I’m going to cut to the chase: Recovery is the biggest, best album I’ve heard so far this year, and one of the best comeback albums ever recorded.
For those who came in late, Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, is unarguably one of the greatest musicians of our time. With eleven Grammy Awards, a dozen number one singles, Em is the best selling artist of the past decade. White and raised in poverty in the broken city of Detroit, Michigan, he became a global phenomenon 1999 with his debut major label album, The Slim Shady LP. Eminem’s music was filled with darkness and violence, articulating fantasies of revenge against his personal nemeses — his mother, his ex-wife Kim, his absent father — and giving inner demons voice as his killing, raping id Slim Shady.
At a time when rap music was coming under increasing scrutiny by parents, politicians and moralists who worried about the effect its depictions of gang violence and drug culture would have on children, Eminem was instantly controversial. Crass, profane, exultantly grim and occasionally misogynistic or homophobic, they railed against him, and he railed back. His next album, The Marshall Mathers LP, attacked his critics and rival pop culture icons ruthlessly, calling them out on their hypocrisies. The Marshall Mathers LP became the fastest selling solo album in history and has been enormously influential on hip-hop since.
But Em’s next two albums — The Eminem Show and Encore — while still stronger than 90% of rappers out there and filled with hits, lacked the gut-punching power, lyrical ingenuity, and thematic freshness that had made The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP instant classics. Em seemed stuck in limbo, forever battling the same foes, forever beset by lawsuits and struggling with fame, never seeming to quite grow out of his demons or escape his troubled personal history. In 2005 he went on hiatus from music and spent the next few years contemplating retirement.
And then last year he came back, releasing Relapse and eventually expanding it into Relapse: Refill. Relapse followed up on Eminem’s time in drug rehab fighting alcohol and pill addiction, and in many ways it was a great album. But to many fans, myself included, Relapse was a disappointment. After his years away, I wanted more than just more battles with the same personal demons, or with new personal demons. I wanted to see maturity and growth. Plus for most of the album Em rapped with an unexpected squeaky accent, and much of his production was, while complex and strong, rather inaccessible for mainstream pallets. All in all, it wasn’t what I was looking for from Eminem’s comeback.
This week Eminem released his new album, Recovery, and I can say without reservations that finally, gloriously Eminem is back and possibly better than ever. This album is so very very good. The subject matter is fresh and complex, piercing Em’s traditional vicious darkness with a powerful light at the end of the tunnel that makes many of the tracks inspiring, even uplifting. He still takes on the haters and declares his supremacy over other rappers, but he also apologises over and over: to his friends and daughters for what he put them through with his addiction, to other rappers like Lil Wayne and Kanye West for the envy he felt at their success, and to us, the fans, for letting us down with what he readily admits was mediocre work on his last few albums (including Relapse). Some fans will pine for the mercilessly twisted and criminal tone of his earlier work, but for me this new album represents exactly the sort of mature turn I was hoping for.
This is not to say that there isn’t darkness on this album, but, like his addiction, Eminem finally has it under control. He still cuts down critics and rivals with dark humour, and he still engages in a fair amount of bleak introspection. But the Slim Shady alter ego does not make an appearance. There is a lot of emotion on this album, from anger and frustration, to shame and self-loathing, and finally to a new-found happiness which we have never really heard from him. Eminem’s passion is contagious.
The production is fun and accessible, the samples often inspired. Some parts drift into the alt rock sounds that so many hip-hop purists despise, but that I quite approve of. His hooks are beautifully executed by the likes of Kobe, Pink and Rihanna. Like all the lucky albums that get stuck in my headphones on repeat, it is enjoyable to listen to all the way through.
But the best thing about this album is Eminem himself. Never before has his flow been more effortless and casual, his rhyme schemes more nuanced, or his vocal charisma more intimate. And the lyricism! One almost wonders whether he took his hiatus just to have time to come up with all these brilliant jokes and lines, so dense is the cleverness of the wordplay on some of these tracks. And yet others are straight narrative, with no puns to distract from the emotional arcs he lays out, and those hit hard as well. Eminem has always been a contender for king of the rap form, and now he may be claiming the crown for good. In this album he is absolutely the best at what he does, and what he does is fascinating and irresistible.
Get Eminem’s new album Recovery. You can listen to music from the album at http://www.myspace.com/eminem.