Eminem’s always been a pretty cranky guy, and releasing a couple of subpar records hasn’t improved his mood, so it’s easy to understand — and almost forgive — the case of artistic diarrhea that hampers his seventh full-length release. He sounds more focused here than he has in years, but at 17 tracks and over an hour in length, Recovery is a case study in too much of a good thing.
Of course, in his defense, he’s got a lot on his mind. Even though he’s spent most of the last half-decade devoted to (cough) non-musical pursuits, Eminem’s name has never been far from the news — albeit mostly for embarrassing reasons — and he begins Recovery by spitting “Tell ’em all: Eat shit. Here we go again” and waving away a few buzzwords (misogyny, Elton, Mariah) before boasting that he’s still “as cold as the wind blows,” “a loose cannon,” and “how you made me.”
“Cold Wind Blows” isn’t the most auspicious beginning, but Recovery warms up quickly; the second track, “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” is a probing look at the creative slump Eminem has struggled with since releasing The Eminem Show in 2002. It’s another manifestation of the persecution complex that started to get tiresome halfway through his first album, but it also feels refreshingly — even bravely — honest. Eminem has never been shy about giving listeners a glimpse at his personal life, but a lot of that stuff was on the public record anyway; here, and throughout Recovery, he lashes out at himself even harder than he does at his enemies. His last two albums sold a combined 13 million units, but he buries them here, saying they “didn’t count” before promising his fans “I’ve come to make it up to you, no more fuckin’ around.” It’s the kind of abuse you’d expect Fatlip to pile on himself; hearing it from Eminem is more shocking than most of the stupid crap he’s spewed throughout his career.
Out of context, Eminem’s heightened self-awareness on Recovery doesn’t cut any deeper than your average 15-year-old’s diary, and it’s true that he’s done a fair bit of owning up to his own mistakes in the past. Still, he’s never been this flatly forthright about his issues, he’s never devoted this much space to them on an album, and he’s never put this much energy behind trying to use his experiences as a way of connecting with people who might be able to benefit from them. In the liner notes, he writes, “This album is dedicated 2 anyone who’s in a dark place tryin’ 2 get out. Keep your head up … It does get better!” It’s a sentiment he backs up several times during the album, and it goes a long way toward patching over Recovery‘s rough spots.
And there are more than a few. Though he sounds more clear-headed than he has in the recent past, Eminem’s lyrical focus wobbles a little here; for instance, he begins “On Fire” by bitching about critics, somehow ignoring the fact that he’s one of the more critically adulated MCs of the 21st century, before shifting his ire to Brooke Hogan and David Cook for no apparent reason other than a need to rhyme. He also has a hard time with satire (“W.T.P.,” the warped “Space Bound”) and although Recovery does an admirable job of maintaining its energy, especially considering its length, there’s no way a track as flatly subpar as “So Bad” should have ended up on the final track listing. There’s also the matter of the music itself, which wouldn’t pass muster on nine out of ten hip-hop records. If anyone else sampled Haddaway and Lesley Gore, they’d be laughed off the radio; these are unquestionably the weakest beats of Eminem’s career. But his verses here are frequently so sharp that everything else is incidental. Would you believe a hip-hop track could kick off with a blindingly obvious Sabbath sample, then rehash themes the artist has already beaten to death, only to redeem itself by the bridge? You will after you listen to “Going Through Changes.” It isn’t perfect, but the seven-song run that opens Recovery is stuffed with laugh-out-loud wordplay. I’m willing to bet no one else has ever rhymed “Masengil” with “mass appeal.”
Yes, it all starts to run down after the midway point. But even the so-so tracks include some terrific lines, and any record that can keep the spotlight on the main performer during guest appearances from Pink, Lil Wayne, and Rihanna is doing something right. For all its flaws, this is an album devoid of a lot of the dumb clutter that dogs hip-hop, like between-song skits and unnecessary guest appearances, and it hints at a brighter post-40 future for Eminem. With a little editing, who knows? His best album might still be ahead of him.
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