A fair number of people certainly felt otherwise, but I actually enjoyed Relapse, Eminem’s 2009 album that was his first full-length release in five years. Laced with horrorcore influence and downright vile subject matter ranging from murder to rape to cannibalism, Eminem proved that he hadn’t lost his ability to repulse during his self-imposed exile from hip-hop, during which he was wrestling with personal demons and a crippling drug addiction. Selling 608,000 copies in its first week and netting a Grammy for Best Rap Album, Relapse was a critical and commercial success, but we all knew that Marshall Mathers was far too talented to rely on shock value and fictionalized violence at this stage in his career. When the dust settled and fans had time to reflect on Relapse, they found themselves asking, “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?”
On his latest album, Recovery, the veteran emcee is standing, and standing tall.
Originally planned as a sequel to Relapse, Recovery is instead Eminem’s 17-track apology to his fans, whom he feels he’s disappointed with his last two albums. “This time around is different. Them last two albums didn’t count: Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing them out,” he raps on the album’s second track, “Talkin’ 2 Myself.” Later in the album, on “Cinderella Man,” he flat-out says, “Fuck my last CD, the shit’s in my trash.” It’s rare to see this kind of self-criticism in the chest-thumping world of hip-hop, especially from an artist who has never shied away from telling the world how great he is.
And it’s Eminem’s admitted vulnerability and professional honesty that makes this album such a stand out, especially when compared with his earlier work. He candidly talks about dealing with the death of his best friend and D12 stablemate Proof (real name DeShaun Holton), his contentious relationship with fame and his own lofty expectations of himself. While Relapse served as a therapeutic release for Mathers, Recovery, as its title suggests, sees the artist examining his life with retrospective clarity.
Of course, the album thankfully isn’t just about venting: Eminem, an obvious fan of wordplay and puns, displays some of the funniest wordsmithing we’ve heard in hip-hop in quite some time. It’s hard not to chuckle when he spits lines like, “I gave Bruce Wayne a Valium and said ‘settle your fuckin’ ass down, I’m ready for combat, man.’ Get it? Calm Batman?” Print doesn’t do his verbiage justice, but make no mistake: Recovery is one witty album. Does it veer into offensive territory? Absolutely, and it probably wouldn’t be an Eminem album if it didn’t. But like a good episode of South Park, it’s all delivered with a winking self-awareness that makes it palatable.
But offending people isn’t Eminem’s primary focus here. Dominated by slickly-produced underdog anthems, including the aforementioned “Cinderella Man,” the first single “Not Alone” and “You’re Never Over,” this might be the most listenable album Eminem has ever released. With guest appearances by Rihanna, Lil Wayne and P!nk, and even including a sample from Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” Recovery sets out to please just about everyone, while Relapse was more or less a niche affair.
Some are already arguing that Recovery is Eminem’s best album to date, I’d place it somewhere between The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show overall. Having said that, Recovery is one of the most impressive hip-hop albums in years, and Eminem is at the top of his game. For the sake of the genre, let’s hope he stays there.
Favorite Tracks: “W.T.P.,” “Cinderella Man,” “25 to Life”