Album review of 'Recovery' by Eminem

NOT 25: Eminem tries to regain his bona fides, without much success.
NOT 25: Eminem tries to regain his bona fides, without much success. (Matt Sayles/associated Press)
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By Sean Fennessey
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's not easy being yourself. Not when you're not yourself anymore.

Eminem has been startlingly honest since he returned from a three-year hiatus in 2009. By turns remorseful and recalcitrant since admitting a descent into depression, drug abuse and creeping irrelevance, he was frank with the media in the run-up to his comeback, "Relapse." But that album was a willfully goofy and ghoulish attempt to recapture the eloquent horror of his first two major-label albums, 1999's "The Slim Shady LP" and 2000's "The Marshall Mathers LP." He rapped in a pan-Arabian accent, throwing potshots at fading cultural figures (hello, Jessica Simpson!) and working hard to resemble the unhinged trailer-trash bon vivant of a decade ago.

He failed.

His latest album, "Recovery," initially billed as a sequel to "Relapse," is meant to be a corrective, with emotional purges and a whirring recommitment to the vision of Eminem, superstar and rap genius. But transparency isn't art, nor will it make Eminem 25 again. Instead, "Recovery" is a morose picture of an artist grappling, and often losing his grip.

To his credit, Eminem knows where he went wrong. On "Cinderella Man" he dismisses "Relapse," calling it "trash." And on the Ozzy Osbourne-sampling "Going Through Changes," a sort of follow-up to his 2004 track "Mockingbird," he admits his struggles with pills and self-image: "I'm hatin' my reflection, I walk around the house tryin' to fight mirrors/I can't stand what I look like yeah/I look fat, but what do I care?" It's the kind of exhilarating candor Marshall Mathers excels at, the same quality that made his confessionals to his daughter, Hailie, such fascinating documents of tenderness and jeremiads about his ex-wife, Kim Scott, so terrifying.

To regain some of his hip-hop bona fides, he has teamed with an unlikely, if boldfaced, crew of producers, including Just Blaze, Jim Jonsin and the emerging Boi-1da. And there's a hard edge here, an almost militant consistency, with little of the springy thump Dr. Dre has supplied in the past. The songs seem to scream, "Listen, this song is actually about something." But they're also weighed down by some brutal samples, such as the aforementioned nick of Ozzy's "Changes," and a peculiar lift of Haddaway's 1993 club hit, "What Is Love," for the interesting but ultimately unsuccessful "No Love."

It's only on "Talkin' 2 Myself" that Eminem reveals a new side. It's not Slim Shady or Marshall or Eminem. It's something new, as he mentions that in his darkest hour he considered dissing Kanye West and Lil Wayne, the two rappers who gained the most during his absence. He was jealous of both, aching to reenter the conversation. "Thank God that I didn't do it/I'da had my ass handed to me," he raps. It's a truly naked moment, self-aware and self-effacing. Eminem is competitive, like anyone else. But he is also older, approaching 40. And he's not a chainsaw-wielding, GLAAD-baiting maniac anymore. He lives in a large house with his kids. This is his life now. He can't be anything else. And he shouldn't try to be.

Recommended tracks:

"Cinderella Man," "Talkin' 2 Myself"

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