The idea of relapsing isn’t one that’s solely aimed at addiction, especially so in the case of Eminem. Coming four and a half years after Encore, Relapse is a wildcard; an album coming from an unpredictable emcee, one of the world’s most popular and recognizable musical figures, and one that has been looming his entire career. Relapse occurs when you fall back into an old pattern or habit, and with Relapse, Marshall Mathers’s alter-ego drifts back into familiar subject matter, the bulk of which is accompanied by the beats produced by his longtime collaborator and mentor Dr. Dre. But over the course of the album, there is an increasingly broad disparity between who Mathers is, what he’s been through, and what people expect from the character he’s developed. And throughout the record, the main struggle isn’t to find a lyrical rhythm or a solid beat; after a failed reconciliation with his ex-wife, multiple bouts with addiction, stints in rehab, and the murder of his close friend, the struggle is to find which former self Mathers has now reverted back to.
Relapse opens with “Dr. West,” a skit that captures a meeting between Mathers and a counselor (played by Dominic West, best known as Jimmy McNulty from The Wire) in a treatment facility, with the two discussing a plan for action in an exit interview. Immediately, the counselor guides Mathers toward an alarming resolution; acknowledging that it’s alright if he relapses. And, immediately following the introduction, is “3am,” a thematically violent song that alludes to Silence of the Lambs and a preoccupation with blood and gore. Following that with “My Mom,” an ode to the drug dependency that was passed onto him from his mother, Relapse quickly begins to represent a return to the themes and approach that gained the emcee such notoriety with both The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP.
And for the majority of the album, only a few songs divert from this trend. “Insane” recalls stories of child molestation and suicide, “Hello” focuses on drug abuse, and the abduction skit “Tonya” is followed by the aptly titled “Same Song and Dance” which touches on a mixed bag of the previously mentioned themes. “I guess it’s time for you to hate me again,” taunts Mathers on “Medicine Ball,” as if to say that he’s firmly planted himself in the persona that stood alongside Marilyn Manson as two of the most notorious musical figures of the 1990s.
The song is followed by the skit “Paul,” a phone message from Mathers’ longtime manager and attorney Paul Rosenberg, “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.” The issue with poking fun at Reeve in “Medicine Ball” isn’t that it’s in poor taste, but rather that it’s desperate. Reviving the comparison, the song compares nicely with Marilyn Manson’s forthcoming album The High End of Low. The album is being touted as his most shocking in years, and the first single is the shock-for-shock’s sake “Arma-goddamn-motherfuckin-geddon.”
Ten years ago, most people were able to see through the shtick. But now that the shock-rocker is far past his prime, the relentless need to impress a wow-factor upon his audience only succeeds in being stale. Likewise, Mathers has long since lost his shock factor. The concluding concept of Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s 2005 documentary The Aristocrats best illustrates the relationship with the shift in culture and perception of taboo. The film captures numerous comedians retelling a notoriously filthy joke, and eventually concludes that culture has shifted past the point of shock: nothing’s shocking (but Jane’s Addiction figured that out over 20 years ago). So, when the majority of Relapse continues the approach of earlier Eminem albums while simply going out of the way lyrically to encourage outrage, Mathers comes across just as rudimentary as the stories he’s unfolding.
As the album progresses, however, there is a slow shift in Mathers’s lyrical focus. In particular on the tracks “Déjà Vu” and “Beautiful,” which stand out as honest attempts at offering intimate thoughts. Through “Déjà Vu,” Mathers recalls his own drug dependency and the terrifying memories of his daughter’s reaction to his declining health: “Look at my daughter’s face, mommy something is wrong with dad I think/He’s acting weird again, he’s really beginning to scare me/Won’t shave his beard again and he pretends he doesn’t hear me.” The song continues by following the progression and acceptance of falling back into the same patterns that lead to his situation in the first place: the relapse.
On the other hand is “Beautiful,” a song that is absolutely bizarre given the landscape of the album’s other tracks. Stretched out to six and a half minutes it is the longest song on Relapse, the track revolving around the idea of self-inspiration and becoming comfortable with with one’s self. Following a lament to his children, Mathers concludes: “God gave you the shoes that fit you, so put ‘em on and wear them/Be yourself man, be proud of who you are / Even if it sounds corny, don’t ever let no one tell you that you ain’t beautiful.” But before the song has a moment to settle in however, the album’s lead single, “Crack a Bottle,” comes crashing down, immediately reverting back to the lyrical themes typical of the majority of the album.
If you take Emimen’s words seriously, Relapse is a schizophrenic journey through the thoughts of a mind torn between reality and a twisted sense of intrigue and fascination. If that’s the position you’re taking, the final song, “Underground,” will do nothing but enforce the belief that Marshall Mathers is sick. The song is the most over-the-top culmination of shock on Relapse, flirting with such taboos as violence, sexually explicit lyrics and homophobic rhetoric, “60 sluts, all of em dying from asphexia, after they shit piss through a Christopher Reeve sippy cup…faggoty faggoty faggoty Raggedy Ann and Andy, no Raggedy Andy and Andy.” But on the flip side of that is a line that cheekily winks at the character people expect of him, “the fucking Antichrist is back.”
Whether or not you digest Eminem’s Relapse as an album built on a foundation of a return to a character, or simply poor taste, it’s startling in its inconsistency. This is the first of two albums Mathers has set for release this year, and it fails to find a balance between reflection and storytelling. To some degree that likely discrepancy might reflect the lengthy recording process, with Dre and Mathers recording over two albums worth of material, and the difficulty in having to sort through the tracks for what songs should be used on which record. But the greater issue here is that there is no firm grip by Mathers on either reality or his character throughout the album. Relapse is a collection of songs that neither tells a story, nor deeply reflects on the life of the man behind the mic. And as such, the feeling that is taken away from the album isn’t that Mathers has relapsed into a former version of himself, but rather that he is now uncertain of who he has become.
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