Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eminem Has A "Relapse": Blood! Guts! Guns! Cuts!

Rating: 4.5/5
(Originally written May 10, 2009)
To truly understand the sheer brilliance of Eminem’s new album Relapse, we have to start at 2004’s Encore. Encore sucked. This is basically fact. But why is the more interesting subject. Coming off one of the greatest three-album stretches ever in hip hop (and music in general), as well as a fucking Oscar for “Lose Yourself,” arguably Eminem’s finest songwriting moment, Encore was a musical brick wall for Eminem. The beats were boring, his flows seemed forced and uninspired, and (most importantly) the subject matter was lacking, both in depth as well as visceral impact; this is a must for a successful Eminem album. From the Slim Shady LP through The Eminem Show (his most accomplished album), Eminem’s defining qualities are, and have always been, his brutal honesty and his even more brutal use of hyperbole and surrealism. Encore had practically none of this, leaving the listener with a played-out, uninspired shell of The Eminem Show.
And then he disappeared. And when Eminem disappeared, Dr. Dre basically disappeared. And when Dr. Dre disappeared, 50 Cent became complacent (kind of hard to remember that Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is a classic, isn’t it?). And then Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I. basically took over hip hop. In the meantime, Eminem’s 2nd marriage to Kim ended in divorce, he gained about 40 pounds, his best friend Proof was murdered at a nightclub in Detroit, and he slid into a nasty prescription pill addiction that resulted in a drug overdose in 2007 and a terrible Shady Records compilation album called “The Re-Up”. All seemed lost for the Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit camp. Could they somehow make a comeback after 4 years away from the game (which in rock isn’t too bad, but an eternity in a fast-moving genre like hip hop)?
Well, judging by the first week sales (over 600,000 albums sold), I’d say the answer is yes. But record sales aside, Relapse is a great album and a return to form for Eminem; and it easily stands up against his best work. Me telling you that the album sounds nothing like the 1st single “We Made You” is a given. None of his first singles convey the overall sound of his albums. But it doesn’t sound much like “Lose Yourself” either. Or “Cleaning out my Closet.” Or even “The Way I Am.” Songs like “Kill You,” “Kim,” and his 2nd single “3am” would be a more apt comparison. This album is dark. Really dark. In other words, if you’re not a big fan of Eminem’s violent, psychotic material, then stay very far away from this. Definitely not for you.
As with any Eminem album, Relapse walks a fine line between fact and fiction. There are shades of Eminem’s actual experiences throughout, and the general concept of the album, pill-addiction, suggests that the whole thing is the musical equivalent of the mind of a psychotic, pill-popping, drug addicted menace (i.e. Eminem). But once again, Eminem walks a very thin line here, and by the 5th song Eminem (or the “protagonist”) has already broken out of rehab (after murdering everyone inside), told us about how his mother used to crush vicodin and put it in his food when he was 10 (“My Mom”), and “confessed” that his step-father used to molest him behind the shed of his childhood home (“Insane”, and the title is very appropriate). Later, a skit in which a young female hitchhiker is attacked after getting a ride (presumably from Eminem…or Slim Shady?) leads into “Same Song and Dance” where, over a quiet, stuttering beat, the listener is placed directly into the mind of a serial killer as he meets, chats up, and eventually kills an assortment of young women (including Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears). The album is literally steeped in drugs, rape, incest, famous serial killer namedropping, kidnapping, murder, blood, guns, cannibalism, vaginal mutilation, cross-dressing and the telling of an assortment of nauseating, drug-induced episodes. This is Eminem at his most ruthless and relentless. Think “The Chronic” meets “Natural Born Killers.”
Thus an obvious response would be that Relapse amounts to nothing more than a cheap rehash of his previous work (which has at times also centered on blood, murder, rape, guns, and the like). This sentiment isn’t wrong necessarily, but it misses the point. It is important to note that Relapse is a concept album, in which Eminem equates relapsing into drug addiction with relapsing back into the Slim Shady character. In other words, Relapse is supposed to be a rehash of sorts (the title “Same Song & Dance” intentionally suggests this). He has purposefully fallen back into his old tricks, and then taken them to the extreme, in order to emphasize the sheer magnitude of the insanity and depravity of the past four years of his life. This theme is actually quite impressive in how it’s deployed here, with the album slowly winding down from the lunacy and blood-splattered wordplay of the 1st half of the album to a skit that reenacts Em’s 2007 OD. This functions as the album’s moment of clarity, followed by two of the albums standout tracks, “Déjà vu” and Beautiful.” Here, the Slim Shady character has disappeared entirely, leaving Eminem to survey the damage done and relate his observations eloquently to the listener. “Déjà vu” is particularly stunning, with Eminem dropping all the charades and façades, and giving the listener a painful play-by-play of his slow descent into addiction.
Yet even more eye-opening than the subject matter his how good these songs sound. Eminem has never been this limber and inventive with his writing and flows. The multi-syllabic rhyme schemes are astounding, with each song (and each verse of each song) employing a completely different but no less outstanding lyrical and verbal motif. In short, Eminem is a lyrical monster, and this album will unequivocally prove this. And no where is this more evident than the final track “Underground,” undoubtedly Eminem’s finest moment here. Over a thunderous, apocalyptic monster of a beat, Eminem goes on a lyrical rampage. Think The Marshall Mathers LP’s “Criminal,” but more chaotic, freewheeling and emotionally-calloused than that song. It’s an incredible finale.
Of course, Relapse would be nothing without Dr. Dre, who produces all but one song (“Beautiful”, produced by Eminem). This is some of Dre’s best work since “Chronic 2001”, each song distinctively different from the others, but all boasting crushing bass, haunting strings, and an overall foreboding atmosphere that complements the content perfectly. If Relapse is any indication, 50’s Before I Self-Destruct and Dre’s Detox (which are sure to boast mostly Dre beats) are not to be slept on. This could be a very big year for Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit.
The violent/misogynistic/homophobic/generally revolting content is most definitely going to bother people (again). But keep in mind that the Slim Shady character is a CHARACTER. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Slim Shady and the “real” Eminem are two sides of the same coin, and Eminem flips back and forth between them throughout Relapse. The album is ultimately a journey into the mind, and therefore the imagination, of a malevolent alter ego, not necessarily Eminem. Being able to recognize this difference is the key.

And having a sense of humour wouldn’t hurt either.

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