Eminem’s sixth studio album, Recovery is perhaps more notable for what’s not on it than what is. You won’t find Paul here, or Steve Berman or Ken Kaniff. No skits at all, in fact, among the disc’s 17 tracks. No D12 collaboration, no MTV-friendly celebrity-obsessed party jam. And most surprising of all, no Slim Shady. That is, none of the schoolyard accents and serial killer fantasies that have typified Marshall Mathers’ alter ego since he got his start more than a decade ago.
What you do get in Recovery is easily Eminem’s finest album since 2002’s The Eminem Show and a true rival to his masterpiece, 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP. By definition, Recovery can’t deliver the shocking cultural drop-kick of that album — Eminem is a thoroughly known quantity now — but artistically it’s right there with it.
Eminem repeatedly disses his last two albums on Recovery, delivering his first mea culpa on the second track, ‘Talkin’ 2 Myself’:
Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing em out
I’ve come to make it up to you, no more fucking around
I’ve got something to prove to fans, I feel like I let em down
So please accept my apology, I finally feel like I’m back to normal
And he has a point. Relapse was half-great but half a waste of time and Encore was a sophomoric mess. Eminem seems to have taken those artistic missteps personally and he’s out to make up for them, with a vengeance. Anybody who doubted his skills after the past several years will have those doubts erased halfway through Recovery.
Eminem’s writing and his flow on this album are awe-inspiring. He’s always had a knack for writing multiple rhymes within each turn of phrase but he’s outdone himself here. And I can’t imagine another rapper matching his delivery. His speed, control and emotion are so well-calibrated you completely buy his premise that he’s been recording at half-power up until now.
Witness the wordplay in first single ‘Not Afraid’:
Fuck your fillings, instead of gettin’ crowned you’re getting capped
Thought I had it mapped out, but I guess I didn’t, this fuckin’ black cloud
Still follows me around
But it’s time to exorcise these demons
These motherfuckers are doing jumping jacks now
In ‘Almost Famous,’ he even manages to work in a clever joke around the word “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Try that, Kanye.
Eminem name-drops Kanye and Lil Wayne in one track, sheepishly confessing that he nearly wrote a song trashing the two of them at the height of his drug problem. Later Lil Wayne is featured on standout song ‘No Love’ and, following an impressive turn by Wayne, Em blows him out of the water with one of his most intricately furious verses yet.
Thematically, the songs on Recovery are about evenly split between tracks detailing Eminem’s descent and reemergence from drug addiction, tracks boasting about his rap prowess (par for the course in the genre) and tracks I’ll call love songs, for lack of a better term.
That last group includes the albums lowest and highest moments. Eminem’s two stabs at seduction fall flat — he’s never been convincing as a Casanova.
In fact, listening to Recovery, I started to understand the “Eminem is gay” rumors. He has always strained to come across as a powerful, intimidating lover, never with much success. His casual homophobia could easily be a smokescreen or the defense mechanism of somebody deep inside the closet.
And what about the infamous Kim? It’s easy to see that relationship, consumed by violence, drug use and equal parts love and hatred, as an offshoot of Eminem’s equally well-documented relationship with his mother. His healthiest relationship, described on this album in the most heartfelt terms, was with his late best friend Proof.
Enough with the psychoanalysis… I’m just sayin’.
As for the love songs that stand out as the album’s best tracks, both are explorations of abusive relationships. ‘Space Bound’ describes a man who lets his defenses down only to be burned again. He takes his own life after fantasizing about relieving his lover of hers.
And my favorite track, ‘Love the Way You Lie,’ features Rihanna on the lovely chorus (she’s the Dido in this cousin to ‘Stan’) as Eminem spends the verses describing a tumultuous, violent relationship — ‘maybe that’s what happens when a tornado hits a volcano.’
Just as Rihanna faced her own domestic violence incident head-on on her Rated R album, it’s fascinating to hear her on this track, playing partner to a man who can’t contain his anger:
It’s so insane ’cause when it’s goin’ good it’s goin’ great
I’m Superman with the wind at his back, she’s Lois Lane
But when it’s bad it’s awful, I feel so ashamed
I snapped. Who’s that dude? I don’t even know his name
I laid hands on her, I’ll never stoop so low again
I guess I don’t know my own strength
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
Well that’s all right because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
Well that’s all right because I love the way you lie
In this song, and many others on Recovery, Eminem reminds us why he took the world by storm in the first place. It’s not just his prodigious gifts as a writer and rapper, not just the hit-making talent that has him perched yet again at the top of the charts at a time when record sales are in the gutter. It’s his ability to tap into his own wounded psyche to create indelible character sketches and art both high and low.
Welcome back, Marshall… you’ve been missed.