RECORDINGS

Record Review: J. Freedom Du Lac on Eminem's 'Relapse'

The rapper's first new studio album in five years deals in tired tropes.
The rapper's first new studio album in five years deals in tired tropes. (Umgd)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hide the women, children, celebrities, etc. Eminem is back, and the insolent shock-rapper is the same as he ever was.

"I guess it's time for you to hate me again," he declares with glee midway through his tiresome new album, "Relapse," on a track in which he rhymes about, well, you might not want to know. The brutal song "Medicine Ball" chronicles all sorts of abhorrent behavior, including -- but not limited to -- sexually assaulting the Pussycat Dolls and pushing Christopher Reeve into quicksand.

What, you expected a kindler, gentler version of the vituperative and lyrically violent Detroit rapper simply because he spent much of the past half-decade descending into the heart of darkness?

Eminem's last studio album, "Encore," was released in 2004; in the intervening years, he became a shut-in, inhaling painkillers while dealing -- or, perhaps, not dealing -- with the death of his good friend and sidekick Proof and the breakup of his remarriage to Kimberly Scott.

He's snapped out of his druggy stupor largely unchanged and using it for material. Indeed, "Relapse" -- whose cover features Eminem's likeness created from a pile of pills -- opens with "3 a.m.," a narrative about a killing spree, about which Eminem shrugs: The drugs made me do it.

"It," by the way, includes the murder and dismemberment of a cousin, whose bloody bathwater Eminem chugs.

Sparking outrage and eliciting oh-no-he-DIDN'T gasps have always been Eminem's raison d'ĂȘtre. So of course he's not going to change course here.

But his shock-and-offend shtick has become stale as his music has become predictable, sometimes to the point of self-parody.

First single "We Made You" is meant to update the rapper's status as a preeminent pop-culture provocateur. But it's formulaic, with Eminem plugging new names into a tired template that revolves around insults, homophobia and sexual encounters -- sometimes in the same lyric, as when he begs Lindsay Lohan to give up lesbianism. He also fantasizes about bedding Sarah Palin, suggests that Kim Kardashian is a man and makes light of Amy Winehouse's travails.

It would be dreadfully boring stuff, except that Eminem's knack for dazzling, clever wordplay is undiminished. Hip-hop's greatest white MC is still a skilled storyteller and master of the metaphor with a gift for black comedy; it's just that he badly needs some new tropes.

That's especially true given how sharp Dr. Dre's production work is on "Relapse," which is loaded with heavy, lurching beats and ominous minor-key instrumentation. Dr. Dre produced a tense, thrilling record, and all Eminem has to show for it are these outrageously samey lyrics about celebrities (Mariah Carey on "Bagpipes From Baghdad") and, like, how he's all messed up because of his family ("My Mom")?

Throughout the album, Eminem seems to maintain an emotional distance from his problems, converting his pain into a strange sort of pathological rage that's meant to elicit . . . laughs. "Insane," for instance, is about the rapper being sexually abused by his stepfather, but it plays like a joke, with Em packing the song with punch lines.

Ditto "Deja Vu," a confessional about Eminem's relapse. It's about the most honest song on the album, what with Em telling the story of his downward spiral, complete with details of his daughter's frightened reaction to her drugged-out dad. But it, too, is loaded with laugh lines.

"It's 12 noon, ain't no harm in self-inducing a snooze," he raps. "What else is new? [Expletive] it, what would Elvis do in your shoes?"

That Eminem: Always keeping it real. Real farcical, that is.

Download This: "Deja Vu"


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