been times where it’s been embarrassing to be white boy,” he states before declaring, “F__k your Republican views/Pull ourselves up by the bootstraps/Where the f__k are the boots?”
Elsewhere, there are more pointed references to President Trump: “Like Home” exhorts his fans to “band together for Charlottesville” in the face of a President who “… generally hates the black people” and “degrades Hispanics.” Drawing a line between Trump, the Nazis and the Klan, Eminem calls the President out as a “chump” who “barely even sleeps/All he does is watch Fox News like a parrot and repeats.” Perhaps most incredibly for a man once branded homophobic, Em also offers support for the transgender community: “While he looks like a canary with a beak/Why you think he banned transgenders from the military with a tweet?”
Among the soul-searching, mature ruminations, and political fire there are still elements of the old Slim Shady mischief. The lusty lyricist of yore is back on “Remind Me” (“And implants are so big/She can hang me up on that rack”) while “Heat” features some of his raunchiest lyrics yet: “Come on, little mama/You’re hot enough to melt Rick’s beat/Come jump in the water/I bet you get your self-esteem from your persona/With an a__ to match, girl/Your body is lit/You’re striking/I’m a gas, girl, you’re/Just gonna have to put them other chumps on the back burner/You got buns, I got Asperger’s.”
There’s his much-vaunted penchant for comic violence, too, on the likes of “Offended” and “Framed.” The latter features yet another shot at Trump, as Eminem unleashes a murder fantasy during which he finds Ivanka Trump’s body in the trunk of his car – though he professes his innocence: “I know what this looks like, officers/Please just give me one minute/I think I can explain/I ain’t murdered nobody/I know these words are so naughty/But I’m just here to entertain.”
In a career that’s now into its third decade, Eminem has done far more than simply entertain. He remains unafraid of exposing more and more of himself with each new album – and Revival might be his most revealing. Rather than solving his contradictions, however, the wide-ranging display of emotions marks him out as one of the most complex – and fearlessly honest – artists in music today. The force of his impact has never waned, but Revival is worthy of a renewal of faith in the self-proclaimed “rap god.”