The main thing that sets Eminem apart from virtually all other rappers is the conflicted nature of his character.
Where most wallow in wearyingly cliched boasts of luxury and power, Eminem remains wracked by doubts – about his status, his behaviour, his relationships, his emotions, his mental health. It’s this constant self-laceration that accounts for the manic mood-swings of his albums, the sudden shifts between fury, tragedy and comedy, and which enables him to navigate those changes so nimbly.
And rarely has that doubt been more clearly analogised than in the reflective single “Walk On Water”, where any messianic notions are tempered by the sound of ice cracking beneath his steps. “Kids look to me as a god, this is retarded,” he muses, fully aware of his shortcomings, and tormented by visions of his decline.
But not for long. This album is called Revival, after all, and the next track, “Believe”, finds Eminem’s faith in his talent creeping back in. The ticking beat and sinister, John Carpenter-esque piano figure are harbingers of resurgent menace, while the hazy, treated chorus hook sounds like medication flooding his spirit with the confidence that carries the rest of the album.
There are plenty of typical Eminem tropes scattered throughout Revival: he picks constantly at the scabs of marital failure, though in pieces such as “Bad Husband” and “Tragic Ending” he’s worked towards a position of forgiveness and shared responsibility, accepting that infatuation and incompatibility is an explosive combination, and that he and his ex are “not bad people, just bad together” – a surprisingly mature conclusion for such an emotionally raw artist.
Likewise, while he can’t resist a good old murder fantasy, there’s none of the relish with which they used to be recounted: in “Framed”, it’s more like a bad dream, as Eminem frantically tries to evade capture for a crime he can’t even remember committing.
Elsewhere, the political anger that bubbled over into the recent trending online freestyle attack on Donald Trump finds more considered outlets. In “Like Home”, Alicia Keys’ anthemic abilities are harnessed for a rousing call to reclaim the real America from a roundly castigated usurper; while a hard-rock riff (sampled from Cheech & Chong!) soundtracks “Untouchable”, a Black Lives Matter blast condemning the contrasting treatment of black boys and white boys – especially white cops. “It’s like we’re stuck in a time-warp,” he admits shamefully, noting the widespread reversion to pre-Civil Rights attitudes.
Appropriately enough, his musical style on also harks back to an earlier era, with old-school samples of hip-hop pioneers such as EPMD, Schoolly D and Young MC offering touchstones from Eminem’s youth, while Rick Rubin’s presence amongst the production team provides a direct link to Def Jam days.
But ultimately, it’s all about Eminem himself, and nowhere more dynamically than in the berserk self-assessment “Offended”, where he asserts, amongst other things, that if the time he spent writing were taken into account, he’d be a minimum-wage slave – a faintly ludicrous claim, but immediately backed up by a bravura extended burst of rapid-rap babble that both explains and exemplifies his skills, and leaves one wondering not just how long it took to write, but how on earth he manages to pronounce such a polysyllabic torrent so perfectly.
Revival concludes with a skilfully designed two-track finale which confirms Eminem’s conflicted nature. In “Castle”, a letter to his daughter ends with the sound of him slumping, suicidally, to the floor, before awakening in “Arose” to experience his final moments in hospital, tortured by regrets and mea culpas as the nurses remove tubes and wires from his lifeless body.
It’s an emotionally nuanced, moving performance which leaves him – and us – in a very dark place, until (spoiler alert!) he coughs and splutters back into a reprise of “Castle”, chastened and changed in a way that few other rappers could convey.