The future of the Eminem franchise is always the past. Eminem has spent a decade chasing the highs of his early career, twisting every syllable and knob in pursuit of laughs, reactions, and recognition. Since 2009’s Relapse, each one of his albums has promised to molt the frayed pelt of the last and reproduce that lost golden ’90s glow. You can see it in their titles alone: Relapse, Recovery, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Revival, his ninth album, is the multi-millionaire rap star’s latest attempt to resuscitate his relevance, and it’s as backward-looking as its predecessors. There are offensive jokes, scenes of gratuitous rape and murder, trademark complex rhyme schemes, loud, insert-singer-here choruses, and more than a few samples of past Eminem songs. Worldwide, stans will get their money’s worth.
But Revival wasn’t just for the stans. Eminem wanted this album to matter, to effect change, to soundtrack the revolution, to unite a divided nation. Or something like that. “As much as I love our country, we got shit that we got to work on . . . My goal is to either hopefully change some minds or just say screw it because if that person didn’t like me to begin with . . . I don’t know if I’m going to gain a fan,” he told NPR. Across seventy-seven torturous minutes, Revival insults Donald Trump at length, narrates both sides of a police officer harassing a black American, mourns his inability to top The Marshall Mathers LP, admits to formerly abusing his ex-wife, and relates the panicked thoughts of a murderer on the run with Ivanka Trump in his car. Eminem is clearly reckoning with the present moment and his place within it, albeit in the most Eminem way possible.
It’s been argued that early-aughts Eminem harnessed white male anger in the same way that Donald Trump does in the present, and therefore this about-face against the same forces is meaningful, if not convincing. I agree. But with confessions slotted between fuck offs, apologies followed by insults, and mantras wedged into belabored puns, it’s hard to glean a coherent political or artistic belief from this quagmire. Anger, toward himself and the world, continues to be Eminem’s fuel, but he frequently drives in circles, rage revving him up but taking him nowhere. Revival is a meandering open mic staged as a State of the Union.
For Eminem, politics is just another rap battle.
Still, reviewers have tended to focus on the good intentions buried beneath all the bad raps. It was good of him to try, but he taints his own intentions so often that you can’t call it successful. On Revival, Em does have something to say, but too often his greatest attribute is getting dragged down by his most glaring insecurity. Eminem still has plenty to say, but even his newfound political consciousness can’t steer him away from some of his worst instincts. He’s an immensely important artist who still has things to say that only he can say, and I hope he continues trying to figure out how, because those things are important. Et cetera. These are reasonable responses to an album that reaches so far and comes up so short. But lingering there is an implicit assumption that the problem with Revival is the cluttered music clouding the politics, that somewhere out in the multiverse is a golden director’s cut that’s nimbler, gripping, and maybe even listenable, an alternative version so good and rapped so, so well, that Eminem could gestate an anti-Trump movement powerful enough to topple the chief troll himself.
Revival and its curved reception mirror the moment after “The Storm,” the unofficial song Eminem performed at this year’s BET Hip-Hop Awards. “And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split on who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this: Fuck you!” Eminem said to fans who supported Trump. At the time, the song was begrudgingly praised for drawing a line in the sand. “The most revolutionary thing here isn’t Eminem’s substance or style but his intended audience,” wrote The Atlantic. “Roll your eyes, but Eminem’s Trump-skewering freestyle mattered,” offered Pitchfork. An Eminem diss, like an Elon Musk soundbite, or a Taylor Swift video, circulates in ways and in realms that the words of Jay-Z or videos of ICE raids never will—so the argument goes. Sloppy or not, at least someone is getting the message out, right? This is the logic undergirding the lefty designs to confront racist relatives at Thanksgiving, the yearlong excursions of guilt-tripping coastal elites to Middle America, and those widely shared bubble-bursting techniques for purging social media of self-confirming bias.
There’s a pragmatism to these kinds of plans, but they tend to conflate intention, however shallow, with impact. This year Eminem rapped “Why do you think he banned transgenders from the military with a tweet? He’s trying to divide us.” Just last year Eminem fantasized about dressing George Zimmerman in drag and humiliating him, and two years before that he joked that he “even make[s] the bitches [he] rape[s] cum,” and trivialized domestic abuse the year before that. This year he’s an ally to the trans community, people for whom his jokes and fantasies are reality? How? Because he takes this stand against people who supposedly don’t want to hear it?
It’s not just that faux-woke Eminem treads the same murky waters as Jay-Z the cold hustler turned stressed dad and husband, or Azealia Banks, homophobe turned rebel feminist outcast: every pivot has an arc, after all. Eminem’s problem is deeper: for him, saying Trump “looks like a canary with a beak” is the full articulation of his beliefs. That’s truly it. “I know that if he answers me back, I have ideas. I know that much. There’s a lot of punchlines and a lot of things I have, I’m just waiting for him to fucking say something, because that’ll be fun for me,” he told Complex. “I want him to answer me because I got ideas for all kinds of shit to say back to him if he does,” he told Vulture. You can’t make this shit up. The horizon of Eminem’s grand political dream is to be @’ed by @realdonaldtrump in a flame war. For Eminem, politics is just another rap battle.
Revival, then, truly is a return to form. As mythologized in 8 Mile and across Eminem’s discography, Eminem got his start in battle rap, an arena where wit and prowess are the premier currencies. To even step into the cypher is an utter act of courage; rapping in public is a demand to be recognized and heard, a pop-up debutante ball. To lose a battle is to court immediate and possibly lasting shame and humiliation. To win is to have a community acknowledge you in your most flattering, graceful form: clever, dominant, competitive.
Given its emphasis on revenge, any real differences between Eminem’s music and a CNN-bashing Trump tweet are razor-thin.
Revenge, which 8 Mile dramatizes by staging the final rap battle as a contest between Eminem’s character and a nemesis, raises the stakes even higher, adding a karmic edge. Eminem has often used revenge to render his conflicts meaningful, from the manic murder fantasies of songs like “Kim” and “97’ Bonnie and Clyde” to the endless celebrity-bashing throughout his catalog. Scores of celebrities have drifted through his imagined torture chambers, but the repeat victims have always been the opponents with whom he had history: Mariah Carey, Insane Clown Posse, Vanilla Ice, Will Smith. It’s hard not to view his tiff with Donald Trump through this lens. On “Like Home” Eminem laments shaking Donald Trump’s hand at the 2004 Shady National Convention, a promotional event for his radio channel Shade 45. “Wish I woulda spit on it,” he says, turning a forgotten footnote into an origin story. Even when Eminem beefs with purpose, he resorts to the same flashy techniques and gets the same tired result: attention to himself. Eminem has been the same motherfucker since 2001, as former Eminem stan Earl Sweatshirt might have put it, and he clearly wants to stay that way. Call it a revival, call it a relapse, call it a return: it damn sure isn’t progress. It’s starting to feel prophetic that Eminem’s first album was titled Infinite.
There’s no definitive evidence that Eminem’s audience skews white, conservative, and Trumpist. (Last year the New York Times visualized YouTube data that showed the overlap between Eminem fans and Trump country, but that data fails to account for virality, targeted marketing, or limited access to music.) And even if there were, there’s no indication that an Eminem song—rapped gracefully or poorly—is more persuasive to this audience than a daily diet of Fox & Friends, Breitbart, and Trump tweets. In fact, given its emphasis on revenge, any real differences between Eminem’s music and a CNN-bashing Trump tweet are razor-thin. The entire point of revenge is to narrow grievances into task-oriented missions, affirming the self in the process. In fiction, such single-mindedness is a fatalistic compromise, a willed obsession embraced in the absence of real agency. In politics, it’s just a failure of imagination. Trump’s noxious tweets and Eminem’s puerile send-ups aren’t equivalent, but they take on the same form, flattening the entire world just to stroke a single ego.
If faux-woke Eminem must have his place in our strategic political alliance it isn’t because his supporters might care and might side with him in a flame war. No, faux-woke Eminem matters because he reminds us that good intentions aren’t pathways; they’re just starting points. Revival is built on admirable premises, but it relies on muscle memory, conflating revenge with revolt and forgetting the single most important rule of flexing: it only looks good in the mirror.