Emimen: Rapper Ternt Character Actor
May 20, 2009
On the day after the release of Eminem’s sixth album Relapse, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been cheated. When Mr. Mathers first entered mainstream consciousness with The Slim Shady LP, he was on some next level shit. Using people from his personal life as point persons for lyrical fodder and creating horrifying fictitious scenarios involving them (“’97 Bonnie & Clyde” still gives me the heebs), Em took rap to its darkest corners, making his offensive tales lighter by comically framing them. And that’s exactly what America came to love about him: his ability to shape deeply disturbing songs out of not-so-disturbing material, all while joking about it as if it were the national behavioral standard. But on Relapse, which sees Em at a point in his life following the death of his best friend and overcoming an addiction to painkillers, Em turns his back on reality and foolishly assumes the role of a character (stupid voice included).
After Eminem released the substandard Encore in 2004, critics and fans were all speculating that Em might be sapped for subject matter. No longer could Em rap about his mother’s nasty drug habit or killing his wife and do it earnestly; it was just plain boring, and he knew it (Encore was supposed to be his last official release). And the album, unlike his previous efforts, had way more filler than there should ever be on an Eminem release. Remember “Big Weenie?” How about the childish “Ass Like That?” These were songs that a teenager could make if set loose in Dr. Dre’s recording studio, and soon after the album’s release, Em ducked out of the game almost as if he’d never picked up a mic.
Five years later and Em is back with his latest effort Relapse. Since Eminem faux-retired, he’s kept a relatively low profile, his appearances becoming rarer as the demand for a new batch of tunes continuously grew. During his quiet period, a lot happened to Em. His longtime hypeman and best friend Proof was shot and killed, rendering Em depressed and allegedly stimulating a hefty weight gain (reports claimed that he ballooned to over 200 pounds, which, for those of you skinny heads out there, is fat for a dude his size). Soon after, Em apparently dabbled in the rich people art of painkiller addiction, inducing 17-hour naps by popping handfuls of prescription drugs and eclipsing the outside world.
But something snapped Em out of his funk. Not quite sure what that was, but reports started flowing that he and Dr. Dre were back in the studio working on Relapse. Whatever. Then, out of nowhere, this album seemed to speed into existence. In the first week of ’09, “Crack a Bottle,” the album’s 50 Cent- and Dr. Dre-assisted track, hit the net, the first glimpse of what we could expect from the resurrected emcee on Relapse. The track, a sing-song bid for mainstream recognition, achieved just that, leaping up the chart on the strength of digital downloads and heavy rotation. But as any Em fan knows, his lead singles are always duds, not necessarily emblematic of the rest of the album’s sound and a mere attempt to get the masses hyped. Fine.
Then, a few more tracks began to trickle followed by a tracklist, “creepy” promo pictures of a blood-smeared asylum and album art of Eminem’s face made out of a mosaic of prescription pills. If the image was any indication, we were in for a treat: Em looked as though he were ready to address his demons on record, expounding on his struggles with addiction and the hardship that came with losing his best friend. And knowing that Em used his singles as a means to attract mainstream attention, I knew I could expect more from Relapse.
Now, after giving the album several spins, I can confidently say that Eminem has lost what he once had – apart from his lyrical abilities. Instead of sorting through the wreckage of his drug-addled brain fog, the album looks to that personal experience for mere inspiration and rarely touches on anything remotely specific. Instead, Eminem adopts the guise of a character, one that sardonically waxes poetic about murder, homosexuality, drug abuse and even the sodomizing of conjoined twins, all spoken in chronic helium voice. Where albums like The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP actually dug into his closet and ripped out skeletons with meat rotting on the bone, Relapse has no closet. It’s a forced work of imagination – an exercise in fantasy, if you will – with Eminem as a vague shadow that lurks behind the character he’s created to narrate the album. For a man that’s gone through as much rehab therapy as he has, his restraint on this album is remarkable, and his disconnect only cuts down the potential for an album that should have put him back on his throne.
A few things haven’t changed about Eminem, some for the good of Relapse and most others for the bad. To get it out of the way, Eminem’s lyrical ability is supreme on Relapse. His attention to grammatical detail, his cadence, his pacing, his fluctuation in tone at all the right moments – all of it drives Relapse far beyond its face value. Fans look forward to releases from Eminem simply because he can turn a phrase like no other rapper in the game, whether they’ve already come before him or if they came after them. When you hear an Eminem verse, there is so much packed into it that you’re forced to play it again and again to catch every little nuance that he’s created.
For example, on “Deja Vu,” one of the only tracks on these 21 cuts to address anything personal, Em spits, “Maybe if I drink half, I’ll be half-buzzed for half of the time / Who’s the mastermind behind that little line? / With that kind of rational, man, I got half a mind / To have another half a glass of wine, sounds asinine / Yeah, I know.” Do you see what I’m talking about? The way he toys with rhyme-scheme and repeats certain words in his string of rhymes is simply mind-bending, and Relapse soars for being packed with just as many equally engaging rhymes.
But that’s about as good as it gets on Relapse, and the rest of the album’s points are far too low. One thing that hasn’t changed about Marshall (that really, really should have) is his unfailing use of celebrities as lyrical reference points. Celebultards names are tossed around for mere shock value in true bully form: Em tries to bait idiots like Kim Kardashian and Lindsey Lohan into responding to his childish taunts, and in turn, he entertains fans who are tantalized by the prospect of celebrities duking it out. But celebrity culture has changed. No longer are we going to see another Moby/Eminem-level feud, as nearly half of these celebs have already taken the high road and brushed off his brutality (Nick Cannon doesn’t count, and Mariah already made it clear she doesn’t eat candy).
And when it comes to his own persona, Eminem slips into a singsong, nasal tone in order to assume the identity of his forced character. Nearly every song on this fantasy of an album is rapped as if he were holding his nose in the studio as he spit out these rhymes. By the third track, it gets old, and Eminem never quite seems to come to the realization that his tone gets grating – fast. And I’m not alone here. Nearly every comment that I’ve heard on Eminem’s fucked up voice is that it’s stupid and irritating. But what no one seems to understand is that this isn’t Eminem rapping, nor is it an Eminem album. Just like with his alter ego Slim Shady, Marshall has created yet another character to take him to places he wouldn’t normally go. This one is tediously troubled (he gets raped by his stepfather on “Insane,” gets locked in Mariah Carey’s basement on “Bagpipes from Baghdad,” kills a hitchhiker on “Same Song and Dance”), but that’s not what fans expected and the hype simply wasn’t met.
I could go on and on about subject matter and character acting, but I’d rather turn the focus on production. Relapse is almost entirely produced by the secluded Dr. Dre, a pairing of great minds that’s created magic in the past and promised to do so yet again. But like Eminem, Dr. Dre is also fraying around the edges. Musically, Relapse is bland and trite, the drum kits dull as ever and the loops and samples set on vanilla for the duration of this bloated disc. Dr. Dre hits his stride at the beginning of the album with production on “3 A.M.” and “Bagpipes from Baghdad,” but by the middle of Relapse, the beats all sort of blend together. Dre didn’t seem to put too much thought into these beats, and they all get awfully mundane as they fit into the same sonic template, one song after another. Anyone that claims that beats like the ones for “Must Be the Ganja” or “Underground” are genre-bending are only fooling themselves and clearly holding onto the past, because these are some of the most boring, blah beats I’ve heard on a mainstream rap release in quite some time.
So what comes after the disappointing Relapse? Will Eminem kill off this headache-inducing extension of his supressed pain and actually dote on something of value? Em said that he promised that there would be a Relapse 2 released near the end of this year, but that’s hopefully assuming that he’ll read the ink spilled on this album and take notes. People don’t love Eminem because he’s so good at rapping from the perspective of a fictional character. They hungrily anticipate his releases because he’s able to look at the immediate world around him and poetically assemble what he sees into thought-provoking rhymes. On Relapse, he doesn’t even seem to want to do that, and the album consequently fails. Whether or not he’ll face his demons on his next album instead of creating them for a character is up to Em, but as it stands, Relapse might just be one of the biggest hip-hop letdowns of the new millenium.