"Really, Marshall? We are biting T.I. album cover's now? C'mon, dude."
I never hated Brett Farve until he refused to retire. When I saw Brett Farve hobbling about in a Jets uniform last season, throwing ill-advised passes to the opposing squad’s players and generally axe-murdering his team’s chances with his selfish cowboyisms and morally deplorable delusions of grandeur, an internal reflex went up and I instantly took an extreme disliking to the man. This was curious because just the season before my nostalgia factor for the man was at an all-time high since I had hoped that Farve would single-handedly defeat the immoral, cheating forces of Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots in the Super Bowl thus restoring my faith in the ability of good to triumph over evil. However, after watching Farve hold the Packers hostage over the summer with his dilettantish will-he-or-won’t-he drama, I decided that Brett Farve was not the man I though he was and he should be hated with extreme fashion. There comes a time in your life when you have to know when to step down or you risk ruining your legacy for good. Brett Farve is why Eminem’s “Relapse” should not have happened. Unfortunately, it did. We are worse as hip hop fans for it.
“Relapse” is a terrible record masquerading as an average one. On the surface, the album features all the signifiers of a traditional Eminem record that made him the biggest star on the planet earlier this decade. It has the over-produced, pop-star bashing ditties ("We Made You", "Crack A Bottle"), the whiny blame-my-mom-a-thons ("My Mom", natch), the asinine Kan Kaniff/Steve Berman/Paul Rosenbergs skits, and the darkly humorous odes to blood, murder and mayhem ("3 A.M.", "Insane", etc.) that were always the red meat of Eminem’s records. If you were trying to forge a comeback after disappearing from the music industry for the better part of five tears, this would be the record that conventional wisdom would tell you to make. You simply make a record that appeals to your hardcore fans that is exactly in your wheel house and they will come back in droves as they once did. However, conventional wisdom is almost universally wrong when it comes to crafting art so it comes as no surprise that “Relapse” is super-nova collapsing epic failure.
Let me note something right off the bat. Eminem is still one of the top five best technical rappers these days. The problem with “Relapse” is not that Eminem has collapsed into a Jay-Z-esque shell of his former glory stumbling through his verses as if he forgot how to actually rhyme anymore. His rapping is not the problem. His verses are nearly flawless exercises in technical profession and one of the best strictly lyrical performances I’ve heard. The way he uses words and bounces them off each other is marvel to listen to if you are fan of rapping. The way he creates new words to rhyme with each other and his delivery is still top notch. The problem is that Eminem’s words have become shallow and overtly amoral to the point where he’s lost his most defining trait his humor.
What social critics of all kinds failed to grasp about Eminem early in his career that despite the ultra violence, the homophobia and the misogyny that there was a deep sense of dark humor that should have been obvious to anybody that listened to the record. It baffled me as sixteen year old bumping "The Slim Shady LP” in my bedroom that anybody could take this record was anything other than a comedy record granted a dark and morbid one. There is something morbidly hilarious about a song like “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” where Eminem drags his ex-wife’s body to dump in the ocean while his daughter sits in the front seat of the car. If you could get past the basic premise of the joke being a murdered woman than you could essentially see the subtle dark comedy of dragging a dead body and having to pull “A Weekend At Bernie’s” for the benefit of the cooing child in the passenger seat. This isn’t an exercise in misogyny or nihilistic violence. It’s theater of the absurd. It’s “Dick In A Box” taken to an extreme conclusion. Granted at times, Eminem’s music could get to a truly dark and nihilistic place like a song like “Kim” exposes but for the most part, the violence and misogyny was so over the top and cartoonish that it couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. You would have to be completely humorless to be offended which most parents and politicians are.
“Relapse,” however, completely loses that sense of subtle dark humor and replaces it with a more gruesome form of violence and malevolence. On the surface, the record seems to have many of signifiers of comedy (the funny voices, the pop culture references, etc.) that Eminem’s early records have but it simply lacks what made the records funny in the first place and that was the wit. It’s not really funny to describe dismembering a family member’s body with a chainsaw on it’s lone. Dismembering a family member’s body and accidentally sawing your own arm and running around chasing after it when a dog steals your severed limb is funny because what you have described is absurd and ironic (I think... Alanis Morrisette permanently destroyed my sense of the word, years ago...). Songs like “3 am” and “Same Song & Dance” aren’t funny. They are just tired and disturbing. There is nothing inherently funny about an incest gay rape story like “Insane” describes. It’s overtly gross and unnerving and I can’t imagine many people want to actually listen to it. If “Slim Shady LP” was the musical equivalent of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy, equal parts scary and hilarious, than “Relapse” is as an Eli Roth torture porn film content on dwelling on the gore of the kill for shock value alone. The album is a cultural void.
There are lot of other problems with the album like Dr. Dre devolving into one of the world’s worst producers (Seriously, I’m loathe to listen to “Detox” now because how terrible a producer he’s become) but“Relapse” fails precisely because it fails to adhere to the law of diminishing returns. It sets out to remake “The Marshall Mathers LP” and either because Eminem lost his sense of humor because of age, stints in rehab or the death of Proof, the record is half-assed facsimile of the original. If you simply set out to re-make the same album again without attempting to grow as an artist or evolve you inevitably will find that your audience will grow up and eventually tire of your routine. It should come as no shock that each Eminem record since the seminal “Marshall Mathers LP” have sold slightly less and have been retrograding in terms of quality. The album sticks so doggedly to the Eminem formula of success that it leaves little for Eminem to expand as artist beyond his traditional parameters. This record is permanently stuck in 2002 and it suffers greatly for it. Honestly, I was hoping for a more honest and mature record from Marshall Mathers especially considering all of the real life pain and trauma that he was going through and we would get a reflective contemplative album. We didn’t. We got the musical equivalent of “Saw VI.” It’s not pretty.
Video: Eminem - 3 A.M.