"Am I lucky to be around this long?"
Eminem wonders this on "Walk on Water," the first track on his 2017 album, Revival, which arrives when the 20th anniversary of his 1999 debut, The Slim Shady LP, is just 14 months away. Aging is never easy for a star but it may be harder for Marshall Mathers, since his earliest records were equal parts rage and pranks -- emotions that tend to mellow as the years stack up. Underneath all that attention-grabbing bluster lay Eminem's boundless technical proficiency, which was the real reason he scored a monumental breakthrough in 1999 and sustained a career. Put it simply, he didn't sound like anybody else when he started, and now that he's conceivably halfway through his journey he doesn't sound like anybody else either, a quality that can make Revival compelling, albeit only intermittently. Provocative and muddled, Revival percolates with ambition but doesn't lack in laziness either: not only can Eminem not resist recycling the templates for "Stan" and "Love the Way You Lie," he stumbles through a loop as dull as Joan Jett's "I Love Rock & Roll" on "Remind Me," a sample that not only plays as leaden but is laden in nostalgia. Then again, the past isn't far from Em's mind, particularly his long, tortured relationship with his on-and-off love Kim, who is the subject of "Remind Me" and "Bad Husband." The latter finds Eminem holding himself accountable for his past misdeeds, an emotional candidness that finds a counterpart in his increased political consciousness, a shift sparked by his deep disgust for President Donald J. Trump. Reckoning with Trump has the same effect as grappling with his own middle age: it forces Eminem out of his comfort zone, pushing him to sharpen his lyrics. When he sticks to familiar territory, he shifts his focus to his flow and the results can still startle, whether he's playing with legato shifts of phrase or speeding through "Offended." Listening to Eminem challenge himself on a sheer technical level -- and the absence of any major guest rappers suggests he thinks he's in a class of his own -- can still be a wonder but the overall effect of Revival can be a bit grim, and that can't be chalked up to the dark currents sweeping through America in 2017. No, Revival feels like a slog because the music is heavy-footed, reliant on obvious samples (the Cranberries' "Zombie" for "In Your Head"), and doused in minor keys, and most importantly, the beats are never in competition with Eminem. And that's to be expected: he has a gift that deserves a showcase. It's just that the gift might be better served if it were complemented by music as worthy and deft as the rhymes.