2009 / Music

Review: Eminem Mixes Earnestness With Malevolence On ‘Relapse’

Hip-Hop Superstar Returns After 5-Year Hiatus

It’s the question that every hip-hop fan wants an answer to: Has rehab dulled Eminem’s wickedly sharp tongue?

Photo: Shady Records/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records

Photo: Shady Records/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records

For five long years, suspense built as the Detroit-based rap superstar attempted a disappearing act from the limelight that he once sought like a gonzo moth on a suicide mission. Each fleeting glimpse of Em during his time as recluse — in the liner notes as producer for friends and protégés, in articles updating his well-documented marital troubles and death of his rap partner Proof and too many terse press statements about entering rehab for a pill addiction — feed the speculation. There’s mushrooming concerns that the manic MC known for always going for the jugular of every sacred cow might be loosing his taste for blood.

On his new record, “Relapse,” the former Marshall Mathers gives a partial answer to the speculation. Giving a bit of a shock, Eminem fuses unexpected earnestness with his trademark lyrical malevolence. The disc beams with several strong tracks, but listeners must frequently persevere through this awkward merger.

Em tries to blend his devilish Slim Shady alter ego with one that’s as sincere and confessional about his past foibles with drink and drugs as he is when describing his solitary sexual fantasies involving the latest pop-music nymphs. He continues to use the mic to flex his wit and fiendish imagination, but now he’s expunging his demons instead of simply embodying them. While he has previously railed against his wife or his mother, there were also streaks of humor in his rhymes. There’s nothing to laugh about here.

Lyrically, “Relapse” is an album often stretched by the internal contradictions of Eminem’s mind. Sometimes, these schizophrenic points of view give a more well-rounded portrait of the rapper as a human being as opposed to just a verbal cartoonist and cultural-icon slayer. Other times, it just doesn’t jive together. The record asks listeners to believe hip-hop’s greatest prankster still wants to be as outrageous as he once was with all-new stinging, controversy-courting rhymes, but then a few bars later, wants to garner some sympathy when he gets serious about his sobriety struggles.

In terms of his mic persona, Eminem clearly imagines himself as a kindred soul to Heath Ledger’s Joker from last summer’s Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight,” bragging he’s the most “diabolical villain in the world.” Both men are tormentors to others’ sensibilities and share the same world view. The extent of Eminem’s admiration for the Joker is apparent from the photo of the rapper clowned up like Ledger that’s tucked into the record’s liner notes. Rather than the Joker’s sense of humor, Eminem admires the demented, anarchic, criminal mastermind because of how he ceaselessly needles his opponents and upends their best laid plans. Both ultimately seek to control their worlds despite how much they shade away from any overt machinations.

But how the Joker and Em are clearly different comes down to their gifts for strategic thought. While the Joker sees the big picture, hatches a scheme and anticipates his adversaries’ responses, Eminem as an artist is a child lashing out. If the rapper was really Ledger’s villain incarnate, he should have known that a record riddled with 12-Step speak and stilted sob stories isn’t what fans want. His audience listens to him, in part, because of his ruthless, off-color commentary on celebrity train wrecks. They want party anthems and to hear Eminem give his voice over to his Id. Maturity is inappropriate in his songs and he isn’t the kind of artist one grows old listening to. His songs are custom-made for the youth. This foul-mouthed Peter Pan should never escape his suspended adolescence.

Of course, Eminem does try to use scintillating beats and pulsating musical arrangements to make his attempts at artistic growth hard to resist. As before, the duty of dreaming up the next greatest club bumper falls to Em’s mentor, Dr. Dre. The strength of the jams on “Relapse” owes a hefty debt to Dre’s still-vibrant production skills. While he too has been mostly dormant in recent years, this CD proves his sensibilities are still more compositional than contemporaries like Timbaland or others. His music is flexible enough to support any verses Eminem chooses to spit over them. On each pass, Dre keeps the rhymer and his couplets squarely in the pocket, always on a quest for a hook to sweeten the song.

“Crack A Bottle” towers above all of the record’s 20 tracks including a few goofy comedy skits. The cut leaked on the Internet weeks before the album landed on shelves, but the released version enshrines it as one Dre’s late-period masterworks, overcoming even Em’s clumsy ring announcer introductions of guest rappers Dre and 50 Cent. Only headphones allow listeners to fully marvel Dre’s unlikely combination of a boom-crash drum pattern with slick, Southern funk piano ditties. Each rhythmic downstroke punctuates Eminem’s completed verse and succeeds in spinning off the latest hook. On the microphone, Eminem might be clean these days, but he feels compelled to live up to the party-boy image as the Ted Nugent of rap, rhyming with plenty of smart braggadocio about hanging in his SUV with all the bimbos and booze he can entice inside. Its dictum is appropriately hedonistic for a music star, but aspires to do little more than advertise depravity.

As on his previous records, many of the tracks feature Eminem giving voice to his most depraved impulses, although there are hints of greater self-awareness as he combs the depths if himself. He tag teams with Dre on “Old Time’s Sake,” which closely recalls their work from “The Slim Shady LP.” An ascending piano, boosted by keyboard-created strings, suggest a killer creeping around a house at night. As they trade lines, the duo falls into old patterns with Dre as the tough-talking original gangsta while Eminem plays his erratic charge, promising all types of drug-addled sex and violence.

Equally disturbing, “Medicine Ball” is nightmarish visage of Eminem in the throes of a pill binge. Dre conjures the sound of a “Blade Runner”-esque urban war zone while Eminem attempts to annihilate himself with faux coke snorts. Verse after verse, he wrestles with his notorious reputation and the vilification he endures for his deplorable statements. “Same Song & Dance” is even darker, as Eminem pretends to be a stalking serial killer hunting down tarnished pop stars like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Speakers. While there’s a shock value to his vocal naughtiness, like when he explicitly threatens to attack all of the Pussycat Dolls, the constant presence of such angry, misanthropic and violent imagery establishes an undercurrent to this that is just too disturbing to laugh off.

In between the verbal marauding and pill-popping, Eminem tries to steer the conversation back to his own personal troubles. Cringe-worthy references about rehab are scattered throughout the album although the most embarrassing attempts to confess his sins are “Deja Vu” and “My Mom.” Dre glosses each of Eminem’s unusual diatribes with as much rhythmic flair he can muster. The problem, ultimately, is with the message, not the messengers. Eminem can be brutally honest, even a surprisingly charitable to his previously-maligned mother when he links his own abuse issues with her alleged ones, but this can’t make these cuts more than mundane in contrast to his outrageous behavior on the rest of the record. Suddenly, the MC who shows no mercy is asking for a little for himself and it just doesn’t work that way.

At his worst, Eminem comes across no better than Poison’s Brett Michaels on the near-power ballad, “Beautiful.” After all the verbal sleaze he spews about women and others, he suddenly tries to tug at everyone’s heartstrings. And is it a coincidence that Em stole this title from best-loved song from his one-time nemesis Christina Aguilera? His track, while more profane at times, is just as simpering and creepily sincere. Its cheesy guitar solo underlines the cheesiness of this whole effort.

“Relapse” is an apt descriptor for this album. Eminem might proclaim he lives a clean life, but he can’t escape this microphone monster that he’s created. He feels the undeniable pull to lyrically reenact, even expand upon, a life that he has renounced.

Sooner or later, Eminem needs to make a choice: Either he again embraces those forces that threaten to swallow up his life and career or he gives up the celebratory charade. “Relapse” delays the decision. It doesn’t nullify the fact he’s standing at a crossroads.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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