Reflecting on Eminem and “Revival”

After a month, it is official. The new Eminem album Revival has reaffirmed that I am truly an Eminem fan. Revival is not my favourite Eminem release, but it is a strong album overall, and as good as anything this year. Reading reviews and seeing reactions from critics and fans makes it clear that I am in the minority in liking it. I want to ask all these people: What are you expecting and have you even listened to Eminem before?

Even though I am a 35 year old white woman from Winnipeg, Canada, I really connect with his music and am inspired by it, which sometimes surprises me, even though it probably shouldn’t. Eminem’s work inspires me as a person and as a writer, because his lyrical ability so strong, vivid, and funny, even after rapping for nearly twenty years. Even though some lyrics are pretty savage, I love the play with language. But, there is

Beyonce Formation Tour
Beyonce on Formation Tour, Photo by Getty Images

such truth and vulnerable introspection throughout his music, even on this new album, that I appreciate. “Walk on Water” has been universally panned by critics, but every time Beyoncé sings, “I’m only human, just like you,” I find myself singing along. Coupled with Eminem’s emotive verse, her clear voice is a fitting contrast.

Hearing Eminem share his experiences in his music is both comforting and also inspiring. He tells his story in such a unique and memorable way, not to mention the amazing beats and expressive, crazy vocals. I grew up in a small town near Toronto and went to a small country Christian school that was 100% white, so pretty different from Eminem’s background in Detroit. But, even though the environments are different, I can still relate to his emotions, his fears and frustrations. Growing up, I often felt bullied and alone; I was sad at home and felt that no one cared about my feelings. I had trouble making friends, because I was extremely shy and quiet.

I regularly read reviews, music, movies, books, so I am used to critics being critical, but somehow with Eminem, responses are always sharper and more unforgiving than for other musicians. At first, Eminem’s music was too obscene, violent, homophobic, misogynistic, a bad influence on children, and everything else that people typically wring their hands over. Now that he has had a long, successful career and repeatedly demonstrated his skill and relevance, nothing he does seems good enough.

Initial criticism was of the track list and the pop features on the album. Pop features are nothing new for Eminem and some of his most popular and powerful songs, such as Stan, have them. Added to the fact that there’s a wide variety on the album, whether the subject, the style, or the beats, it is evident that there is no way for him to win. Now that Revival has been out for a month, most of the reviews are in and people found a lot to complain about.

Some of the most consistent complaints are that Eminem always writes about the same things (his family, his background, his place in rap/music) and that the album does not fit with the current trends in hip hop (even though some of those trends suck). What kind of criticism is that? Who doesn’t tend to write in the same style or genre mostly, especially a musician. Artists have always explored their inner emotions and their demons. No matter who you are, those early experiences are usually the ones that shape us and impact us the most, even more so for an introspective artist. Is it reasonable to expect that if you already wrote a couple of songs about your ex or your childhood, that topic is closed? Most writers, and many other artists, do the same thing. Woody Allen writes and/or directs a film every two years or so on essentially the same theme, is still loved by critics, and is regularly up for awards. Even if Eminem has covered these issues before, some of the more emotional songs on Revival, such as, “Castle” and “In Your Head” are extremely honest.

Other critics say that they can’t relate to Eminem’s music, because of the violent and often misogynistic lyrics. For some songs, this description might be true, but why do people have to relate to everything they hear or see? I don’t relate to “Framed,” and I didn’t relate to “3 a.m.” either, but they are both tell stories in vivid and imaginative language. Eminem tends to push to extremes, which we should value more in art, not complain about. More importantly, violence and misogyny are not all there is to his song lyrics, although these themes often appear. Eminem’s writing has a wide range, from insecurity and loneliness, a desire to succeed and be the best, even when the world is against you, to relationships and sex, to nonsense and murder.

Another common criticism is that Eminem needs to grow up and be more like X.  Apparently, he is too old to rap about silly things or to make bad jokes and puns; critics especially hate the immature humour throughout the album, as if he should suddenly change now. In the remix of “Chloraseptic” that Eminem released in January to hit back at critics, he even mocks the complaint, “Rap mature!” People complaining about his extreme language and crude jokes have the wrong expectations. Perhaps they haven’t actually listened to very much of his music before, because this kind of humour is on every Eminem album. I must be juvenile too, because he usually makes me laugh when he’s trying. In fact, some of the jokes are so layered and have multiple levels that I still catch things on re-listens, even years later. Also, Eminem is really good at making those puns and playing with language, even if some people think it is a bit much.

Artists make music for themselves. If you don’t like it, don’t listen, but there is no single bar to which we can hold every musician or rapper. Also, there can be a perverse pleasure in imagining how these crazy or disturbing events might play out, almost like a short play or skit, also common on rap albums. Sometimes, brutal and shocking things are funny, because they are so unexpected and outside the norm, hence jokes about serial killers or rapists. Yes, Eminem regularly uses many unpleasant words, such as whore (a lot), retarded, cunt, and so on. I don’t always love the specific language, but I also usually recognize and understand why he uses the words he does, and I believe that he has the right to say them. I would even guess that he does not use nasty words without some forethought. It may simply be that the rhyme is perfect or the pun is too good to pass up. As a writer, that is reason enough for me.

Eminem’s music may reflect things in our society and culture that we don’t like, such as misogyny and violence, especially against women, but those things exist whether he raps about them or not. His music is still influential, partly because he speaks honestly about himself and his insecurities. Hopefully, we can connect with the personal songs and also with his commentary about American society and culture, because he has been in a unique position to observe it. I didn’t know whether I liked “Untouchable” at first, but the more I hear it, the more I like it and respect it. The jarring first half has a kind of jarring and dissonant rap-rock sound that fits the lyrics about the white cop and then it transitions in the middle to incorporate that plunking piano beat in the second half that highlights his comments on systemic racism. Some people seemed to dismiss the it as easy, but I think the plain language is really effective and I love the beat too.

Eminem is extremely invested in his music, and I am grateful for his dedication and his art. His songs are always unmistakably his own, which cannot be said for too many artists today, in any genre. When I listen to Eminem, which admittedly is a lot, I expect, and get, songs that have compound, complex rhymes, great storytelling, and (mostly) great beats. From my perspective, Eminem is still making great music and telling great stories. One month after its release, I am proud to still be listening to this album daily, and I am still excited to hear what else Eminem has to say, hopefully on his next, soon-to-be released album.

JD-READING-APPROVED-0007
Eminem at Reading, image from www.eminem.com

References

Barker, A. (2017, December 15). Album Review: Eminem’s Revival. Variety.

Empire, K. (2017, December 17). Eminem Revival review – all woke up and nowhere to go. The Guardian.

Findlay, M. (2017, December 20). Eminem Revival Review. Hot New Hip Hop.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s