Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Eminem Album: It's... Pretty Good

It must've taken a long time to arrange all those pills like that

“There’s really nothing else to say, I, I can’t explain it”
--Eminem, “My Dad’s Gone Crazy”

It was right there in the chorus of The Eminem Show’s final song, for anyone who cared to listen: Eminem freely admitting that he had shot his creative wad. With his first two albums he had both articulated his warped worldview and achieved massive mainstream success; after that, he coasted on fumes through Show, committed career/literal suicide on 2004’s dreadful Encore, and finally disappeared into reclusion.

Of course, the world’s best-selling rapper wasn’t going to stay in retirement forever. The only question was whether or not he’d have anything worthwhile to say when he finally made his comeback.

And on that count, the disappointing news about Relapse (which leaked to the internet this past Friday) is that, as the title suggests, it’s mainly a rehash of Eminem’s old Slim Shady persona. Sure, the album is supposedly centered around Mr. Mathers’s prescription drug addiction, but only a few songs address that situation in detail. (And it’s not like Eminem hasn’t rapped about drugs before anyway.) Rather, most of the lyrics are standard Shady shtick: Murder, celebrity-bashing, bodily fluids. Rape figures more prominently than ever before, and homophobia, which Em more or less abandoned after his duet with Elton John, is back in abundance. It’s all even more exaggerated and offensive than it was before, and feels even less justified. Em used to be mad at the world because he was poor. Then he was mad at the world because he was misunderstood. What reason does he have to be mad at the world now, other than the fact that his anger seems to sell CDs?

The good news, though, is that on some of Relapse’s songs, Slim Shady is actually fun again. Eminem may not have many new ideas, but he does sound hungry; his lyrics are still intricately crafted, and his flow has gotten even more slippery. Rhyme schemes melt into each other, disappear, pop up again when least expected. “Now here’s a plateful of painkillers, now just wait ‘til I crush the Valium and put it in your potatoes!”

In fact, Eminem’s flow is so consistent that the production is mainly what determines which songs work and which don’t. Dr. Dre produced the whole album (except for “Beautiful”), and unfortunately, he ain’t what he used to be. Too often the beats here get bogged down with strings and wailing backing vocals. Still, the beats that do work (for example, “My Mom,” “Insane,” or “Old Times Sake”) work really, really well.

Em does try getting serious for two songs, “Déjà Vu” and “Beautiful.” “Déjà Vu” is decent, breaking from the Slim Shady persona but retaining a dark sense of humor to describe Em’s prescription drug addiction. “Beautiful,” on the other hand, is a six-and-a-half-minute non sequitur with a chorus that finds Em singing, “Don’t let ‘em say you ain’t beautiful.” Uh, you do remember that you just threatened to rape the Pussycat Dolls, right? And you do know that in a few tracks you’ll use the word “faggoty” three times in a row? Just checking.

Still, inconsistencies aside, this is an album that people (with strong stomachs) will actually enjoy listening to, and that automatically puts it above Encore. It isn’t amazing as a whole, but its best tracks measure up to the work Em was doing at his peak, and that’s saying something. I’d expect the same level of quality from the upcoming Relapse 2, since it was recorded during the same sessions, but hey, maybe Em’s just warming up. Maybe his next album after R2 will be technically amazing and coherently relevant!

Or maybe he’ll just fall off again. I don’t know. Anyway, here’s my track-by-track breakdown.

1. “Dr. West”—Dominic West is awesome. Also, this skit is nicely reminiscent of the intro to Eminem’s pre-fame Slim Shady EP.
2. “3 AM”—Everyone understands that this song is a series of jokes, right? Rolling Stone called it “deadly serious,” and the music video seems to really want to be scary, but for God’s sakes, he’s talking about about jerking off to Hannah Montana.
3. “My Mom”—My current favorite song on the album. The flow actually gives me a rush just from listening to it.
4. “Insane”—A song about a young Marshall Mathers getting repeatedly raped by his stepfather. Are victims of sexual abuse offended by this?
5. “Bagpipes From Baghdad”—Not about the war in Iraq; really just an excuse to use funny accents. Nice ironic Auto-Tune, though.
6. “Hello”—Meh. The beat isn’t silly enough.
7. “Tonya (Skit)”—“What has it been, five songs? I guess we should put a skit in here.”
8. “Same Song & Dance”—Possibly the album’s worst song. The lyrics are pointless and repulsive stories of Shady kidnapping and murdering starlets, and the beat is too morose to even allow any black humor to work.
9. “We Made You”—I’ve already talked about this one, but suffice to say: Good beat, good flow, dumb content. Why was this the comeback single?
10. “Medicine Ball”—General Slim Shady antics, but pretty funny, especially when Em raps as Christopher Reeves.
11. “Paul (Skit)”—Paul is afraid people may find Eminem’s new album offensive.
12. “Stay Wide Awake”—What’s up with all the rape? Nothing all that interesting about this one, although the repeated assertion that sharp objects are more fun than guns (the weapon of choice for most actual serial killers) is a nice jab at Hollywood slasher movies.
13. “Old Times Sake (Ft. Dr. Dre)”—Hmm, you think Em ghostwrote Dre’s verses? Nice beat, though.
14. “Must Be The Ganja”—Forgettable.
15. “Mr. Mathers”—Another skit, this one featuring paramedics arriving at the scene of Em’s overdose.
16. “Déjà Vu”—I can see substance abuse counselors playing this for support groups. I mean that as a compliment.
17. “Beautiful”—Again, why is this song here? The country-rock verse that opens and closes the track is so corny that it almost sounds like something out of South Park.
18. “Crack A Bottle (Feat. Dr. Dre & 50 Cent)”—Dumb lyrics, but the beat is nice.
19. “Steve Berman (Skit)”—Amusing.
20. “Underground/Ken Kaniff”—The opening line made me laugh out loud. Beyond that, the chorus’s rhythm is really odd, but the verses are badass. (Although “Hit a fag with onions/Then split a bag of Funyuns” has to be one of the dumbest lines ever.) And you know what to expect from a Ken Kaniff skit.

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