Will Eminem get another chance to be a pop omnipresence? At the peak of his powers, the rapper was a cultural colossus, throwing middle fingers in the sky with Elton John by his side and skipping out on accepting an Oscar from Barbara Streisand because he wasn’t all that interested.
But a decade and a half ago, the legend of Marshall Mathers fossilised. Being on the periphery bothers Em like a shard of granite in his shoe. This is a guy who back in 2010 admitted to almost recording a diss track aimed at Lil Wayne and Kanye West just because he was jealous of their heat.
Skip forward to 2017 and Walk on Water, the lifeless first single from Eminem's long, dense and difficult new album Revival – his first in four years. Spitting over piano chords with no drums, he admits listening to new recordings and realising they're garbage. "Now let them tell you the world no longer cares or gives a f*ck about your rhymes," he whines on the lifeless number. Spitting over acoustic instruments is almost always a disaster for rappers and not even a gospel-style assist from Beyoncé can resurrect Walk on Water. It's revealing, though, that Eminem would admit chasing ghosts of the past. He's like an over-the-hill pugilist, desperate to find his old form in the ring but who just can't stop taking a beating. From its opening moments, Revival begs the question: can the record recapturing the star's relevance?
As part of his transformation, Eminem pitches himself as a leader of The Resistance: the first line of defence against Donald Trump's damaging agenda for the US. He previously jumped all over Trump on last year's single Campaign Speech, and it was the live acapella performance The Storm, a gripping slice of slam poetry that viciously attacked the US president, that kickstarted this album campaign in October. Unsurprisingly, sections of the record follow the same vein.
Like Home sees Trump policy being picked apart, such as the ban on transgender people joining the military, as well as staunchly criticising his failure to effectively disavow white supremacists. "So basically, you Adolf Hitler," Eminem sneers. In these moments of all-out aggression, he lands some blows, but the song winds into a soaring rallying cry intended to inspire positivity among the dismayed, which is undermined by the cheap-sounding, corny production and a trite, overly produced chorus from Alicia Keys.
More interesting is Untouchable, an in-depth dissection of racism, privilege and police brutality. He boldly raps from the perspective of a racist white cop to depict the deeply ingrained attitudes held of some of those armed with a gun and badge before switching into the role of a black man in 2017, denouncing segregation and asserting solidarity with those who take a knee during the national anthem in protest.
Raw and from the heart, the song reflects the deeply painful attitudes of modern America without flinching. Some sections fall flat, but you can picture the chants of rollicking, dissonant guitar lines and chants of “white boy, white boy, you’re a rockstar” – snatched from an old Cheech and Chong number – popping off in hard rock clubs. And if that’s a way of getting lyrics like, “F**k your Republican views/ Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, where the f**k are the boots?” into popular consciousness, then that’s something.
This rap-rock hybrid is a feature of the album – a throwback to the hard-moshing concoctions of guys like LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Onyx. Produced by celebrated architect of that style, Rick Rubin, Remind Me lifts heavily from Joan Jett & the Blackhearts' version of I Love Rock 'n' Roll in a way that's too inane to enjoy in even a cheesy kind of way. Similarly, for some reason, The Cranberries' Zombie on In Your Head is appropriated – an awkward tongue-kissing session between two artists nobody wanted to see coming together.
Elsewhere, the choruses are stadium-ready but sterile, sounding meaningless adrift from the songs themselves as though they were written and recorded separately. "I'm so drunk off tragic endings," sings Skylar Grey on Tragic Endings with maximum banality. Ed Sheeran crooning about washing away his sins with holy water on River is one of the least believable pieces of holy scripture ever inscribed. There's a couple of returns to Eminem's one-time whacky, delinquent style (Framed, Offender) that betray notions that the 45-year-old is evolving as an artist. Even Eminem's impressive flow, usually the most reliable thing about his music, sounds sticky on Believe, which is a shame since it's probably the best rap beat on the damn thing – all low key rolling drums and creeping piano keys.
At its worse, there's Bad Husband, where Eminem tries to cleanse his soul of the mistakes he made during his marriage to Kimberly Scott. This is a guy, remember, who wrote vivid songs about murdering Scott, even acting out an assault on a blow-up doll stand-in on stage. Talk of "our public spats and our feuds" seems rich when the balance of power was so stacked on one side. The song does muster a "sorry", but the idea that he could self-impose his own retribution over another soaring chorus is a hard sell.
There are one or two other ok moments on Revival – Chloraseptic is decent, the 's flow of words sounding loose and accessible – but they get lost in the crush of this gruelling, relentless piece. Over 19 long, mostly long-winded tracks, Eminem doesn't once pass the mic to another rapper to keep things moving (I'm disappointed there's no assist from Boogie, the talented Comptonite who just signed to Em's label Shady Records.) It all adds up to an album that's mildly more admirable than previous outings but no more enjoyable. A chance to bust out of the slump has passed Eminem by. It just might never happen for him.