Remember when Eminem was a self-hating misogynistic psychopath fiendishly adept at destroying everyone and everything in his cash-strewn path?
Ah, the good old days.
The Detroit rapper is 37 now, an unsmiling, unhappy recovering drug addict obsessed with his parental and societal responsibilities. At the same time his life is in turnaround, he's entering uncharted hip-hop waters — trying to stay relevant in a fickle, youth-driven business — all without a firm grasp on his humor and writing prowess, once his two greatest weapons.
For most MCs, their careers would be kaput by now. But Eminem's fans still adore him. New single Not Afraid, despite being nothing more than a dull self-help speech, debuted at No. 1. And when new album Recovery debuts Monday, it, too, will sell.
Still, the man born Marshall Mathers can't get comfortable. His 2009 "comeback" album, Relapse — recorded after five years of rehab, therapy and a suicide attempt — was tired, forced, unfunny. (C'mon, Slim Shady, not even Carrot Top is cracking Mariah jokes anymore.) And the 17-track, 75-minute Recovery opens with the vicious Cold Wind Blows, on which Em tries to re-establish his dominance with ugly Michael J. Fox jokes.
But just as you're about to give up on the 8 Mile kid, Recovery does an about-face, filling up with radio-fat hooks and messages of hope. It's not all perfect, but for the first time in a while, there are signs of life in Eminem
Talkin' 2 Myself is soulful and self-flagellating, as he takes himself down with quick-lipped, quicker-minded speed: "You gonna start dissin' people for no reason? / 'Specially when you can't even write a decent punchline even / You're lying to yourself / You're slowly dying / You're denying / Your health is declining with your self-esteem / You're crying out for help." By taking aim at himself, Eminem surpasses his peers.
He isn't always palatable in humble mode. (Seriously, Not Afraid is a lousy song.) Nor is he always tiresome in attack mode. Critics get the brunt of his flow on the increasingly irate and profanely funny On Fire, which sounds like the work of his former producer Dr. Dre. And the We Will Rock You-esque Cinderella Man is brash, cocky fun.
I'm still not sure what to make of the three star-powered duets on the record. They don't really fit, but they're also incredibly entertaining. Pink is his foil on Won't Back Down; their fiery relationship is all Bondage and Clyde. Rihanna sings the hook on Love the Way You Lie, during which Em addresses ex-wife Kim, who might have done more psychic damage than his mother.
Throughout Recovery, Eminem aims envy at Lil Wayne, the new king of rap. So it's a bit of a surprise — and darn near brilliant — when Wayne himself shows up for No Love, in which the two boys hit the town to the sampled strains of What Is Love? (a.k.a. the lounge-lizard rave from A Night at the Roxbury). Oh, it's weird all right. But it's also pure dumb fun — which might be the best sign of recovery of all.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.