Built on the ashes of a broken marriage, the death of a close friend, addiction issues, and the customary laundry list of targets, Eminem’s Relapse is a commanding, disturbing, overwhelming assemblage of music. The return of Marshall Mathers is going to be big business, that’s for damn sure, but what’s really big is just how cavernous and sinister this record turns out to be.
Bolstered by some of Dr. Dre’s best beats in years, Relapse finds the rapper running efficiently between what’s expected of him as a favorite of the squealing teen crowd and what he’s capable of as one of the cleverest artists in hip-hop.
Interestingly, despite what some may have heard on the sub-par singles, Eminem’s biggest target is actually himself. Relapse unpacks his closet with reckless abandon, flinging out limitless drug references and disconcerting tales of molestation and murder steeped in pain and candor. There’s no turning back and something tells me Em knows that.
Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield makes a rather fitting comparison when he says that Relapse is a lot like Richard Pryor’s 1982 Live on the Sunset Strip. While Pryor’s live audience doubtlessly shuffled and deliberated over whether or not to laugh at Pryor’s stories of freebase addiction and self-harm, so too will Eminem’s audience move towards this record. With Dre’s beats pulsating, it’s hard to know whether it’s acceptable to rock out to verses about passing out in the car or a parent drugging himself into a trance in front of his child.
With two exceptions, Eminem handles his Relapse on his own. The guest spots are limited to Dr. Dre and 50 Cent, giving the album an intimate quality as though no other MCs were close enough to impose on songs so delicate.
Relapse’s lesser moments come where expected, as Eminem launches a puny round of passé couplets at celebs on “We Made You.” While Dre’s beat is still stellar, the verses leave a lot to be desired and the track almost sounds like a compromise. Judging Relapse on the basis of this single would be a huge mistake, of course.
Miraculously, Eminem doesn’t attempt to hang his problems on Kim this time out. That’s not to say that mom still isn’t a mark of derision, as the searing “My Mom” drives with hard-to-stomach lyrics and Dre’s swaying production. Em unloads, charging full steam ahead with troubling verses sealed off with his singing of the chorus: “I’m on what I’m on because I’m my mom.”
“Insane” features more upsetting content, lighting the fuse with lines like “My stepfather said that I sucked in the bed.” It is a stunning, potent piece of music.
Relapse offsets its darker moments, of which there are many, with attempts at clearing the air and the mood, but Eminem has a lot of hate on his mind and most of it is directed at himself. When he isn’t taking on his own sense of antipathy, he sounds deliberately vacant. As such, Relapse works most effectively as a complete character study.
Christopher Reeve gets it again (and gets his revenge) in “Medicine Ball,” while the knowingly-titled “Same Old Song and Dance” rolls out lyrics about Britney and Lindsay.
The only track not produced by Dr. Dre, the Eminem-produced “Beautiful,” is perhaps the album’s oddest track. Its hackneyed balladry somehow works in the framework of Relapse, with Em’s gangly vocals inelegantly telling anyone who’ll listen to never doubt their beauty.
Eminem’s negative energy on Relapse helps him avoid gratification. It also helps him drop some of the best work of his career with moments of damn-near-unlistenable frankness peppered throughout the album. And in working with Dr. Dre, Eminem has created a personal masterpiece that has enabled him to pile all of the hate and insults right where he believes they truly belong.