And so it has come to this: rebel-turned-celebrity turns into celebrity-as-cliche.
How else to explain Eminem’s latest studio album, “Relapse”? It took five years to make not because the artist born Marshall Mathers III was squirreling himself away in an attempt to reinvent himself. No, he was preoccupied with a drug habit that sent him into rehab.
His dependency on painkillers frames a 20-track, 76-minute album, and the by-now expected digressions into audio pathology. There are a few genuinely chilling moments, a few shots of dark humor and a lot of trolling through one of the most disturbing imaginations in popular entertainment.
Eminem has specialized in the sick and the self-deprecating for a decade, in the process becoming the most celebrated (and reviled) hip-hop artist of his time.
The outlaw pose has paid off well: His previous studio albums have sold 27 million copies. The problem with transgression lies in its impermanence; once you perform the same trick countless times, the sense of surprise dissipates, and so does your audience.
Yet Eminem has the talent to outlive his moment. When he’s good, he can be very good. His best music has an honesty as withering as a heart attack. He has produced landmark music such as “Stan” and starred in a hit movie, “8 Mile,” that gave his hardscrabble story a context and depth lacking in his albums.
But for anyone who carried a glimmer of hope that this talented if perverse MC had a great album in him, the kind of arty self-reinvention that the Beastie Boys once engineered with their 1989 masterpiece, “Paul’s Boutique,” “Relapse” is a wakeup call. He took five years off to produce an album that retraces his steps rather than forging a bold new path.
Eminem and his longtime collaborator, producer Dr. Dre, set out to make a relatively austere album in the mold of his incendiary 1999 debut, “The Slim Shady LP,” with few cameos, few obvious samples and few pop choruses. Rather than focus on songs or hooks, this album showcases Eminem’s formidable skills as a rapper and storyteller; the beats are merely framing devices for the lyrics. Eminem compensates with a multitude of voices and rhythm patterns, and he flips phrases and piles up the internal rhymes with his usual dexterity.
In interviews, Eminem has said he spiraled into prescription-drug addiction after the shooting of his friend DeShaun “Proof” Holton outside a Detroit nightclub in 2006. And the album draws its most personal music out of Eminem’s struggles during this period.
He awakens from a blackout in “3 a.m.” to find a room filled with bodies, and his own daughter finds him passed out in “Deja Vu.” He doesn’t let himself off the hook, but he also can’t resist taking a few shots at his parents. His stepfather is the center of a rape-incest spew, “Insane,” over chintzy “Psycho”-like strings. And then his mother, a frequent target on his past records, gets a tongue-lashing on “My Mom.”
“I’m on what I’m on cause I’m my mom,” he whines over horns and beats that evoke a herd of shuffling elephants. In rehab, they’d call that an excuse, and a lame one at that.
He does manage to spare his former wife, Kim, another frequently abused recipient of his verbal daggers on past albums. But inexplicably he keeps tweaking fellow celebs, such as Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan as if anyone cared. These played-out references only add to the feeling that Eminem can’t be bothered to challenge himself anymore. Even the countless misogynistic and homophobic references that pepper this album are no longer shocking. They’re merely pathetic.
Signs of boredom were already creeping in on his previous studio album, the 2004 release “Encore,” and they’re even more apparent now. On “Relapse,” the 36year-old continues to portray rapists and murderers with stomach-turning veracity; tracks such as “Stay Wide Awake” and “Medicine Ball” are soundtracks to slasher movies, the type that don’t even pretend to have socially redeeming value.
Has the pathological smart-aleck finally become a self-parody? He admits as much in “Same Song and Dance.” But the funniest and most honest moment arrives just as the album fades. It depicts Eminem (as the character Ken Kaniff) at another rehab meeting, trying out an X-rated softshoe routine on another audience, which quickly abandons him.
“Where’s everybody goin’?” he mutters. “Wait, I got another one ...”