The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Eminem has been dissing Relapse again. In a recent interview with Sway Calloway, the Detroit rapper said “Relapse is something I hadn’t looked at in a couple of years, but I went back to it [recently] and cringed at it. It was like, ‘Jesus Christ, I didn’t even realize I was doing that many accents. For whatever reason. I just got into it and started on this weird serial killer vibe.”
According to Eminem, Relapse is his worst album, a view backed by the majority of critics who gave it withering reviews upon its release back in 2010. But this dismissal suggests Eminem isn’t a great judge of his artistic abilities and should learn to trust in his own convictions, as Relapse, a dark and twisted tribute to horrorcore rap, is easily among his greatest albums.
Right from the intro, Eminem inhabits the character of a delusional serial killer who imagines a psychiatric appointment with a demonic entity. The anarchic energy of this character sits somewhere between the Tasmanian Devil and Ted Bundy, using first track “3AM” to go on a murderous rampage, which includes “sticking a flashlight up Kim Kardashian’s ass.”
Many have claimed Eminem went too far with this concept, but all the silly, faux European accents lent him a focus sorely missing from previous album Encore, a record where he had so obviously run out of things to say. The accents on Relapse provide Eminem a sense of artistic escapism, allowing him to step outside of his head and inhabit a different character while firmly sticking to a concept from start to finish. It also gave room for him to pronounce and bend words in creative new ways we genuinely hadn’t heard before (on “3AM” he raps “I’m just a hooligan who’s used to using hallucinogens/ Causin’ illusions again, brain contusions again/ cutting and bruising the skin/ razors, scissors, and pins”).
Relapse is very much in the vein of its horrorcore rap predecessors, hearkening back to such albums as the Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep, Necro’s Gory Days and Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagonecologyst, records that intentionally pushed rap into a raw, cinematic direction. It has a pervading atmosphere of dread, with Dr. Dre, who produces pretty much every song, providing haunting keys and mischievous beats (“Bagpipes from Baghdad”) that inspire Eminem to become more and more demented.
Over the stirring horns of “My Mom,” Eminem raps about being forced to do drugs as a child (“Valium was in everything, food that I ate/ The water that I drank, fuckin’ peas on my plate/ She sprinkled just enough of it to season my steak/ So every day I’d have at least three stomachaches”), blurring the lines between fact and fiction. It’s hard to know whether or not to laugh or be concerned, but it’s impossible not to be compelled — Eminem creates a song that feels like Requiem for a Dream reimagined as a dark comedy. The many references to prescription pill addiction, especially on the touching “De Ja Vu” – which shows how drugs can turn an addict into a shell of their former self – feel prescient, with opioid addiction killing everybody from Prince to Lil Peep in recent years.
However, these references to drugs are relatively light compared to the rest of the album’s subject matter. On “Insane,” Em graphically raps about being sexually abused as a child, intelligently flipping the chorus of “Cleaning Out My Closet” to fit into a serial killer biography. This song, along with “Must Be the Ganja,” shows his skill of somehow turning our worst human impulses into something goofy and fun. They both satirize a Western culture where serial killers are sensationalized into cartoon characters, despite committing atrocious acts and being subjected to abusive childhoods, shining a light on America’s obsession with true crime and pondering if things have gone too far.
Further still, Relapse regularly plays on America’s bizarre obsession with serial killers in relation to the fact they’re now given the same reverence as celebrities. Eminem brings these worlds together to devastating effect on “Same Song and Dance,” which see him fantasize about lynching Lindsay Lohan “with 66 inches of extension cord” and making a suit out of Britney Spears’ skin in something akin to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface. This is some of the best storytelling of his career, with Dr. Dre’s eerie beat, which sounds more Depeche Mode than Chronic 2001, inspiring Em’s warped imagination to hit new heights (or plunge new depths, depending on your perspective).
On “Medicine Ball,” Eminem somehow takes things to an even darker place, rapping about dissecting homosexual victims like Jeffrey Dahmer, who Em claims to be a “step beyond.” He even raps from the perspective of Christopher Reeve’s spirit, challenging Eminem to a breakdancing match, despite being paralyzed in his final years. To those not familiar with horrorcore rap, these lyrics might sound like they’ve crossed a boundary, but they are in fact honoring tradition and a sub-genre of rap where the onus is on making things as depraved as possible, inspiring the listener to feel something deep in the pit of their stomach.
The fact that a major pop star such as Eminem, who had not made an album in five years, had the confidence to put out horrorcore rap was a brave ‘fuck you’ to industry expectations, proof he didn’t follow the script of a major label. Relapse, an album that evokes a sinister spirit and was almost exclusively about inventing elaborate ways to eviscerate people, somehow won the 2010 Grammy for Rap Album of the Year. It will probably be the last horrorcore rap album to ever go platinum. For paying homage to such a dark, slept on genre of hip-hop in such a public way, Eminem deserves our full respect.
That’s not to say Relapse is perfect. “We Made You” is a tired bid to poke fun at celebrities and push the same political buttons as “The Real Slim Shady.” “Beautiful,” meanwhile, is a cheesy attempt at pop chart introspection that takes you out of the horrorcore concept completely. Yet, on the whole, Relapse is a captivating lesson in schadenfreude, mixing horror and comedy in a way his peers wouldn’t even dare to. It’s the closest Eminem has to a concept album, and it has a consistently engaging atmosphere that’s so obviously missing from the disjointed, lackluster Recovery, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, and Revival. It is also definitely worthy of Tyler, the Creator’s adulation, not to mention telling of his own proclivities.
Back in 2010, Eminem was at his most impish, riding Dr. Dre’s unhinged beats with the ferocity of Michael Myers escaping Smith’s Grove Asylum. On Relapse’s sinister “Stay Wide Awake,” Eminem warns his rivals “Stay away from me, because I’m dancing to quite a different drum beat.” Yet fast forward to 2018 and Em is riding the same drum beat as pretty much everyone else, using generic pop stars on his choruses and en vogue producers such as Tay Keith to stay current. Marshall Mathers has lost his focus, intent on proving his technical ability by cramming lots of intricate rhyme schemes into sentences, yet failing to say anything of substance and losing sense of his chaotic musical identity.
Relapse remains a reminder of what Eminem can do when he loses his inhibitions and stops caring what everybody else thinks. It’s an entertaining thrill ride into the abyss. Sure, Eminem no longer raps with an accent like Groundskeeper Willy doing an impression of Dracula, but oh we wish that he did.
For more like this, read how Pusha-T was able to find his footing on his debut album ‘My Name Is My Name’ right here.