By the time Eminem released his fourth major-label full-length, 2004’s Encore, he’d grown tired of his own shtick. Toning down the violence, rape and incest rhymes, he made a lighter, more humorous, even slightly political album. Critics didn’t particularly go for it, though, and while it moved five million copies in the U.S., that was far fewer than he was accustomed to selling.
Now, nearly five years later, after leading fans to believe he might actually follow through on his threat to retire, he’s back with Relapse, although nobody’s exactly sure why. Boredom? Hip-hop codependency? Part of his 12-step program? Whatever the case might be, he hews closely to the original Slim Shady model here, that is, absurd, misogynist, antagonistic and often pathetic songs in full-on “Look at me!” mode. Nearly every track contains a revelation, a pointless provocation or both: He talks of being raped by his stepfather on “Insane,” taunts Nick Cannon on “Bagpipes From Baghdad” and admits to a vasectomy and raps from the perspective of Christopher Reeve on “Medicine Ball.”
If you enjoyed The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, then you’ve probably already guessed that these songs are more fun than they sound on paper. Using a variety of half-crazed-sounding vocal styles and accents, Em describes drug overdoses, revenge plots, celebrity crushes and twisted sexual fantasies. As is the case with most rappers nowadays, it’s hard to know how many of these stories are true, but with Em that seems not to matter much. By employing the character of Slim Shady, he gives himself license to imagine an alternative, hellish universe.
Vocally it almost all sounds fresh, although Dr. Dre’s beats aren’t as universally compelling. Tracks like “Old Time’s Sake” and “Must Be the Ganja” sound like barely reheated outtakes from earlier in the decade. Still, like pizza and sex, even a bad Dre beat is pretty good, and “Insane,” “Crack a Bottle” and “Bagpipes From Baghdad” remind us why pairing these two together was such a great idea in the first place. Yeah, the results can sometimes be disgusting, but they speak to the lowlife in all of us.