Heads or tales

Once again, Eminem proves he just doesn't give a fuck. Perhaps he never stopped, but the results of his, shall we say, carefree attitude are vastly different on his fifth major label release. Call it a return to form with a twist, as there's a sharp lyricist's fervor recalling his days as a "true MC"; one that was wholly absent from 2002's The Eminem Show and his last album, '04's Encore. Relapse recaptures the angry verbal acrobatics from his first two records that sold a kajillion copies and caused every white kid in the suburbs to pour peroxide in his hair. And yet, despite re-bottling that immature angst, Relapse is different and, in a way, it's mature.

Contemporary pop culture knows everything about Eminem. We've followed the violent turns and lawsuits of his marriages, divorces, re-marriages and re-divorces with his star-crossed and beloved Kim, mother of his also-famous daughter, Hailie. Even if we've rarely seen a photograph of Hailie, she's been a character in his rhymes since the now-teenage kid was a toddler. Eminem's life was fictionalized — tweaked, really — for an Oscar-winning film. We know everything about Marshall Mathers … and, on Relapse, he leaves Marshall behind. Instead, he embodies characters that we know aren't him, but allow him to re-channel the shock-and-awe rebellion and skill that made him great in the first place.

Marshall never murdered anyone, but Eminem more than ably begins Relapse with a vicious serial killer anecdote called "3 a.m." Marshall wasn't molested as a child, but Eminem can open up "Insane" with "I was born with a dick in my brain/Yeah, fucked in the head/My stepfather said that I sucked in the bed/Till one night he snuck in and said/‘We're going out back, I want my dick sucked in the shed'/Can't we just play with Teddy Ruxpin instead?" Marshall never had a relationship with Mariah Carey, but Eminem can sure piss off Nick Cannon with the lyrical mastery found on the completely surreal "Bagpipes From Baghdad."

These characters aren't Eminem or Marshall or even Slim Shady; those personalities have finally solidified as one into an album of storytelling brilliance. The narrative no longer belongs to the writer.

Relapse isn't perfect, but the missteps are at least predictable. "We Made You" is the jokey first single that sounds beyond dated. "Hello" is lackluster. And yes, there is that ridiculous hint of an accent (normally reserved for songs like "We Made You") sprinkled throughout otherwise serious tracks, but it's better than Auto-Tune.

Eminem was stuck in a fame-fueled rut for years. On Show and Encore, he was overly obsessed with his own celebrity and how he shielded himself from the public, and maybe from his creative center.

Relapse all but abandons that mantra, at least until the end, when he unloads that monkey from his back once and for all on "Beautiful." (It might not be a coincidence that "Beautiful" is the only pre-sobriety track included on Relapse, according to a recent Shade 45 interview with Em.) The track is succinct and paranoid and just bizarre enough to work. But in the big picture, he no longer rhymes about how famous he is and how hard it is to be famous. He finally just doesn't give a fuck. And once you listen to the piggybacking syllabic dexterity exploding all over "Underground," the album closer, which absolutely slaughters an offbeat production few rappers (dead or alive) would even attempt, you won't give a fuck either. It's not the real story of Marshall Mathers, but it might be as close to real as rap gets.

A version of this story originally ran on the Huffington Post.

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