Nervous laughter, a simultaneous snort and gasp, was always key to Eminem's success. Two parts carnival barker, one part whack job — with some Don Rickles thrown in there, too — the rapper was at his best when he was profane, violent, cruel, but honest, head-shrinking himself as much as his hockey-puck targets. You didn't always agree with him, but man, you couldn't look away.
Now 36, and after five turbulent years in isolation, the star born Marshall Mathers is trying to walk that same tricky tightrope on new album Relapse. But the Detroiter isn't as nimble as he used to be. What's supposed to be funny is often dated and lame. What's supposed to be twisted often rings false, dishonest. It's more pity laughs than nervous ones, more rancid violence than sly commentary. If you think I'm being a drip, let it be known that I was rapt the first time he stuffed someone in a car trunk.
Of course, Eminem isn't the same dude anymore, either. In the past half-decade, he reunited with, and then rejected, notorious ex-wife Kim. He suffered through the shooting death of his best friend. And, last but not least, he developed a career-stalling drug addiction that paralleled a sudden slump in sales (2004's Encore was a phone job). Eminem stopped liking himself the same time his fans did.
Fresh out of rehab, he's now eager to reclaim his throne. But it won't be easy, not with this album. Relapse breaks down into the classic Eminem templates: the self-hating dissection, the celeb-tweaking riff and the murder fantasy starring sociopathic alter ego Slim Shady. More times than not, the ingredients are stale, sour, but occasionally it works. 3 a.m. is a squirmy, sweaty look at addiction. There is no escaping, there's no place to hide, he raps, before unloading sinister references to Hannah Montana reruns and the dude from Silence of the Lambs (uh, Em has a lotion issue). His flow used to snap; here it's groveling, pained. It's shocking, but confessionally dead-on.
Same goes with My Mom, which continues the berating of his family, but this time with a curious twist: My mom loved Valium and lots of drugs / That's why I'm on what I'm on cause I'm my Mom. Producer Dr. Dre, who knows his buddy better than anyone, sets the song to a deranged sitcom theme, a funereal dirge with shades of Mr. Belvedere. Dre routinely saves Relapse with carnival beats and menacing loops, an aural house of mirrors. Truth be told, this would have made a great instrumental album.
But as it is, there's not much great about it. Most of the celeb-skewering is lame, wheezy, including first single We Made You, which goes after Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears and Sarah Palin. (You really nailed Kim Kardashian this time!) Medicine Ball tries to be jarring, but rattling the ghost of Christopher Reeve comes off as pathetic.
The worst offender is Same Song & Dance (prefaced by the sounds of a rape, no less), a nauseating fever dream about murdering Lindsay Lohan, among others. He's better than that. Or at least he used to be. On 2000's Stan, he took on youthful rage and confusion, stretching it to a horrific, but vital, finish, Here it's merely a soundtrack for Saw VI.
Hip-hop is a young man's game (just ask Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes ...). But if anyone has the dexterity and energy to buck the trend — even as a near-40 dad with woman issues — it would be Eminem. But the guy has some serious work to do. And as the rehabbing rapper should now know, honesty is the first step.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.