Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Eminem's Relapse: The Bad Man Is Back

Eminem- "Deja Vu"

Eminem's Relapse is his first proper album in four years, and our expectations for an Eminem record have changed way more than he has in that time. After two-and-a-half perfect hip-hop albums--just enough self-meditation to chew on, huge hooks to hum to, technical proficiency to burn--he left us with the sour taste of Encore, as sophomoric and pointless an album as possible. While Relapse certainly doesn't reach the highs of his early output, it's a return to form that's a huge step-up.

Re-listening to Encore reveals that it's five skits; a misguided, dated lead single; three maudlin ballads; and a sprinkling of disgusting, half-baked doodles. Relapse is...five skits; a misguided, dated lead single; three maudlin ballads; and a sprinkling of disgusting, half-baked doodles. So what's the difference?

The main thing that has changed, besides our expectations and a middling rap climate, is the way he uses Slim Shady. Romanticizing The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, it's easy to forget that Slim Shady was always a device. As the horror-core alter-ego for the more austere, modest Marshall of the first two Eminem albums, he attracted widespread attention and fin de siecle paranoia. On Relapse, he is a manifestation of paranoia itself--screams are singing, fighting is dancing. He is id-gobbling exaggeration that places the album in a skewed, inward-turning light. It's not a symbiotic relationship anymore; Slim ate Em. There's a subtle intimation that, in the 21st century junk culture Eminem is skewering and the drug-addled world he is relapsing back into, Slim Shady is more at home than ever. Slim Shady is purposeful extremism, and he's back with a vengeance. He used to be funny; now he's too busy being terrifying.

It's also easy to forget that Eminem's technique never fell off in the first place. Even when he was rhyming about inflating Jessica Simpson's boobs, he was the best rapper alive from a technical standpoint, and he still is. If you don't believe that, then rhyme sixteen different words with "month," which he does on "Same Song & Dance." Flick a compound sentence off your tongue as if it's one word, something like "Picasso with a pick-axe, a sick asshole/Tic-tac-toe with a six-pack of X-acto...knives." Perhaps you'll want to contrast that with some couplets that, while maintaining a preternatural understanding of approximate rhyme and consonance, cut with refreshing honesty, maybe something like: "See, you and me almost had the same outcome, Heath/'Cuz that Christmas, you know the whole pneumonia thing?/It was bologna--was it the methadone ya think?/Or the hydrocordone you hide inside your pornos/Your VCR tape cases with your Ambien CR--great places/To hide 'em, ain't it?" He can do all of this with his endless toolbox, and we've somehow forgotten it.

Most critical attention lent to other rappers concentrates on their flow. Eminem's weaker songs garner so much criticism because people skip that first step and go straight to the content. The messages and themes of Eminem's rhymes have been analyzed more than nearly any other MC because he is technically unimpeachable.

In the leaks leading up to Relapse, bloggers decried Eminem's frequent use of affectations, such as holding his nose while rapping a chorus, performing a verse as Christopher Reeve, rolling his tongue through a bizarre Arabian accent. Indeed, we don't hear his natural voice until about halfway through Relapse, and that gamble comes off mostly as a challenge to himself. He knows people don't like it, but he does it anyway, as if he's possessed, which sounds quite possible at times. That thing people say about, "He could rap the phone book, and I would still blah blah blah..." is really being tested.

For the most part, he comes through. Even the biggest opponents of the album can't deny that it's intensely focused around this theme of literal and figurative relapse, so much so that even the bad songs kind of work in context.

Nearly every song is backed by Dr. Dre's beats, which sound like Blade Runner looks in that their handclaps and left-handed piano chords are perenially state-of-the-art but still dingy and cold even at their crispest. They are lumbering but strenuous, stark but echoing, antiseptic but sort of used. (How many pitches for "temple bell" settings can there be?) Dre doesn't really challenge himself, and he doesn't need to. He's not the star of this show.

Eminem, or more accurately, Slim Shady is, and he's quite the villain. Anchored by his violent, disturbing persona, Relapse is not an easy album to listen to, especially at its outset. You might want to take a shower after it. There's rape, homophobia, misogyny, murder, drug abuse, child abuse. And then the fourth song starts. I remember making that same joke when explaining Eminem albums to people in high school, so perhaps we've come full circle. Even if it isn't the most graceful return to form, I, for one, am grateful for that.

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