Shady / Aftermath / Interscope
Shady / Aftermath / Interscope

It’s hard to deny Eminem’s status as one of hip-hop’s all-time legends. He’s given the genre a considerable number of classics—from singles ("Lose Yourself") to full-length projects (The Marshall Mathers LP)—that not only soundtracked the 2000s but also stand the test of time. Aside from his unbelievable contorting of the English language, it's Em's introspection that's granted the Detroit rapper with this longevity. On Revival, his first album since 2013's The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem looks inward, picking apart his own shortcomings, and outward, critical about the state of the nation he calls home.

“Walk on Water,” graced with Beyoncé’s pitch-perfect vocals, sets the tone for the album’s explorations of ego, optimism and self doubt. Eminem opens with the rhetorical question, "Why are expectations so high?" the first of many self-aware moments that ponder his place in the art form 18 years after debuting with The Slim Shady LP in 1999He finds himself looking back on his past musical peaks, insecure about his ability to leapfrog them. It's meta. “The curse of the standard, that the first of the Mathers discs set/Always in search of the verse that I haven’t spit yet/Will this step just be another misstep/To tarnish whatever the legacy, love or respect I've garnered?" he rhymes.

It's not the only time that Eminem seems to be looking in the rear view. Revival is at times bogged down by formulaic, pop-leaning records that seem to be made from the same mold as his 2010 Rihanna duet “Love The Way You Lie.” The P!nk-featured "Need Me" and "Like Home" with Alicia Keys—two songs that pair strong female-sung choruses with passionate rap verses—have similar tempos, emotional delivery and song structure, falling into a comfort zone that's become familiar in this second half of Em's career. Pop voices like Ed Sheeran, Kehlani and Skylar Grey—the ilk of which would've faced the brunt of Em's pen 15 years ago—deliver heartfelt choruses on the album, but the records become difficult to tell apart.

There are some songs of this standard “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” structure that Em handles well on his own. "Arose" revisits his near-fatal overdose 10 years ago, while the daughter dedication “Castle” apologizes to Hailie for the way Em publicly aired his drama with his ex-wife Kim; both are well-written and incredibly honest. Other high points on Revival arrive when Eminem abandons convention altogether. “Chloraseptic” takes shape as a five-minute stream of consciousness broken up by a pulsing chorus courtesy of PHresher, the album’s only rap feature. “Simon Cowell of rhymin' foul, that's why you sound so shook/Wire-bound notebook got tied around your throat,” he raps over a trunk-rattling instrumental, courtesy of Mr. Porter. Em's wordplay is still top notch, and his bars burn like a branding iron—especially when they're digging into Donald Trump.

Eminem's intense, "Ether"-like a cappella freestyle at the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards was only a taste of the lyrical artillery Em had to unload on 45. Here, he prods at the president every chance he gets. On the eerie and awesome "Framed," Em reawakens the horrorcore raps of his early career, rhyming: “Think I'm becoming a monster 'cause of the drugs that I'm on/Donald Duck's on, there's a Tonka Truck in the yard/But dog, how the fuck is Ivanka Trump in the trunk of my car?” Insults on the album vary from intricate ("But ’til I get the president to respond/My pen and pencil is a missile launcher/And send it to Mitch McConnell/Just as big of a bitch as Donald") to simple ( “So basically, you’re Adolf Hitler!”) to optimistic ("He’s trying to divide us, this shit’s like a cult/But like Johnny, he’ll only unite us.")

Still, Em recognizes that America's issues are bigger and more deep-rooted than just the orange guy in the Oval Office. On "Untouchable," he delves into the the long history of systematic racism in the United States in a manner that's more direct and thoughtful than he's ever explored. "In a country that claims that its foundation was based on United States ideals/That had its Natives killed/Got you singing this star-spangled spiel/To a piece of cloth that represents the 'Land of the Free' that made people slaves to build," he raps, avoiding the blind spots of Joyner Lucas' similarly structured viral track "I'm Not a Racist."

While Revival isn’t the defibrillator that Eminem needed to revive his dominance, the album has enough highlights to maintain decent replay value and enough lyrical miracles to keep mindful rap from totally flat lining. His pen game hasn't lost even half of a step, and he still possesses the neurotic edge that's always made him such a driving force in hip-hop. It’s refreshing to hear the culture’s beloved Slim Shady pop up and give the people his flaming hot takes on life. Whether that's tackling police brutality or “booty that’s heavy duty like diarrhea,” Eminem pulls no punches.

See New Music Releases for January 2018

More From XXL