Eminem has always been about emotional ammunition, which is exactly why The Marshall Mathers LP is his magnum opus. It combined the hilarious shock value of his first album with the issues of his new life; fame and blame. Encore [click to read] largely faltered because he had little to rap about. That, and he wasn't really funny anymore. With five years passing and his best friend being murdered, his drug addiction and the vastly changing landscape in Hip Hop and the world; he's got a lyrical stockpile comparable to North Korea.
It is clear from the jump that the Relapse isn't just referring to his falling off the wagon, but a relapse to his Slim Shady persona. For those keeping score, the intro "Dr. West" (featuring The Wire's own Jimmy McNulty), plays off the intro on the rare Slim Shady EP. Of course, the inherent problem there is that there is little to no shock value left in that shtick. The concept rolls along nicely to start as the stunning homicidal fantasy "3 A.M." [click to view] follows Em being awoken from the bad dream that was the intro. He continues to put the pieces into place with "My Mom," explaining where he got his first taste of drugs and of crazy. The topic may be a bit tiresome at this point, but its a thematic song, given the overall concept.
Relapse quickly takes a tailspin as Slim does everything he can to bring back that shock value on "Insane" [click to listen]. Getting raped and sodomized by his step-dad, "feltching," nothing appears out of bounds here. But unlike the early days when he recounted his mother beating him until his brain fell out of his skull, this isn't the cartoonish humor. Instead, the truth outweighs the purpose, and for the first time ever, Eminem's life confessions might just be recorded over-shares.
Not to be overlooked here is that Dr. Dre produced or co-produced every song on the album, the first time he's done so in a decade and only the second time a project received this since Doggystyle. The results are shockingly ho-hum for arguably Hip Hop's G.O.A.T. on the boards. In particular, it's the middle of the album that suffers with songs like "Hello," "Same Song & Dance" and "Medicine Ball." With only his work on Jay-Z's Kingdom Come [click to read] as an exception, never has Dre produced such mediocre songs, which are really only saved from being completely worthless by Em's staggering technique (though definitely not by his subject matter). There is some redemption with the haunting "Stay Wide Awake" [click to listen] and the somber "Deja Vu," both of which perfectly capture Marshall's mood. He also laces a few straight forward head-nodders that do the trick ("Old Times Sake" [click to listen], "Crack A Bottle" [click to listen]) and steps outside of the box for "Bagpipes From Baghdad." Dope as they may be for 2009, they still aren't the type of beats that create a legend.
It is "Deja Vu" that finally has some meaning to it as he actually addresses his problem. Eminem is always at his best when he gets personal, and this is no exception; "Maybe if I just drink half/ I'll be half buzzed for half of the time / Now who's the mastermind behind that little line? / For that kind of rational, man I've got half a mind / To have another half a glass of wine, sounds asinine." To the surprise of many, the one and only time on the album he mentions the death of Proof also comes here when he laments; "Wouldn't even be taking this shit if DeShaun didn't die / Oh yeah, there's an excuse, you lose Proof so you use / There's no rules, it's cool if it helping you to get through / It's 12 noon, ain't no harm in self-inducing a snooze / What else is new? / Fuck it, what would Elvis do in your shoes?" "Beautiful" is another step in the right direction as Slim keeps it brutally honest, it still wins even though the production and hook don't measure up.
For one of the very few superstars in Hip Hop who has made his career on lyrical content, it is pretty disappointing that after a five year hiatus he came back with so little to say, without his trademark colorful canvas. I suppose the writing was on the wall when you consider the album title and cover, but was anyone expecting an album that is 99% drug/murder content? Why weren't there more songs like "Deja Vu," after all, this is a 37 year-old man who has been through a lot in the past few years. The lows aren't as low as Encore, but there aren't the plateaus either. Even though his skill set have grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, his ability to make great albums seems to be moving in the other direction.