By Clayton Purdom | 29 May 2009
Eminem is not today what Eminem might have been. Better, one might say, that he just dissolve, as had seemed inevitable: that he go softly into that blankness of not nostalgia but irrelevance, along with Fiddy and the rest of that post-Durst pre-West hip-hop era. Better he take the fate of my CD collection and merely, uselessly, collect dust, his triumphs still jewel-cased, than radiate still unsportingly with such enormous sales. Industry: America still loves Eminem! America: Eminem is still a hit! Relapse is fucking huge! Don’t call it a comeback—or he’ll cum on your back! High-five!
Who is buying this shit? Do we have a big crop of kids in puberty this year? And isn’t Lil’ Wayne a better rap superstar for them and everyone else anyway? I toss my hands up and ask this exasperatedly, but I don’t actually care. I don’t wonder who is buying this and don’t care that so many are. The tragedy here belongs not to America —we’ll always buy dumb shit—but to Eminem himself. I employ the word “tragedy” heavily. On Relapse Eminem comes across as trashy, class-less, poor of heart and pocket, listless, mirthless, and he does so, damningly, with a ravenous lyricism, wordplay still nimble, flow still fleet, more sing-song and teasing here than ever before but still delivered with that ardent passion he learned so diligently from 2pac. The Eminem story is now mostly about pills and custody, but there’s a story I’d like told yet: a sort of focused and self-serving paean to hip-hop, which took him up and gave him purpose and found within all that blank rage of his generation and ilk a mission, a sense of artistry, a channel of righteous release. Remember those dispossessed millions with bleach blonde hair and blue eyes?
I suppose they’ll always have 8 Mile, huh. That film’s soundtrack had seemed at the time more like an awakening than an addendum: a beginning, a Blueprint (2001), someday, maybe. Instead, seven years later: “I was born with a dick in my brain / Yeah, fucked in the head / My stepfather said that I sucked in the bed,” from the tellingly titled “Insane.” The obligatory Paul Rosenberg “I can’t sell this record” skit—of which I remember pondering seriously the veracity in ye olden days, so picketed and contentious were this man’s lyrics—feels today both entirely fabricated and witlessly optimistic. Christopher Reeves’ widow wouldn’t get riled over these jabs. I know lamenting Em’s insistence on his own derangement is a tired criticism. Still, one wonders why his sense of humor hasn’t advanced beyond all these rote taboos—itself an oxymoron, yes, but one he insists on making real, breathing a furious manchild poetry into this mural of spattered cumshots, shotguns, jaeger shots, rapes, skullfucks, and so on, ad infinitum, etc, et al. Praise be to simple expectations and dead baby jokes.
Indeed, inasmuch as an Eminem record is a collection of these things, Relapse is a success, certainly better than his last two studio records and benefiting immeasurably from a newfound acquiescence to Dr. Dre’s production. If only because this could’ve contained more Eminem beats but doesn’t, and as such fewer of those abominations could be pressed to compact disc and played for human consumption, let us give thanks. Dr. Dre may not be a very good producer anymore—his drums, never interesting, here don’t even knock dumbly—but he is an immaculately serviceable one, and even in his old age he maintains a good thematic rapport with Eminem, keeping shit murky and vaguely electric guitar-y when Em demands it, flipping something murky and vaguely haunted house-y when that’s what’s up. Em even writes a little rap for him on “Old Times Sake.” Fiddy even shows up! And he sings!
But inasmuch as hip-hop is something we care about, and the notion of a pop superstar with a semblance of artistic responsibility remains valid, this record’s success turns it from a sadly outdated curio—which is all it is on its own, having been done so much better before—into a missive of absolute artistic mutilation. Note, not self-mutilation, which Weezer at least made interestingly deplorable. Eminem isn’t destroying his own legacy; in fact, he’s enshrining it, just as it once relevantly was. What he’s abasing is his artistry, something not-him; a gift at once celestial and intimate that if nurtured would be his salvation and a salvation for his fans. Here it is not nurtured. Here it is used to shove celebrities in woodchippers, to fuck Miley Cyrus and kill his mom and agent and self. There was a time when he did these things for our id, for our deeply rooted disgust at our own celebrity culture and so at ourselves. But here he’s not standing in for anyone, working himself into a feverish sweat solely for his own satisfaction. And that pile of gore at his feet, hatcheted off in clumps and fucked to a pulp? That stands in for hip-hop, the conflicted history of which he once stood within and seemed fleetingly to be a perfectly conflicted maturation. He is not that. He is, at last, the puerile, mewling infant his critics supposed.