Eminem placed himself in exile shortly after Encore wound down, a seclusion initially designed as creative down-time but which soon descended into darkness fueled by another failed marriage to his wife Kim and the death of his best friend Proof, culminating in years of drug addiction. Em none too subtly refers to that addiction with the title of Relapse, his first album in five years, but that relapse also refers to Marshall Mathers reviving Slim Shady and returning to rap. Relapse is designed to grab attention, to stand as evidence that Eminem remains a musical force and, of course, a provocateur spinning out violent fantasies and baiting celebrities, occasionally merging the two as when he needles one-time girlfriend Mariah Carey and her new husband Nick Cannon. Strive as he might to make an impact in the world at large -- and succeeding in many respects -- Relapse is the sound of severe isolation, the product of too many years of Eminem playing king in his castle in a dilapidated Detroit, subsisting on pills, nachos, torture porn, and E! Daily News. As he sifted through junk culture, he also tweaked his rhyming, crafting an elongated elastic flow that contrasts startlingly with Dr. Dre's intensified beats, ominous magnifications of his thud-and-stutter signature. Musically, this is white-hot, dense, and dramatic not just in the production but in Eminem's delivery; he stammers and slides, slipping into an accent that resembles Paul Rudd's Rastafarian leprechaun from I Love You Man and then back again. His flow is so good, his wordplay so sharp, it seems churlish to wish that he addressed something other than his long-standing obsessions and demons. True, he spends a fair amount of the album exorcising his addiction -- smartly tying it to his never-abating mother issues on "My Mom" -- but most of Relapse finds Eminem rhyming twitchily about his old standbys: homosexuals, starlets, and violent fantasies, weaving all of them together on "Same Song and Dance" where he abducts and murders Lindsay Lohan, suggesting more than a passing familiarity with I Know Who Killed Me. The many, many references to Kim Kardashian's big ass and minutely detailed sadism can get a wee bit tiring, Relapse isn't really about what Eminem says, it's about how he says it. He's emerged from his exile musically re-energized and the best way to illustrate that is to go through the same old song and dance again, the familiarity of the words drawing focus on his insane, inspired flow and Dre's production. That might not quite make Relapse culturally relevant -- recycled Christopher Reeve jokes aren't exactly fresh -- but it is musically vital, which is all Eminem really needs to be at this point.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: Dominic West