Over the past 10 years, Eminem has grown increasingly paranoid and self-contemptuous; unfortunately, so have the rest of us. Think about why he became famous in the first place: skill and personality, yes, but also a willingness, perhaps a compulsion, to start shit. We watched, pleased by the outcome. It was joyous. But history flows, suburban teenagers get bored and clever, and whether it was old age or the Internet, Eminem’s brand of ephemeral snottiness has lost its patent. By now my little cousin could beef with Jessica Simpson -- provided URL availability and a few candid photographs -- and it’d probably be more interesting than “We Made You,” the first single off of Relapse and the only song I can think of that makes me nostalgic for Carson Daly, Fred Durst and rumors of celebrity fellatio.
That said, Relapse is not the ominous cloud that I imagined it would be. It’s a slickly produced rap album with moments of greatness and others of mild discomfort. Hearing Eminem wax about Kim Kardashian as he did about Britney Spears circa ‘99 pretty much just drives the point home that Kim Kardashian is not and will never be Britney Spears. And no one else will be either. And it doesn’t really matter, largely because the main event here is Eminem himself: his pathology and ping-pongy awareness of public image, personal space and celebrity culture.
Fittingly, the highest-profile tracks on Relapse are also the least satisfying. “Crack a Bottle,” the collaboration with Dr. Dre and 50 Cent, is a serviceable pre-party anthem that will doubtless appeal to those who equate owning a pack of rubbers to the reality of getting laid. On “Bagpipes from Baghdad,” Shady lays into Mariah Carey, non-Western music, murder, and states of morbid discontent. Pay attention to the Auto-tune toward the end -- somebody’s been doing their homework. And “We Made You,” is, like I said, all wrong.
Things pick up when Eminem relinquishes the absurdo-famous brat posture and lets his subconscious steer the ship. Consider “My Mom” and its transparent conceit: “My mom loved Valium and lots of drugs/ That’s why I’m on what I’m on 'cause I’m my mom.” Or “Same Song & Dance,” which is about a famous rapper who rapes hitchhikers. It doesn’t take a Viennese doctor to recognize something is amiss. Elsewhere: NAMBLA-style shed sex, pills that aren’t sold over the counter, Christopher Reeves, nightmares, quack doctors, surly businessmen, unprompted homophobia, and memory lane with Dr. Dre and a sack of chronic. It’s a veritable mess and, in a respect, a saving grace for Eminem, our Mischievous Hero. He really is more fucked up than anyone else I know, or at least more articulately so. Moms unite.
As for style, impact, and actual musical content, Relapse gets a little tricky. Most of the beats are of the bouncing-ball variety, and more than a few times Eminem affects a weird faux-Caribbean cadence. The production is ultra-clean and the lyrics are delivered with a precision that is not to be scoffed at. But mostly what lasts is the self-pity and anger, which is at least enough to warrant our attention.
And for all the cartoonish excess, Eminem is not one to shy from the truth, at least as he sees it. Take, for instance, the end of “Beautiful,” a slightly maudlin late-album track. After a digitally processed rocker intro and an emo-ish confessional about the pitfalls of fame, he proclaims, “Be yourself, man. Be proud of who you are. Even if it sounds corny, never let no on tell you you ain’t beautiful.” I am inclined to agree with him, and after listening to over an hour of sexual hallucinations and 12-step psychology, you should be, too.