Eminem, issuing a record-setting 10,000 middle finger.
There's hardly been a more appropriately titled album than Relapse, Eminem's "retirement sucks" return to the studio. A relapse is something no one is proud of-- something that lands you in a hospital, a half-way house, or a straight jacket. And though Em is winking through the title, its literal meaning ends up being more damning and predictive than he could have possibly anticipated.
First, this is a Slim Shady album. Anyone looking for the harrowing confessionals of Marshal Mathers should save themselves the $15.00 and the downloading time. By the time Relapse, plods into its fourth track, the album has settled into painfully familiar tropes to take a doze, like a depressed teenager pulling the covers over his head to keep out the noonday sun. There are a few high points. "Crack a Bottle" is a good club track, but little more. "My Mom," despite being dragged to the seafloor by Em's bland caricature of his mother and her super-villianous diet of downers and abuse, has Em showing flashes of typical vocal talent.
But tracks like "Insane," "3am," and "Hello" (songs that are so alike in weary production and rhyme structure they can easily be regarded as a single work) find Eminem boredly swiping at the scraps of his former audacity that once made him a genuinely shocking public figure. Here, Eminem's former odes to drug abuse, sodomy, child rape, and murder are rendered as broadly as a chintzy Broadway musical, and all their emotional and intellectual wallop lie buried in the wastebasket. Gone are the acute subtleties that made hits like "Cleaning Out My Closet" and "Kim" so striking. They're replaced by an affected vaudeville that leaves nothing of meaning on-stage after the curtain descends.
Eminem has always been a fascinating mix of mess and finery. A rapper of dizzyingly astute abilities, of pundit of fearless depravity, and a rhyme writer brilliant enough to encode moments of great vulnerability even in his most rancid, confrontational turns on the mic.
But something has happened to Eminem, something that smacks distressingly of great boredom and ennui. When he raps on Relapse, he sounds unimpressed with himself. He's poorly mixed, his voice perched atop the precarious garbage heap of Dr. Dre's production, so that every flubbed line and note of nonchalance glares like fool's gold. He takes on a bizarre, implacable speaking accent that we first heard on 2004's Encore, where the first hints of his flagging interest in himself began to show.
It could be guessed that in previous days, Eminem might have been courageous enough to put even those elusive, oppressive emotions into a four minute rap track. Instead, he's decided to pick through his own litter and try to pass refuse off as a return to form. Even his attempts to appropriate his own swings and misses can't suffuse the work with enough life to make the songs walk on their own two feet.
It's a career path that have dragged other artists into a similar whirlpool. You can watch Marilyn Manson, for example, go from genuinely fearsome monster figure in Antichrist Superstar to a laughable funhouse self-portrait on Eat Me, Drink Me.
But if this is the death knell of Eminem's relevance, it will likely be hailed as the longest and most unfortunate fall from greatness in the history of popular music. It's painful to watch someone as haunted, as complex, and as purely gifted as Eminem pursue such easy prey as he does on Relapse, and get soundly outrun.
We can only hope that the album brings about a rock-bottom change for Eminem. But, given its assured commercial success, and the glowing advance notices it's getting, it'll probably only affirm Eminem that dick jokes and jabs at Jessica simpson are actually what he does best.