The operative question in any discussion of a new Eminem album is how it measures up to his Slim Shady LP. The Detroit MC’s first album is viewed by many as a classic, and as is the case with debut albums of any repute, all of his subsequent works have been measured against its high watermark. This is a humorous dilemma in Em’s case because give or take a few standout hits, most of his albums are almost completely interchangeable in terms of content and quality. The first three in particular all share the same patent irreverence, celebrity potshots, introspective dysfunctional family drama, Paul Rosenberg, Steve Berman & Ken Kaniff skits. Encore may have left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth on account of the funny accents and goofy sex rap, and Relapse’s knee-jerk attempt at an abrasive horrorcore return to form resulted in an hour’s worth of ill-conceived murder and rape fantasies, but really, though, it’s all the same song and dance. So when Em ditched plans for Relapse 2 and announced Recovery in its stead, people got excited. Judging from the pre-release buzz, motivational lead single, and title, Recovery was to introduce the world to a new Eminem, a man, haunted by death, who was finally ready to lay his personal demons to rest and move on.
When Recovery opens with Em crooning “Some things just don’t change/It’s better when they stay the same”, it’s as honest an assessment of his career thus far as you’re likely to hear committed to tape. “Cold Wind Blows”, the song that follows, adeptly dismantles the promise of a kinder, gentler Eminem amid a flurry of curse words and put downs. By the end of the first line, there’s incest. By the end of the first verse, he’s made three cheap shots at other celebrities. By the end of the song, he’s dropped all of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” at least once, if not twice, and spewed as much misogyny, homophobia and general hate speech as he ever has in his career. It’s difficult to discern who this kind of thing appeals to at this point anymore or why, as a grown ass man pushing 40 with three kids, he still finds murder, rape, and mayhem to be so damned funny. All those diatribes about media persecution and censorship suddenly ring hollow. His detractors were right. This guy’s mouth is pretty foul.
Things get murkier with the next song, “Talkin’ 2 Myself”. Here Em actually does deliver on Recovery’s supposed concept, spitting confessional bars about his struggles with addiction and self loathing over DJ Khalil’s reggae flavored track. “Talkin’ 2 Myself” along with the emotional 1-2 punch of the Black Sabbath sampling “Going Through Changes” and the triumphant “Not Afraid” are as arresting as they are frustrating. They don’t sit well at all beside the more nonsensical material. They offer a glimpse of what Recovery could have been but isn’t. Em still seems more interested in wordplay this time around than storytelling. Thankfully, Em’s one of the better MCs currently walking the earth, and the druggy headspace that marred his last few records is gone, leaving behind an absolute lyrical beast.
For all Recovery’s conceptual flip-flopping, its one constant is its brilliant wordplay. It transforms the confessional joints to glorious, life affirming anthems, and it even renders the goofier moments obnoxiously listenable. The bratty, smack talking “W.T.P. (White Trash Party)” is easily one of Marshall’s greatest lyrical performances ever. He co-opts the flow and cadence of Southern rap legend Scarface for “On Fire”, wherein he drops some jewels about dead dogs and hogtied hoes. Even when he’s indulging his most impish, childish tendencies, he’s doing it in a way that dazzles the listener. Recovery isn’t all a loss, despite it mostly reprising the same potty-mouthed chicanery of previous work. It’s at least a step in the right direction.
Where Relapse attempted to recapture early career magic through imitation, Recovery is not afraid to shake up the formula. The pesky skits are all gone. Em’s Shady/Aftermath compatriots largely are absent. The only rapper cameo comes courtesy of incarcerated Young Money CEO Lil Wayne, who turns in a spitfire career highlight of a verse for “No Love”. Em’s go-to producers, Dr. Dre and Bass Brothers, are all but an afterthought. The production is largely handled by a who’s who of modern hitmakers. Just Blaze, DJ Khalil, Boi-1da, Jim Jonsin, and more pump fresh musical vigor into Em’s tracks with their cinematic beats. Canadian producer Script Shepherd’s “Cinderella Man”, almost all drums with a spattering of guttural guitar, bangs like Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Boi-1da’s string-laden track for “Seduction” provides the perfect platform for Em to spin a tale of stealing an inferior rapper’s girlfriend through sheer force of lyrical dexterity. Barring a few awkward clunkers, the production on Recovery is pretty good.
Billing Recovery as an expression of Eminem’s newfound maturity was a mistake. The album’s handful of serious joints may be more mature, but they’re no less vulgar. The album goes for cheap thrills and shock value. Eminem still baits every bit of the controversy he complains about. He’s still trying to balance the court jester act that brought his music to the masses with the sobering realities of his life as a recovering act and family man in the spotlight, but it’s about time to cut the class clown act and be real.