The entertainment industry- from Hollywood, to the television studios, to the music business- is in a sad state. It’s rare to see something new and worth your time these days. What happens when I put aside my 1980s and 90s Hip Hop to listen to some rap music of today?
In the first half of the last decade, Eminem, Shady and Aftermath Records, and anybody associated with them were on top of the world. The Shady/Aftermath (and G-Unit) machine had one of the best rappers alive, several of rap’s top producers and advertising machines, including longtime veteran Dr. Dre and had been climbing higher for a long time. Then, Eminem put out 2004’s Encore, an album that was inevitably weaker than his three classic records. It went diamond, but it marked the end of a critical period in Eminem’s career- despite having earned his stripes, he was no longer the infallible emcee. That was Eminem’s last unique studio album- until he had a Relapse in 2009.
Note: I’m not interested in downloading anything, or advocating privacy. The videos I link to are safe, but you follow any links from them at your own risk. I do not take any responsibility for illegal offers, malware, or other content.
Second Note: As I was writing these, The Blueprint 3 was intended to be the first entry in the “No Gimmicks Street Knowledge” column. The Relapse series of reviews was pushed forward when I realized that Recovery was to be released not July 21st as I had believed, but June 21st.
In commemoration of Em’s hiatus from Hip Hop, 2005 saw the release of Curtain Calls: The Hits. Despite being a greatest hits record, Curtain Calls saw three original songs, the most noteworthy being “When I’m Gone”, in which Eminem starts off at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and ends with having “killed” his alter ego, Slim Shady, and re-united with his happy family. Never one to take a break for long, Eminem took to the streets as Producer and lead of Shady Records with Eminem Presents: The Re-Up in 2006, a record designed to establish the label’s place as the leading Hip Hop label despite owner Eminem’s behind the scenes role. Eminem’s appearances on the record were that of a king in a tower, rapping at the peasants below who threaten his rule.
In 2007, there were talks of a new Eminem CD. The rumored King Mathers was possibly coming in Fall of 2007. Fall came, and there was no word. 2008 came, and there was no word. Fans still held out hope, but like Eminem’s friend and mentor Dr Dre’s Detox, there was speculation that the album was not going to come. Mathers, notorious for trying to live his life out of the spotlight, had managed to fall completely out of view… until the announce of Relapse.
After 5 years, does Relapse live up to the hype?
The beats, while produced by Dr. Dre, are not classic Dre-style beats. If anything, these are the beats that Eminem and the Bass Brothers are known for putting out. Each beat is generally a single bar, repeated throughout the entire song. The simplicity belays the quality, however; many of these beats don’t need any more than that. While it would have been really nice for some of the complex beats from The Chronic, they weren’t really needed here. That’s not to say I loved all of the beats- instrumentals on an Eminem record tend to fall along a spectrum-in which his beats range from hardcore rap beats heavy in snare, which I love enthusiastically, and the happy pop beats, which I generally despise.
The beats aren’t the only elements like that. Relapse tracks fall along three poles: Pop/Comedy, Hip Hop and Horrorcore. Elements from these three are mixed, whether it’s a Pop dance beat telling a story about a serial killer (“Same Song and Dance”) or a vile, supremely lyrical track about slasher icons (“Underground”). The beats (a main reason for the dark feel of the album) and many of the horror references remind me heavily of Devil’s Night, Eminem’s group D-12’s first LP, although Shady has graduated mostly from the world of Michael Myers into the world of Ted Bundy.
On the Pop/Comedy side, Em has returned to his roots with a slew of comedic celebrity disses (“Bagpipes from Baghdad” being the most serious). Honestly, this is probably my least favorite part of his albums, and the main reason why I prefer to pick up his mixtapes to his albums. Similarly, exaggerated disses of his mother (“My Mom“ and “Insane”) feature prominently here.
As we continue to move along the line between classic Rap and Pop, the line where the commercial Eminem (as compared to the mix tape Eminem) is most comfortable, we get a slew of tracks ranging from the cheerful yet classic styled track “Old Time’s Sake”, “Must be the Ganja” and “Hello”. As I write this, it becomes clear that the closer you get to Pop, the more tracks you get compared to the other two poles. This actually makes sense. Em’s records are very commercial and tend to toe a line between the Hardcore Rap he came up on and the Pop that made him rich. But when you add in a third element, Horrorcore, the Pop fans will not tolerate having less of their comedy and dance songs in place of more horror. So he needs to cut from the already downplayed area of Hardcore Rap to supply this new genre. A shame for longtime listeners like me but Rap fans already know that there will be new features, mix tapes and/or singles to come where he lives up to expectations and makes up for this grievance.
On the far Pop side, we have “We Made You”, the first single and similar in lines to his previous celebrity-filled singles, “Crack a Bottle”, another trio with 50 Cent and Dr. Dre and probably my least favorite track featuring this particular team of all time (“Encore” at least felt like a performance at a Hip Hop club and had a beat I enjoyed), and “Bagpipes From Baghdad”. Eminem’s pop abilities really shine here although I don’t personally enjoy them- “Bagpipes From Baghdad” and “My Mom” are good examples of that, as he plays with voices and methods of singing.
The main Horrorcore tracks of this record- the ones that set it far enough apart to make it one of the three poles- are “Stay Wide Awake” and “3 A.M.”, Relapse‘s second single. “3 A.M.” fits into the story of the uncontrollable relapse in the beginning of the record, while “Stay Wide Awake” works more into the general “drug using serial killer” theme present for the rest of the album. Both are creepy in their own way.
Two key tracks I have not really mentioned yet are “Medicine Ball”, which really defines this album, and “Beautiful”, the album’s third single. “Medicine Ball” falls right in the center of three poles, not because it doesn’t fit any of them but because it fits them all equally. It has a beat that leans toward the Horror side, mentions of Hannibal Lecter, and plenty of talk about pills. It includes the celebrity talk, such as resurrecting Christopher Reaves from the dead to talk about how much he hates Slim Shady. The lyrics are serious, skillful and self-referential. Relapse‘s second single, “Beautiful”, on the other hand, is a completely unique track compared to the rest of the CD, and thanks to the Horror references in “Underground”, falls by default into the slot of the most specifically Hip Hop track (almost reminiscent of Nas) on the record. “Beautiful” is about his return to writing and his personal struggle. It comes across partially as a motivational track and Eminem sings some more on here.
Unlike most CDs these days, the music itself is not all there is to Relapse. Eminem is an expert album crafter. Or, he is repetitive and too stubborn to give up a tired schtick. All depends on your point of view. As for skits, we have continuations of old favorites such as Steve Berman and Paul Rosenberg, as well as the plot of the album. The opening track is not a faux Public Service Announcement; rather, it is Eminem’s release from Rehab, and the cause of the titular relapse. The next skit, Tonya, is an introduction to “Same Song and Dance”, introducing us to the serial killer version of Slim Shady. Finally, “Mr. Mathers” is the end of the relapse plot, where Marshal is found unconscious and a doctor that sounds suspiciously like Dr. Dre oversees his hospitalization.
As for the Slim Shady character himself, he’s back. Sort of. The line is sort of blurred, but the basic idea seems to be that this is a new, darker Slim, back from the dead and brought on by the drugs themselves. A Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde type of thing if he wasn’t already. He is a bit less comical, though it’s clear that Shady himself finds what he does funny indeed. He’s just darker all around. To add to this, “Underground” ends with a skit that alludes back to the opening of “When I’m Gone,” returning to the AA meeting. It’s almost as though “When I’m Gone,” including the “death” of Slim Shady, never happened. And that’s what Relapse does: “When I’m Gone,” is now over. It’s dead. Eminem is not gone. Slim Shady is not gone. Even the return of his marriage, as referenced in “When I’m Gone”, is done.
Relapse is a step back in Eminem’s career in more ways than one- most of them good ones. Gone is the PeeWee Herman/Triumph Eminem, and back is the Eminem who struggles to simply put up with life. Gone is King Mathers on the hill and back is the underground MC struggling to continue to prove himself. Relapse runs through his past CDs, bringing us Slim Shady, the trials present in the Marshal Mathers LP, the comedic skill and experienced presence of The Eminem Show, and the advanced flows and singing of Encore. There is one noticeable thing missing, however: in his grief over Proof, it seems Marshal forgot to put the rest of his Detroit crew- or indeed, any of his Shady Records crew- on the album. For the first time, only Dr. Dre and 50 Cent have noteworthy features (Charmagne Tripp has an unnamed feature on “We Made You”). This is only noticeable to a long-time Shady listener, but still, I found it a bit jarring.
I was prepared to find this CD predictable and lacking in creativity and substance. Eminem himself even said “that last Relapse CD was eh”. Yet, I was entertained and intellectually involved. Sure, a good third of the album was nowhere near my taste, probably a record for an Eminem album, but what was within my range was superb. You can feel the effort and heart that went into this record, and for that alone it deserves four mics.
Note: You missed my explanation of that. Rather, I’m pushing that one back three weeks. Score is out of five mics, pre-Benzino Source style.