In October, two months ahead of the release of his ninth studio album, Revival, Eminem premiered a pre-recorded freestyle at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. With a line of black and brown men standing behind him, the self-professed Rap God delivered a four-minute stilted criticism of Donald Trump's obvious flaws. "That's an awfully hot coffee pot, Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not," one verse went. It was a well-intentioned but lackluster performance, and video of it went viral, sparking a debate over the efficacy of his jabs.
It turns out that freestyle, in all of its shallow opposition and subtle egotism, was just a taste of what was to come. Revival, which was released last week, is a politically flimsy album. Along with the classic Eminem tracks about his family, relationships, and struggle with fame, listeners also get his stab at becoming a political thought leader, something pretty much no one asked him to do.
The album's fourth track, “Untouchable,” is its first foray into explicit political commentary. Here Eminem attempts to call out white privilege and anti-blackness in America, but song falls flat as he breaks the cardinal rule of allyship: don’t make it about you. In the song’s first half, Eminem raps from the perspective of a racist white police officer experiencing scattered moments of self awareness while patrolling a black neighborhood: “Pull up on the side of you / Window rolled down, profile, then we wonder why we see this side of you.” The premise feels contrived until the second half of the song, where it becomes embarrassing, as he begins to rap from the perspective of a resident of a poor black neighborhood.
Hearing Eminem rap lines like “Wait, why are there black neighborhoods? / 'Cause America segregated us, designated us to an area, separated us, Section 8’ed us / When we tear it up’s the only time attention is paid to us” is enough to bust through the rapper's newfound facade of “wokeness,” in which a character closer to the one he skewered in the first half of the song is revealed. Eminem is simply another white man who thinks he has license to speak to the black experience in America as if he has experienced it. Eminem’s early albums, as violent and politically incorrect as they were, appealed to people of any race; Revival seems to be speaking only to white people, and only about the rapper himself.
Eminem aims to skewer American politics on the track “Like Home,” which features Alicia Keys. The musically lackluster track features equally pallid punditry. Eminem's attempts to insult the president (“All he does is watch Fox News like a parrot and repeats while he looks like a canary with a beak / Why you think he banned transgenders from the military with a tweet?”) sound forced rather than effortlessly disrespectful and defiant. His criticism seems to be missing the humor and cleverness that made songs like “White America” so successful.
The flimsiness of Eminem's explicit political statements are only highlighted by the rest of the album, which is decidedly uncritical. Eminem is being hailed for looking inward on Revival, especially on the song “Bad Husband,” in which he apologizes to his ex-wife for their very publicly tumultuous relationship. But elsewhere, Eminem has no qualms with using slurs like “retard” and “fairies," or rapping about violence against women. In the song “Framed,” he raps about being suspected of real-life killings of women because the circumstances of the murders match the fictional ones he has rapped about in the past.
Eminem's unapologetic courting of controversy on other parts of his album makes his anti-Trump verses sound more self-congratulatory than critical, and his attempts to distance himself from Trump fall almost hilariously flat. For example, consider these charming lines from the track “Heat”: “Grab you by the (meow) / Hope it's not a problem / In fact, about the only thing I agree on with Donald is that / So when I put this palm on your cat, don't snap / It's supposed to get grabbed / Why do you think they call it a snatch?” Lines like this make it seem that the two might have a lot to chuckle about over a taco bowl at the Trump Tower Grill.
Music is music, and even the least-successful political commentary can be saved by fire beats and delivery. Unfortunately, Revival doesn’t have those either.