Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: Relapse by Eminem

Release Date: May 15, 2009

It is the same, tired response: Respected artist releases something new after some time, old school fans resent said artist for not being a carbon copy of the artist’s most popular record. Indeed, when that landmark album is released, the artist undoubtedly must either accept the increased pressure to stay ahead of the curve or rest on its laurels with the same tried-and-true formula, with flawed attempts at progression.

Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP to critical success, public scorn and overwhelming fan support. Indeed, it was his landmark album, establishing the bar for the great hip-hop album unbearably high with unforeseen flow and wordplay, lyrical substance and raw emotion. Since then, he has released three albums over the span of nine years, to varied success. The Eminem Show was an admirable follow-up to The Marshall Mathers LP, but falling a bit short of its greatness. Encore was a questionable attempt by Marshall to take a bow and sail off into the sunset, as it featured little of what made previous Eminem records so great, including the gradual introduction of terrible accents and goofy, unfitting subject matter. After a hiatus and self-proclaimed relapse after trying to be clean, Em provides us with Relapse.

Of course, The Marshall Mathers LP it ain’t. Nor is it a Slim Shady LP or Eminem Show. Fortunately, Relapse improves over Encore, and Em provides some solid evidence of why he is still relevant and how he got to where he is now, with glimmers of influence from all of his past work.

“My Mom”, the beat of which is jacked straight from Dre’s “What’s the Difference”, features a grating chorus but he manages to spit hot fire for a considerable portion of the song. “Insane” elicits some legitimate laughs with Marshall’s traditional over-the-top fictitiousness detailing some grimace-worthy sexual interactions between him and his stepfather, all the while set to a chilling backbeat that actual gels with Em’s flow. “Medicine Ball” also manages some early Slim Shady LP-type rhymes and random celebrity slander, especially exacerbated by a concluding verse by Em-doing-Christopher Reeves, an arbitrary jab at the late Superman just for some soulless shock value. It is not shocking in an increasingly desensitized world, but rather almost groan-worthy, like when someone makes a painfully unfunny joke and no one laughs.

Eminem proves effective when he just raps from the heart and discusses subject matter that actually means something to him (“The Way I Am”, the classic “Stan”, “97’ Bonnie & Clyde”). As the title of the album suggests, Em has struggled with his substance abuse, and he goes into detail on “Déjà Vu”. As borderline corny as it begins and may seem in the chorus or at the end, “Beautiful” still holds water on Marshall’s sharp rhymes showing brutal honesty, with a feel reminiscent to “If I Had”. “Underground” features yet another pseudohorror beat, with Eminem at the top of his game, maneuvering the song with relative ease, featuring intensity not seen since his earlier days, and no stupid gimmicks to detract from it.

Sure, the singles suck and are requisite inclusions to placate casual fans. “We Made You” features dated celebrity namedrops, the irritable accent, and a female-sung chorus, an unusual inclusion on any Eminem song, the potential of which was not quite tapped. Some of the things Eminem conjures up may garner some credibility from confused youngsters, but aging fans can call his bluff and realize that it is worthy of a facepalm. In a way, though, it is almost refreshing to see the constant attempt to push the envelope, albeit forced at times, as it invokes a sense of revitalization and revisiting of his older records.

Holistically assessed, Relapse is slightly more hit than miss, and the simple return of Eminem in an increasingly Auto-Tuned world provides some spin factor to make it a respectable effort. The goofy, curious persona witnessed on some Encore songs (“Ass Like That”, anyone?) still rears its head five years later. However, the young, unabashed, intelligent mind from his first two records also sees some playing time, and it is an encouraging sign for fans for the inevitable, eventual follow-up.

Eminem - 3 A.M.