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For years, the rapper was immersed in his personal troubles. But as with many others, Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president (not to mention the entry into the White House of someone with an even bigger ego than his) was a jolt to Eminem’s world. The result is an album that includes, for the first time in his career, a series of direct political statements. But for the most part they don’t go beyond the standard tantrums by celebrities on Twitter against the president’s personality and policies.
In October, Eminem released a video clip containing a brutal rap assault on the president. In the clip, Eminem appears in a parking lot with a circle of rappers around him, in a nod to his first film, “8 Mile.” The clip received automatic accolades on Twitter and on American talk shows, some of whose hosts view themselves as the spearhead of resistance to Trump. But when this type of material is stretched across a whole album, alongside the regular mix of self-pity and cheap provocations, disappointment is bound to follow.
At one time, long ago, between the late 1990s and the middle of the 2000s, Eminem was one of the most riveting hip-hop singers in the universe. A white rapper who dared to contest the genre’s black artists as an equal among equals; a witty, funny individual who was a word juggler and enjoyed pricking the balloons of fake Hollywood celebrities; and, at times, also a complex artist who wasn’t afraid of radically baring what transpired in his conflicted psyche.
Those times have passed. Apart from comeback albums that he released every few years (including the superb “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” in 2013), Eminem became to a large extent the very thing he railed against: another celebrity who generates interest not for his musical output but for the latest scandal he’s fomented in the tabloids.
There are two other rappers in the hip hop celebrity club: Jay-Z and, in a lesser degree, Kanye West. Like Eminem, they too have had difficulty putting out a significant number of worthy albums in the past decade. But the wealth and publicity they’ve accumulated still guarantee great expectations and massive attention for every new product they put on the market. Unlike them, Eminem is not promoting a career involving a relationship with a woman who’s famous in her own right. But the very fact that he’s almost alone in being a white artist in the predominantly African American hip hop world creates constant clamor around him.
The Eminem of “Revival” is a multimillionaire in search of his conscience. Trump provided him with a moment of awakening and context, thanks to which he acquired political awareness of what goes on beyond the walls of his estate. In one song, “Like Home,” he directly assaults the orange-haired one, and in “Untouchable” he’s critical of white racism. The sentiments are admirable, and the verbal riches and the wit haven’t diminished. But Eminem’s worldview, as it’s also reflected in many songs that deal with his personal life and with his sentimentality concerning previous periods in his life, is colored in the black-and-white shades of a 16-year-old. And in contrast to the huge shockwave he set in motion when he burst into the rap world almost 20 years ago, 16-year-olds won’t listen anymore.
The age gap is likely to alienate them, but the main reason they won't listen is the conservative, clumsy production. Hip hop has undergone two major revolutions in recent years, one related to the sound, the other principally in regard to approach and texts. Southern trap is now almost obligatory, and a group of rappers in their twenties, notably Kendrick Lamar, has redefined the genre’s rules of the game in terms of content. Eminem is totally indifferent to both revolutions.
Possibly his belated joining of the dominant trends would sound false and forced. But his continued clinging to production values that were already passé at the start of the last decade – riff after riff with heavy-rock guitars, R&B singers (some of them megastars in their own right: Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Pink) belting out bombastic melodies – leaves him with a listless, wearisome album. His insistence on utilizing the full length of a CD – 19 songs across 78 minutes – also reflects a bygone era.
“Do you still believe in me?” Eminem asks, somewhat unconfidently, on the second song on the album. Well, not really.