What is an Eminem album in the post-Eminem era? It's a problem the rapper has been grappling with for some time now. For a few years — from the release of his major-label debut, The Slim Shady LP (1999), through the big-screen triumph of 8 Mile (2002) — Em's stranglehold on the zeitgeist was complete. He wasn't just music's biggest star, he was a cultural obsession — the bane of Middle American parents and an equal-opportunity offender across the political spectrum, whose every new song seemed to raise pressing questions about art, morality, race, class and celebrity.
But over the past five years, Eminem has seemed peripheral, releasing half-baked records full of pallid provocation and drug-addiction confessions. On his seventh album, Recovery, Eminem admits he's been in a slump: "I just wanna thank everybody for bein' so patient, bearin' with me over these last couple of years while I figure this shit out."
What has he figured out? Among other things, how to relax a little. Em will always be tightly wound — Lil Wayne he's not — but Recovery is his most casual-sounding album in years, with odes to a "white-trash party" ("W.T.P.") and songs that hearken back to his freewheeling early records — rhymes as goofy and imaginative as they are violent and profane. In "On Fire," Eminem spins a murder-and-dismemberment fantasy into a stream of hilariously macabre interior rhymes: "Wrap a lizard in gauze/Beat you in the jaws with it, grab the scissors and saws/And cut out your livers, gizzards and balls/Throw you in the middle of the ocean in the blizzard with Jaws."
He hasn't entirely abandoned his old tics. He still wallows in his doomed love for his ex-wife and muse, Kim; he's still bent on settling scores with rival celebs. ("Take a look at Mariah next time I inspire you to write a song," he raps in the album opener, "Cold Wind Blows.") He turns to Script Shepherd for the album's most festive beat ("Cinderella Man"), but the production follows the template of every album since Encore (2004), leaning toward dirgelike beats full of minor keys and dashes of post-grunge rock.
There are some surprises, though. Eminem's records have generally been estrogen-free zones, but on Recovery, he joins forces with Pink ("Won't Back Down") and Rihanna ("Love the Way You Lie"). And though he remains a neurotic — a guy lost in the labyrinths of his own psyche — on the new album, he goes a little deeper, laying bare not just childhood traumas but professional jealousies: "I almost made a song dissin' Lil Wayne/It's like I was jealous of him 'cause of the attention he was gettin'/I felt horrible about myself," he confides in "Talkin' 2 Myself."
The difference is that these days, Em is finding ways to make therapy fun, including mocking his own penchant for navel-gazing melodrama. In the hit "Not Afraid," he raps, "This fuckin' black cloud still follows me around/But it's time to exorcise these demons/These motherfuckers are doing jumpin' jacks now." Em is just a few years shy of 40, and if he's seeming more and more like a grumpy middle-aged man, at least he's owning it — he sounds content to be rap's wittiest head case. It's not as sexy a job title as Rebel Without a Cause or Great Satan, but it beats working.