The genius of Eminem’s early major label releases was so potent, it was impossible for a fan not to be disheartened by the abomination of his last two releases. His winding word play, intricate rhymes and self-conscious cartoon violence showed genuine growth and insight between The Slim Shady LP and The Eminem Show. This made it all the more dispiriting when they devolved into the sludging labor of Encore and the bizarrely unfettered horror-porn of Relapse. Luckily for the millions of us who want him back, Eminem is keenly aware of his descent and is trying to do something about it. To that end he has made explicit in both the press and the lyrics in the new album, that Recovery is his apology and step forward into a new and re-solidified future.
Well, maybe not a step forward as much as an about face. This album is not filled with the rape fantasies and drug fueled vengeance that contributed to Relapse’s sad one-listen status. It is however, heavy laden with many of the same minor chord, slow-roll beats that made its predecessor feel achingly melancholy and depressing. Eminem is at his best when he’s high energy and full blast. His top tracks let the intensity build like when his rocket rhymes crescendo through songs like “Kill You” or slyly wind and slide through tracks like “Brain Damage”. Unfortunately, the melancholy downer that started with Encore and reached full force in Relapse is still present in Recovery. This slow tempo ties the hands of a kinetic artist like Eminem, whose power comes from slippery lyrics with intertwining pacing.
That’s not to say that Eminem’s lyrics aren’t in top shape. If one thing stands out in Recovery it’s his solid affirmation that those labyrinthine lyrics are back at dizzying (if not previously unachieved) heights. The intricacy of his inner rhymes, double entandres and punchlines stand tall as perhaps the best argument for the stupefying effect that drugs can have on an able and agile mind. Perhaps more poignantly, those lyrics testify to the fact that sobriety can bring such a mind back into sharper and more potent relief.
And yet, the topics of those winding and swooping lyrics have not changed much from his earlier concerns. I was frustrated by the popular success of “Lose Yourself” as I could never take a positive irony-free Eminem spitting plaitudinal drivel seriously. It seems as though he’s tried to replicate that formula on every album since 8 Mile. Recovery is no exception with several tracks falling into this trap including the first single “Not Afraid” as well as “Talkin’ 2 Myself” and “Going Through Changes”. I get it: “drugs are bad”, “handle your biz”, “time to straighten up”. These are lovely messages but coming from Eminem it always feels forced and shameless. There’s probably a lot of honest heartbreak and lessons learned in there, but after you’ve ass raped and murdered your mom on a track it’s hard to hear you preach “be yourself and persevere”.
The other pitfall that Eminem repeats is regurgitating slow jam psuedo-love songs like “Superman.” I realize that “Superman” was about not being there for someone but this trend of slowing it down for the ladies is not his strong suit. He re-attempts this with “Seduction” and “Love the way you lie” which I fear may be equally popular to “Superman” and certainly equally painful to me. Slow jams are great, have a wide audience and serve a useful purpose but I don’t ever need to hear Eminem say “oh girl”.
There are few tracks with hot beats on Recovery but Eminem catches fire on every single one of them. My favorite, the Untitled hidden track, is a Kanye style bass & soul beat by Havoc (of Mobb Deep fame). Given his access and resources, you’d expect a number of head boppers but this was one of only a few that actually got my head nodding. Nevertheless, Eminem assaults this track with such abandon that it made me wish the whole album had this sound. Another tight track is the sole Dr. Dre entry, “So Bad”. The beat could have been ripped from Chronic outtakes and it provides a smooth horn heavy loop that Eminem rides like a ‘Lolo. The least traditional track, “Won’t back down”, uses a solid guitar lick and hook by P!nk. This combination provides the right bounce for Em to let his lyrics explode and attack the listener with a rawer energy than is found on most of the other songs.
Recovery is by no means Eminem’s strongest release but it serves as an ample separation from his previous missteps and promises a new if unclear direction. He is no longer the pop party pooper nor is he the druggy drop out. He’s moved on from both but is still trying to find his way. Eminem’s lyricism, however, is as sharp as ever and when he finds the right track and topic, he makes a powerful case for best in the game.