Few texts in hip-hop are as bizarre as Eminem’s debut LP, Infinite. Released on a local Detroit label in 1996, it was either ignored or dismissed by those who rejected his whiteness and his borrowed aesthetic. Were it released in 2017, it might be celebrated for its scholarship of the form’s early classics, a la Joey Bada$$ or Roc Marciano. Instead, he was written off as a swagger jacker who sounded too much like Nas and AZ.
The criticism burned, and from that fire he formed his alter ego, Slim Shady. A manifestation of Marshall Mathers’ inner turmoil, the persona served as a vehicle for his darkest, most violent thoughts and helped him step out from the shadow of his forebears to channel the darkest parts of himself. On 1998’s The Slim Shady EP, he found his unique and disturbing voice. It caught the ear of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, who spent the next five years molding him into one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
In those early years, for all the controversy his lyrics caused, Slim Shady helped Mathers focus his energy, a cathartic outlet that was both messy and intensely fascinating. But after more than two decades, he’s older, well-fed, and in possession of pretty much every accolade there is to acquire. The Slim Shady suit no longer fits; once the outsider, he’s now the establishment. If Slim Shady fed on hate, what does he do now that he’s beloved? What motivates a healthy, sober, 45-year-old father with enough money for several lifetimes?
And if the beats knocked, it would probably be tolerable, too. But legendary executive producers Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin managed to stuff a bloated tracklist with uninspired production and instantly forgettable pop hooks. Even Beyoncé couldn’t save “Walk on Water,” a stale piano ballad that undercuts Eminem’s attempt to explore the weight of his self-doubt. The Alicia-Keys-featuring “Like Home” is equally limp and toothless, defanging Eminem’s attempt to battle Donald Trump. He sees himself as a crusader against his influence, champion of the bullied, a notebook full of disses at the ready. It’s not his fault that all Trump has to do to beat him is ignore him, but it is his fault that the beat makes it so easy to do so. Rubin’s contributions are particularly embarrassing; his re-hash of hits from the Rush/Def Jam days (“Heat,” “Remind Me”) suggest he’s completely out of ideas.
But while the long tracklist and equally protracted verses make for an exhausting listen, there are rewards for those that endure. The eponymous interlude features a short verse from the late Alice and the Glass Lake that sounds like a sketch for something potentially great. And on an album full of poorly matched beats and verses, the delicately morose guitar melody and heavy fuzz of the Cranberries“Zombie” suits his flow on “In Your Head” perfectly—even if the hook was pretty much cut and pasted from the original.
Eminem’s consistent run of mediocrity over the last 15 years has not tempered his album sales, and it’s unlikely to start now—he remains one of the most bankable acts in pop. But sales and fame have never been his primary motivation. He’s always wanted to be the best, and ever since he conquered the music world in the early aughts, it’s as if he has no idea where to go. As he raps with precision on “Believe”:
Man, in my younger days
That dream was so much fun to chase
It’s like I run in place
While this shit dangled in front of my face
But how do you keep up the pace
And the hunger pangs once you’ve won the race?
When that fuel exhaust is coolin’ off
’Cause you don’t got nothin’ left to prove at all
’Cause you done already hit ’em with the coup de grâce
These fears are relatable—what artist hasn’t struggled to find motivation?—if not necessarily interesting. But Revival is ultimately plagued by the same pitfalls as Infinite, which found him shadowboxing against ghosts, unable to land any punches. This time he’s competing with a version of himself that no longer exists. And though it’s easy to empathize with his creeping self-doubt, it’s tougher to swallow in the context of an album that ultimately proves that those doubts are correct.