SONIC REDUCER Symptoms: until last year there were few signs of life from Eminem, the hip-hop artist. Last sighted taking a bow on the cover of his last, toned-down, more PC, and ultimately underwhelming studio 2004 album, Encore, the rapper disappeared from the scene, as rumors festered about retirement and later, after he dropped out of the 2005 Anger Management Tour, substance abuse. Out of rehab and back to music-making with hip-hop once again his favorite high, as he put it in a recent interview, Shady's Relapse (Aftermath/Goliath/Interscope/Shady/Web) is now in our hands.
Diagnosis: listening to Em lead with his anger a decade after the release of The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope), we're back to the kind of music and lyrics the man was born to make and sling impossible to ignore when blasting, and incapable of being reduced to wallpaper. Relapse isn't perfect. The weakest track is the first single, "We Made You," with its easy, adolescent, cartoonish video and relatively violence-free lyrics. One too many numbers obsessively retreads similar women-hating, gore-mongering themes on this 22-tracker, which includes the hidden Dre collabos "Old Time's Sake" and "Crack a Bottle" with 50 Cent. But even at its most repetitive (i.e., the skits devoted to nay-saying music biz types), Relapse writhes with life and smarts, conceptually of one piece from its narrative-like programming to its pill-mosaic cover portrait and medicine bottle top-like "Push, Down & Turn" packaging.
Em's faux Jamaican/Scottish toaster patois may irk, much like his habit of subbing rap's omnipresent "bitch" for "lesbian," but it's tough to deny the vitality and vitriol rushing off Relapse's first three songs, as the rapper frontloads the disc with his strongest material. Tracks like the opener "3 a.m." and its serial-killer imagery (check the steal of Silence of the Lamb's imminently swipe-able "It puts the lotion in the basket" monologue and then the YouTube remixes) make it clear from the start that nasty alter ego Slim Shady has lapsed back into view. As he faces a 3 a.m. darkest hour of the soul stocked with a Fangoria-style rogue's crew of references to Jason, Freddy, Dahmer, et al., rage continues to feed his rap.
Such gruesome reveries make Marshall Mathers' acknowledged sleeping pill addiction totally understandable whatever quiets the mind, dude. And though I usually suggest meditation and yoga as alternatives to self-medication, I'm loath to wreck such chaotic, thrill-kill fantasies as "Hello" and "Medicine Ball." "Bagpipes from Baghdad" and the more insinuating, handclap-riddled "Same Song and Dance" call out the perceived sins of rumored exes Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, and Mariah Carey a trash-culture harem that makes one suspect that Shady's rehab stays involved a lot of tabloid browsing for dates. Attraction is always linked to repulsion, hinted at in the openly weary title of the latter.
Blame the mother Eminem does, while fully aware that the world is familiar with that corrosive, at times litigious relationship, judging from the beginning of second track, "My Mom": "My mom, my mom, I know you're probably tired about hearing 'bout my mom." His still-heated fury at her legacy of bad parenting and Valium addiction streams through his flow, this time specifically linked to his own pill predilection. "Wait a minute this isn't dinner this is paint thinner /'You ate it yesterday I ain't hear no complaints did I? Now here's a plate full of pain killers,'" he spits, before ending with, "Alright ma you win, I don't feel like arguin' /I'll do it, pop it gobble it and start wobblin' /stumble hobble tumble slip trip till I fall in bed with a bottle of meds and a Heath Ledger bobblehead." Ledger's damaged Joker would appreciate those last, tongue-tying, onomatopoetic lines, pointing to Em's revived brilliance even amid the Shadiest, sketched-out turmoil.
Or blame the stepfather. Was Eminem raped by his stepfather as a child? And if so, have pop listeners ever been informed of sexual abuse this graphically via song? "Insane" might be the most horrifically explicit, yet a credit to Eminem's powers as a bold entertainer bleakly humorous and compulsively listenable tune about child molestation to date. Here, as with so many of his lyrics, the victim becomes conflated with the victimizer, as the rapper hints at the generational transfer of abuse: "I want you to feel me like my stepfather felt me /Fuck a little puppy kick the puppy while he's yelping /Shady what the fuck you saying I don't know help me," he rages, flipping between characters before settling on a primal scene too painful to be relegated to fiction, speaking as a boy to a step-Pater Monstrous. "I only get naked when the babysitter tells me /She showed me a movie like Nightmare on Elm Street / but it was X and they called it 'Pubic Hair on Chelsea'/'Well this one's called 'Ass Rape' and we're shooting the jail scene.'" Don't go there? Impossible. If rehab released fresh, brave streams of anger and pain in Eminem, no wonder Relapse 2 is hot on this horror flick of an album's heels.