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Eminem

Relapse

Rating: 2.5

Label: Aftermath/Goliath/Interscope

Back around the time he became the first Oscar-winning rapper (and a white one at that), Eminem the divisive cultural lightning rod, transformed into Eminem the universally-hailed once-in-a-generation genius, a provocative wordsmith and musical trailblazer on par with Dylan, Lennon and Costello. Even those with sanctimonious reservations about his violent, misogynistic, homophobic lyrics were acknowledging the man’s outsized talent. And tenured college professors were singing his praises as vociferously as his horny, angst-and-acne-riddled preteen fanboys.

But then Eminem released Encore, a foolhardy album of self-serving rhymes, limpid beats and fart jokes. Encore seemed to spit in the face of the very intellectual respectability he had earned. Some postmodern theorists theorized that Encore was a deliberate failure, a concerted attempt to excise his own suffocating celebrity, a high-profile pinprick in the balloon of his own hype a la Dylan’s Self Portrait. But most people just wrote it off as a shitty, lazy album, as if Mr. Just Don’t Give a Fuck had just given up.

And so after the obligatory hits album with three new songs, and the obligatory retirement announcement, he disappeared. And now, after a longer-than-expected four-year exile, the obligatory comeback. City-destroying hurricanes, endless wars, leftward political power shifts, social networking sites: much has transpired in Eminem’s absence. But apparently nothing was more important than Eminem’s rehab stint, as that’s the almost singular focus of this album. Relapse, the first of two Eminem records due out this year, is supposedly the new Eminem, but it sounds a lot like a more solipsistic version of the old Eminem. First single “We Made You” combines two of his favorite pastimes: homophobia and misogyny, wielded for comedic effect and shock value. Except it’s not funny or shocking, just sad: a 36-year-old man fantasizing about splitting Hollywood’s lesbian couples (DeGeneres and de Rossi, Lohan and Ronson) before moving in on Hollywood’s hetero romances. It’s idiotic, annoying and worst of all, pointless. The man who once resonantly seethed, “Britney’s garbage/ What’s this bitch retarded?/ Gimme back my sixteen dollars” is now primarily concerned with mainly drugging and fucking his former nemesis.

Celebrity used to be the thorn in Eminem’s side, and he responded by thorning the sides of celebrities. The blogosphere era has supplied no shortage of prime targets: The Hills, The Jonas Brothers, Rock of Love, emo culture. But aside from a couple wanks to Hannah Montana and Kim Kardashian, the rapper’s reference points are unchanged. His newest beef is with Nick Cannon, husband to Mariah Carey, a woman Eminem dated seven years ago. Hell, his go-to target for I’m-so-tasteless chuckles is still Christopher Reeve, who died before Encore hit shelves. He couldn’t go for Terri Schiavo, Anna Nicole Smith or Heath Ledger (who gets a quick but innocuous shout-out in “My Mom”)?

As for Eminem’s own celebrity, well, thanks to his self-imposed seclusion, he stopped being one. That rehab stint, which entailed a widely mocked weight gain and a phony pneumonia excuse, was essentially his only moment of newsworthiness over the past few years. And so rehab has supplanted fame. Nearly every track directly refers to prescription medication; in Relapse’s world, Valium, Vicodin, Xanax and Klonopin are as ubiquitous as rape, murder and assault. But only in the album’s final act does Eminem confront this isolation with anything greater than the warped perspective of a hyperactive, attention-hungry seven-year-old. “Déjà vu” and “Beautiful” are tense, confused portraits of a worn-out, disturbed artist in mental, spiritual and artistic decline. They’re practically punchline-free, but they function as Relapse’s most honest moments. He exorcises his demons, no-holds-barred, his words once again a dagger with a jagged edge, his psyche overdue for the bloodletting. When he sings “Don’t let ’em say you ain’t beautiful,” the sting of his maligned body image is palpable, as if he hates being objectified almost as much as the women he objectifies.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of crap to wade through on the way to catharsis. Eminem has made a career honing his darkly comic menace, but what used to inspire uneasy guffaws is now just overly broad schtick: Eminem is a cartoon, and on this album, he’s more Krusty the Clown than John Wayne Gacy, all improv-class accents and exaggerated vocal tics, desperately employed to mask hollow wisecracks. He may be using his rap as therapy, but he regularly confuses voicing childhood trauma with sounding like a child. “My mom loved Valium and lots of drugs/ That’s why I’m on what I’m on/ ‘Cause I’m my mom,” he simultaneously brags and laments, before once again regaling listeners with the myriad terrors of Debbie Mathers. Of Relapse’s grating first half, only “Insane,” a filthy three-minute firebomb of incest tales, successfully recaptures the brilliant Eminem of yore. “I was born with a dick in my brain/ Yeah, fucked in the head,” he declares, before recalling his stepfather’s incestuous advances and abuses. It’s actually funny, shocking, quotable, catchy and yes, illuminating: unearthing the roots of Eminem’s infamous homophobia and the ugly cycles of closeted homosexuality that plague homophobic communities. It may be real – it’s probably fabricated – but unlike most of Relapse, it’s undeniably compelling.

Eminem’s fellow MIA-rap-superstar Dr. Dre produces the whole shebang, and while he doesn’t deviate far from his usual supple beats and synthetic strings, the formula still works. Half the time the music sounds more awake than Eminem’s rote rhymes. Dre guests on two tracks – “Old Times Sake” and “Crack That Bottle” – both of which are supremely fun party anthems. They work precisely because they’re devoid of strained attempts to “be Eminem,” to unsettle and stun. Instead, these cuts just sound like the rapper and his buddies having a raucous good time. Thankfully, this occurs in lieu of the D12 posse cut. Less thankfully, we get filler like “Stay Wide Awake” and “Hello,” asinine redundancies that replicate the inanities Eminem would spit onto D12’s tiresome horror-rap discs.

Granted, Eminem’s wordplay and wit are Ginsu-sharp throughout. This is one of the greatest rappers of all-time, after all. But on his classic albums, even the silliest lines had substance. Whatever its painful backstory, Relapse is a missed opportunity for substance. While the world at large, and his native Detroit in particular, spiraled into economic free fall, Eminem remained holed up in his posh hideaway, popping pills, smoking weed and cooking up elaborate rape and mutilation fantasies. Obama is absent entirely from Relapse, and so is Bush. The rage of the white underclass is once again at a boiling point, and Eminem, child of the trailer park, can’t see to rap past his own addiction battles.

The world has changed, but Eminem has not. And, until he evolves and adapts, he will remain a past-his-prime phenomenon, rather than the mic-slaying legend he rightfully should be.

by Charles A. Hohman

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