It’s not easy being an icon.
Eminem’s first three albums are essential, autobiographical, to-the-minute accounts of the thoughts, dreams (or nightmares) and experiences of an antagonistic, complicated and unlikely superstar, and they’ve sold millions of copies. Eminem captured the zeitgeist of the early 2000s, and remains as integral a component to the cultural landscape of that era as Jim Morrison is to that of the late 1960s. By the release of 8 Mile, Eminem seemed like an indestructible force in pop music, immune to the fickle, constantly shifting nature of pop culture; but then he developed a nasty drug habit. And then Eminem released Encore in 2005, and suddenly the magic was gone.
And then he was gone as well, disappearing to his mansion outside of Detroit and privately battling an addiction to prescription drugs, which was only exacerbated by the violent death of his longtime friend and mentor, Proof in 2006. After an OD in 2008 scared him straight, Eminem got the monkey off of his back and recorded last year’s Relapse during that process. Although Relapse is unquestionably rife with evidence that Eminem is a top notch emcee, it was the first time that his graphic, horrorcore-inspired content drove listeners away rather than reeling them in, and overall it paled in comparison to his previous work.
Surprisingly, this is a sentiment stated multiple times by Marshall Mathers himself on his latest release, Recovery, an album clearly fashioned to be the true return to form for the best-selling artist of the 2000s. And most of the time, it is.
Recovery sounds and feels like the album that was supposed to have come out after The Eminem Show. Eminem has wisely returned to the stark, uncompromising introspection of his best work, detailing the self-loathing and misery he’s endured over the past few years with brutal honesty. “Talkin’ To Myself” is particularly arresting, with Em admitting that he almost dissed Lil Wayne and Kanye West at the peak of their powers, purely out of jealousy. And Shady repeatedly mentions the death of best friend Proof throughout Recovery, closing the album with “You’re Never Over,” a moving tribute to his fallen comrade. The album also highlights Eminem ability to play well with others, boasting a few surprising (and surprisingly good) collaborations. “No Love,” featuring Lil Wayne, is a certified banger, boasting one of the best verses Slim Shady has ever spit, while the Rihanna-assisted “Love The Way You Lie” is a surefire hit, telling the story of an physically and emotionally abusive relationship that hits all too close to home for both Em and RiRi.
Standout tracks like first single “Not Afraid” and “Cinderella Man” are unabashedly uplifting songs, in the vein of “Lose Yourself,” and “Til I Collapse,” while “25 to Life” and “Almost Famous” speak to the joy, pain and disappointment that come along with Hip Hop superstardom. Eminem is in top form throughout, terrorizing every beat with dizzying multi-syllabic rhyme schemes and righteous passion and anger. He’s still as witty and inventive as always, proclaiming “Don’t call me the champ/Call me the space shuttle destroyer/I just blew up the Challenger/Matter of fact, I need a lawyer” on the blistering, aforementioned “Almost Famous.” But Recovery is not without its weaknesses. Literally the first album in which Eminem has worked with producers largely outside of his camp (i.e. other than Dr. Dre and himself), it’s a bit surprising how few risks have been taken in terms of the production. There’s a heavy reliance on a soft rock sound throughout, successfully supporting the somber, melancholic lyrical content, but rhythmically this is your standard Eminem album. And with beats supplied by Boi-1da, Just Blaze, Dj Khalil and Jim Jonsin, the top notch production sits relatively well together, but does collectively sacrifice the cohesiveness that’s usually a given for an Eminem release.
And some of the songs simply fail. “W.T.P.,” which stands for White Trash Party, is a strange, totally unnecessary addition to the album, with a concept that feels tired and out of place. Meanwhile, “So Bad,” is formulaic and unimpressive, boasting an uninteresting, dime-a-dozen Dre beat (the only Dr. Dre beat on Recovery).
These missteps take little from the overall listening experience, however. Recovery finds Eminem cementing his status as a world class lyricist, and there are some tracks here that are definite hit singles, sure to return Slim Shady to the top of the charts. But most importantly, Recovery proves that Marshall Mathers still has something interesting and relevant to say.
Eminem is definitely not going anywhere, any time soon.