In 2009, Eminem—a poor, scrawny, trailer dwelling kid from the outskirts of Detroit with a liquid flow and acute sense of humor—alienated just about everyone with Relapse, an album that abrasively belied the everyman appeal he oozed on older records. He was a strange, secluded sadist, hundreds of millions of dollars removed from the menial jobs he rapped about on “Rock Bottom”, and new, overbearing tracks like the cereal-rapist narrative “Stay Wide Awake” hinted at a dubious relationship with reality.
Then, something clicked. Eminem dropped the pretenses and decided to simply rap his ass off. He delivered the best verses on Alchemist’s Chemical Warfare, 50 Cent’s Before I Self Destruct, and Lil Wayne’s Rebirth. He made three very serviceable MCs look positively sophomoric on Drake’s “Forever.” He out-freestyled Mos Def and Black Thought. (Think about that. Mos Def and Black Thought.) He upstaged a glowingly thoughtful B.o.B. on “Airplanes (Part II)”. This past Tuesday, he released the astonishing “Despicable”, his take on Drake’s “Over” and Lloyd Banks’ “Beamer Benz or Bentley”, attacking those instrumentals with heady, syllable-twisting glee: “Keep blogging, while I’m mind boggling / Flow’s so wet, I’ll take this beat tobogganing.”
Em’s recent run has been historic, comparable to the exhilarating string of cameos Andre 3000 dropped in 2007. While it remains to be seen if this jolt of energy will translate into a gripping album, “Not Afraid” reveals great intentions. It’s the first single from Recovery, as well as a bracing departure from the shock-jock tiredness of past washouts like “We Made You” and “Just Lose It”. There are no Jennifer Aniston or Blake Fielder disses here. Instead, we get three candid, fervent verses: “I promise to focus solely on handling my responsibilities as a father / So I solemnly swear to treat this roof like my daughters / And raise it.”
“Not Afraid” isn’t altogether great. The beat is waver thin, the hook maudlin, and rhymes about “gazing up at the stars” are rarely welcome. But, for Eminem, the track is also a welcome entrance into foreign territory. It’s refreshing. It’s positive. We need more of it.