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Eminem, on the other hand, seems to be back in the worst possible way. Relapse, as its title announces, is all pills, drug-induced delirium, violent sensationalism and dumb pop culture references from three years ago. The ridiculous flow is still there, but Em rarely puts it to good use, and even then his lyrics remain stubbornly careless. Tracks like “Stay Wide Awake” and “Bagpipes from Baghdad” sound great – Dr. Dre handles all the production so there are some incredible beats, it’s true – provided you don’t listen to the lyrics too carefully. To his credit, I guess, nobody but Eminem could make rhymes about Mariah Carey and Elton John delivered in an approximated Scottish accent sound half-decent. There’s also something to be said for the massive and elaborate meta-performance that Em’s life has become. Listening to this album – more so than any of his others – feels a little like standing in the hall of mirrors at the end of Touch of Evil. It’s impossible to tell which distorted vision of Marshal Mathers (if any) is real, but they’re all rather terrifying. His daughter might make a really great and similarly insane rapper one day.
For now, though, Relapse’s 20 lengthy tracks feel big and empty – all look with no style, lots of substance abuse but no substance. Em seems to have come full circle from his sophomore opus, The Marshall Mathers LP. Legend has it that when Eminem was done recording that album, Dr. Dre called in dismay complaining that the record was too serious. Em spent the afternoon writing a flighty pop tirade, and that’s how we got “The Real Slim Shady.” Too bad Dre wasn’t moved to make the opposite call this time around, requesting something seriously angry instead of a patchwork of dialed-in drug jokes and murder fantasies. At his best, Em moves eerily between thrilling, furious and introspective political raps (“The Way I Am” off Marshal Mathers), silly but infectious pop culture commentary (“Square Dance” from The Eminem Show’s incredible opening third) and some sort of social subconscious monster parody (“’97 Bonnie and Clyde” off The Slim Shady LP). With Relapse, though, we may have lost one of pop music’s most astute satirists and political commentators. The album’s only genuine moment has Em getting melancholic on “Beautiful,” where he muses: “I just can't admit/ or come to grips with the fact that I may be done with rap (…) but I just can't sit back and wallow/ in my own sorrow, but I know one fact, I'll be one tough act to follow.” Well, actually, folks like Lupe Fiasco, Black Thought and Brother Ali have been rapping circles around him while he was in “rehab,” so here’s hoping that the second Relapse leaves a more lasting impression.
Method Man and Redman’s second Blackout!, meanwhile, benefits from all the positive associations and frenzied anticipation of an incredible first impression. In the ten years since the original, neither artist has released a compelling solo album, though Redman’s efforts always feature reminders of his potential for greatness and Meth has continually stepped up as Wu-Tang’s leading lyricist. Still, of the three major rap releases this week Blackout! 2 is the only one that feels motivated by (this will sound cheesy and naïf) a love of music rather than money. Like their first album as a duo, their sophomore effort is a fun, catchy, unpretentious mix of gritty club bangers (“How Bout Dat”), meandering smoking songs (“A Lil Bit”) and infectious lyrical volleys – “Dangerous MCs”, boosted by an awesome Erick Sermon beat, is like this outing’s equivalent of “Da Rockwilder” on Blackout!. Even the over-produced electro club track “I Know Sumptn” (produced by King David with an odd auto tuned chorus by Poo Bear) works thanks to an exceptional and especially breathless Method Man verse. Mostly, though, Blackout! 2 succeeds because Red and Meth reproduce the original’s incredible chemistry while adapting to the production codes of the day.