Some people grow up, and others just get older. Em may be closing in on 40, but his rhymes are more immature than ever. It's getting sad -- Flava Flav sad.
"See... I grew up idolizing guys like Fonzie and Vinnie Barbarino because they got a lot of chicks. You know what happened to Fonzie and Vinnie Barbarino? Their shows got canceled… because no one wants to see a 50-year-old guy hitting on chicks."
-- Sammy, The Wedding Singer
The fact is, at the ripe age of 28, I am no longer the primary marketing demographic in modern capitalist society. That demographic is kids in their late teens and early 20s because they possess a unique combination of disposable income and weakness to peer pressure that makes corporate interests salivate. Almost everyone feels the pressure at that age, the overwhelming desire to be cool. Everything and every moment seems significant and intense. Some of my most cherished memories from that time are of cruising the five block main drag in Kamloops with my best friend pumping Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP the summer it came out. We were cool… as cool as you can be in Kamloops. That album was the most important in my world, both controversial and fun to dance to. The more adults hated it, the more we liked it.
Although Relapse carries few clues to this fact, Eminem is getting close to his 40th birthday. While his seminal Marshall Mathers LP featured a spirited young man trying to sound like an adult, and succeeding, Relapse's first track "3AM" features the tired flow of a middle aged adult desperately trying to sound young. The closing line of the chorus, "killed 'em", is enunciated "ke-ew dum" in such a way as to bear an uncanny resemblance to the imagined bastard child of Elmer Fudd and Tweety Bird. "Insane" goes one further by bogging down a verse with actual baby talk, albeit in a pedophilic context. Obviously, his lyrical content hasn't changed much since his first album -- he still blathers exclusively about drug use and women abuse mixed with a bit of old ultra-violence and a list of cultural references that reads like People magazine -- but where his voice once snarled with unequivocal vitriol, it now sounds strained. While he should be in the prime of his career, he is instead becoming a caricature of his former self. It's getting sad, like Flava Flav sad.
His first and second LPs, Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers, which still rank as his best work, were released within a year of each other. For Relapse, Eminem allegedly recorded over a hundred songs, and only the best of those became his latest comeback album. This is pitiful because, with almost half of a decade to develop his fifth work, these "best of the best" tracks are entirely unsurprising. Relapse recycles all the themes of the last four Eminem records to the letter, which could infer that this "relapse" isn't about Em's drug problem so much as his problem of making the same album over and over again. There are the usual songs about hating his mom, getting wasted, chasing tail, and being crazy punctuated by Steve Berman, Ken Kaniff, and Paul Rosenberg skits. It's a proven blueprint, executed in the same by-the-numbers fashion as a Nickelback album.
Compounding matters, Slim decided to put the "best" tracks on Relapse, while announcing his intention to release another album tentatively called Relapse 2 by the end of the year. He even mentions the second album in the Berman skit, just to rub it in his fans' faces. Em could have given his supporters a good reason to stick around by releasing a double album. Instead, he decided to bilk the maximum amount of income out of the consumer public by splitting it into two separate releases, like Nelly's Sweat and Suit. So, Relapse is not only a half-baked rerun; it's only half of a half-baked rerun.
Now, I'm not going to come down on Slim for his drug use proclamations. Everyone in this society is some kind of addict, be it by prescription, injection, adrenalin, drinking, praying, whatever. The dangerous part of this record is Em's usual retread of sexism and homophobia.
"Same Song & Dance" stays true to its name as Em lyrically stalks and murders female celebrities. In "Stay Wide Awake", he mutilates a woman's vagina with an open umbrella in Central Park, and follows it up with a graphic home invasion rape. The boxing like intro to "Crack a Bottle" goes one further by mentioning Shady's self-professed record of 17 rapes as a point of pride, with four murders thrown in for kicks. Throughout the album, women are blamed, abused, tortured, and murdered. He makes rape sound like something to brag about, like a touchdown or homerun. It's the exact opposite of "Dance with the Devil" by Immortal Technique.
It's all a big joke to Em, though. After dropkicking a pregnant woman and fishing out her unborn child with a coat hanger on "Medicine Ball", he says, "I guess it's time for you to hate me again." This may say more about Marshall Mathers, the human being, than anything else. His father left his family before he was old enough to remember him, and his mother did not or could not nurture him enough as a child. So, as an adult, he takes his revenge fantasies out on all women through his rhymes. I think you get back what you give out in this world, and Em craves stirring up a bunch of hatred in his direction. Boy, is it easy to give him the hatred he wants after listening to this album.
Relapse is not all about killing and molesting women. There is plenty of homophobia to be found. "Insane" describes being sexually molested by his stepfather. While the subject matter can be important in the right context, the track seems to conflate homosexuality with pedophilia, a fallacy reinforced by Paul Rosenberg calling him his "gay stepfather" during his banal answering machine skit. The Ken Kaniff album outro features an acappella "Cock Boy" version of "We Made You" with a reference to "Gay A" like AA, as if homosexuality were a disease akin to alcoholism. The lead single "We Made You" includes the lines: "He does not mean to lesbian offend / But Lindsay please come back to seeing men" and "Sorry Portia, but what’s Ellen DeGeneres have that I don't?" Granted, some of these references may be off-hand jokes, but when you add it up, there isn't much to Eminem beyond loathing non-sequiturs and one-liners so cruel, crude and persistently offensive that it makes South Park look like Fraser.
Working in the album's favor, Dr. Dre produced almost everything on it. Em may have talent as an emcee, insofar as he can rhyme many words quickly, but his self-produced beats are consistently abysmal. The less time he spends blindly poking buttons behind a console, the better for everyone. Dre still has a knack for coming up with rich, clean sounds that have defined his post 2001 career. Only, continuing his slide away from dusty crates to plastic boxes, the instrumentals lack much in the way of discernable character to the point that they sound like prospective MPC demos. While they will definitely sound decent on any system, with enough crystal bass to appease drunken clompers at the mercy of an aging deejay, they will be forgotten by last call.
The buying public is supposed to shrug off all the issues with Relapse and say, "It's no biggy. We all know Em has problems. He's just venting." And sure, it was fairly easy to ignore when it was delivered with the level of commitment and wrath heard on his first two platinum records. He convinced us he was insane, backed it up with great beats and a compelling underdog, storytelling style. "Stan" has the ability to draw in even the most contrary consumer.
The thing is, being insane is simply not a good enough excuse to spread chauvinistic hate-speech like this, especially not when delivered in such a formulaic casing. All in all, Relapse is not much more than a brightly polished turd of old-hat hate, incompatible with the direction society is headed. At what point will this unimaginative style of lowest common denominator entertainment lose its cultural relevance and corporate backing? Eminem is doing the exact same shit at 36 as he was doing at 26. Will you find it sad when he's bitching about his mom, killing homosexuals, and raping women at age 46? 56? 66? When he's wearing Depends undergarments and being rolled around in a rest home, waving his cane at the whippersnappers on the lawn blowing raspberries in his general direction?
Some people grow up, and others just get older. For me, I feel like I have grown up, no longer the naïve kid from Kamloops. For Marshall Mathers, the clock is ticking.