Eminem’s Recovery: A Retrospective

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Following a five-year hiatus, Eminem returned back on the scene in 2009 with his fifth studio album, Relapse. I didn’t know it at the time, but this record would arguably become his most polarizing, dividing his fans even more than its predecessor, Encore. It seems like everyone has different expectations for Marhsall as an artist, something he seemed incredibly aware of around this time, which led to the release of yet another album 13 months later. This is when Eminem’s fanbase really began to fracture and Marshall set foot on the artistic path he continues to walk today.

Recently, it’s come to my attention that my music library has become a little bloated, which has resulted in me trimming some of the fat these past few months. As part of the process, I have been revisiting old albums and mixtapes that I haven’t listened to in a while, and the most recent record on the chopping block was Recovery. Going into this album, I was worried if I was going to be able to separate the art from the significance it held at the time of its release, because like most things music related, I have a very vivid memory of this album coming out.

I was a Junior in high school, we were in the final week of school before Summer break, and then it happened. The album leaked online. It’s important to note that, at the time, Eminem was my favorite artist. A big chunk of my personal Hip Hop journey stems from his records, both good and bad, and when high school came around, everything fell into place, and he was all I wanted to listen to for those first three years. So to say I was excited to see Recovery pop-up online would be a massive understatement.

I remember downloading the album, I remember editing the metadata, I remember walking around school listening to the album, I remember talking about it with this other kid who was also a really big fan of Em, I remember listening to “Cinderella Man” as I walked to meet my mom at the Post Office after school one day, and I vividly remember walking almost six miles to the nearest Best Buy to purchase a hard copy the day before it was supposed to get released (they had put them out 24 hours early for some reason).

Again, there are a lot of memories associated with this album specifically, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel. I can’t even remember the last time I listened to anything off this record, so it almost felt like I was going into the album for the first time again; no expectations. Unfortunately, right as I started it up, I realized why I hadn’t touched it in so long. It became clear almost instantly that this was the turning point in his artistic career, and I think I knew this subconsciously, so I just chose to ignore the album for a while.

One of the main reasons I hadn’t listened to Recovery in such a long time is because Eminem lost me shortly after its release. His guest spots were weak, his performance on Hell: The Sequel was atrocious, and I still contest that The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is one of the worst albums in his catalog. After this string of disappointments, I had to loosen my grip on his music for a long time, so for years, if I wanted to listen to Marshall, I put on one of his first three records, occasionally I’d throw on Relapse, and that was that.

The problem with Recovery is that it is very much a transitional album. This is where people started looking at Eminem as this deep, complex, emotional rapper, when this was never the image he created for himself. For years, he was the loud, obnoxious, and sometimes offensive white rapper in a sea of black emcees. He was rowdy because he needed something to set him apart. He couldn’t come in and try to be Nas or Jay-Z or Redman, he had to be something none of those other dudes could. He had to be the antagonist.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, this image got distorted due to songs like “Cleaning Out My Closet,” “Mockingbird,” “Lose Yourself,” and “When I’m Gone.” None of which are awful songs, mind you, but it gave casual listeners the impression that he was a certain artist when he was really something else entirely. After all, this is what led to my ban from explicit CDs after my mom heard some of the more questionable tracks on Encore (I was 12, so while I still don’t agree with the decision, I can understand it in hindsight). So after the mediocre critical response for Relapse, what do you do? Well, people like these deeper songs, so let’s give them more of that.

In theory, it makes sense, but what resulted was a messy album and an artist who lost his sense of direction, because there was still backlash when this album came out; backlash I admittedly didn’t understand until now. On Recovery, Eminem is trying to be everything to everyone, which resulted in an album that lacks cohesion. To a certain degree, it almost feels selfish to criticize something that had to have been cathartic for him as someone who went through a traumatic experience, but at the end of the day, a song or album’s emotional backstory means nothing if the music itself is poorly constructed.

I say “poorly constructed” because, as I listened to Recovery, there was one thought that persisted: “This album aged horribly.” Personally, looking back at his career as a whole, what made him such an interesting voice in his early years was his ability to ride a beat, tell a story, and string together a series of rhymes that made you want to memorize them just because they felt so satisfying. To top it off, it came off effortless, like he wasn’t even trying half of the time, because he was just that good.

And I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but that isn’t who he is anymore, and I truly think it started with this album. Recovery is when he switched from “storyteller” to “punchline rapper.” Recovery is when he went from “effortless” to “trying so hard to impress that it makes you roll your eyes.” Worst of all, this is when his traditional flow took a back seat and he started raising his voice, almost as if he was shouting into the mic, something that would resemble straight-up screaming on future releases. So to hear such a massive stylistic shift, it’s a bit grating.

As a whole, Recovery has two lanes: battle raps and emotional songs, both of which are full of potholes and rubbish. Time and time again, Marshall chooses to spend his time singing on this record, even though he knows damn well he doesn’t have the chops for it (“I told you I can’t sing. Oh well, I tried.”–“Hailie’s Song,” 2002). When used sparingly, like on “Hailie’s Song,” it grounds him as an artist and shows his vulnerability, but on Recovery, he beats you over the head with it (“til I broke the wood”) until you just can’t take it anymore.

In fact, the only time his singing goes over well is on “Seduction,” which is literally the only song that’s held up over the years. This is because it’s the only point on the album where Marshall is actually working with the beat instead of against it. He’s not compromising his style, he’s keeping his vocals in check, and although he’s still singing, the texture of the beat manages to mask what he lacks in technical ability. I also love his infectious bravado, as this is one of the few moments where his boasting feels a little more understandable, because there isn’t any one bar that sticks out as being terrible.

And trust me, regardless of what any of his fanboys tell you, at the time of its release, context be damned, Eminem wrote some of his worst lyrics on this album. There’s no context where any of the following bars should be excused, especially when a healthy chunk of this album is nothing but battle raps and braggadocio.

“Stick my dick in a circle, but I’m not fucking around.” (“Cold Wind Blows”)

“Like a ‘fuck you’ for Christmas, his gift is a curse.” (“Not Afraid”)

“You can still get roasted, ’cause Marsh is not mellow.” (“No Love”)

“My filet is smoking weed. Yeah, faggot, the steaks are high.” (“Cinderella Man”)

When Marshall is not (poorly) telling you how much better he is than you, he’s trying to create these gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, emotional Hip Hop songs that feel hamfisted and clumsy. “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” “Going Through Changes,” “Not Afraid,” etc. all touch on the topics of Proof and addiction, which I can’t be mad at, but unfortunately, even though it was done so briefly, I thought the topic of addiction was handled better on Relapse, as “Deja Vu” is an infinitely better song than any of the aforementioned tracks.

While we’re on the subject, although people love to hate on the album, because of how close these records were to one another, Relapse-era Eminem is definitely felt on here. For starters, “So Bad” feels like a leftover from that album, as if we didn’t get enough of those on Refill. What’s even more hilarious to me, however, is that a lot of these songs sound influenced by “Beautiful” and “Underground,” the only two songs on Relapse that got decent reception by a large group of listeners, even though they were two of the weakest cuts on the album, in my opinion.

As I mentioned previously, though, this was a transitional album. Due to his massive success, Eminem has many different listeners who all expect different things from him, so he tried to be a jack of all trades, but he obviously forgot the second half of that phrase: master of none. At one point in his career, he almost beat the odds, but then his life collapsed around him. I don’t know how his core audience feels about the album now, because I’m not in that demographic anymore, but this record falls short on so many levels, for so many different reasons.

As a Hip Hop album, Eminem’s sixth offering doesn’t suffer from a lack of ideas or emotional motivation. There’s plenty of that on here. Instead, the biggest issue is in the execution of these themes and ideas. If it’s not his stiff and uncomfortable delivery ruining the song, it’s his sloppy punchlines, or the spotty production. When you take all of these elements and shove them on one album, it doesn’t matter how strong the song’s core idea is, things probably aren’t going to end well, and Recovery is proof that music fueled by loss and pain isn’t inherently good.

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