Nobody has ever accused Eminem of having his heart in the right place.
For years, listening to hip-hop’s most problematic giant has meant looking past (or even justifying) the dubious moral propositions present in his work. Some people tell themselves that the rapper’s dazzling technical ability offsets his horrific ideas about women; others say he’s merely voicing a perspective, not necessarily his own, that we owe it to ourselves to try to understand.
Yet with his new album, “Revival,” Eminem has done something novel: He’s made it easy to admire his motivation and nearly impossible to appreciate his execution.
Released Friday, “Revival” follows a widely discussed performance Eminem gave during October’s BET Hip-Hop Awards in which he fiercely criticized President Trump — hardly a radical act for a musician, of course, but a surprising one for Eminem, whose audience of middle-American white males arguably overlaps with Trump’s base.
Even if you don’t share Eminem’s opinion of the president, you had to be impressed by his willingness to risk alienating a piece of his fan base in order to speak his mind.
And here, indeed, he doubles down on his critique of Trump in “Like Home,” describing him as a chump who parrots Fox News and who won’t denounce members of the KKK because he plays golf with them.
“Take it back to the Shady National Convention / Wish I would’ve spit on it before I went to shake his hand at the event,” Eminem raps, referring to a televised 2004 concert at which Trump appeared. “Or maybe had the wherewithal to know that he was gonna try to tear apart / Our sacred land we cherish and stand for.”
There’s more politically minded stuff, such as “Untouchable,” a dense, word-jammed track Eminem delivers in alternating guises: a white police officer and a black man the cop has pulled over.
And “Revival” contains seemingly heartfelt apologies to some of the people Eminem has hurt, including the ex-wife he once fantasized about killing and his now-21-year-old daughter.
On the surface, this proudly grown-up vibe conjures (or perhaps was meant to conjure) thoughts of Jay-Z’s “4:44,” another album by a fortysomething MC struggling to figure how out he fits into hip-hop in middle age.
But where Jay-Z raps with style and elegance to spare, Eminem hits clunker after clunker on “Revival,” his clumsiest record to date. It’s not just the corny jokes and goofy puns, either, although those are plenty bad: “This type of pickle we’re in is hard to deal,” he says in “Like Home,” pronouncing “deal” — yep, it’s true — like “dill.”
In “Believe,” for which he borrows the choppy triplet flow associated with the Atlanta trio Migos, he says he “started from the bottom, like a snowman, ground up.” The cringe-worthy lines keep coming.
The production — by Rick Rubin, Alex Da Kid and others, including Eminem himself — is just as ungainly, with turgid rock guitars and dreary mid-tempo grooves that make this 19-track set feel even longer and more punishing than it is.
Yet what’s most troubling about “Revival” is how shallow so much of Eminem’s thinking is here. “Untouchable,” in particular, is staggeringly simplistic in its examination of white privilege: “Seems like the average lifespan of a white man is more than twice than a black lifespan,” he raps.
In “Walk on Water,” a hymn-like tune with vocals from Beyoncé, Eminem airs his anxieties about being past his prime but never digs deep to explore why he’s still compelled to compete.
And how is it that, on an album professing to be woke, he didn’t think better of repeatedly using the phrase “me too” in a sleazy outlier of a song, “Heat,” about pursuing a woman more or less against her will?
Eminem may no longer view himself as part of the problem. But “Revival” is not the solution.