If Eminem's Relapse sounded staid and remarkably isolated from the rest of hip-hop, then Recovery, its triumphantly titled but grotesquely executed successor, is a clear attempt to align the rapper with the mainstream elite: Lil Wayne surfaces on "No Love," flowing in his trademark measured drawl, and Pink and Rihanna make formidable appearances. These artists generally make good pop music, but Eminem has no idea how to bring out the best in them. Dr. Dre's lumbering, funeral-soundtrack beats grew tediously stale on Relapse, so what did Em do? Drop major bank for a hokey "What Is Love" sample and languid keyboard motif from superstar producer Just Blaze, who seems to have lost his soulfully deft touch since scoring his biggest hit with T.I.'s 2008 self-help mantra "Live Your Life."
If nothing else, Recovery will adjourn the idea that Eminem has any greatness left in him. His previous five records were all slight variations on the same supremely lucrative formula, but in between the revenge letters to his mother and declarations of love for daughter Hailie, he challenged himself more than anyone seems to acknowledge, wrecking beats by everybody from Timbaland to Da Beatminerz and spitting alongside intensely skillful rappers like Redman, Jay-Z, Royce Da 5'9", and Sticky Fingaz. He was a versatile, purebred MC, good for a lot more than Dre-produced odes to mayhem. Now he's content to behave like an utter caricature.
A decade ago, when Eminem's videos were sandwiched in constant rotation between The Andy Dick Show and Jackass on MTV, he lampooned teen culture with joyful intelligence, parading around like Tom Green on TRL while his fans cheered mindlessly, clearly not aware that they were being disparaged. That artfulness is gone. Today's Eminem is bizarrely generic, shouting out brands like Bacardi on "W.T.P." and spouting brag-raps amid shoddy R&B hooks and synthy beats that sound like they were made for Taio Cruz. "Seduction" is so limp and preposterous that you'll develop a newfound appreciation for 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology."
Much of Recovery centers around such themes as romantic devotion and anxiety, but the resulting material rings unsurprisingly hollow. On a few occasions, Eminem tries in vain to evoke the chilling and urgent resonance of 2000's "Kim." Particularly ugly is the acoustic, wafer-thin "Space Bound": Eminem can't talk to women and he never could, so when he threatens to strangle anyone who leaves him, the peril feels forced and wholly off-putting. And can we please, Em, stop dressing up misogyny as emotionally charged desperation? Love might be a battlefield, but rational men don't kill their wives as soon as talk of divorce arises.
Eminem can record as many bare-bones confessionals as he'd like (on "Talkin' 2 Myself," he struggles to come to grips with mounting insecurities, while "Going Through Changes," a tidal wave of irresistible melodrama that samples Black Sabbath's "Changes," is the one song on Recovery that merits room on your iPod), but there's nothing altogether endearing about his facade: shouting earnestly one track, cackling devilishly as he kicks a woman in her pussy the next. His idea of humor is deriding Elton John, who reportedly helped him through 18 months of intense, post-rehab detoxification, and the Parkinson's-stricken Michael J. Fox; his punchlines rarely resonate; his nasal bark of a delivery grows tiring fast; and his pop-culture references (David Cook?) are inane. He's a puzzling man who raises a lot of questions, one of which is how such a wondrous talent can make such bloated, sullen, and detestable albums?