"I guess it's time for you to hate me again," says Eminem hopefully on Relapse, his first new studio album since November 2004. Not so fast, buddy. Measured in the dog years that make up a rap star's career, an epoch has passed since most people have thought about Eminem, let alone been riled up by him, and the world hardly paused in his absence. Dozens of events, from the political (a black President makes the novelty of a white rapper seem kind of insignificant) to the personal (Eminem's struggle with a sleeping-pill addiction rendered him worthy of sympathy), have shifted the ground of popular culture and Eminem's place in it, gumming up the buttons he once pushed with ironic glee.
But one development wreaked more havoc on Eminem's hateability than all the rest: amazingly, someone coarsened the culture without him. As Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen advanced the art of provocation, broadening it from Eminem's preferred taboos of sex and class to the mocking of all Americans (by a foreigner, no less) for being naive enough to believe their own mythology. Baron Cohen was darker, funnier and way more misanthropic than Eminem which is how it goes with cultural instigators. They poke, we react; they poke again, we react a little less, until eventually someone with a sharper stick and a bushier mustache comes along. America's Most Outrageous is just not a title you keep for long or get to hold twice. (See "The Roots Of Rap.")
Not that anything could keep Eminem, 36, from trying to win it back. Half of Relapse the aggressively dull and stupid half is devoted to re-establishing Eminem as a man so unhinged, he's capable of anything or at least fantasizing about anything. By the middle of the first song, "3 a.m.," Eminem, or one of his multiple alter egos, has masturbated to Hannah Montana and left a pile of bodies behind the counter of a McDonald's.
And that's just a little light stretching before the onslaught of celebrity sex and violence that follows. On "Medicine Ball," he promises to rape the Pussycat Dolls and spits out a couplet of abuse for Madonna and Rihanna, while "Same Song & Dance" has him raping Lindsay Lohan in one verse and Britney Spears in the next. Suffice it to say that many more rapes occur and I stopped taking notes.
Are you outraged or just bored? Eminem has trampled these boundaries before, and even the gothic funk and seriocomic beats of Dr. Dre, who produced all but one of Relapse's 20 tracks, can't cover up the sound of Eminem's weariness. Titles like "Same Song & Dance" and "Old Time's Sake" give away the game, as does the quality of the wordplay, which is far more blunt than manic. Eminem sounds like a man with a reputation to uphold, a lyric book to fill and a stack of Us Weekly magazines nearby. Things do not improve when he shifts to his other major theme, serial killers, and multiple references to Children of the Corn, Friday the 13th and The Silence of the Lambs reveal a man in desperate need of help with his Netflix queue. (Read "Slim Shady, Meet Rocket Man.")
When Relapse works, it's usually because Eminem drops the pretense that he wants to be loathed and returns to subjects that actually haunt him. "My mom, my mom/ I know you're probably tired of hearing about my mom," he sighs on "My Mom," and since even people who know almost nothing about Eminem are aware that he and his mother are not close, you prepare for the worst. But rather than self-pitying, the tale of how Mom launched her misbehaving son's drug problems by dosing him with Valium turns out to be tragic, squirm-inducing and funny: "All right, Ma, you win, I don't feel like arguin'/ I'll do it, pop and gobble it and start wobbling/ Stumble, hobble, tumble, slip, drip, then I fall in bed/ With a bottle of meds." It goes without saying that "My Mom" and "Insane" the latter about the sexual abuse dished out by a nasty stepfather are horrible and more graphic than they need to be, but they do feel honest. They're also fun. When Eminem packs in the syllables and takes a deep breath, his word-slinging is as artful and entertaining as swordplay.
If he's going to have a second act as interesting as his first, Eminem should probably drop the ironic psychotic fantasies and stick to rhyming the details of his life. He's never been quite the storyteller that fans of "Stan" or "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" claim he is, but hand him a task like describing the logic of addiction and his skills take flight. On "Déjà Vu," over a minimal beat and guitar loop, he explains, "Maybe just a nice cold brew, what's a beer?/ That's the devil in my ear I been sober a f___in' year/ And that f___er still talks to me, he's all I can f___in' hear/ 'Marshall, come on, we'll watch the game, it's the Cowboys and Buccaneers'/ And maybe if I just drink half, I'll be half buzzed for half of the time/ Who's the mastermind behind that little line?"
Written in rehab and rapped in a flat monotone, "Beautiful" finds him mired in writer's block and contemplating the future. "I decided just to pick this pen/ Up and try to make an attempt to vent/ But I just can't admit/ Or come to grips with the fact/ That I may be done with rap/ I need a new outlet." With his limitless ability to turn pain into rhymes, Eminem clearly has the right outlet. It's his outlook that could use a little tweaking.