Almost five years on from his last studio album ‘Encore’, Eminem finds himself at a career crossroads, with three potential avenues to pursue from his entry point: one, revisit the past and play up to previous triumphs; two, take on board the dramatic events of the intervening years and produce a mature album rooted in reality, focused on the eye at the centre of the storm that comes with being such a high-profile celebrity; or three, muddle the two approaches and produce a sixth long-player that never quite knows what it wants to be.
Guess which road the rapper took?
‘Relapse’ – one of two albums promised in 2009 – finds Marshall Mathers III reviving the drug-fuelled Slim Shady side to his persona on tracks like ‘Hello’ and ‘Same Song And Dance’, with plenty of talk of pill-popping and graphic descriptions of the effects of said consumption; the album even opens with a possessed ‘Dr West’ instructing the newly-released-from-rehab star to indulge like never before: “C’mon Marshall, you sound like a bit of a baby… Take a drink, take the edge off… What’s the matter, having some doubts?” Immediately ‘3am’ – the album’s first track proper – paints our protagonist as a paranoia-and-prescription-drugs-addled accidental perpetrator of a crime or two that he might have committed – so much happens in five minutes that Eminem barely pauses for a single breath, and the effect on the listener is dizzying; it’s impossible to take in every drop of blood spilled, every hazy recollection of a nightmare that might just be real.
It’s hard to figure out how to interpret such wordplay – on one hand, Eminem’s audience is well used to his in-character tirades, his mixing of absolute truths with improbable flights of fantasy (he’s never actually murdered anyone, right?); but on the other he was treated for addiction to painkillers during his hiatus period between albums, so has genuine first-hand experience of the struggle to overcome a habit that threatened to destroy his career, and more. He has been through tough times since the release of ‘Encore’ – visiting divorce courts (a second attempt at marriage to the often-referenced Kimberley Scott lasted only eleven weeks), and seeing a close friend, the rapper Proof, murdered – so some might have looked forward to a close-to-the-bone record of reflection, rebirth and reinvigoration. While the latter’s true – Eminem’s enthusiasm for this material shines through in his committed tongue-twisting, and sense of belief in even the most ludicrous of lyric – there’s too great a ‘cartoon’ edge to proceedings to receive ‘Relapse’ as a substantial development from previous hits – as its title suggests, this is a record that takes several steps backwards to balance just one or two forward.
Producer Jeff Bass – who worked on early versions of some of these tracks – told the press back in 2005 that Eminem was actively looking to return to the sounds of his Grammy-winning third album ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, and this certainly seems to be the case as a series of tracks echo the rapper’s well-thumbed production notes, scouring the smudged pages to seek the formula that exploded so brilliantly back at the turn of the millennium. Bringing early champion and regular collaborator Dr Dre into the fold on the production front on almost every track gives ‘Relapse’ a decent sense of cohesiveness – the album is neatly segued by not-too-annoying skits, and delivers a satisfying narrative; but Dre, if we’re being fair, hasn’t been involved with anything of critical note since ‘Encore’, which received a pretty mixed reception anyway, and his own ‘Detox’ record is dragging its heels like a comatose prom date with only a shoulder to carry her home. The beats are therefore largely dated, Dre clearly not the sort to change his working practices for keeping-up purposes, and it’s only the performances from Eminem himself that elevate most of the tracks above the status of filler fare when compared the very best material in his catalogue.
Overlooking – although it’s tough – the fleeting snatches of frustrating misogyny, and the startling nods to acts of rape (really, really unnecessary), Mathers’ sparkling skills are presented to the fore in a fashion that renders all else in the mix trailing in their wake – his breathless delivery spills forth neat micro-rhymes, non-sequiturs largely absent despite a feel of free-flowing writing, improvisation taking centre stage between well-thought-out vocal hooks and sing-along, arm-waving interjections. The above criticism that Eminem’s returning to his roots rather than looking to begin a new chapter proper is countered, excellently, by the track ‘Déjà Vu’, where he actively outlines his direction: “Feels like I’ve been down this road before… Wanna get away from this place, I do, but I can’t…” He’s unafraid of admitting that ‘Relapse’ is no ‘next step’, more a sideways movement that capitalises on what’s made his name. And, in fairness, with the best part of five years between releases it surely pays to present fans with a record that’s linked to their favourites of yesteryear. Perhaps the second album promised this year will deliver on the progression front?
Big-name guest spots are few and far between, to the extent where Dre joins in vocally on only two tracks, and associate emcee 50 Cent makes just the single appearance, on ‘Crack A Bottle’ – the first track from ‘Relapse’ to find itself circulated on the ‘net, it’s actually among the weakest numbers here, essentially banging on about, well, banging: girls, cars, money, et cetera. Yawn. Far better are the potty-mouthed anthem for an abusive father, ‘Insane’, and the dramatic-of-beat closer ‘Underground’ – the former positively bleeds the truest boiling-blood anger, while the latter’s a battle anthem replete with stirring strings and choir-like backing vocals, as if it were designed to soundtrack a climactic motion picture sequence where the hero finally meets his or her ultimate adversary. ‘We Made You’, released as a single last month, is a sprightly show tune that represents comedic relief in the record’s mid-section, but its many references to other celebrities in the public eye immediately roots it in the present – in two or three years, will anyone care for talk of Lindsay and Samantha, Blake and Amy? Probably not. But its comparative slightness and deliciously upbeat tempo is a pleasant diversion from the density of so much around it.
By cramming so very much into an album that (just about) manages to avoid outstaying its welcome, mainly due to the way it’s so well sequenced, Eminem has set himself up with a clean-slate situation for ‘Relapse 2’ – a continuation thematically, but hopefully with a fresher instrumental feel. When assessed with its companion piece, this record may rank better than it does as a standalone effort; but until that bigger picture can be seen, the conclusion must be that ‘Relapse’ is an album unsure of its message. To party or not to party? To indulge, or stay true to doctors’ orders? Then again, what it the doctor orders you to go out and get fucked up? Tricky…
In short, ‘Relapse’ is no disappointment: it courts controversy with some of its cruder lyrical moments, and will seem decidedly off-putting to those interpreting said scenes as sincere desires rather than narrative agents employed to further a storyline, but at its best this record delivers precisely what fans have come to expect. It’s funny but it’s brutal; it’s bloody but it’s charming; it’s playful but it’s deadly serious. All it lacks is focus enough to take one or two of these sides and shape a true classic from them. In time, perhaps.
More importantly, then: guess which road the rapper will take next?