11/22/2014 update: This post covers The Slim Shady LP through Recovery. Since its publication, Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP 2. A review of that album can be found here, though reading this post first is highly recommended.
For me, it was this: “It’s like apples to oranges, peaches to plums, yeah / I’m bananas, pussy—cut off the grapes and grow a ‘pear.’” I heard this on the third verse of Recovery’s “Cold Wind Blows” and started frantically sounding out the syllables. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. But he did.
Back in the “glory days” Eminem seems to think he’s recapturing on Recovery, he wouldn’t have deigned to use the allegedly unrhymable word “orange” unless he was rhyming it and another word at least three times in a row. It was like he took its “unrhymable” status personally. On “Brain Damage” (The Slim Shady LP—SSLP) he rhymed “storage booth,” “door hinge loose,” “four-inch screws,” and “foreign tools” with “orange juice.” On “Role Model” (SSLP) he started with “orange bill” and added “store ‘n’ steal,” “Lauryn Hill,” and “(ig)norin’ skill” to the list he was surely planning to rubber-band to a brick and hurl through the window of a publishing house putting out rhyming dictionaries. And just for good measure, he did this on the first verse of “Cum On Everybody” (SSLP):
“You thought I was ill, now I’m even more so.
Shit, I got full-blown AIDS and a sore throat.
I got a wardrobe with an orange robe.
I’m in the fourth row, signin’ autographs at your show.”
He repeated the feat on “Kill You” (The Marshall Mathers LP—MMLP), “Business” (The Eminem Show—TES) and “Big Weenie” (Encore). Though the results were somewhat less impressive (diminishing returns, etc.), it was obviously a point of pride. Far be it from me to tell him when and how to use the word “orange,” but to throw that cool streak away for such a vexingly contrived “punchline” during the first song of his second “comeback” album in as many years was pretty much the death knell—and what followed was neither quick nor painless, to say the least.
Recovery is a grating, turgid revival tent spectacular where the tongues spoken are moronic, snake handling is considered far too risky, and, at the end of the night, those who have not succumbed to the throes of ecstasy, noticing that the body on stage does not seem to have actually come back to life, quietly drag it into the grave Eminem has been digging for himself since Encore, shaking their heads. But how did he end up there? What sublimated his destructive impulses from lyrical themes into characteristics of the music itself?
The short answer is: He won. On SSLP, the “caged demon” (“Just Don’t Give A Fuck”) giddily sprayed class-clown rebellion into the fan of his subconscious and watched it splatter everywhere. The reaction to that album steadied his aim (somewhat) and steeled his resolve, allowing him to cogently respond to criticisms and rail against those he felt had wronged him on MMLP. He lashed the backlash back at us, was hailed as a genius, made millions more dollars, performed with Elton John, won another Grammy, etc. By the time TES arrived, there really wasn’t all that much meaningful controversy left to buck against—no matter how hard he tried to convince everyone otherwise on “Soldier.” (If anything else did need to be said about controversy after MMLP, his stunning guest verses on Jay-Z’s “Renegade” covered it.) Sure, he took some half-assed shots at George W. Bush or whatever, but only to distract from the quagmire in which he himself was becoming embroiled. The furious passion that left a swath of scorched earth down the center of Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre” (2001) (see also: his early freestyles) and fueled the gut-wrenching catharsis of songs like MMLP‘s “Stan” and “Kim” was mostly gone, as was the ribald sense of humor that produced SSLP’s wacky song-length stories. In its place on TES was woe-is-me celebrity groaning, completely unnecessary shots at “Canabitch” (who gets a lot of attention considering he’s “not even on my radar”—”Square Dance”) and Mariah Carey, and telling admissions of directionlessness (“hungry like a fuckin’ younger me,” “produce hits to break the monotony,”—both “Square Dance,” “in no particular direction it just sprays and sprays”—”White America”).
Remember how annoyed he sounds on MMLP‘s “The Way I Am?” I had always assumed that was because he was aware that a lot of the things he was complaining about were cliche. “Ugh, do I really have to explain the phenomenon of problems not getting any attention until they hit the suburbs to you again? Well, okay…” Yet on TES he recycles a lot of this type of material, but takes it seriously and presents it as if it were a profound revelation (see: “White America,” “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” and “Sing For The Moment”).
It’s understandable that he might not be sure where to turn for inspiration after that album. Though his career seemed to revolve around being off-putting and offending people, he still ended up becoming a bona fide pop star—and how offensive, really, can a pop star be? No matter how many times he dissed *NSYNC (thanks to Wikipedia for informing me that it’s “sometimes stylized” that way) or rapped about killing his wife, he remained wildly popular because the songs were irresistible. Everyone and everything he took on rolled over or was left in the dust. He got bigger and bigger until he was The Biggest (“I’ve created a monster…”—TES‘s “Without Me”). At that point, there was only one target worth going after: Himself. Enter Encore.
It’s worth considering that Encore not sucking as much as it could have—and perhaps should have—was the turning point in his career. He chickened out. The cover art, his massacre-suicide at the end (not to mention the album insert’s fetishistic photographic diagramming of it), the ridiculous gag reel of a middle section—it all points to Eminem trying to destroy himself, to end his career. He lost the power to create controversy with “edginess,” so he offended the only way that was left: by being awful. If his “mature” content had lost its power to shock, what about immaturity? For a third of the album, he threatens to burp and fart his way to oblivion while pretending to be Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. (To Hell in a hand puppet!) When the general public was perhaps finally ready to accept that he was serious about his craft and here to stay, he didn’t just thumb his nose, he picked it and wiped his finger on the brand new wallpaper.
The album has some neat bits of self-deconstruction. “Just Lose It” points to the underlying vacuity of all his lead singles. On “Rain Man,” the guy who launched his career by telling everyone what his name is (“My Name Is”––SSLP) forgets his name. The “most meanest MC on this Earth” (“The Way I Am”) wonders, “Why are you being so mean?” (“Big Weenie”). Even the signature double E’s in the title have had their traditional orientations reversed on the cover (which his name isn’t on), facing outward rather than inward. He brags about being able to do anything he wants (including, but not limited to: repeating verses, pointing out that a song is about nothing, admitting that he is sabotaging material, and adopting irritating cartoon voices), confident that “you will love it” (“Ass Like That”). “Nobody is safe from me—no, not even me,” he admits on “Ass Like That.” During the final skit, he fires the gun he’d been waving around for half a decade.
…But as that image suggests, none of it ended up having the effect I suspect he originally intended because he didn’t follow through (“I don’t think my joke is working! I must flee!”—“Ass Like That”). Instead of a missile aimed at his own overblown ego and iconic persona, he ended up with an album that was weird, but also boring and mediocre due to its first and final thirds containing bland attempts at more “serious” music. It’s obvious, though, that he was completely burned out. Even the first verse of “Mosh”—allegedly an ambitious protest song—is yet another tiring recapitulation of his rise to fame.
His instincts to set the whole damn thing on fire were spot on, and would’ve been the perfect capstone to the “just don’t give a fuck” attitude he’d been touting from day one. I would’ve thought that was hilarious, at least. People would go, “I don’t know, I think Eminem might’ve given a fuck…” and I’d respond: “Encore.” Plus, if he was interested in continuing to make music (which was certainly debatable at that point), this imagined Encore would’ve been great for his creative sanity, functioning as a pressure release that lowered and, more importantly, challenged expectations on his own terms. While he’s theoretically at it, why not take the act to its logical conclusion and drop the Eminem moniker altogether? Leave it and all its baggage in the flaming rubble of a carnivalesque suicide showcasing the grotesque results of Marshall Mathers’ Grand Eminem Experiment.
Unfortunately, none of that happened. But why not? He had money, respect, a disillusionment with fame, and a track record of audience antagonism. Why didn’t Mathers pull the trigger musically the way he pulled it “literally” at the end of the album? The answer may lie with “Lose Yourself…”
If the “greatest hits” collection Curtain Call had been curated with any actual insight, it would’ve begun with SSLP’s “Rock Bottom” (it’s not even on there) and ended with “Lose Yourself.” The former is a deadly serious account of life in poverty. Contained within is the narrator’s fantasy of becoming a rich rap star: “I want the money, women, fortune, and fame / If it means I end up burnin’ in Hell, scorchin’ in flames.” It’s a haunting, convincing performance. When he says he longs “to blow up and leave the past behind,” it’s not hard to believe him. Yet what was the first thing he did after blowing up? Summarize his past and then lament that he can’t rap about it in good faith anymore on “Kill You.” (“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more,” “‘I’ve been through Hell!’—’Shut the hell up!’”) Everything else related to that past on MMLP is inflected by the media (emphasis mine: “read up ‘bout how I used to get beat up…”—”Who Knew”) or evoked in contrast to his new, unrelatable world of fame, money, protests, and lawsuits.
Mathers knew he could never go back without looking exploitative—until 8 Mile, that is. “Lose Yourself” is the meta-sequel to and mirror image of “Rock Bottom,” an inversion of its formula. The underdog rapper fantasizing about being a star is now THE star fantasizing about being an underdog rapper. Ostensibly a call for others to let go of fear and rise to the moment, the track also functions within his career arc as a way for Marshall Mathers to lose himself (and perhaps more importantly, his infamous constructs Eminem and Slim Shady) in the glory days of overcoming incredible odds with determination and skill when something was palpably at stake. He blew it out of the water, of course, eclipsing both the movie and his own previous levels of superstardom. However, I can’t help but think he at least subconsciously grasped the unsustainability of the situation. “Lose Yourself” was a one-time sublime confluence of circumstances. It simply cannot happen again. Much as he burned for years to be recognized as The Best, he had to accept that, well, it had actually happened. “Lose Yourself” was the climax. It wasn’t going to get any better than having a critically acclaimed international #1 single hyping the Hollywood movie based on your life story, and it was time to start letting go. In other words: You can dream of getting to the moon. You can walk on the moon. But you cannot live on the moon.
So maybe it was the afterglow of “Lose Yourself” that reminded Mathers how intense his desire was back in his “Rock Bottom” days, and that turned him off his better creative instincts. He fell in love with his own story all over again and clung to the glory instead of moving on, mixing his past with his present in unhealthy ways that would become more and more problematic. My ideal Encore––an album delighting in being burned out and disillusioned instead of sort of trying to cover it up––would’ve been one of the funniest and most self-aware from a pop star. Hell, it might’ve even ushered in an era of pop music in which Weird Al had no meaningful function.
The debacle Encore actually ended up as sacrificed something else as well: Eminem’s volatility. By approaching the edge too cautiously, strapped with a parachute and bungee cord, he dampened the sense that at any moment he could stomp on the other end of the seesaw and send a song sailing off in a different direction. Keep in mind, this was the guy who brought Dr. Dre’s “What’s The Difference” (2001) to screeching halt, robbed a bank in the middle of MMLP‘s “Criminal,” and was saying stuff like this on his first (major label) album:
I’ve tried suicide once and I’ll try it again—
That’s why I write songs where I die at the end.
‘Cause I don’t give a fuck, like my middle finger was stuck
And I was waving it at everybody screaming, ‘I suck!’
I’m on stage in front of a sell-out crowd and yell out loud, “All ya’ll get the hell out now!”
Fuck rap, I’m giving it up ya’ll, I’m sorry.
“But Eminem, this is your record release party!”
I’m bored out of my gourd
so I took a hammer and nailed my foot to the floorboard of my Ford.
––“Cum On Everybody”
Deprecating and destructing himself in order to have fun with the “burned out and bored” concept has been in his wheelhouse since the beginning (“I can’t rap anymore—I just murdered the alphabet!”—SSLP‘s “Still Don’t Give A Fuck”). The mind that crafted the lines above seems well on its way to conceiving of a record like the Encore I’ve been describing. But of course, that was before he “had to” worry about his “legacy,” making the execution of such an idea untenable. Point being, the volatility was always part of the thrill. It felt like he didn’t belong in the mainstream, but here he was… “Who knows, he might really go crazy!” By the time he got to “Without Me,” though, this was not going to be part of the equation anymore. He was no longer a party crasher. He was the host. He had a formula. His circumstances post-”Lose Yourself” provided a chance to reinvent that volatility on a grander scale and/or strike out for uncharted territory. He failed to capitalize.
If Relapse was in search of nothing else, it was a way of reclaiming the old volatility. This was a stupid goal, and attempting to accomplish it by creating a character that might stick an umbrella into someone’s vagina at any moment was even stupider. Remember how at the end of “Criminal” he said that if he couldn’t rap anymore he’d become a serial murdering rapist? He was prophesying Relapse. Dre’s production is pretty solid, Em’s technical skill is intimidating (“swallowin’ a Klonopin while I’m noddin’ in ‘n’ out on the ottoman at the Ramada Inn” is one of the most phonetically perfect phrases in the English language), but his persona(s) and lyrics are so empty, dated, off-putting, and asinine that it hardly matters. He’s scraping the bottom of the long barren “controversy” barrel, but the hook is that he’s scraping it with, like, a bloody scythe! That he just used to perform a late-term abortion on Lindsay Lohan! Yeah!
In its defense, there are a few compelling ideas at play. The accents, dumb as they ended up sounding, understandably held appeal for Mathers. He’s always reveled in messing with the way words are pronounced (see: the bending of “ideas” into a two-syllable word on “Sing For The Moment” so that it amazingly rhymes with “nightmares”) and these voices did provide him with a new way to tinker, though little else. The niftiest example I can think of is from “Hell Breaks Loose” on the Refill bonus disc, where he accent-pronounces “trance” in such a way that it rhymes with Dre saying “haunts.” A little forced, sure, but it was still encouraging that he had not ceased striving for innovative ways of working with language.
Also, recasting Slim Shady as a byproduct of a depressed, lonely man’s drug addiction is actually kind of clever and weirdly effective as a storytelling device. When the narrator finally “wakes up” (or whatever), the non-accented, seemingly genuine “Deja Vu” really does sound like an epiphany of some magnitude despite being, outside the context of the album, merely a good song. There’s arguably potential for a halfway-decent concept album buried somewhere in the muck. An astute reviewer at Vibe pointed out that there are elements of the niche genre horror-core present (source: the actual review isn’t online anymore, it seems). An album with a few quality songs in that mode followed by the “Deja Vu” “plot twist” could’ve been a sly move. He’d get to both indulge in a little Slim Shady gore and comment on how sad, disgusting, and juvenile it is, especially in the face of a serious drug problem. The twisted class clown of yore meets the weary, isolated man approaching middle age. That would’ve been some classic Eminem persona juggling. Unfortunately, the pressures of still having to be a superstar muddle the potential.
Don’t get me wrong, nearly all of the songs are still terrible. But taking a step back from that, the relatively small scale, concept-heavy album I just described could never even exist from a purely thematic/structural perspective as long as he continues to feel obligated to do the usual Eminem stuff like “My Mom,” “Bagpipes From Baghdad,” “We Made You,” “Old Time’s Sake,” and “Crack A Bottle.” I hate to keep harping on it, but if he had gone ground zero on Encore and reset expectations, it might’ve freed him up to explore just these types of more ambitious storytelling techniques. Though Relapse had less potential and far graver faults than that album, both suffer from the same general unwillingness to fully bake their ideas. Each has a foot firmly planted in the past.
Then Recovery came along, and with it the realization that I’ve almost certainly been giving Eminem far too much credit. It’s irredeemable to the point of making those flickering signs of life I saw in his last two bad albums seem like nothing more than happy accidents. It’s an abject failure as a comeback because he completely misunderstands what he needed to come back from. It was not his inability to emulate his early success—it was his inability to escape it. This album essentially declares, “I was wrong to have tried to move forward as an musician!” and sprints with single-minded gusto towards a ghost town. (“‘Cause some things just don’t change / It’s better when they stay the same”—the album’s first words…) Disowning everything lacking The Fans’ approval, swearing up and down that he’s figured things out, he tries to bamboozle listeners into believing that things is just like back in the good ol’ days (life tip: these are nonexistent). Don’t be fooled.
This is not simply an unsatisfying comeback, though. It’s fairly embarrassing music steeped in ill-conceived, retrograde ideas that has disturbing implications for Eminem’s future. The flimsy beats—gaudy and bloodless—are not the problem. The tellingly-empty and tonally-inapporiate cover art? Nah, not that either. Even the god-awful jokes are not the (main) problem but, what the hell, let’s give them some attention first.
This is a “punchline” from “Not Afraid:”
“So fuck the world—feed it beans.
It’s gassed up if it thinks it’s stopping me!”
I’ve never read any comedy theory, but there is no way that qualifies as a joke, right? Here’s an equally arbitrary version: “Fuck the world. It must’ve been carved by Gepetto because it’s got a long nose when it says it’s stopping me!” Why is the world being fed beans? Just so he can seem “clever” in the delivery of his cliche me-against-the-world line? Really, it’s written as a command, like, “You there! Feed the world beans so I can make this joke I just thought of!”
Here’s another mindless piece of “wordplay” from the untitled last track:
“You can rack your brain like pool balls.”
Does the addition of “like pool balls” alter or clarify the meaning of “rack your brain” in an illuminating way? Not that I can tell. Racking your brain means to think to the point of exhaustion, whereas racking pool balls refers to collecting loose items in a container––so if anything, it muddles it. The only connection between “rack your brain” and “rack pool balls” is the word “rack.” If that’s his only standard, why not go with, “You can rack your brain like breasts” or “You can rack your brain like boobs, dawg,” if the rhyme scheme must be maintained? That’s equally as meaningless, but at least makes the listener work a bit, requiring him or her to remember that “rack” is a slang term for “breasts.” There are ways the line could have worked. I’m just spitballin’ here, but what about… “you can rack your brain like pool balls… but I’ll still ‘break’ it when I blow your mind…” That’s within walking distance of actual wordplay territory. But there’s no thought put into many of his lines, just automaton-like recognition that one word is vaguely related to another, if even that.
“Call me the ball sack. I’m nuts.” (“Cold Wind Blows”)
That was worthy of opening his first verse, apparently.
“Excuse the corny metaphor, but they’ll never ‘ketchup’ to all this energy I’ve ‘mustard.’” (“You’re Never Over”)
Not a metaphor. Not excused.
“Watch her leave out the window. Guess that’s why they call it ‘window pain.’” (“Love The Way You Lie”)
Nobody calls it that! What does “it” even refer to in that sentence?!
“I’m standin’ on my Monopoly board. That means I’m on top of my game.” (“No Love”)
“Quit playin’ with the scissors and shit, and cut the crap.” (“Not Afraid”)
And on and on and on…
These are basic charlatan tactics. Every time he employs one of these “punchlines” it’s to cover up a banality or cliche. “Like a fuck you for Christmas, his gift is a curse” (“Not Afraid”). All that’s really being said is “his gift is a curse,” but the delivery attempts to beguile the listener into not noticing that. The sad part is, he used to be funny. The formula wasn’t even that different. Check out this line from SSLP’s “I’m Shady:”
I try to keep it positive and play it cool—
Shoot up the playground and tell the kids to stay in school.
Here he’s working with another cliche: telling kids to stay in school. It works, however, because he’s messing with listener expectations. The context of the song has established the narrator as a psychopath, so when he starts in with claims that he’s a feel-good person, it’s obvious something’s coming. Aha! See, he was just setting us up—he actually wants to open fire on a playground. But hold on, he was only doing that because he doesn’t want kids to drop out of school. Of course, he’s still winking when he says that, twisting the cliche’s meaning towards being physically inside of a school instead of committed to education.
He does something similar on “Remember Me?” from MMLP:
When I go out, I’mma go out shootin’.
I don’t mean when I die—I mean when I go out to the club, stupid!
A bit more on the nose, certainly—but a higher level of thought is at work. He uses the “go out shooting” cliche, but his ultimate meaning is a clever subversion of it. “A fuck you for Christmas” is just a literal curse-gift, and a really forced one at that. The premise is nonsensical from the start because no one has ever been given a “fuck you” for Christmas, so you immediately know it’s a setup and can probably predict the ending before he says it. If anthropologists find Recovery‘s lyrics sheet hundreds of years from now, they’ll probably think it’s a relic from an early period of experimentation with teaching computer programs to craft jokes.
More to the point, though, has Eminem ever even used the word “punchline” before? I can’t think of a time. Yet here he bemoans his former inability to write one (“Talkin’ 2 Myself”), and then gloats over his newfound stockpile of them, even teasingly holding them back as if we just can’t wait to hear his next “foot the bill” (LITERALLY, LOL) joke (“On Fire”).
Maybe the reason he never thought about them before is because THEY DON’T MATTER. Parts of “Criminal” were clever (in a trollish way, to be sure) and it didn’t have a single Recovery-style punchline (aside from the “checkin’ the ‘male’” thing, which was intentionally awful). What it did have was context. That was a song for those who (I use this regrettably) “got it.” “I stuck my dick in this game like a rapist. They call me ‘Slim Roethlisberger’” (“Almost Famous”) …is, well, not.
But alright, I’ll cut him some slack. Being generous, one might say that these kinds of lines have a certain goofiness to them. You know who could have brought that quality to the fore? This guy, from 1999:
Looks like a person who might be kind of fun and goofy, right? Probably doesn’t take himself too seriously… Compare that with the person on this “OFFICIAL 2012 CALENDAR.”
What the hell is even going on there? Why is he scowling on top of a skyscraper? Can a man without a sense of humor even tell a joke?
I can’t answer those questions, but I imagine the answers relate to why he’s self-seriously shouting so much of Recovery. The pompous-to-the-point-of-parody persona pulverizing the album makes me think Mathers must’ve gotten amnesia and then hired a marketing squad to restore his sense of self. After months of focus-testing, the squad had compiled a list of his most surface-level traits (mean, misogynistic, angry, aggressive, intense, homophobic, etc.), each one displayed on a huge, explosion-shaped sticky note, and assembled a supplementary PowerPoint presentation consisting of slides like
MAIN INSPIRATION FOR FLOW: CARPETING BOMBING
MARIAH CAREY DIDN’T JUST BREAK UP WITH YOU, SHE KILLED HAILEY
CLAIM TO HAVE FUN. DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE ANY.
YES, YOU HAVE ASKED CRITICS HOW THEIR DAY WENT
In response, Mathers goes, “I don’t know… That kinda sounds like a robot with a personality disorder, you know what I’m sayin’? Isn’t there some way to make me seem more… human?” The marketers quickly huddle up (subliminally influenced by their obviously-very-effective “NFL REFERENCES” slide) and emerge with: “Well, what if you said a bunch of inane shit like ‘Yeah, it’s been a ride’ [“Not Afraid”] before every song?”
If that’s not how this album turned out the way it did, then surely it was created by running random songs from TES through the musical equivalent of Bad Translator. During the first verse of “On Fire,” he says that dissing him is “just like pissin’ off the Wizard Of Oz.” Now this sounds like a boast, but if you think about it for ten seconds you have to ask: Did he see the movie…? THE WIZARD OF OZ WASN’T EVEN REAL FOR FUCK’S SAKE! He was all smoke and mirrors, a blustering mirage being operated by some doddering old fool behind a curtain, which is pretty much a perfect metaphor for this album.
I’m now going to go against the grain of 21st century hip-hop criticism by (sort of) defending skits. Most people seem happy skits appear to be on the way out, and for the most part I am too. However, some of Eminem’s skits on previous albums served as a confirmation that he was, ostensibly, both in on the “joke” and a step ahead of the reaction (see: several of the “Paul” and “Steve Berman” skits, the PSAs on SSLP and MMLP, the intros to “Still Don’t Give A Fuck” and “Criminal,” etc.). They showed that he was thinking critically about himself, his music, and his audience. By predicting knee-jerk reactions, he attempted to deny power to those who would succumb to them. One might say that they were a way of encouraging listeners to also critically consider the music, since he was providing them with an example of what not to do. (They were of course flimsy shields against the many indefensible elements of his music––”it’s ironic” isn’t enough––but that’s been well-covered in other forums.)
There are no skits on Recovery. In their place are declarations that he doesn’t know why he is the way he is, and that he’ll always be a jerk and a great rapper. Why? Just because. He’s “Shady until [his] dying day” (“Cold Wind Blows”), whatever that means, exactly. When will he retire? “It’s not for [him] to say” (“Cold Wind Blows”). Any other questions? (Besides: “Will you be Shady in the afterlife as well?”) Just “don’t ask him ‘Why?’ or ‘How can he?’” (“Not Afraid”). Thoughts like these speak to a shortage of substantive reflection. Creative passivity permeates the album.
“The new me ’s back to the old me” he proudly proclaims on “Talkin’ 2 Myself” in the midst of an extended apology to The Fans, exemplifying both his continuing inability to decide whether he’s returning to the past or pushing into the future and a tendency to surrender agency and vision to the expectations of others, a trend that culminates in his saddening confession that he suspects the real reason he got clean was to be able to give The Fans what they want (“Not Afraid”). Recovery feels like it was inspired more by random guesses at what people liked about his first three albums than an honest attempt to figure out what separated them from his last two. Would-be triumphant moments of self-actualization never escape that undercurrent.
Eminem has compared himself to Elvis on several occasions (another sign of self-awareness), but I had hoped that perhaps the white-person-using-a-traditionally-black-musical-form most analogous to him was actually Bob Dylan. Both were controversial. Both have antagonized power and their own audiences. Both have been misunderstood (as well as understood and fairly criticized). The idea that Encore and Relapse were just confusing, Dylanesque bumps in the road on the way to Mathers’ Blood On The Tracks didn’t seem completely ridiculous before this. Recovery is Dylan announcing that he just can’t figure out where to turn, so he’s going back to doing all solo acoustic protest songs because gosh darn it that’s just what The Fans want. Screw The Fans. What ever happened to “a brand new CD for these fuckin’ retards” (“Criminal”) and “Fuck it, just shut up and listen” (“The Way I Am”)? Is there a significant difference between his relationship with The Fans on this album and the way conservative protest groups invoked The Kids during the SSLP/MMLP era?
Something I’ve always liked about Eminem was his ability to summarize his albums satisfyingly on their last songs. Regardless of what you think of the albums themselves, it’s hard to argue against “Still Don’t Give A Fuck,” “Criminal,” “Encore,” and “Underground” being appropriate and/or illuminating capstones on their respective subject matter. Admittedly, “My Dad’s Gone Crazy” isn’t really about anything, but neither is TES. Yet even there he managed to muster up a tidy recap of his career on the last verse. So what can we learn about Recovery from the appropriately title-less last track? Something about fish poop? or Troy Polumalu’s hair, perhaps?
“Untitled” is a void Eminem stands in the middle of “yellin’ at air” (“On Fire”)—a vacuum of mindless virtuosity left in the wake of the album’s irreconcilable conflicts canceling each other out. On one side there’s someone who swears he’s back to his old self, the one who was always on the brink of flaming out and just didn’t give a fuck. On the other, a person slavishly prostrating himself before his audience, begging for forgiveness and swearing he’ll never change or go away. He claims to have cleaned up his life and become a mature, responsible adult worthy of respect (both from himself and his audience) while insistently preserving the misogyny and homophobia from his earlier music. YOU CANNOT LIVE ON THE MOON. These are not compelling contradictions that culminate in thrilling, explosive moments like “Criminal” (in which, even if you don’t find the argument convincing, you at least feel like one has been articulated––and in an entertaining style), they just sit there awkwardly, interfering with any sense of cohesion.
Mathers seems to want this album to be about how he finally knows who he is. Well, who are you? He certainly claims to know, but if he had actually figured it out, I think he would’ve hammered the answer home in the last song—or at any point, really. The only “insight” he really offers up can be boiled down to a möbius strip wherein he’s back because he’s finally figured it out, and what he’s figured out is that he’s back.
The real problem, then, is not that Recovery sucks, but that Eminem is so blindly self-assured and aggressively proud of his fear of the future and misunderstanding of the past. He’s made it the heart and soul of his expression. He’s become Stan. Even if he somehow realized his grandiose claims on this album were empty, I think admitting it would be too humiliating. He trashed Relapse (his other “comeback album”) and Encore on this album. Trashing Recovery on his next…? It’d make him an untrustworthy laughingstock. Thus, this album is likely the cursed burial ground on which he will build the rest of his career. And I don’t care if he calls his next record Resurrection—he ain’t coming back from that as anything but a reanimated corpse.
I thought about ending this with some kind of aphorismic line like, “So, why did Eminem die? Easy, he couldn’t kill himself” as a tribute to this oddly-relevant Old Man Murray article and a callback to the karmic load that’s been accruing since the half-aborted Encore. “He brought it on himself!” and all that… While I wouldn’t have written the above if I didn’t believe that he’d sealed his own fate (slowly over time and indelibly by betting everything on Recovery), we’d be remiss if we didn’t reflect on our own role in Eminem’s passing.
For better or worse, Marshall Mathers has always been, to different degrees and in various ways, aware of his audience’s perceptions of him. Recovery was for the fans he felt he had let down. He wanted to be loved again. That he offered up an album I hope I have proved is at least objectively stupid in order to accomplish that is perhaps less important than the fact that he was listening at all. We could’ve told him this album sucks too. We didn’t. We stood by as he buried his face in the dried up tits of past conquests and cheered when he started motorboating them. “Dude is gettin’ LAID!” we were impressed to note. We were as thoughtlessly rabid in our desire to declare “Shady’s back!” as he was rabidly thoughtless in his desire to be back. He was lost before this (recall his frank admission of wavering faith in rap being able to redeem him on Relpase’s “Beautiful”). Can we really blame him for latching onto some positivity when he finally found it after years of turmoil?
The short answer was: “He won.” Maybe it’s the long answer as well. The popularity of this album can’t be ignored. It’s generated two of the top ten most-viewed YouTube videos! I may hate it and believe it will damn him to making worthless music for the foreseeable future, but he was right. He undoubtedly got what he wanted out of Recovery. He’s back. We made him “relevant” again.
We could’ve held out for a narrative misadventure as funny as “Brain Damage,” an opening couplet as dazzling as “I murder a rhyme one word at a time. You never / heard of a mind as perverted as mine” (MMLP‘s “I’m Back”), a five-syllable rhyme as jaw-dropping as “heterophobic” and “genitals bulgin’” (“Criminal”), or just some freakin’ subtlety of any kind. (Revisiting the relaxed, silken flow of SSLP-era material wouldn’t hurt either.) Instead, we settled for him spasmodically screaming in the third-person about his Legacy and how he’s married to The Game and The Industry as if they were far more than concepts.
If he truly thinks “rap is a landfill” (“Cold Wind Blows”), why not find some hungry young talents and put them in the spotlight (Sticky Fingaz’ verse on MMLP‘s “Remember Me?” will still knock you flat) instead of Rihanna and P!nk (again, hat-tip to Wikipedia)? Maybe it’s because he knows he may be louder and more flamboyant than up-and-comers, but is no longer more insightful or deft. Maybe it’s because he’s just a bland pop star now too, rehashing That Which Sells ad nauseum.
I’m not saying there should’ve been a boycott or anything like that. I know it’s inevitable that an Eminem album is going to sell millions of copies. However, Encore and Relapse both sold millions and he was still ashamed of them because people were disappointed. Recovery was celebrated. For all his audience antagonism in the content of his lyrics, when it comes to the overall quality of the music, he seems to be sensitive to our reactions. We blew it here, folks.
Songs like “Stan” and “Just Lose It” are proof that, at one point, Mathers understood what was compelling about his work and had some ironic distance from it. Is there any proof that The Fans at large were right there with him? Maybe people only liked “Stan” because Elton John star-wiped in for the chorus during a high-profile Television Event. Maybe years of being surrounded by enthusiastic supporters who missed the point of his work as often as his less-thoughtful critics did made him question what the point was to begin with.
I’ll leave you with this final piece of incriminating evidence: “The Real Slim Shady” was never supposed to exist. MMLP was, as far as Mathers was concerned, finished. Interscope disagreed, demanding an additional song be recorded that re-introduced Eminem and his music to the public, a la SSLP‘s “My Name Is.” With the album’s due date fast approaching, crunch time inspiration produced “The Real Slim Shady,” which replaced “Who Knew” (a song of more depth, though certainly less catchiness) as the lead single.
I’ve always wondered how Eminem might’ve turned out if that hadn’t happened. Maybe he wouldn’t have become so ubiquitous so quickly, allowing him a chance to mold a less reactionary identity at a more natural pace. The attention he received might’ve been less overwhelmingly widespread, but more encouraging and sympathetic to his unique talents and specific goals for MMLP—one of which was, ironically, to definitively establish that he was not a pop star. He didn’t want to be “pigeonholed” or have to “top on ‘My Name Is’” (“The Way I Am”). Did these record execs listen to the album’s lyrics? Did they even look at the song titles? There were already tracks called “The Way I Am,” “I’m Back,” “Marshall Mathers,” and “Remember Me?”—the first of which proved to be quite serviceable as a smash hit single. That’s already too much introductory material. A singles run of “Who Knew,” “The Way I Am,” and “Stan” would’ve been a near-perfect distillation of purpose. The album was going to be huge with or without a sequel to “My Name Is.”
I don’t hate “The Real Slim Shady.” It’s fun, I guess. But what does an environment which rejects “Who Knew” in favor of “The Real Slim Shady” do to a person over the years? Is it possible that this decision, a microcosm of many things to come, prematurely transformed Eminem from an accidental pop star dynamically figuring out what he stood for into a calcified cultural institution? Was it the chunk of plaque that amassed girth until it broke off of the artery wall, entered the bloodstream, and ended up causing a stroke?
Decide for yourself.
Cause Of Death:
Manner Of Death: