[21 April 2009]
Detroit Free Press (MCT)
(Jason Karas, Eric Milikin/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
You can practically feel the buzz building.
Nearly five years after his last album of new material, Eminem is headed back into the limelight. “Relapse,” the first of two promised albums for the Detroit hip-hop icon this year, will hit stores May 19. The record’s saucy first single, “We Made You,” was released two weeks ago amid much hoopla.
And now the fanfare - which has been on a steady simmer since the autumn release of Em’s autobiography - is set to flash to a boil.
But the big question remains: A decade after he broke onto the pop-culture radar, firmly securing Detroit’s spot on the hip-hop map, does Eminem still matter?
Cynicism would be easy: His 15 minutes are up. He’s old news; in fact, he’s old. His audience has moved on.
But that’s not the mood of industry analysts, culture watchers and fans as the rapper emerges from seclusion. Does Eminem still matter? They answer with a resounding yes, absolutely. “Relapse,” they say, is shaping up to be a bona fide Event.
One thing is certain: The 36-year-old rapper faces a dramatically different world than the one that gave “The Slim Shady LP” a huge welcome in ‘99. Eminem isn’t just a hip-hop elder statesman - he’s an elder statesman in a battered industry. No matter how well “Relapse” performs in relative terms - and it’s a sure bet to top the charts - the album is unlikely to accumulate the same raw numbers as Eminem’s previous best-sellers.
His top career disc remains 2000’s “The Marshall Mathers LP,” which has moved more than 10 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Encore,” released in 2004, clocks in just over the 5 million mark.
“It’s a new game now,” says Mike More, a marketing specialist and CEO of the online media company Nabbr Inc. “But a brand name still means equity. And anyone who has that - like Eminem does - already has a running start.”
In other words, Eminem benefits by being a star who became a star when he did, securing his status before the Internet made such a triumph far more difficult.
“Ten years ago was the last gasp,” More says. “The radio and MTV model that was really robust then isn’t the same anymore. They’re less powerful. The music business had its best year ever in 2000, and it’s been losing market share ever since.”
But even as the industry lost its footing, Eminem got his own: In the early ‘00s, the savvy emcee nailed the elusive combination of genuine street cred and sweeping mainstream success. It was a feat that propelled him well beyond mere flavor-of-the-month, where most hip-hop contenders get stuck.
“He eventually transcended the bad-boy image that a lot of rappers kick off their careers with,” says Paula Moore, president of Treadstone Music Intelligence. “He went from stirring the pot of hip-hop culture into showing something more talented and visionary and intelligent - all those elements that help an artist stick. It went beyond the instant gratification of, ‘Whoa, that’s cool,’ into, ‘Wow, that’s meaningful, I want that to be a part of my life.’”
In that way, he’s more akin to a U2 or Madonna than to most of his pop-chart peers. And that gives Eminem a crucial advantage as he navigates the rest of his career, says Warren Griffin of the Urban Network, a hip-hop industry magazine.
“Eminem is most definitely still relevant,” says Griffin. “Just because there hasn’t been new product doesn’t mean people haven’t kept listening to the old product. He still has a big place in the market.”
Griffin predicts “Relapse” will sell 600,000 to 750,000 copies its debut week: “There’s still a built-in base of people who are going to go buy an Eminem album before they even know if they like it.”
Among them is David Ainscough. The 13-year-old and his friends are “fans no matter what happens,” he says. “We’re psyched about the new album.”
When the Em song “Crack a Bottle” hit in February, “everyone was talking about it, singing it in class, getting the ringtone,” David says of his classmates at Renton Junior High in New Boston, Mich. “Everybody stopped what they were doing and came back to Eminem.”
2009 could be a big year for more than Slim Shady: With discs on the way from cohorts Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and Bishop Lamont, it’s shaping up as a multipronged comeback campaign for Aftermath Records.
For retailers such as Mark Jabiro, manager of Planet Rock Music in southwest Detroit, that’s a reassuring prospect. Amid an ongoing downturn for hip-hop sales, the Aftermath game plan is helping build a hearty appetite among hip-hop fans, he says. It brings the sort of old-fashioned, big-moment buzz that harkens back to the music industry’s glory days.
“People have been waiting for this,” Jabiro says of the new Eminem set, citing daily phone calls from fans. “It’s going to be the big one.”
“We Made You” is a typical leadoff Eminem single: colorful, catchy and unabashedly bratty. Internet reaction is mixed, as some listeners welcome the return of a familiar sound while others deem Em dated.
Still, Jabiro says, the real challenge for Eminem is the rest of the album. Longtime fans don’t want more of the slinky club music that marked 2004’s “Encore.” The key to Eminem’s future lies in his past.
“Everybody is hoping this is more true hip-hop, getting back to the sound of his first two records,” says Jabiro.
For some, hope lies in the beefed-up presence of Dre on “Relapse,” which was recorded mostly in Ferndale, Mich., and Florida. With the hip-hop veteran firmly back in the production seat - a role that Eminem had increasingly filled - the rapper might have just the right creative environment.
“You have to hope it has allowed Eminem to be a rapper again, to not worry about everything else, like the mix, the marketing plan, whether the drums are hitting loud enough,” says Griffin of the Urban Network. “It should allow him to focus on his job: a hot concept and a hot flow.
“The thing that has always made Eminem successful is being himself. So long as he does that, he’ll be fine - and the audience will be there.”
THINGS HAVE CHANGED
There have been a few significant changes around Eminem since his last studio record.
Proof: The 2006 murder of Eminem’s best friend and musical sounding board shook him to the core, associates say. Expect the new album to include a tribute in some form.
Kim Scott: The notorious up-and-down romance of Em and Kim went up in January 2006, when the two remarried ... then promptly went down as he filed for divorce that April. The two have since settled into an amicable arrangement involving custody of their three children, the rapper has said.
The Bass Brothers: In 2007, Eminem purchased his own studio and drifted away from his working relationship with this Detroit production team. Other longtime collaborators, including musician Luis Resto and engineer Mike Strange, still work closely with him.
Hip-hop sales: The record industry’s struggles are no secret. But hip-hop has taken a particularly big hit: Rap sales in 2008 were down nearly 20 percent from the previous year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Many retailers are banking on upcoming albums from Eminem and Dr. Dre to help light things up.