Poor Marshall Mathers. After achieving worldwide fame and critical acclaim for his shocking and crass, yet inventive, earlier albums, he did what would be expected of any rough-around-the-edges artist. He matured, came to terms with his demons, and settled down to make music that reflected a new stage in his life. But that wasn’t enough for us critics and hip hop heads. We didn’t want watered down lyrics about politics and American culture. We wanted Slim Shady.
And so Eminem came back with Relapse, an appropriately titled album that sees him returning to his alter ego. He dives in right off the bat with “3 A.M.”, the album’s second single, a slasher number that sees Em quoting Silence of the Lambs (again), graphically describing the slaughter of family members (again), and, um, masturbating to Hannah Montana (I think that’s actually a new one.)
Shocking as it may seem, I was never a big fan of this stuff the first time around. It’s impossible to deny Eminem’s linguistic mastery. He is one of the best ever to pick up the mic. And in small doses his lyrical psychosis was interesting. But an hour of The Slim Shady LP is enough to convince me that Chris Rock is justified in his fear of getting on an elevator with a white person. As the years have gone by I have gained a greater appreciation for Eminem’s importance to the rap world. But returning to this content after the natural, if uninteresting, progression of his music just seems forced and pointless.
Among the rehashed subjects is Eminem’s family. Perhaps he said it best himself on the opening line of “My Mom”: “My mom / My mom / I know you’re probably tired of hearing bout my mom.” That doesn’t stop him though. He goes on to blame his mother’s drug habit for his own addictions, before the final chorus devolves into one of the most unnecessary uses of Auto-Tune ever (and that’s saying something.) He’s probably in the right here, but after so many songs on the matter you sort of wish he’d shut up and accept some of the blame himself. He transitions directly from his mother into “Insane”, a tribute to his stepfather. Whether autobiographical or not, the character portrayed in the song makes Cage’s step-dad (the other Bill Murray) sound like a guy you may want to sit and have a beer with. It’s three minutes of graphic incest, leading up to the description of an act called “belching.” The less said about this the better. Needless to say I would be happy to never hear this song again.
With all this talk of familial dysfunction, Em’s daughter is strangely absent. With all the mud he’s slinging at his own parents, it’s hard not to wonder what Hailey’s been up to while her daddy was sinking back into his own addictions. I don’t doubt that Mathers is a better parent than his were, but he paints a convincing enough portrait of his own demons to make me wish he would back up off his mother and concentrate on his daughter.
Which brings me to another fascinating aspect of Eminem’s art. He makes us rethink the “real vs. fake” hip hop debate. Rappers spend a lot of time telling us how “real” they are, and then get defensive when people like Bill O’Reilly can’t tell that they are simply actors and storytellers. The problem (duh) is that way too many people – both in the hip hop and media world – are mistaking real (autobiographical accounts) with real (storytelling that points out truths about society.) A quick study of Eminem’s discography may be one of the best ways to make this point. His music clearly is rooted in his own experiences, yet he often shares these experiences through the use of obviously fictional storytelling (for example, killing his wife in “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”.) This makes his lyrical content slippery enough that it becomes difficult to distinguish Marshall Mathers from Slim Shady.
And so on he goes, rapping about murder, rape, and drugs, just as graphically as he can. Most of the material on the album is tolerable, but not exceptional. “Hello” is the album’s obligatory greeting track. “Crack the Bottle” is the posse track, collecting Dr. Dre and a crooning 50 Cent for a single that doesn’t do a whole lot to whet my appetite for the rest of these (supposedly) upcoming Aftermath albums.
Relapse is enjoyable enough to listen to. Eminem went to Dr. Dre for nearly every beat on the album and, as it turns out, the Doc is still on his game. It’ll be even nicer when we get to hear what he’s been saving for himself for the mythical Detox. As for Em, he didn’t really miss a beat over the last five years. His skills on the mic are as strong as ever, though he seems to be rapping in this silly little, over-enunciated accent a lot.
One final note: Apparently Eminem really has been living in a cave for the last five years, because he missed the memo that skits are passé. The album opens up with Officer McNulty from The Wire portraying a doctor advising Em to relapse into drugs and alcohol. Elsewhere, that Paul guy shows up again to leave yet another message on Em’s machine about how he can’t deal with the stepfather. Gotta say I’m with him on that one. And of course there is a skit where he tapes up a female hitchhiker in his car.