“I know you’re probably tired of hearing about my mom,” Eminem admits in the opening lines to the cryptically titled “My Mom” on Relapse, Marshall Mathers’s first album in half a decade. While that’s a lot of time to contemplate how to creatively express his long-simmering resentment of his fucked-up upbringing, most are apt to respond without hesitation, “Yep, pretty tired.” Aside from the mainstream outlets that still believe they have an obligation to love Eminem (Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone turned in predictable raves), many early reviews of the album have been unqualified pans. Granted, to my ears, Eminem’s seesawing flow and dissociative deployment of Slim Shady are still outstanding aural shorthands for Em’s roller-coaster bipolarity.
But relapse is inherently a selfish, almost solipsistic act. And Eminem’s recalcitrant backtrack into his own morbid obsessions, personal beefs, and penchant for filling silence with ass-rips are bound to sound like betrayal to the same people who hoped (in vain) that the likes of “Lose Yourself” and “Mosh” represented a more refined, responsible method of artistically channeling chronic anger. With four more years of fertile Bush presidency to unpack, Relapse—as evidenced by an album cover that is meant to resemble a pile of pills, but instead looks like a big pile of puke with Eminem’s face in the middle—is nothing more than a backward tumble into “Just Don’t Give a Fuck” territory.
Not that I give much of a fuck either. I’m of the opinion that Eminem’s métier has always been to reflect and celebrate the irresponsibility of young America, not to serve as its guilty conscience. But the irresponsibility is shared. For as many times as Eminem has prefaced a particularly sick joke with a sotto voce “just kidding, bitches,” there’s no doubt the disclaimer has been routinely ignored by the same demographic for whom the perceived emotional truth of what Eminem slings has long been held sacrosanct. (Check out the comments section on any given Relapse pan; the devotion of his fanbase approaches Jill Scott levels, only with more misspelled deployments of the epithet “faggot.”)
The further Relapse strays from narrative veracity, the more one suspects his fanbase feels he’s tapping into his bottomless well for horror-show grandstanding. The promotional clip accompanying the album’s opening track “3 A.M.” deliberately takes the blackout mass-murder fantasy literally, depicting a shirtless Eminem screaming in the woods, bathing in blood, and hacking off mental hospital staffers’ limbs. From there, the album continues to plumb the depths by dismantling first mother (“My Mom”), then stepfather. “I was born with a dick in my brain, fucked in the head,” he spits on “Insane” before launching into a mercilessly first-person recollection of the aromas and fluids that accompanied his childhood molestation. Though he reckons with horror he’s finally becoming his own strung-out mother, Eminem—now the father of a sentient human being—is beyond too old for this kind of shit.
And yet all this would add up to a disappointing but understandably recidivistic footnote in Eminem’s career—he was, after all, spiraling into addiction in real life—if it weren’t for the fact that the beats of the returned Dr. Dre aren’t just tepid and uninspired…they’re downright hesitant. Maybe we’re back to square one (the good cop/bad cop routine from “Guilty Conscience”) and Dre’s just not sure he can go along for the ride as Eminem sets his lyrical sights on what felching tastes like, but there isn’t one legitimate funky snap in the album’s entire running time. Most of the time it sounds like Dre’s trying to beat Eminem’s vocals into submission with ungainly, loping kicks. When he tries to summon pop hooks, as with the shuffling Motown throwback of “We Made You” and the Bone Thuggish piano rolls of “Crack a Bottle,” he only sounds even more capitulatory. I moderately dread what Eminem will say on Relapse 2, but if the backing tracks of the first installment are any indication, I’m pretty sure Dre’s contribution will sound like the “Same Song & Dance.”