In the mid-2000s, Eminem was a ghost to the rap industry. Rumors of drug abuse, rehab, and excessive weight gain plagued the Detroit artist following 2004’s Encore, known by most to be one of the worst albums of his career. He was overindulging in cartoonish voices (“Ass Like That”), attempting hollow political songs (“Mosh”), and still carrying the weight of a defunct D12 (“One Shot Two Shot”). It felt like Marshall was winding down his career – “Cause I don’t ever want to leave the game without at least saying goodbye,” he raps on the album’s final song; a year later, he released a greatest hits compilation called Curtain Call. Things just didn’t feel right. (For what it’s worth, even though critics mostly disliked Encore, I fucked with elements of its padded-wall quirkiness.)
After Encore, Em’s life began to crumble. He cancelled the European stretch of his Anger Management Tour due to exhaustion and drug addiction. He remarried Kim in 2006, only to get divorced again less than three months later. In April of 2006, a literal death blow – his best friend Proof was shot and killed in Detroit, sending Em into a downward spiral. “It just blindsided me,” Eminem told XXL in 2009. “I just went into such a dark place that, with everything, the drugs, my thoughts, everything. And the more drugs I consumed, and it was all depressants I was taking, the more depressed I became.” In 2007, he collapsed on his bathroom floor after overdosing on methadone pills. It looked to be the darkest part of his career.
Drugs have always been an integral part of Em’s musical career, for better or worse. When that attachment turned dangerous, fans were left wondering what the consequences would be. Many thought Marshall needed drugs to keep his manic personality consistent on wax, but then Encore hit, and it felt like too many drugs dragged that album into the mud. Enter Relapse.
Relapse is a concept record born out of the ostensible low point in Em’s career. It dropped roughly a year after he completed rehab, and he was completely sober while recording every single song except “Beautiful.” Yet the album, despite scoring even lower on MetaCritic than Encore, was a return to form. The intro is like an updated version of Redman’s “Dr. Trevis” from Dare Iz A Darkside, and “3 A.M.” finds Em swallowing Klonopin and dismembering family members. In reality, drugs aren’t good for Marshall, but in the fictionalized world of Relapse, it is exactly this reintroduction to drugs that allows him to get off some of the best raps of his post-Eminem Show career. Relapse marks the beginning of his hyper-technical period that is yet to plateau.
Yet Relapse didn’t produce a hit that resonated on a scale as large as previous singles (don’t play yourself – “Just Lose It” felt like a rehashed version of the terrific “Without Me”), even though the maligned Encore did with “Yellow Brick Road.” Thus, it’s Relapse that ironically puts an end to the positive effect of drugs on Em’s music. No longer does he need substances to remain an engaging rapper. On the album’s third track, he talks about how his mom put drugs in all his food as a kid. On the album’s fourth track, he talks about getting molested by his stepfather. In other words, he’s 100% sober and zanier than ever.
The concept, then, is a subtle one. It’s as if he is relapsing into an older, more lyrical style that depends on personality more than the mind-numbing, on-the-nose technicality of his post-Recovery work. On Relapse‘s last song “Underground,” Em ends the hook with, “Looking for me? I’m underground.” (He even begins the song with the same phrase he starts “Still Don’t Give A Fuck” with – “A lot of people ask me…”) Relapse is a transitional album that finds Em burying his old self. The separation became apparent on Recovery; initially slated to be called Relapse 2, Em changed the album name when he realized how different the nature of the music on Recovery was.
Recovery is by far Em’s most pop-centric album (and by far my least favorite LP in his catalog). In a sense, Em has become a little more hollow since that project; his style is now so overly technical that it allows no space for his personality to shine through. That style was introduced on Relapse (see the multisyllabic rhyme schemes on “3 A.M.” and “Stay Wide Awake”) but on Recovery the horrorcore of Relapse is long gone. “Making Relapse, I was still working the drugs out of my system,” he told Complex in 2009, “so there was a lot of…just jokey shit. It was a lot of punchline-y, funny, shock value—kind of going back to The Slim Shady LP.” Relapse is the final resurrection of Slim Shady. By dipping back into a world of drugs on that album, he was able to both bring back Slim Shady and simultaneously put the nail in that alter ego’s coffin. Recovery was a rebirth. Relapse was Shady’s final stand.
(P.S. – Check out how this reddit fan breaks down the album’s concept track-by-track.)