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Album review: Eminem's 'Relapse'

EMINEM_3_ Eminem is one psychopath who really knows his place.

To promote "Relapse," his first album in more than four years, the 36-year-old rap superstar and self-styled "Satan in black satin panties" is appearing in a special edition of the Marvel comic "The Punisher," now available online; with baby Stewie from "Family Guy" as the animated host of the Fox Network's Sunday cartoon block, and in his own iPhone game based on the Dario Argento-style bloodfest that is the video for "3 a.m." -- his latest hit, in which he portrays himself escaping from a rehabilitation facility, gobbling pills, murdering several random victims and masturbating while watching "Hannah Montana."

None of this is new territory for Eminem. He's turned himself into a cartoon before, played many rounds of rotisserie murder and been glorified by critics (yes, me too) for turning shock into art. He's also taken on various identities to put a little distance between the trailer-park misfit born Marshall Mathers and the antiheroes who do the grotesque deeds he describes in his rhymes.

Eminem himself is a fiction, the most sympathetic of Mathers' criminal minds. That character is often victimized himself; on "Relapse," he recalls a childhood during which he was both raped by his stepfather and forced to eat food his mother laced with pills. (Both incidents are played for laughs.) Then there's the slobbery pervert Ken Kaniff, who resurfaces in his role as keeper of Mathers' homophobic anxieties. And, of course, there's Slim Shady, the jokester reminiscent of the Joker -- when Eminem raps about falling asleep as a stoned child, clutching a "Heath Ledger bobblehead," he's simultaneously taking an improper jab at the deceased actor and crediting him as a kindred spirit.

What's different about "Relapse" is that Mathers lets himself slip in, in new ways. Clean and sober after many years of drug addiction, he could have fully centered this comeback album on his real-life nightmare, creating a semiautobiographical work in the spirit of his Oscar-winning film "8 Mile."

Packed with images of its maker bingeing on brand-name pharmaceuticals, "Relapse" is a drug album as dark as Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night." Some of its strongest images chronicle not mayhem, but real pain: Mathers falling asleep while stuffing himself on junk food, his worried daughter nearby; or digging in the couch for pills and licking the dust out of bottles; or muttering, "I need something to pull me out of this dump."

Anyone who has been or known an addict will recognize this misery. But Eminem is not just another confessional artist, and "Relapse" doesn't turn out to be a story of despair and eventual redemption. That would be too easy for this contemporary Mack the Knife -- or maybe too hard, on an emotional level. It would have resulted in a whole album like the desultory "Beautiful," the one track produced by Mathers himself: a heartfelt power ballad, basically, which employs a poignant rock sample and some inspirational lyrics to fairly pedestrian ends.

Rehabilitation and hypocrisy

Instead, "Relapse" is a critique of the therapeutic culture that, Mathers would probably not deny, helped him reclaim his life. He may be alive to spin these tales through the intervention of doctors and therapists; but in the horrorcore scenes that "Relapse" presents, the only rehabilitation center is Bedlam, and Eminem/Slim is a madman created by the hypocrisy of therapy. From the opening skit, in which actor Dominic West voices a doctor whose untrustworthiness destroys Eminem's chances of recovery, to the last one, which comically depicts the limits of what a Narcotics Anonymous-style support group can handle, "Relapse" puts the lie to the idea that anyone can really get clean.

The Eminem who storms and snickers through "Relapse" rejects sobriety, finds no comfort in support systems and doesn't believe the cycle of violence can be broken. He rips through the veneer of redemption created by self-help and recovery culture to show that beyond the comforting hugs we see on "Intervention" and "Celebrity Rehab," darkness still rules.

This isn't what Dr. Drew Pinksy would call a constructive view of life. But it makes for a strong album, a return to form after the off-putting mix of earnestness and flatulence that characterized 2004's "Encore." Eminem's old mentor Dr. Dre, who produced all but that one track, gives Eminem what he needs as a musician: a gut-wrenchingly forceful beat, ominous atmospherics and tension-building strings. Over this metal-hard, funk-deep music, Eminem spins verses that teem with internal rhymes, alliteration and enough startling word choices to please the most exacting wordplay snobs.

A feeling of isolation runs through "Relapse," and not only because there are no guest rappers beyond Dre and 50 Cent, who appears on the relatively mild and aimless "Crack a Bottle." (Mathers apparently hasn't figured out how to be sober in others' company, at least when in character; both this song and his Dre duet, "Old Time's Sake," celebrate getting wasted.) Adopting different voices, including his high Slim Shady sneer and a few variations on Jamaican patois, Eminem populates his own universe. What happens there rarely involves other people, unless they are victims of his penis and his knife.

Nobody is safe

"Relapse" just might contain Eminem's most offensive bunch of rhymes yet, and the violence goes in all directions. Like the horror-film directors he admires, who keep cashing in on their weird obsessions with sequel after sequel, he revisits old stamping grounds, digging deeper in to perfect his carving techniques.

There are many, many pipe dreams about victimizing famous, mostly female sitting ducks, including Britney Spears, Sarah Palin and Mathers' alleged long-ago fling Mariah Carey, who's the target of the silly "Bagpipes from Baghdad." He turns child abuse into a comic strip on "My Mom," the one about those Valium pancakes, and "Insane," the totally surreal recovered memory of molestation. And he continues to identify with the bogeyman. "How many people you know that can name every serial killer who ever existed in a row, put them in chronological order, beginning with Jack the Ripper?" he crows in "Must Be the Ganja," showing off some distinctly antisocial expertise.

Still, serial killers? They've been done. Eminem's visions on "Relapse" repulse, but they no longer really shock. Nor do they always produce the laughs that once came as a natural startle-response to his dirty tricks.

Eminem's first few albums forced listeners to confront their own responses to them; those who were utterly disgusted might have felt morally superior, but those who were honest about succumbing to his sick humor, or even being sucked into his bizarre and spiteful fantasies, had to confront something frightening within themselves. By now, though, we've all taken that test and figured out our positions, and Eminem's fetishes have become both more generic and more off-puttingly personal. While "Relapse" deserves kudos for its formal beauty, the admirable turns of phrase and gymnastic musical moments, it won't shatter anyone's world.

If he had been more explicit in playing out the critique of therapeutic culture that's embedded in these songs, made it a little more prominent amid the misogynistic, homophobic ranting and the blood lust, Eminem could have pulled his music into a new category. What he presents is still powerful, but narrowly cast.

"Relapse" is the first album Eminem has made after returning from his own brink, and it's an impressively focused and clever work. But this music is not transcendent. It's still stuck in Marshall Mathers' muck, his fundamental mistrust of pleasure and love. Maybe he just needs a new therapist. Or a new mask.

--Ann Powers

Photo credit: Karin Catt

Comments () | Archives (37)

For those of us who suffered in a generation of abuse , neglect and shame.....this is a outlet of expression that only those who are truly brave dare to re-live, admit to ourselves or share with the undeserving and small-minded public. Really, is an album complete with lyrics that shake most victims of this same horror to their very core, the first of it's kind, and open to the harsh and critical professionals, usually this raw, real and harshly true? Face it, you may not like it, but you may be compelled to listen to it, again and again...and then ask yourself....who am I to try to understand what his experience was like? Exploit it... why not? Misdirected revenge, profit from abuse or brilliant vision, go for it...isn't that what the music business is all about anyway? This isn't the end...there's more to come folks.

Josh gets it. Good for u.

all the haters really need to stfu. Unless your an addict or was you have no idea what the dudes gone threw. And regarding the celb bashing, homophobic, cereal killer, pill popper, what eles do you expect? If it was any different would it actually be slim? NO. Thats eminem in his truest. Every album soooo well thought it s ridiculous. few tracks of him bashing the media, celbs and what not. a few bashing his mother and him self and then that one track thats just so deep that you play it over and over again. This album is no different. Eminem is realer than real and anyone who says he should go after "better " rappers....just ask your self why? Do you walk up to your biggest idols and start fights with them? NO. And after the whole benzino and ja rule stuff, nobody wants to mess with him because he will lyrically shred you to pieces. and eff nick cannon he is a tool.

I'm a huge Eminem fan, and though I love him talking real life issues again....this album is much of the same crap from Encore. He raps almost every song in some stupid Triumph voice. The best song in my opinion is "Careful What You Wish For". Other songs like "Insane" are just out of control. I don't mind the lyrical content..it doesn't bother me. But his delivery pretty much sucks, and he is falling off. The beats produced by Dre are some of his best of a recent times. Anyways I would say "Relapse" is better than "Encore. But that's about as far as I would take it.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this album after hearing the first two singles, which were terrible. However, this album did not disappoint by any means and lived up to all of my expectations. I must tell you though, that if you are a fan of American Idol or listen to the radio a lot, you will not understand this album and probably will not like it. With that being said, Em showed us that he is still around and maintains his lyrical genius.

Omg in his album relapse it really shows how much eminem's been thru. it also shows how much of a beast he is cuz his album rocked.

Dont get me wrong i love eminem he was the first cd i ever bought hes been my favorate rapper sence i was like 10...but this new album is garbage. hes not the same, listen to some songs off the eminem show or any of his older cds and then listen to relapse theres a huge difference. he dosent hav that flow he use to have anymore to me all the songs on relapse sound the same...i liked eminem better when he would smoke some chronic and then hop on the track..his flow sounded amazing and his rhymes wer awesome...not t mention funny as hell...idk i think he should get away from all the pills and all that bullshit start smokin weed again like he did when he fist got into it...hes not rappen like the real slim shady he use to be. and when i say all his new songs sound the same, its like all of his verses are like the same its like a big cluster of rhymes and then pause....big cluster of rhymes...and then pause im not feelin it i listend to the album once and put it in my cd case havent touched it sence. hes not the same as he use to be.

I thought relapse was lacking a lot of energy and material from Mr. Mathers. He did not impress me this time around. The songs were very animated and "bouncy", nothing that interests me. I expected more.

I was just engaged in a discussion with a friend about this album, which started due to the line in his newest song "Not Afraid" So I thought I'd revisit some the reviews on Relapse that are mentioned on it's Wiki page. And I gotta say something.. It seems for the most part everyone agrees it's technically a masterpiece in terms of its display of his talent as a Rap Artist, (Remarkable/phenomenal complex rhythm of flows, the best out there, lyrical compositions practically genius.), but if I were Em reading just the criticisms of his fans, and the Reviewer's, I'd be like what the??? What the hell are these people smoking?

Keep in mind the interview, the NYT did where they spoke to Dre about the subject matter.. ("Both Eminem and Dr. Dre thought hard about how Eminem should re-emerge. And both concluded that the world wanted more Slim Shady. “I talked to my son about it,” said Dr. Dre, “and he was like: ‘The kids want to hear him act the fool. We want to hear him be crazy, we want to hear him be Slim Shady and nothing else.’ ”) Note the "nothing else"!

I just watch this 10 min video from a young Rap fan, brutally slagging him because there was too much attention to his struggle with drugs and the "real pain" you mention, and not enough of the old Em, (homemade sound effects of chainsaw's, screams, crazyness, killing b_tches, more songs like kill you, and bonnie and clyde, "that were scary as hell" as one put it.) And that when he did go there, like in "Stay wide awake" "Insane" "same song and dance" he did it using an accent that Shady wouldn't have used, so it sounded retarded. (even though it was creative and brilliantly written) And that's pretty much the same across the board on websites where young Rap fans do criticize it. Which isn't many.

But then I come here, to see why Mediacritic came to the conclusion this review gives it a 60 out of 100%, and here he's criticized for reverting back to Slim Shady too much, and not "centering this comeback album on his real-life nightmare, creating a semi-autobiographical work in the spirit of his Oscar-winning film "8 Mile." and not having "been more explicit in playing out the critique of therapeutic culture"..

How the hell does one win like that?? He gives both sides what they wanted, and then both sides take a swing at him for giving the other side what they want?? Dude can't win!

Did you really wanted an Eminem album that was more explicit in playing out the critique of therapeutic culture?? um you've have got to be kidding right? There's a topic everyone is interested in. lol! Right lets run down to Compton and ask your average 17 to 25 yr old if they'd be interested in buying an album about the therapeutic culture? The only people who thought that skit was funny were likely, the small number of people who've been to Rehab, and intellectual critics, who don't realize you can be shot for rapping about boring, white, crap like that. Certainly, no one under 25 thought it was funny, cause they don't care. And certainly no one in the hood was laughin either, cause they don't care, and it ain't that funny, or shocking! But "Same Song and Dance" IS funny, so is Insane, 3am, and stay wide awake. They aren't shocking and aren't suppose to be. They're so brutal, that they're hilarious! They're the Happy Tree Friends.

Having said that, I can go back to the other side and make just as strong of argument for why he should have stuck to his real pain also! I do enjoy those tracks the most. And I think allot people could either relate more in some way or another. I even think some of what's in his more violent songs aren't alltogether totally made up for sensationalism, but rather small scale events, blown out of proportion so much, to hide their truth. Insane for example, while I dont think anything happened at the level he talks about, there is the possibility a hint of child abuse could have really occurred. While promoting Relapse he said numerous times, he draws on even the smallest things that have happen to him personally, and then allot of times, blows them way out of proportion. The song itself, talks about having allot of skeletons in his closet, and in working the 12 steps, one does a fearless and moral inventory of themselves. In which they look at their own wrongs, character defects, and purge secrets that keep them sick. So it is possible in any of those songs, he isn't just talking about things for shock value, but rather coping with things he's either thought about, or either happened to on a much smaller scale.

Whatever the case the fact that both sides got what they wanted, w/ the exception of the accents, doesn't that make this the perfect Album??

relapse was a cool album but recovery is even better. much more deep and stronger

i love the album. the review os good i think, i agreein many points

in my opinion relapse is his best album, even better than recovery

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