Once again, Eminem just doesn't give a fuck. Perhaps he never stopped, but the results of his, ahem, care-free attitude are vastly different on his fifth major label release. Call it a return to form (with a twist), as there's a sharp lyricist's fervor -- recalling his days as a "true emcee" -- one that was wholly absent from The Eminem Show and Encore (his third and fourth records). Relapse recaptures the angry verbal acrobatics from those first two records that sold a cajillion copies and caused every white kid in the suburbs to pour peroxide in his hair. And yet, despite re-bottling that immature angst, Relapse is different and, in a way, it's mature.
Contemporary pop culture knows everything about Eminem. They've followed the violent turns and lawsuits of the marriages, divorces, re-marriages and re-divorces with his star-crossed and beloved Kim, mother of his also-famous daughter, Hailie. Even if we've rarely seen a photograph of Hailie, she's been a character in his rhymes since the now-teenager was a toddler. His life was fictionalized, tweaked really, for an Oscar-winning film. We know everything about Marshall Mathers...and on Relapse, he leaves Marshall behind. Instead, he embodies characters that we know aren't him, but allow him to re-channel the shock-and-awe rebellion (and skill) that made him great in the first place.
Marshall never murdered anyone, but Eminem more than ably begins Relapse with a vicious serial killer anecdote called "3 AM." Marshall wasn't molested as a child, but Eminem can open up "Insane" with "I was born with a dick in my brain/Yeah, fucked in the head/My step-father said that I sucked in the bed/Till one night he snuck in and said/'We're going out back, I want my dick sucked in the shed'/Can't we just play with Teddy Ruxpin instead?" Marshall never had a relationship with Mariah Carey, but Eminem can sure piss off Nick Cannon with the lyrical mastery found on the completely surreal "Bagpipes from Baghdad."
These characters aren't Eminem or Marshall or even Slim Shady...those personalities have finally solidified into an album of storytelling brilliance. The narrative no longer belongs to the writer.
Relapse isn't perfect, but the missteps are at least predictable. "We Made You" is the jokey first single that sounds beyond-dated in 2009. "Hello" is lackluster. "My Mom" retreads familiar territory even as Eminem tries to make it meta. And yes, there is that ridiculous hint of an accent (normally reserved for songs like "We Made You") sprinkled throughout serious tracks like "3 AM"...but it's certainly better than Auto-Tune (if not an all-out snide response to T-Pain's trick-du-jour).
Beginning with "The Way I Am," the final song recorded for arguably his best album, The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem was stuck in a rut, dealing with his own fame. The Eminem Show and Encore were obsessed with his own celebrity and how he shielded himself from the public, and maybe from his creative center too.
Relapse all but abandons that mantra, until the end, when he unearths that demon from his back, once and for all, on "Beautiful" (It might not be a coincidence that "Beautiful" is the only pre-sobriety track included on Relapse, according to a recent Shade45 interview with Em). The track is succinct and paranoid and just bizarre enough to work, and might've been one of his greatest ever had he not wasted two albums on the concept already. But in the big picture, he's no longer rhyming about how famous he is and how hard it is to be famous...he finally just doesn't give a fuck.
And once you listen to the piggy-backing syllabic dexterity exploding all over "Underground," absolutely slaughtering an off-beat production few rappers (dead or alive) would ever even attempt, you won't give a fuck either. It's not the real story of Marshall Mathers, but it might be as close to real as rap gets.