Released on May 15, 2009, after a five-year hiatus, Relapse remains one of the most overlooked releases not only of Eminem’s career, but the mid-to-late 00s. Not only is it the Eminem album in which Dr. Dre had the truest hand in production, it’s also the most remarkable demonstration of his raw ability to rap better than almost anyone else. Due to its divisive content, however, Relapse doesn’t get enough credit for being the marvel it truly is.
The road to Relapse was rocky. Eminem had dropped Encore in 2004, a transitional stepping stone from the rap-rock brilliance of The Eminem Show to the greatest hits album, Curtain Call, which emerged the following spring.
Curtain Call’s lead single, “When I’m Gone,” was Em’s most lyrical hit in ages, but the album’s other two previously unreleased songs, “Fack” and “Shake That,” were decidedly Encore-leaning. And then, for almost five years, Marshall Mathers disappeared. He missed an economic crash, Obama vs McCain, and the rise of social media. The rap world Eminem returned to was not the one he’d left behind.
The best rapping of his career
Rumors of Eminem’s return first began when an early version of “Crack A Bottle” leaked at the end of 2008. A more complete version of the track followed a month later – as did confusion over whether the song was a promotional single, a 50 Cent single, an Eminem single, or some combination of the three.
Released two months later, “We Made You” was a change of course, following what is perhaps the most long-standing Eminem tradition – the same one we’d seen on each of his solo releases, as well as D12 World: an early single (“My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “Without Me,” “My Band,” “Just Lose It”) is poppier and wackier than a more serious and grounded follow-up (“Role Model,” “The Way I Am,” “Cleaning Out My Closet,” “How Come,” “Like Toy Soldiers”).
On Relapse, this was more of a fake-out than ever. With “We Made You,” Em sought to recapture the antagonistic energy of 2002. But the Bush-era was over, Total Request Live was ash and hip-hop’s stars were now the new pop icons that he previously took aim at.
And then there was the voice. Eminem’s accent is one of the more startling aspects of the album, and yet it’s integral to the character he was portraying. No stranger to creating characters for his songs, this wasn’t the first time the rapper dabbled with the dark side, but Relapse found him working up something else altogether.
On “3am” he was still using a version of the Encore flow, but it was more sinister. This wasn’t a deviant constantly on the verge of getting busted by the fun police – he was crafting an entire serial-killer-themed album. And if a collection this extreme wasn’t what fans expected after such a long wait, Relapse had something that even greater: the best technical rapping of Eminem’s career.
Outlandish tales of revenge
Save for the album’s fifth – and final – single “Beautiful,” Relapse moves away from the intensely personal introspection of Eminem’s early work, and instead is told entirely through the lens of this distorted character.
The vast majority of the album is built on outlandish tales of revenge, drugs, and murder, and can prove challenging to the uninitiated. But for a fanbase who grew up on “Kim” and “’97 Bonnie And Clyde,” this was par for the course. Unlike his notorious Slim Shady songs, however, Relapse tracks like “Hello” and “Same Song & Dance” were more rooted in fantasy than cathartic violence.
All things considered, the raw rapping and technical prowess on display grounds the more controversial material on Relapse. “Stay Wide Awake” is an undeniable masterclass in flow, timing, and interior/multisyllabic rhyming. The song is relentless and eye-opening. And the production on the album is crisper than a fresh dollar bill.
Em’s massive success is often attributed to his partnership with Dr. Dre, who served as executive producer on every Eminem release since 1999’s The Slim Shady LP. He’d produced a handful of songs on each previous album, but it wasn’t until Relapse that Dre took on the larger role as the primary producer of the beats themselves. This time around, he did the beats for all but one of Relapse’s 15 songs. Eminem, who’s always had a major hand in his own production, did “Beautiful” on his own, and shares credits with Dre on four additional tracks.
The result is an album that deserves reappraisal; the work of a man who had pushed hip-hop to the forefront of the pop stratosphere, had vanished for half a decade and, upon reappearing, didn’t play well with others.
Then again, that’s exactly where he belongs.