Review Summary: One more time, for old time’s sake
I’m not going to sit around and tell you that Eminem is still the best in the game because he’s not. He’s been actively producing mediocre music since 2010 with only the occasional decent set of songs here and there. I mean, ‘Marshall Mathers LP 2’ was pretty good and ‘Kamikaze’ was alright, I guess but other than that it’s been a downhill slide into the pits of hell. There once was a time where you could say Eminem was the greatest rapper alive and people would agree with you. Not anymore mind, despite what his army of Stans will tell you. People tend to draw the line from when he went from good to bad here, at his 2008 comeback record ‘Relapse’, the first in the trilogy of his most reviled albums: the ‘Re-‘ trilogy, where in which he would reach new lows with the, just truly atrocious, ‘Revival’. But what of ‘Relapse’? Many point to this as the start of the downfall of Marshall Bruce Mathers III, his first misfire. But is that all fair? Is ‘Relapse’ still a flaming smelly turd that tainted the career of the best rapper on earth?
It’s important to note ‘Relapse’’s background when getting into the music. During the recording of the mind numbingly awful ‘Encore’, Eminem was addicted to pills. This addiction continued for the next few years, eventually leading to an overdose. With the death of best friend and fellow rapper Proof and a severe case of writer’s block bogging the man down too, suffice to say he wasn’t in the best of places. After entering rehab and emerging sober (which he is to this day. Good on him), Em headed into the studio, with a clear mind and a wealth of new ideas. Bunkering down with Dre at his side, Eminem began work on his comeback record. With rehab fresh behind him, ‘Relapse’ takes the form of a concept album of sorts detailing a timeline where Em relapses back to his old addictions (a very real fear for him at the time) and lets Slim Shady come out once more. As such, nearly every song deals with a variety of ghoulish topics and rhymes, mainly revolving around extreme violence and sexual depravity. The disturbing and, at times, disgusting lyrical content that was prominent in his earlier work is cranked up to full here, with many of the tracks revelling in degeneracy. Songs like ‘Same Song and Dance’, a track about how the thrashing and screaming of his victims is like music to his ears and the incredibly infamous ‘Insane’ which features some bars so repulsive I cannot repost them here with a clear conscious, are debatably some of the most offensive tracks the man ever made, and that’s saying something. However, unlike the more uncomfortable and very real abuse fantasies Em wrote about on ‘SSLP’ and ‘MMLP’ (‘Kim’ in particular), ‘Relapse’ feels much more comical in its delivery. Sure the blood splattered edginess of some of these tracks is obvious, but the general tone is more of a wacky, cartoonishly gory B-Movie than a genuinely frightening experience. That’s not to say that he doesn’t get serious on this album, because he does, to brilliant effect mind you. The track ‘Beautiful’, recorded during his drug fuelled hiatus, is genuinely touching with tasteful but heavy production and self doubting, passionate lyrics about self esteem issues and depression. It stands as quite possibly his best work and one of the most impassioned songs to come out of a man who got famous for rapping about ripping Pamela Lee Anderson’s tits off. Go figure. Other songs like the murky and trudging ‘Deja Vu’, appropriately about a Relapse and subsequent overdose are notably more uncomfortable and disturbing than most of the record’s more extreme moments.
The most common criticism for the album is Eminem’s delivery. His voice was in an unusual place, stuck inbetween the snotty nasally voice he had from ‘SSLP’ to ‘Encore’ and the deeper, matured voice from ‘MMLP2’ onwards. On top of that, a majority of the songs feature heavy use of accents on the tracks. Nothing as over the top as the insane Indian voice on ‘Ass Like That’ but a weird vaguely Eastern European/Asian voice that cant be exactly pinned. Suffice to say, it pissed a lot of people off when they heard it and many point to it as the one thing that destroys the album. Okay? So? The accents, as odd as they are, genuinely fit the tone and style of these songs, blending in perfectly with the incredibly OOT lyrics and the hazy, unique beats. I do think that the reason ‘Relapse’ was slammed so heavily upon release was because people were expecting another ‘MMLP’ or another ‘Eminem Show’. Not this silly horrorcore record crammed full of strange flows, nauseating lyrics and weird accents. They wanted serious Eminem and he basically told them to *** off and made what he wanted to make. If Em would have recorded these tracks with his regular voice, would they have been as unique or interesting? The production would be just as strong sure (Side note: most of the record was solely produced by Dr Dre who does an absolutely spectacular job here. Some of his best production work ever), and it would still be Eminem but would it still give off that feeling of a bizarre nightmare, or would it just be Em spouting off degenerate lyrics about eating miscarriages and getting ***ed in the ass by his step father? Well it still kinda is, but that’s besides the point. ‘Relapse’ is like a fever dream and I wouldn’t have it any other way and changing any of that to make it more normal would just make the record worse in comparison. As it is, it’s probably one of the weirdest records by a mainstream artist and one of the strangest albums to hit No 1 on the charts.
So with all that in mind, is ‘Relapse’ worthy of the hate. In my opinion, no. But I can see where people are coming from regardless. While Eminem’s flow is unbelievably complex and technical on some songs and the production work is tremendous, the goofy accents and garish lyrical content can be very VERY trying on some listeners. And trying it was certainly was, as the backlash was so extreme, Eminem would spend the rest of his career apologising and mocking the album in works far far more bland and weaker than this. It would stand as his last truly ‘Eminem work’. Everything after this would play it safe. Dozens of Pop artist features, less extreme lyrics. A more marketable and advertiser friendly Eminem. Faster delivery! Corny dad jokes! “Old rap good new rap bad” rants! Go, Marshal, Go!
In the end, It’s ok to like ‘Relapse’, but it’s equally ok to hate it too. But if you dig past that and simply enjoy the record as this strange, funny album that crosses all the lines in the book, you have something quite fantastic here.
Except ‘We Made You’. That sucks hard.
Best tracks: 3AM, Bagpipes from Baghdad, Same Song & Dance, Stay Wide Awake, Old Time’s Sake, Beautiful