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CD Reviews:
Eminem Makes A Strong "Replapse"

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Saturday, May 16, 2009

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About halfway through his highly anticipated first studio album in five years, Eminem declares that "I guess it's time for you to hate me again."

Rest assured that fans will love that.

Typically bold, brash and blunt but also touched by vulnerability and tragedy, the Oakland Township-based rap superstar's new work raises his game as both a performer and lyricist. There are plenty of familiar targets for his famous ire -- pop music makers, Hollywood starlets, his mother -- but Marshall Mathers III puts the crosshairs over himself as well, laying bare the struggle with substance abuse that landed him in rehab during 2005. One of two albums Eminem plans to release this year, "Relapse" is, as regular comic nemesis Steve Berman describes in one of its skit, "another album about 'poor me,' " but with some genuine issues (addiction, divorce, the shooting death of best friend and fellow MC Proof) to give it real, and real-life, weight.

There are elements of the maniacal alter-ego Slim Shady throughout "Relapse" -- on the serial killer fantasies "3 a.m." and "Same Song & Dance," and on lighter, drug-laced, celebrity dissing tracks such as "We Made You," "Old Time's Sake" and "Must Be the Ganja." The "Did he just stay that?" quotient is characteristically high, and the likes of Lindsay Lohan, reported ex-flame Mariah Carey (and her husband, Nick Cannon), Jessicas [cq] Simpson and Alba, Sarah Palin, Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder all take some lyrical frying pans to the head.

The late Christopher Reeve, however, gets his revenge from the Great Beyond with a hilarious, Em-voiced diss at the end of "Medicine Ball."

But "Relapse" really resonates in its other, more sober moments. Though couched in unrepentant bravado and righteous fury -- not to mention a cover portrait of Eminem sculpted from pills -- the album makes clear that Eminem is most angry with himself for his recent missteps, and he writes and raps like someone who's confident but also conscious that, after all this time away, there's something to prove again. "Sorry I've been away so long/I never meant to leave you," he notes in "Hello," and he spends much of "Relapse" chronicling just what happened during that time, in harrowing detail.

In "Deja Vu" he conjures images of passing out in his car, hiding sleeping and pain pills in video boxes and shielding his addiction from his daughter, Hailie -- knowing full well that she knows something's going on -- and notes that "You and me almost had the same outcome, Heath (Ledger)." "Insane" and "My Mom" lay some roots for his problems ("I'm on what I'm on because I'm my mom") -- while the former also offers an eyebrow-raising admission of molestation by a stepfather. The balladic "Beautiful" finds Eminem wringing his hands -- "I took my bruises, took my lumps/Fell down and got right back up/But I need that spark to get psyched back up...in order for me to pick the mic back up" -- before rallying the troops (and himself) to "just stay true to you." And in the album-closing "Underground" he calls out to mentor Dr. Dre to pick me up...fix me up" while also offering a detailed chronicle of his rehabbing time in Brighton Hospital.

Dre's role as "Relapse's" primary producer (all but the Em-helmed "Beautiful") also gives the album its heft. Giving the rapper room to concentrate on songs rather than sound, the rap impresario deploys his usual array of inventive beats and spare, but not stark, musical beds, dominated by mood-setting keyboards and subtle sonic details. Eminem takes advantage of the situation with a greater variety of speeds and cadences, falling into Caribbean-style patois on "My Mom" and Middle Eastern dialects for "Bagpipes From Baghdad" and "Same Song & Dance." It's a challenge for any artist to hold anyone's attention for 75+ minutes, but "Relapse" has enough variety to sustain a full listen or a random needle-drop.

After the long break and the comparatively flat "Encore" in 2004, "Relapse" is both a return and a return to form. In "Underground" Eminem tells us that he "planned to relapse the second I walked out of" rehab, and he certainly chose to do it in a convincing way.

Eminem performs on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on Tuesday (May 19, from Los Angeles) and Friday (May 22, from Detroit). The show airs at 12:05 a.m. on ABC, WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) in Detroit.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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