Did you take Eminem seriously when Slim Shady first hit? Because I sure as hell didn’t- I wrote him off as a novelty act, a violent-hijinks pop-culture clown that deserved roughly as much respect as MC Hammer. That feeling stayed pretty constant over the next decade or so, and I was comfortable keeping it that way- until tonight, when I got my hands on an early copy of his new Relapse album. After hearing the entire 80 minute, 20 song goliath of an album, I have to say that any future discussion of Eminem’s prowess and evolution as an artist will take on an entirely new context.
The story’s been well-documented: Back in 2004, Eminem dropped from the face of the music industry, enduring a series of personal setbacks that sent him deeper into solitude and eventually the welcoming, poisonous arms of addiction. Having taken some personal time and inventory, Em drew up a new battle plan, put on his lab coat and went to work with Dr. Dre. The lips were sewn shut. The rumors were rampant, not a damn one of them true- except that some next-level shit was going down. And now, five years later, we’ve got the proof.
Let’s put it this way: it’s no wonder that 50 Cent’s going back to the drawing board and Dre’s starting to make Axl Rose look trigger-happy. This album is a game-changer for everyone associated or in competition with the bleach-topped (former?) Dre disciple, and will certainly be remembered as Eminem’s finest moment thus far. Hell, album closer Underground slaps the entire rap playbook to the ground in brutal, gravel-voiced, thunderstorm-ridden fashion, all by itself.
But let’s back up.
After a typically theatrical/comedic opening, Relapse begins with the song’s protagonist on a pill-popping murder spree (3 AM). String bursts and keys lay a dramatic, foreboding tone that sets the stage as Em spits one of his most pedophillically hilarious lines ever in the second verse:
Sitting nude in my living room / it’s almost noon / I wonder what’s on the tube / maybe they’ll show some boobs / surfing every channel until I find Hannah Montana / then I reach for the Aloe & Lanolin / Bust all over the wall panel …and so on. He then moves on to Silence Of The Lambs references and all other kinds of antics, tripping balls, freaking epileptic in the woods and so on. Somehow, what began as a gimmick has become a bona fide art form, and the airtight rhymes that carry on far beyond the initial payoff are a sign of what’s to come- an album where no stone is unturned, no combination of words has escaped forensic scrutiny.
Marshall goes on a Valium rant about his mom (My Mom), grinds jaws into the ground with a seriously fucked up incest blast (Insane) and slaps around Mariah and Nick Cannon over a Middle-Eastern-laced old-school Dre beat (Bagpipes From Baghdad), but really starts spreading his chameleon wings on Hello. It’s here that he drops a pop-lock flow that, just maybe, intentionally steps to Em derivitave Mickey Avalon’s style and backhands him in the face with it.
Skip right over the gruesome rape scene that is Tonya, and find yourself sucked immediately into the bass-heavy clap jam Same Song & Dance, tales of a murderous look back on love gone… wrong doesn’t quite cover it. We’re not dealing with any new thematic ground here, or throughout much of Relapse, but the lyrical design, flow and production value are far beyond anything we’ve heard thus far from Mr. Mathers.
In standard form, he takes aim at the celebrity sideshows of the day with vitriolic wit all over the map, particularly on first single We Made You. Sure, maybe nobody’s talking about Sarah Palin anymore, but bearing in mind that the guy’s been off the scene for five years, we should probably be thankful he’s not rhyming about Rumsfeld and Anna Nicole Smith. Although it is a little peculiar that there’s more than a couple references to late Superman star Christopher Reeve littered throughout Relapse.
On Paul, Em’s manager Paul Rosenberg turns in his stripes in a voicemail after hearing the album: “…and then the whole gay step-father incest rape shit? I don’t have your back on this one. I can’t even fucking handle it. I’m done.”
A creepy piano, wet-shot drumming and rising ghostette lay the groundwork for Must Be The Ganja, a tale of paranoia and discombobulation brought on by… wait, what were we talking about again?
Old Times’ Sake is the obligatory Dre-dripping jam that’s got the right punch, but oddly serves as a weak link in the album- not quite as skippable as Crack A Bottle, but still a fairly dismissible song despite a tight little hook.
20 tracks into an album, any other artist would likely go out with a feeble skit, a shout-out, a funny little ditty. Marshall didn’t take that route. Underground, the final track on Relapse, is quite simply Eminem’s Illmatic. It’s far and away the most devastating and innovative rhyme Mathers has ever spit, and carries an entire album’s worth of power in its six minutes and eleven seconds.
While most other MCs talk about what they’re drankin’ and telling tired tales of blazing trees and sluggin’ 40s, Mathers is riding muted guitar tension with an unrivaled, venomous fervor, spitting lines like The fuckin’ antichrist is back, Danny / It’s Satan in black satin panties / This is Amityville, calamity, goddamnit / Insanity pills, fanny pack filled with Xannies / Through every nook & cranny / lookin for trannies… and so on. Twisted shit, and a hard knee to the groin of political correctness, but with a talent that’s impossible to deny.
By the way- let’s try to keep ourselves in check this time, folks. We’re not talking about the artistic value of Hitler’s paintings. Eminem’s a character, telling a story. Keep that in mind at all times, and nobody has to start picketing and passing blame.
Em’s gravity comes not only from his flow, but from the fact that underneath the twisted bastard whack-job superstar persona, he’s just a guy riding the tide. Tthe slowjam Beautiful is autobiographical, introspective, philosophical and hilarious all at once. The man’s soul shines clear through the music, and regardless of how often he says “fuck” or makes meat-suits out of every sacred cow in the book, that’s always going to give him an edge on the groove-hustlers.
The style Eminem experimented with on Encore has been polished, pimped and thrown into 5th gear, and the result? Well, you can check that Asher Roth bullshit at the door. The real Slim Shady has returned, and there’s no coming back from this Relapse.
April 15, 2009
Aftermath / Interscope / Shady
1. Dr. West (Skit)
2. 3 AM
3. My Mom
5. Bagpipes From Baghdad
7. Tonya (Skit)
8. Same Song & Dance
9. We Made You
10. Medicine Ball
11. Paul (Skit)
12. Stay Wide Awake
13. Old Time’s Sake
14. Must Be The Ganja
15. Mr. Mathers (Skit)
16. Déjà Vu
18. Crack A Bottle
19. Steve Berman (Skit)
20. Underground / Ken Kaniff
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.