Pop Life

The Distillery: Eminem's New "Workmanlike" Effort Stalls


There - I said it. Though I'm thinking that "workmanlike" might actually be too kind an adjective to use in describing Relapse, Eminem's fifth album produced by Dr. Dre. "Workmanlike" suggests a modicum of competence, and Relapse isn't satisfying on any level whatsoever. Like, at all. It literally fails even at going through the shock-and-awe motions. Shady's immortal "I just don't give a fuck" refrain has been replaced by "Guess it's time for you to hate me again" (from "Medicine Ball"), which scans here as "Time to make the donuts."

There are vulgarities and inhumanities that flash by in a dull blur. There are all manner of stale celebrity rape and murder fantasies, rendered sans panache. The grating dialects that marred 04's Encore - a gone-loco trainwreck that improves in comparative retrospect - recur here, sliming Dre's canned carny beats. (All is forgiven, "Just Lose It." Defending that delirious bit of self-cannibalization is a cinch compared to justifying Em's latest.) Who'd have imagined, back when we were throwing "Yellow Brick Road" on mixtapes for friends, that there would come a time when we'd be nostalgic for vengeful-yet-impassioned rants about Eminem killing his ex-wife or loopy forget-me-nots about how much he loves his kids?

So thanks, Marshall, for making the Distillery's mission pretty much impossible. Distillery's aim is to break albums that are 16 or more songs long down to a manageable 10 keepers; with Relapse, I struggled to come up with eight - and one of those is a skit. Most of the others are tracks I can tolerate without having to fight off the urge to yank the CD out of the player and break it.

Marshall, by sobering up and wading into rap, you - probably inadvertently - have made an album that mirrors the circa-right-now experience of soldiering on through life in a world on the verge of collapse, day in and day out, despite feeling empty, uninspired, totally unsure whether the future holds much of anything, and convinced that our collective best days are far behind us.

1. "Dr. West":

This skit is great - or noteworthy, anyway - for a couple of reasons. I mean, I know Dominic West plays the rehab center dude and that's why the title is "Dr. West," but it reminds me of how Lil Wayne names tracks "Mr. Carter" and "Dr. Carter" and so on, and brings to mind the "Wake up, Mr. West!" bit from the beginning of Late Registration. Also, it plays subtly on the whole "employing actors and hosts with Austrian/Australian/British accents for upper-crust cache" meme that's plagued American media for the last few years. (Cat Deeley, we're looking at you! Among many others.) Lastly, "Dr. West," by its very inclusion and placement in the track sequencing, suggests more profitable directions Relapse might have taken. How much better could this album have been if it'd just been Eminem riffing on how - while doing everyday stuff like ferrying the kids or working in the studio or meeting with Interscope execs - people or inanimate objects kept seemingly begging him to pop pills or get wasted? Reality, rappers! Embrace reality! Reality is only as boring as you render it.

2. "3 a.m.":

Em's flow is still dexterous and pliable as all hell, which almost forgives the fact that he doesn't have much of interest to say in this fugue-state-serial-killer drivel-fest.

3. "My Mom":

We'd all have laughed so much harder if "My Mom" - not to be confused with Kimya Dawson's song of the same name, no way - had appeared before or after "Brain Damage" on The Slim Shady LP. On the other hand, "Go find you a white crayon and color a fuckin' zebra" is so nonsensically poetic that I catch myself dropping whatever I'm doing to puzzle it out whenever I hear it.

9: "We Made You":

Dr. Dre's over-elaborate production is the draw here, not all the desperately dated references; if anyone can direct me to a detailed rundown of how the music for this was conceived, much obliged. Theory: Relapse is actually just a teaser-cum-spoiler for the perpetually-in-the-wings Detox (link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detox_(Dr._Dre_album).

13: "Old Time's Sake" feat. Dr. Dre

The "Eminem album thirteenth track" has a hallowed, storied history as a laugh-a-minute perversion spasm; until 2002's The Eminem Show, when Em turned "Superman" into irredeemable woman-hating humorlessness. (Thank God for "Just Lose It" two years later, on Encore.) "Old Time's Sake" further sullies the legacy, and ranks here mostly because I was so fucking relieved to finally hear a rapping cadence that wasn't Em's.

16. "Déjà Vu":

Straight, honest talk about addiction that's actually pretty funny, even if it'll never earn space on your Ultimate Killer Eminem iPod Playlist.

18. "Crack a Bottle" feat. Dr. Dre & 50 Cent:

Everyone's gliding on auto-pilot settings, but the kindercore Romper Room beat's likeable enough, and it's not as though anything's really at stake. Why Fitty wants this included onto Before I Self Destruct is anybody's guess.

20. "Underground":

So wait, whoa, what? "Dre, I'm down here under the ground, dig me up/Broken tibias fibias yeah fix me up/60 sluts, all of them dying from Asphyxia /After they sip piss through a Christopher Reeves sippy cup." Holy shit. "This is Amityville, calamity goddamn it, insanity pills/Fanny pack filled with zanies/Through every nook and cranny looking for trannies." Then he's really wilding out on us: "Walked up Elm Street with a fucking wifflebat drew/Fought Freddy Krueger and Edward Scissorhands, too/Came out with a little scratch, ooh/Looking like I got in a fucking pillow fight with a Triple Fat Goose."

Now, "Underground" - with its swirling, chorus-simulated, dramatic sturm und drang choruses - is hardly Em at his hard-edged best; hell, a decade back, "Role Model" was funnier, sharper and scarier at almost half the length. But he comes so Marshall Mathers LP mean and hungry out of the gate here that I'm almost tempted to believe that the troglodyte-level huffing and puffing of the prior 19 or so tracks was all an elaborate put-on intended to convince us that the guy was actually over, setting up a no-nonsense comeback on Relapse 2, which - Interscope willing - is slated to drop late this year.

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Ray Cummings