I have a love/hate relationship with Marshall Mathers. As a hip-hop head, I have to give the man respect for his talent. At a time when most now-school rappers can’t even freestyle properly, Eminem is almost a throwback emcee. The dude has skills that name-your-favorite-current-rapper can’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
That said, there are also plenty of things that trouble me about Eminem. Like most people who were bullied as kids, he himself takes pleasure in bullying others less capable of fighting back than he is. Hence a lengthy list of targets that includes a couple of the ‘NSync dudes, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, Everlast and Canibus. What makes Eminem’s lame bullying even worse is that he’s not afraid of getting hit back, he doesn’t go after other emcees because he’s afraid of losing his popularity. I had to laugh when he was quoted in an interview as saying he was so jealous of Kanye West and Lil Wayne’s success that he considered making a dis record about them. I call bullshit. First off, not only could he eat Kanye and Wayne for breakfast if he wanted to (and he has to know this), but there’s no way in hell Em would do that for fear of damaging his somewhat fragile relationship with his black fan base. So, dude is a faker. And a pussy. Not to mention a misogynist and a homophobe. But again, talent can make up for a lot of other nasty qualities, and while Em’s never been my favorite emcee on Earth (or rather, he’s not made the best records on Earth), I would say that from a skill standpoint, dude is probably Top 10 all time.
Those skills had suffered from serious erosion by the time “Relapse” came out last year. Dropping poop jokes in an accent that evoked Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, “Relapse” belongs in the Bad Albums Hall of Fame, with not one redeeming track on the whole mess. Eminem sounded over the hill. Dr. Dre (who produced almost the whole album) sounded over the hill, and even there was a favorable response critically and commercially (two Grammys and a double platinum plaque), a lot of true heads still thought that Em had fallen off and fallen HARD.
Em was obviously listening to the criticism. He dropped a verse on Drake’s “Forever” that was tighter than Drake’s, Wayne’s and Kanye’s verses on the same song combined. He tore up a cipher with Black Thought on the BET Hip-Hop Awards. He delivered another show-stopping verse on B.O.B.’s “Airplanes” remix. All of these set the stage for Em’s sixth studio album, “Recovery”-an album that’s significantly better than “Relapse”, yes. But that’s not to say it isn’t a flawed work.
Let’s get it out of the way now-when it comes to pure rappin’, this dude’s a fucking genius. He sounds recharged, re-energized on damn near every track on this album. Dude puts words together better than just about anyone currently making records right now. One of the things I liked most about the golden era of hip-hop was that the folks who rhymed did so at least partially because they were in love with the language. Listen to Eminem unleash dizzying rhyme schemes on songs like “Cinderella Man” and the super-aggro “Won’t Back Down” and it’s hard not to get caught up in his skill.
But then you take a second and listen to WHAT he’s saying and the balloon is deflated a little bit. While there are flashes of maturity through the album (particularly on the songs where he’s either owning up to past career mistakes or eulogizing his mentor Proof), the fact is that Marshall Mathers is pushing 40 and he STILL thinks that cracking Parkinson’s disease jokes about Michael J. Fox (who went public with his diagnosis some fifteen years ago) is funny and/or novel. He still treats women like shit, and he’s still picking on easy targets like Mariah and the Kardashian sisters. The fact that a big chunk of Eminem’s fanbase doesn’t get the subtext in some of his more outre rhymes bothers me, as does the fact that Em doesn’t realize that he is now at a point where he is old enough to have legitimately FATHERED a good chunk of his fan base. At a certain point, you’ve gotta grow up, at least a little. And despite the fact that he seems a little more clearheaded, I’m not sure lyrical maturity is on his agenda. And it’s gonna look REALLY pathetic in a couple years when he’s 40 and still rapping to a 15-year old audience.
Of course, Em’s re-energized rapping, combined with some up-to-date production (no thanks to Dr. Dre…can someone put him out to pasture?) and his first pop-single collaborations ever (with Pink and Rihanna) have combined to make “Recovery” this year’s second biggest-selling album after barely two months in stores, with no end in sight. It’s a near certainty that it will be bumping heads with the likes of Lady Antebellum when Grammy time arrives in a couple months, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Recovery” becomes the third hip-hop album to win the Album of the Year trophy. It’s a solid comeback and certainly Eminem’s best effort since 2002’s “The Eminem Show”. His skill level’s returned to it’s 2002 altitude, unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have evolved much as a person since then, either.
BTW-for flipping Haddaway’s dance hit “What is Love?” (one of the most annoying songs in music history) into a credible hip-hop track for “No Love”, Just Blaze deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award or something.