Eminem finds his fire and his flow again on Recovery, nearly reinventing himself in the process.
"Them last 2 albums didn't count / Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing 'em out / I've come to make it up to you, now no more fucking around / I got something to prove to fans cause I feel like I let 'em down / So please accept my apology, I finally feel like I'm back to normal..."
-- Eminem, "Talkin' 2 Myself"
When Eminem made Encore, it felt like his low point -- an album full of songs that went for commercial and came off cloying. When a compilation of his greatest hits (Curtain Call) was released, it felt as though he might be done, relegated to the world of producer/all-star guest. The mainstream media had left him for dead, the most recent Vanilla Ice to be thrown to the wolves after a meteoric rise and off-a-cliff fall.
When word of Relapse came, that same media started to anticipate a comeback. Word of a renewed vigor in Eminem's attitude came out, alongside tales of hundreds of recorded tracks from which the album would be culled. Momentum built, a silly leadoff radio single -- an Eminem trademark -- appeared, and the world was ready for the fire of albums like The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show all over again. The only thing stopping it, of course, was its quality. Relapse was a confused, desperate, misogynist mess. Despite a few bright spots, Eminem couldn't find the flow that forced people to admit his talent as a rapper even despite the loathsome nature of his subject matter.
Turns out, the anticipation for Eminem's supposed comeback was an album too early. He finds his fire and his flow again on Recovery, nearly reinventing himself in the process.
The most striking aspect of Recovery is a sense of self-awareness, an honesty that Eminem has never been comfortable enough to offer his audience. In the past, even when he was supposedly putting it all out there for us to see, he delighted in offering contradictions; he was the violent homophobe who loved his daughter and did duets with Elton John. We were asked to try and discern which parts of what he was saying were true, and which were part of the dark fantasy world he created for himself. "Not Afraid" is a lead single which is for the first time not a gimmick, and even goes so far as to acknowledge the failings of Relapse: "Let's be honest, that last Relapse CD was "ehhhh" / Perhaps I ran them accents into the ground," he raps, and it's easy to nod your head, impressed by his ability to call himself on his failings in such a plainspoken, specific way.
In fact, his recent Relapse-related failings are a recurring theme on the album, from the wallowing of "Talkin' 2 Myself" (on which he scolds himself for considering "dissing Lil Wayne" out of jealousy) to the redemption song of penultimate track "It's Never Over", in which he says "You had faith in me always / Proof you knew I’d come out of this slump, rise from these ashes / Come right back on they asses, and go Mike Tyson on these bastards." Referencing his dead friend/D-12 collaborator Proof seems almost cheap at first, but as part of an album that's being used as a confessional, it actually comes off as sincere.
Now, to say Recovery is a complete turnaround would be disingenuous. This is still Eminem, after all, an artist whose stock and trade has always been in shock, who knows what his audience wants and who will strike at just about any target to provide. He can't help himself on "Cold Wind Blows": "I'll show you pussy footin / I'll kick a bitch in the cunt 'til it makes her queer and sound like a fuckin' whoopee cushion," he blubbers, and even from a song on which his ire is aimed in every direction -- that is, not just at women -- it's the sort of imagery that can cause a subset of listeners to simply turn off and not take seriously anything else he has to say. Too often his subject matter shifts into self-aggrandizement and teardowns, where he covers up his newfound honesty with boasts and hate. It's as if his newfound honesty simply gets to be too much, and he has to retreat back to his shell for a few songs before revealing a little bit more of himself.
Also, Eminem would be far better off if he never tried to sing his own hook again. Dude just can't sing. The hooks songs like "Cold Wind Blows", "Not Afraid" and "It's Never Over" are just distractingly bad. No matter how tight the flow of his verses, the nasal, abrasive singspeak he uses on so many of his hooks just never seems to work on Recovery.
For all of his lyrical failings, particularly when it comes to women, however, he has an ace in the hole on Recovery: Rihanna. Eminem takes the almost clichéd misogyny that has become a staple of his work and turns it into serious business on "Love the Way You Lie", a serious song about domestic violence with an almost ghostly hook from Rihanna herself, whose presence in such a song adds exponential levels of weight. "Told you this is my fault, look in the eyeball / Next time I’m pissed I’ll aim my fist at the drywall," he raps, offering the most realistic portrayal of violence against women that has ever appeared on one of his albums. Rather than the dark horrific fantasies of tracks like "Kim" and, more recently, "Stay Wide Awake", we get a well-realized portrait of a couple in a sad cycle of violence, with no clear resolution in sight. It's as if Eminem is trying to tell us that he can in fact separate fantasy from reality, and that reality can be just as ugly, albeit in a far different sort of way.
Eminem will never make an album free of his hateful asides and misogynist tendencies -- this much is clear. It's particularly unfortunate because if Recovery teaches us anything it is that he absolutely does not need them. He seems to think it's what we expect of him, and therefore he must provide lest we be disappointed in his newly cleaned-up act. For all of its stumbles into Em's all-too-common crutches, however, Recovery is at the very least showing signs of maturity amongst raps that are as skilled as anything he's done since The Marshall Mathers LP. It is, finally, the comeback we figured he'd manage eventually, and if his newfound honesty and self-awareness becomes more pattern than anomaly, Recovery will be seen as a turning point in his career. If that happens, rarely will an album title seem so apt.