Superstar MCs rarely return from a long hiatus at the top of the rap game. There are exceptions, of course—Jay-Z couldn't keep quiet after "retirement" to test his lasting power, and came back with an amazing album and an incredible string of concert tours. Figures that Eminem would take such a challenge last year; his early-'00s peak was the largest hip-hop had ever seen, as was his five-year hiatus (a much bigger number in hip-hop years).
2009's Relapse came after drug addictions and crippling depression, and its songs cheekily acknowledged those roadblocks while miming the quirky "Slim Shady" material of old. But the result, like a recovering addict in denial, was an insincere, heartless mess. Relapse's phony levity and shock-value grabs were mere ghosts of the Shady persona, and Eminem further bungled the proceedings with hokey accents, paltry rhymes, and ho-hum pop references (Christopher Reeves? Jessica Simpson?). The 36-year-old sounded tired.
Eminem didn't respond to the shortcoming by wallowing and hiding out again. Indeed, Em nixed his original plan to release Relapse 2, cutting off all ties from the rotten disc with a new name, new producers, and a new, more panicked vocal attack. The most novel feature on next week's release, Recovery, is the humility:
To the fans, I'll never let you down again, I'm back
I promise to never go back on that promise. In fact,
Let's be honest, that last Relapse CD was "ehh"
Perhaps I ran them accents into the ground
Relax, I ain't going back to that now
There's a game called circle and I don't know how
I'm way too up to back down
This segment from "Not Afraid" is one of many moments in which Em calls out the last disc (and, hell, the one before it) as a bummer, takes responsibility and asks for fans' forgiveness. Fans and critics alike will target these moments: What kind of rapper apologizes? Less talk, more action, Mr. Mathers!
Yet Eminem has never taken braver lyrical action. Unapologetic stories had been his business, but those came from a displaced perspective, whether through other people's perspectives (notably the smash hit "Stan") or through a funhouse-mirror take on his troubled past. On Recovery, Eminem squeezes into a microscope slide and scrutinizes himself as fairly as the rest of the fray. "Going Through Changes" sees Eminem telling the story of his near-suicide, describing a self-loathing so severe that even his daughter became a negative trigger:
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?
I [don't] give a fuck, only thing I fear, is Hailie,
I'm afraid if I close my eyes I might see her.
With that attitude, no song's a throwaway because Recovery chronicles Em's every loss, from the death of his longtime D12 comrade, Proof, to his general sense of insanity in the face of massive fame (the latter inspiring a "divorce" from hip-hop in the album highlight "25 To Life").
He also takes ownership of his typical pop-culture barbs. After admitting in one track that he almost recently started a beef with Li'l Wayne, Eminem allows Weezy to take a riveting guest turn on "No Love." Even crazier, his repeated digs about Chris Brown's abusive past are followed by "Love The Way You Lie," Eminem's pop-chart-ready single about abusive relationships with—holy wow—Rihanna as its singer.
That unapologetic perspective is fuel enough for Eminem to recklessly spit about whatever he pleases in other tracks, from the boastful comeback single "Won't Back Down," which features Pink on the catchy hook, to the untitled, breathless hidden track:
I don't gas my Mercedes after midnight, I treat it like a Mogwai
'Cause it will turn into a Gremlin and run over kids, women, and men
Vroom vroom, motor so big you could fit a midget in his engine
Here, even his nonsense is riveting, all mad shouts and syncopated syllables above skillful production. Dr. Dre, Eminem's best-known collaborator, steps aside on this disc, and so does his carnival-esque treatments of Em's material. Big names like Just Blaze and newcomers like DJ Khalil litter the liner notes, yet their combined efforts come off far more cohesive than anything from Relapse, probably because Eminem sounds like a new man here.
For example, that Em/Weezy track, "No Love"? It's anchored by the beat and vocal sample from Hathaway's "What Is Love," the '90s dance hit mocked incessantly by SNL spinoff film A Night At The Roxbury. The joke could've written itself... if Em didn't show up and lose his mind in witty fashion. He is no longer a rapper but a manic preacher, shouting his every word--seriously, shouting through Recovery's full 76 minutes--and rolling syllables the way Spanish speakers roll their R's. Read this witty snippet, and then try to imagine saying it as loudly, quickly, and confidently as possible. You can't. Nobody can. Except, finally, this year, Eminem can:
Man, get these whack cocksuckers off stage
Where the fuck is Kanye when you need him?
Snatch the mic from them, bitch I'mma let you finish in a minute
Yeah the rap is tight
But I'm 'bout to spit the greatest verse of all time
So you might want to go back to the lab tonight and, um,
Scribble out them rhymes you were going to spit
And start over from scratch and write new ones
But I'm afraid that it ain't gonna make no difference
When I rip this stage and tear it in half tonight