The New Classics

May 17, 2009

Album Review: Eminem, Relapse

Filed under: Album Review, Hip Hop — Tags: , , , — Greg @ 11:03 am


Eminem Relapse

So here’s what you probably already know by now: Eminem still hates celebrities, still raps about killing and raping women, still uses that silly voice that he used on the song dedicated to dissing a hand puppet, and has become a lesser version of himself from nine years ago. But his relevancy has dropped considerably over the years and so has his ability to stay in touch with what the fans want to hear. Sure, in 1999 we had never heard someone so vocal in their lyrics about how cheesy American pop music was. Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, N Sync all got taken down a peg or two, and at the time it was a relief to hear someone stand up against that crap. Now that it’s 2009, all we see is ridicule of our pop stars and celebrities all over the tv, papers and internet. We don’t need Eminem to join in anymore and put his two cents in about these stale topics – it’s already taken care of everywhere else. We also don’t need a grown man (almost 40 now) rapping in character of a psychopathic murderer/rapist with a voice that sounds like Conan O’Brien’s evil villain impression. What we do need is a fired-up, aggressive and lyrically dominant Eminem – a ‘The Way I Am’/’Soldier’/’Lose Yourself’ Eminem. We need a heartfelt, thoughtful, smart ‘When I’m Gone’/’Stan’/’Like Toy Soldiers’ Eminem. Neither of those sides of Marshall Mathers show up for very long on Relapse, but I think I’ve figured out why.

The entire album is done in-character, this is the first thing that must be understood while listening. It isn’t Eminem rapping about drugging, kidnapping, raping and killing young women on ‘Same Song and Dance’, it’s his “evil alter-ego” Slim Shady, which somehow makes it ok to listen to; the same way Christian Bale made it ok to watch as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. So what Eminem is trying to do on this record is provide a similar cinimatic experience through the mind of this character and a psychotic drug binge murder spree. In this age of pick-and-choose iTunes shopping and zShare blogging, it’s easy (and I’m just as guilty of this) to misunderstand and misjudge the purpose of the songs without hearing them as a whole. Too many people are just looking for a hot song, not patient enough to sit through an entire concept album to get the point. When we hear a song like ‘Insane’ on its own, where Em raps, among other deplorable things, about being sodomized and molested by his stepfather, of course our first reaction is going to be “what the fuck?”. But to hear it as part of the story, it makes sense… kinda.

One of the things that I noticed after listening to Relapse a few times is that Eminem is pretty aware of how redundant his act has become, or at least aware of people’s criticisms of his act. On the drowsy ‘My Mom’, he starts off with the line “My mom, my mom, I know you’re probably tired of hearing about my mom“. Or a better example would be the inclusion of the latest in his series of ‘Paul’ skits, where Marshall’s manager leaves him the following hilarious voice message that summed up my entire first thoughts halfway through the album: “Em, it’s Paul. Um, I just listened to the entire album. You gotta be fucking kidding me. I mean with this Christopher Reeve shit? You know the guy’s dead, right? And then the whole gay, stepfather incest rape thing? I don’t have your back on this one, I can’t even fucking handle it. I’m done.” Yeah, he’s still bashing Christopher Reeve for some unexplained reason, although he gives a little bit of insight on the classic Eminem-sounding ‘Medicine Ball’ – “Now everybody’s pissed at me / like it’s my fault his name rhymes with so many different words, geez“.

While the subject matter might be tough to accept, the production is as tight (and in a few cases, tighter) as any Eminem release to date. Dr. Dre handles every track on Relapse, save for one, and he is a huge reason that this album eventually comes together. ‘Hello’ is a dark but bouncy gem that could almost go over pretty well in a party atmosphere. ‘Deja Vu’ has a ‘Mosh’-like slow headnod feel to it, and is one of the main bullet points for why the second half of Relapse is superior to the first. It also helps that Marshall’s lyrics are much more grounded in reality as he reflects on the drug issues that are now behind him. ‘Stay Wide Awake’ has the same horror movie vibe as most of The Marshall Mathers LP, and ‘Old Time’s Sake‘ brings us back even farther to the playfully mischievous vibe of The Slim Shady LP.

And I haven’t even mentioned yet that Eminem’s rhyming skills are still top notch, despite the words he sometimes chooses to use or the voices he sometimes chooses to rhyme in. His flow is always sharp, like in the tongue-twisting ode to Mariah Carey/Nick Cannon throwdown track ‘Bagpipes From Baghdad’. Once again, it’s Em picking on pop stars and lesser calibre MCs, but his talent can’t be denied, and Dre’s instrumental is crazy. The only song that Eminem produces himself is ‘Beautiful’, a Queen-sampling rap ballad in the same vein of The Eminem Show‘s ‘Sing For the Moment’. It’s a nice departure from the Slim Shady character that tyrannizes most of the album, and is a great example of why Relapse isn’t as terrible as it may seem at first.

Because of the staleness of ‘We Made You‘, and the mediocrity of ‘Crack a Bottle‘, people’s expectations of Relapse were progressively lowered before the album came out (or leaked to the net). Then for the first twelve tracks of the album, all we hear is a Marshall Mathers LP ripoff by a once-musical genius. Combined with the sour taste left from the Encore album, automatically we’re convinced that the record just sucks, and Eminem has fallen off. Our mind is made up before we get to the really good stuff on the tail end, like the frantic, heavy closer ‘Underground’, one of the best songs that Relapse has to offer.

The thing is, we have to either accept the album as a fictional, fantasized story from front to back (not to mention accepting the fact that he’s done all of this before), OR we have to look past the tired gruesome themes and just bump the music for what it is to be able to enjoy Relapse at all. To most people, that’s a lot to ask, and that’s a fair request; they want something to easily digest straight out of the packaging, especially from a rap album. But once you get deeper into the LP you start to appreciate Eminem’s attempt at this concept. And you start to dig the Dr. Dre instrumentals. And then you start to hear glimmers of what made you love Eminem’s music in the first place, and you forget about how just a few weeks ago you were wondering what the hell he was thinking. The man is still a genius. He’s just stuck in a strange place creatively: somewhere between trying to recreate his own success in a new landscape where that old formula doesn’t work so much. Relapse is a product of that, however there’s enough quality sprinkled behind the forefront to not lose all hope yet, and to expect Relapse 2 to be a better album for it. But the routine has run pretty thin.

Album: Relapse
Artist: Eminem
Label: Shady / Aftermath / Interscope
Featured Artists: Dr. Dre, 50 Cent
Featured Producers: Dr. Dre, Eminem
Rating: 7.5
Highlights: ‘Hello’, ‘Stay Wide Awake’, ‘Deja Vu’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Underground’



  1. You’re expecting way too much from the listener. The fact that certain requirements are needed from the listener, in order for one to enjoy the album, is enough to prove that this album is not good enough.

    It is the artists duty to make the album attractive to the masses, not his duty to form a work of art that requires something from the listener. If the artist cannot manage to create something that is liked FOR WHAT IT PRESENTS itself as being, then the artist fails.

    Presentation is a crucial part of creating an album. The presentation YOU’RE explaining is atrocious, and it comes off as very forced.

    … And that’s the problem with Relapse, it wants to be so much but fails to live up to the hype. At one end, he tries to make the silly popcorn songs for cheap chuckles, and in the other end he tries to make insane psycho songs as if to shock the listener, and somewhere in between that, he wants sympathy for his drug addiction.

    It’s just not a cohesive and seamless transition between the different parts of the album…

    Sorry Em, but Relapse just isn’t good enough.

    People loved Em because he dared so much and was so fed up with all kinds of bullshit, to the point where he truly shared the darkness within him. We didn’t love him BECAUSE he bashed celebs or talked about killing Kim, we loved him because him talking about those obscure and unorthodox things proved to us that he really did not give a fuck.. He really was just expressing his TRUE self. So we understood him on a deeper level than any other pop icon, hence the crazy stan following he’s been getting.

    …And that is exactly where Relapse fails. He’s not being honest, he’s not bashing celebs on Relapse as a way to express his true self, he bashes them “just because”… He doesn’t talk about rape and murder on Relapse just cause that’s the rage he’s REALLY feeling, he raps about rape and murder “just because”.. There is really no deeper purpose to it all, and so it fails in it’s aspiration to capture the listener the way his first few albums did.

    And that’s what many people fail to see. It is very obvious that Em didn’t try to be controversial for the sake of controversy back in the day, he was just expressing his true self. He’s just a shell nowadays. The depth he used to express through his music is gone nowadays. And if you’ve read his book, you notice why that is… He’s a lonely guy that clearly regrets a lot of paths he’s taken, and mourns a lot of events that have happened… Where rap used to be his escape route back in the day, it’s more of an obstacle for him today. This guy really needs to hang up the mic, go back home and leave the spotlight for good… Rap is not to his benefit anymore, and this comes from a huge Em fan.

    Comment by HHH — May 17, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

  2. You make some really good points but I’m a little confused as to if you’re talking about the album material being forced or my review sounding forced? The bottom line though, is that the “look at me, aint I crazy” shock value gimmick is borderline pathetic at this point. BUT I think that the music – and this includes Dre’s beats and Em’s lyrical abilities (not subject matter) together – is strong enough to at least balance out a lot of the bullshit that he’s presenting us with. Yeah, it sucks that we can’t have everything, and he’s disappointing a lot of people (myself included) by not progressing in substance, but I don’t think it’s expecting too much from the listener to approach the album in the context that it was meant to be heard. Concept albums are released all the time with that same idea in mind: to trust the listener with being smart enough to know that every track is part of a larger picture. Some of these work, some don’t, and Relapse I happen to feel falls somewhere in the middle with the instrumentals being the main redeeming quality.

    Comment by gM — May 17, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  3. I was talking about the album material seeming forced, not your review.

    The notion that Relapse is a conceptual album actually goes hand in hand with the earlier point I was trying to make, he’s all over the place with this album. If it’s not the weird mix of murder/rape music, wacky joke-tracks or sappy sympathy songs, it’s the confusion over WHAT he wants the album to be.

    Because I do understand why one could consider Relapse an attempt at a conceptual work of art; most of the material, from the artwork to the overall theme, tries to deal with the same subjects and have similar beats. But in actuality, Relapse is not a concept album. There are too many segments of Relapse that totally break away from the dark drug themes for the album to be considered a concept album.

    In one end, he talks about his drug habits on Deja Vu, but on the other hand he jokes about Christopher Reeves and Mariah Carrey on other tracks… The album is all over the place. He wants us to understand his struggle and his flaws on Beautiful, but then he mocks other celebrities flaws on We Made You… He just seems so confused on Relapse. Like he doesn’t really know in what direction he wants the album to go.

    …And in fact, I think that’s exactly it. He doesn’t really know what he wants this album to be. The struggle to get out of his mess, to be able to get back on the mic, coupled with the pressure to meet the expectations, has probably made his mind a maze.

    One thing I admire Em for, is that he is one of few rappers that actually has made albums that have a goal. He wanted to SAY something with MMLP and TES, he had an overall message and there was a thread throughout the albums, even though there was variety in subject matter and tone on different songs. So with that said, we know what he’s capable of, as far as cohesive albums go… So it is pretty sad to say, but the man that arguably is one of the best rappers at making cohesive and conpcet-like albums (in that they convey an overall message) has failed at it this time..

    Comment by HHH — May 17, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  4. Here’s the thing though, I think that the Christopher Reeve & Mariah Carey jokes and the like fit in with the “relapse” theme perfectly by “relapsing” and re-visiting themes and subjects of his past. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Em knows very well that this is all tired shit that no one really wants to hear anymore, and he’s only doing it to fit with that very theme, hopefully just this one last time. As for the album being all over the place, I think that’s also as if the character point of view that he’s rhyming in keeps nodding in and out of sanity. You’ll notice that after the Mr. Mathers skit where he overdoses, that’s the end of the wacky, irrational-type songs and they become a bit more grounded in reality, rather than the fantasies of a psychopath.

    Or maybe I’m just giving him too much the benefit of the doubt and I’m an idiot for looking too deep into it. I think only he knows for himself, and unless he one day comes forward and explains his thought process on recording this record, it’s going to always be up for debate.

    Again though, good points made I totally see your side of things.

    Comment by gM — May 17, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

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