Eminem Displays Unbridled Dexterity on ‘Revival’

When the topic of hip-hop mechanics comes up for debate, a rapper like Eminem always tops the list. Some would argue he is the list. There’s never been a rapper quite like him, so precise in everything from his razor-sharp rhymes to his powerful anecdotes. Whether he’s raving like a lunatic about streaking in the streets or he’s leaving listeners misty-eyed with tales of familial strife, the Detroit stalwart manages to wrap it all up in a tantalizing, head-nodding package. Eminem proves to be just as much a chameleon as he is a comedian on “Revival,” an eclectic testament to his dexterity as a rapper and his poignancy as a storyteller. From eviscerating the president to weaving more stirring love letters to family to twisted lyrical illustrations of serial murder, listeners who have enjoyed Eminem’s work at any point will find something toward which they gravitate on his glossy ninth studio effort.

On “Believe,” the second track on “Revival” following the already widespread Beyonce collaboration “Walk on Water,” the hip-hop heavyweight wonders if we still believe in him. There’s a lot of gravity in that question. In many ways, people look at Eminem like a great of the past, a jokester whose comedy value has plummeted with every year. But lately he has once again stirred up the zeitgeist with a freestyle taking Donald Trump to task, a sort of rallying cry to rip away at the entitlement that white privilege so easily fosters. It’s certainly a lot easier to believe in the MC than it used to be.

“Revival” feels like a reactionary effort, with Eminem taking sonic swings at his contemporaries, trying his hand at the patterned trap cadence that has become the stuff of so many hip-hop chart-toppers on tracks like “Chloraseptic.” What’s scary is how effortlessly he masters it, railing over club-made beats with the confidence of someone who invented the genre. Clearly he’s not impressed and eager to best his peers. He’s a man possessed on the Alicia Keys-studded “Like Home,” an absolute lyrical obliteration of the president that makes his BET freestyle feel like a Shel Silverstein poem by comparison, and he’s unabashedly back to Slim Shady form on cringeworthy cuts like “Framed” and “Heat,” a “Berzerk” throwback poised to have the same crossover radio appeal. But with so much more powerful content on the album, his Shady throwbacks feel more like steps in the wrong direction, and they hamper the album as a result.

The album never spends too long trying to lure people onto the dance floor, though. The work’s most stirring moments appear when Eminem transforms from venom-spitting demon to humbled parent on “Castle,” a track bursting at the seams with regret for so grossly thrusting his daughters’ into the limelight, or when he dons the lens of introspection and contemplates his social shortcomings on the X Ambassadors collaboration “Bad Husband.” “Why are you a great dad, a good father but a bad husband?” The chorus ponders, and Eminem spends the song breaking down that truth.

The “Revival” guest list is stacked to say the least, but nobody upstages the star. Instead they all play to his strengths, whether it’s Pink elevating his vocals on “Need Me” or Ed Sheeran’s sinful refrains on “River.” Kehlani and frequent feature Skylar Grey help fashion those radio-ready top 40-chasers, and Alicia Keys gives the aforementioned presidential vendetta a stirring crescendo. It’s hard to get bored with “Revival,” purely because of how sonically diverse it turns out to be.

Revival” is available Dec. 15 on Apple Music.