Why Eminem’s Relapse is a Work of Genius


It’s 2009. On the way home from work, you hear the news on the radio; after a 4-year hiatus, Eminem is releasing a new album called Relapse. Ahhhh. At last. Slim Shady is back in business. You decide to stop at a local music store to pick up a CD (remember those?). The fellow at the cashier, sporting atrocious nose piercings and an Insane Clown Posse t-shirt, mumbles something about Relapse being a ‘total crapfest, Eminem’s sooo irrelevant’. Crapfest? Hmmm. How bad could it be? Maybe you should just listen to the darn thing first before judging it.

You’re parked in the shadows beside your garage. The radio has been droning on and on for several minutes now; apparently, Relapse is terrible. Thoroughly laxative, in a lyrical sense. Just ask Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, or NME; Eminem is trying way too hard to regain the trust and respect of his golden days. His new songs are the hackneyed, headline-grabbing antics of a rapper long past his prime. Homophobia? Alive and kicking. Misogyny? Check! Not to mention that he does this all in a nasally, faux-Eastern European accent. Oh no. Maybe you shouldn’t have spent $10 on a career-spiral/dumpster fire of an album? What will you do? The Relapse CD beckons in your hand. Why not, you think. Maybe you can have a chuckle over it with your friends at the office, have a go at Ol’ Em hanging up the mic. After all, what’s the harm? You pop the CD in the car stereo. You sit back, close your eyes, and listen.

Your mind is immediately thrust into a new world, the patchwork monstrosity of some diabolical maniac’s diseased thoughts; Eminem’s roaring vocals, cinematic production and elaborate, stomach-lurching imagery invoke a very particular feeling of uneasiness, a sense of queasiness, like an aural motion sickness oozing in between beats. You can’t seem to recognize this Slim Shady; this isn’t quite the scrawny, self-deprecating pop culture provocateur or the nihilistic media mischief maker of early 2000s MTV. This is a new breed of perverted madness, altogether more sinister; not Slim Shady, but Shady’s Monster. He treads tracks, stalks stanzas, and butchers beats with a wild-eyed psychosis, spitting with an over-the-top accent that lends his verses an unnerving, Transylvanian quality. His subject matter is grisly to the absurdest degree: massacre, abduction, assault, dismemberment, robbery – illustrated in colorful and comical detail.

Relapse evokes an undercurrent of theatrical horrorcore reminiscent of late 70s and early 80s slasher/serial killer films, paying homage to the monsters of your adolescence: Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, Austin Powers. Slim references and compares himself to many a bloodthirsty sociopath, including Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, Dracula of Dracula Untold, Jack the Ripper of Victorian lore, and Mariah Carey of State Property 2 and the H.A.T.E.U. music video. Terrifying. You shudder as Eminem’s unadulterated lyrical dexterity manifests, materializing dizzying Penrose triangle rhyme schemes of fiendish complexity, mesmeric in their capacity to spiral like möbius strips, complements of an unhinged Eminem; off his meds, on his pills, out of his straitjacket and in a foul mood.

The experience is not without its moments of detraction. We Made You is an uninspired, studio-mandated, derivative retread of old Slim Shady territory, attempting to recapture the same anthem-of-anarchy status as My Name Is and The Real Slim Shady. Beautiful is saccharine, pseudo-motivational radio-bait that foreshadows the unfortunate coming of Recovery. My Mom? You are kind of tired of hearing about his mom. Some of Relapse’s recurring themes become more and more redundant as the album progresses. You conclude, however, that Relapse is a work of under-appreciated genius. 3 A.M. sets the stage for Em’s regression into Shady the Serial Killer as he indulges in a deranged murder spree, as much a decimation of skepticism as it is of decent sensibilities. Bagpipes from Baghdad is classic Eminem scream therapy infused with pulpy slasher inflections. Hello, Same Song and Dance, Medicine Ball and Must be the Ganja all serve to further the crazed serial killer narrative. And Underground – where do you begin? – is an opus of thunderous lyrical mastery, a sonic cumulonimbus of unbridled rage and sheer scathing wit, perhaps the most shockingly diminished track of Eminem’s entire oeuvre.

Ken Kaniff’s nasally encore fades away. You open your eyes. It’s 2.45 AM. The kids are long asleep. The missus is probably already in bed. Relapse feels like a fever dream. It perches in the placards of your mind, amongst The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, Encore and The Eminem Show: a Vicodin tablet in a bucket of lozenges. Relapse is an aberration, as you’ll find out in the years to come, an esoteric and criminally underrated album that took the idea of Slim Shady to conceptual extremes, ironically alienating critics and fans alike. A cinematic, nigh-camp indulgence in gleeful repugnance. It is perhaps the Last Great Eminem Album, escaping the infertile compost heap of lyrical diarrhea that Recovery and Revival cohabit. Relapse certainly isn’t perfect, nor is it immune to moral criticism. You believe, however, that Relapse is neither an espousal of violence and hatred nor a desperate claw for relevance by a fading legend. No, it’s everything an album centered around a man submitting to his darker instincts should be; an overdose, a clenched gordian knot in the stomach, a fleeting but overpowering high. Relapse stands out like glowing eyes in a toilet bowl, catching you unprepared, leaving you breathless and terrified, yet keeping you in hysterics at the comical absurdity of it all. In short, Relapse is everything the Real Slim Shady stands for.

You leave the car and enter your house. You walk up the stairs – step, step, step – and open the bedroom door. Your wife is asleep, curled up and facing the window. You stumble into the bathroom – man, you’re exhausted. The shower curtains open with a swish. The water falls like a downpour. It feels good to be home. The sounds of the shower head masks the subtle click of the bathroom door unlocking. You continue showering, oblivious to creeping footsteps. The hiss of the shower head is deafening. The kids upstairs never hear the sudden parting of shower curtains. They never hear the muffled screams of an unidentified adult/ freelancing musical critic, eyes wide open in horror. They never hear the padded stomp of a silent stranger in the night, closing the bedroom door, creeping up wooden stairs, blonde hair glistening in the ghastly moonlight, hands slowly reaching for the bedroom doorknob of two unsuspecting pre-teens…

*DISCLAIMER: This review is meant as an opinion piece/ second-person fantasy scenario. Just because I like this album does not mean that I endorse any of the lyrics inside it. Relapse contains content which may be considered offensive by some. I believe that its lyrics are not to be taken as the genuine attitudes or personality of Marshall Mathers, that Relapse is mere storytelling akin to horror movies in pure shock value, and that listening to this album does not make you complicit with amoral behavior. Thanks for reading. This review was a blast to write!

**A happy belated birthday to fellow SAT-taker Stevino.