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First, let’s talk about what he did. Marshall Mathers once wrote a song called “Kim,” about killing his wife, and a lot of people got understandably worried: What’s the big idea here? Should our children be listening to this? Isn’t this guy just filling their heads with misogynist rage and passing it off as a joke?, etc. More sympathetic listeners used words like “storyteller” and “depiction” and “uncompromising” to try and explain to people who’d read Kant why they were so fond of a homicidal trailer-park rapper, and the whole thing was exactly the kind of ideological traffic jam that had become Eminem’s métier. On the subsequent State of the Post-Eminem Union masterpiece “White America,” he bragged about “creating so much motherfucking turbulence.”
But back to “Kim” real quick: Driving his wife out to the woods to stab her, Eminem was fearful and panicked, freaking out about someone driving in the other lane, scaring his victim with a frantic bark every time he felt small. It was hard to listen to this song and not be wrapped up, shaking, in a blanket by the end. It was a song about male rage, but it wasn’t some sanctimonious depiction—it was specifically about Marshall Mathers’s male rage and also, maybe, yours. With which you were now forced to engage. Eminem would not let you trust yourself—like the best essayists (like Socrates!), he sowed doubt.
Or maybe I’m just making shit up. Because Relapse, his first proper album in five years, couldn’t pull the rug out from under you if you left the room.
It was always going to be difficult. So much of Eminem’s work relied on his interplay with a rapt public—his innumerable celebrity disses worked because Marshall Mathers was a celebrity himself, a Loki in Valhalla. Now, Relapse is a dank echo chamber wherein he continues his “shock tactics” in pointless isolation. He has nothing to push against and no one to play with. Em slices up some hitchhikers and actresses—which, like, OMG—but it’s rote teenage cruelty: It can’t even summon the old, uncomfortable laughter. When he insists on “Medicine Ball” that “it’s time for you to hate me again” amid Silence of the Lambs references, it sounds like he’s pleading.
“Medicine Ball,” by the way, proceeds atop an exhausted boom-boom-CLAP Dr. Dre beat, which sounds a lot like Relapse‘s other boom-boom-CLAP Dr. Dre beats. With a handful of exceptions, Eminem has never bothered with samples, and his beats, whether homemade or solicited, have usually been simple, afraid of camouflaging the words. Which was fine, because this guy had a knack for internal rhyme so inventive that beneath sequences like “Mammals/Cannibals/Cantaloupes/Dead animals/Antelopes/Man and/Can’t elope,” anything more assuming might have seemed selfish. Now, though, infrequent sonic candies like the yelping horns of “My Mom” (which contains some of Em’s better lines) or the titular loop of “Bagpipes From Baghdad” (which doesn’t) are buoys amid a monotonous sea of what are basically Insane Clown Posse lyrics.
There’s an airless misery to this album. No more disorientation. Now, you know exactly what’s going on: You’re sitting in a cold little room listening to Dr. Dre clap every few seconds while a jumpy 14-year-old reads you the protected entries from his Xanga. (That’s kinduva dated reference, but judging by the celebrities he offs here—Lindsay Lohan! Britney Spears!—Eminem would approve.) Then there’s a nasty little irony: Several songs describe a ravaged childhood with such hysteria—Em’s never liked his mom, but, unless I’m missing some mixtape somewhere, this is the first time his stepfather has sodomized him with her blessing—that they seem to be begging for sympathy, a commodity Eminem’s never cared about before, and which he fails here to manipulate in any unexpected or interesting way. And Relapse is the first time he hasn’t earned any.