How many people you know can name every serial killer who ever existed in a row?
It’s difficult to hear Eminem openly disavow Relapse. Whether his disparaging words arise on wax during songs like “Not Afraid” and “Cinderella Man,” or during his recent Kamikaze interview with Sway, it’s clear that Em has no love lost for his macabre sixth album. In hindsight, it’s easy to blame the post-drop narrative for influencing his current perception. When Relapse first dropped ten years ago, critical reception was undoubtedly mixed, skewing toward negative. If the transition from Revival to Kamikaze has taught us anything, it’s that Em is somewhat sensitive to public perception. When he dropped the accents and horrorcore themes to craft Recovery, he seemed to view Relapse as an aberration, a dimly-lit gymnasium in which he could hone his rust-driven skills. Yet time has been kind to Em’s darkest album, and to call it a cult classic would be a largely on-brand description.
In an unlikely twist of fate, Relapse ended up being Eminem and Dr. Dre’s swan song, a reminder of the duo’s creative legacy in its purest form – Em rapping over a nonstop slew of Dr. Dre’s darkest production in decades. Even the mischevious “Old Time’s Sake” has come to gain a special significance, carrying the DNA of bygone Em classics like The Eminem Show’s antagonistic “Business.” At the time, “Old Time Sake” was dismissed by many, as Em’s accent-laden lyrics broke the brooding immersion once cultivated on “Forgot About Dre” and “Say What You Say.” Yet today, the track conjures instant nostalgia, especially when viewed through a historian’s lens. Though “I Need A Doctor” and “Medicine Man” do exist, the signature Eminem and Dr. Dre sound that once cemented them as hip-hop’s dynamic duo was likely laid to rest in 2009.
Eminem – “3 AM”
Not only did Relapse bring a reminder of Eminem and Dr. Dre’s strange and amusing dynamic, but it also found the Good Doctor handling full-scale production for one last time. Enlisting Dawaun Parker and Mike Elizondo to his ominous cause, Dre found himself diving into a sonic aesthetic long-explored, albeit never to such an extent. His production on Busta Rhymes’ “Legend Of The Fall Off” may have foreshadowed his eventual work on Relapse, pairing dirge-like pianos with bleak, horrorcore thematic elements. Dre and his team helped bring the serial-killer motif to life, with instrumentals like “3 AM,” “Same Song & Dance,” and “Stay Wide Awake” enhancing Em’s own vivid brutality to disturbing heights. While Eminem has never shied away from violent lyrical content, his previous bars felt grounded by the cartoonish rage of Slim Shady, or a bitter response to his own personal crises. On Relapse, however, Em crafted a new persona altogether, which many mistakenly attributed to a return of Shady. Yet Em’s Relapse character was cut from a different cloth altogether, a combination of Ted Bundy and Ed Gein, prone to dismemberment, rape, cannibalism, incest, and necrophilia. This time around, there was a detached sincerity behind it, a vicarious homage to the twisted minds that influenced Em’s creative process.
For that reason, Relapse is a concept album. Em once explained his fascination with serial killers to the New York Times, revealing that he binge-watched several on-topic documentaries during his initial writing sessions. As it happens, said sessions took place during his road to sobriety, a path dully referenced in the album’s title. Though largely designed as a horrorcore voyage, songs like “Deja Vu” and “Beautiful” anchored the project with context, with particular regards to his absence and then-mysterious drug overdose. Unlike many of his future songs, Em’s moments of clarity remained tethered by Dre’s soundscapes, particularly evidenced on “Deja Vu’s” looming sense of self-wrought destruction. The aforementioned “Beautiful” finds Em contributing his lone production credit, continuing down a musical road once planted on “Sing For The Moment”; while the “rock” influences would eventually take a garish turn under Rick Rubin’s guidance, “Beautiful” brought a subtle melancholy to the fold, mirroring Em’s palpable depression. It is during these moments of unflinching honesty that reveal Em at his best, a glimpse behind the veil, a gem for those who cherish a deeper insight into their favorite artist’s headspace.
And what a headspace it was. Given today’s social climate, it’s no wonder that many felt turned off by Relapse’s lyrical content. Were it to drop today, the choir of the eternally offended would have likely burned Em in effigy. Still, for those who enjoy the occasional foray into the world of horror, be it through film, literature, or true-crime documentaries, Relapse is an increasingly refreshing dive into a twisted world. There are genuinely chilling moments, as seen on “Stay Wide Awake’s” second verse, as technically brilliant as it is unsettling. There are some equally bizarre turns to match, as evidenced by the simple existence of “Insane.” The surreal, accent-fuelled “Bagpipes From Baghdad” finds Em going in over one of Dre’s most original beats to date, sounding like he’s genuinely enjoying himself in the process. “Hello,” another album standout, reveals Em’s mastery of cadence, flow, storytelling, and melody. While his first three projects stand as the holy-grail of the Eminem canon, Relapse may very well feature the strongest technical performance of his career.
While Eminem has long sealed the vault containing Relapse 2, there are many who would welcome the project’s arrival. Given the vast sonic departure seen on Em’s post-Relapse output, the album has become somewhat revered in retrospect. Without the spotlight associated with heralding Em’s return, Relapse is free to exist in a vacuum, judged by its own artistic merits beyond the context of a greater musical legacy. Those willing to take the plunge can find much to enjoy across the twenty-track, ghoulish odyssey, should one be inclined to embrace the darker subject matter. To this day, I still hold out hope that Eminem will come around and gift us with the long-awaited sequel. Like a reboot to the oft-referenced Hannibal TVseries, it would likely be received with open, if likey severed, arms.