Granted, Eminem‘s portfolio to date hasn’t exactly been all smiles and sunshine. On The Slim Shady LP he relayed gritty anecdotes about his tumultous upbringing in inner-city Detroit. The Marshall Mathers LP found him lashing back at fans and critics alike, while lead single Mosh from 2004′s Encore represented the MC tossing his hat into the ring of Bush bashers. Nevertheless, with a few sporadic exceptions, throughout his career Marshall Mathers has rapped with tongue planted firmly in cheek, forcing listeners to take his stories with a grain or two of salt.
On Relapse he spins some refreshingly straight-faced tales about sinking into depression and drug addiction. He alternately berates himself and yet tries to justify his actions, soliciting your sympathies even while realizing that he probably won’t get them. This is dense, heavy listening, filled with gloom, unease and an endless stream of references to Vicodin and vodka.
Deja Vu succinctly chronicles the rapper’s troubles with revelations that must make his publicity team cringe. “You know the whole pneumonia thing?” he asks, alluding to his hospilisation last year. “It was baloney, was it the methadone, ya think?”
Elsewhere, My Mom shows that his addiction has possibly turned him into a softy towards his similarly drug-addled mom (though it’s all relative, really, for someone who has fantasised about killing said mother in song form).
In recent interviews Eminem recounted his desire to switch up flows on Relapse, and diversify he does: his words fly fast, fierce, and heavily-accented, as he liberally bends and slides syllables with a dizzying if at times headache-inducing propensity for slant rhymes.
From the very first bars of album opener 3 a.m., he hits the ground running: “You’re walking down a horror corridor/it’s almost 4 in the morning and you’re in a/nightmare it’s horrible/right there’s the coroner/waiting for you to turn the corner so he can corner ya.” Leave it to Eminem to somehow rhyme “Jack Daniels” with “bad apples” without the listener batting an eye.
All too often, though, Eminem’s increasingly varied inflections overwhelm the material itself. At his prime, his tongue-twisting punch lines zipped by nimbly and playfully; on tracks like Old Time’s Sake and Same Song and Dance, his overenunciated cadence sounds mannered and sluggish. Even when the words are great, the voice grates.
The beats are largely an improvement over Encore, with Dr Dre ably surrounding Em’s words with economical keyboard runs and synthesized strings. Two of the most lyrically disappointing tracks on Relapse, in fact, are redeemed by some inspired musical choices: the Mariah Carey-bashing Bagpipes In Baghdad supplies a slinky bagpipe hook that’ll stay nestled in your head for days, while the guitar-driven Stay Wide Awake gives off a chugging rock-anthem vibe that almost distracts you from Eminem’s beyond-repugnant rape-fantasy stories.
Indeed, one of the problems with Relapse is the stagnant subject matter that fills the crevices between drug confessionals. Earlier in his career, all the gay jokes and misogynist rants were novel, shocking, and, to an extent, effective.
Delivered by a now-36-year-old father of two, they seem rooted not in the usual mischievous intent to provoke so much as inertia. He somehow tries to explain away all of his predatory come-ons with Insane, a graphic description of being molested by his stepbrother as a child, but his decidedly flippant attitude towards the topic renders his argument weak.
At nearly 80 minutes, Relapse more than overstays its welcome thanks to a few bum song choices and not enough sustained moments of brilliance. Past gems like Cleaning Out My Closet and The Way I Am were blunt, cohesive compositions that seamlessly wove together Eminem’s thoughts like a concise five-paragraph essay.
Here, he infuses Relapse with occasional sparks, but fails to transcend the same tired themes – except, of course, when he becomes Marshall Mathers, the Recovering Drug Addict. Half the time it’s lazy, and the other half, it’s dreary. Anybody else feel like they need a drink?