With Recovery, Eminem adds to that sobering (sorry) roster of artists who, well, first of all, are capable of piloting their way back from substance abuse to tell the world about it in terms cryptic, cathartic and crystalline. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that Eminem has been the king of cryptic, cathartic and crystalline delivery pretty much his whole career, which is why Recovery is neither as good, or as bad, as anybody thinks it is.
The high point here is that Em's rap skills are still beyond anyone in the game ever — Jay-Z is the only emcee who comes close, and even then he prefers bouncy, head-bobbing anthems. Em treats the English language alternately like a speed-freak and an ice-sculpture on which his tongue crafts the most imaginative, clever and at times articulate and poignant sentiments to appear in hip hop — or pop music in general. That alone makes Recovery a worthy career reboot. And when Em leaves you feeling like you've heard it before, only sideways, his verses tucked in the Top 40 fodder of "No Love" — built over a Haddaway sample for God's sake — still dwarf guest Lil' Wayne's verse, which, to Weezy's credit, is better than 99 percent of his weed-addled ramblings.
So what's added to the usual Em vim and vigor? Vulnerability. On "Space Bound," built over R.E.M's "Drive," he asks "promise me if I cave in and break and leave myself open that I won't be makin' a mistake." Life's never that easy, of course, which is why Em is threatening to break the object of his affection's neck "like a popsicle stick" in the next verse.
The Rihanna-featuring "Love the Way You Lie," is Em's "Hurts so Good" by way of Dante's Inferno and Slick Rick's "Children's Story." It shows by how completely overqualified Em is to helm pop music: It's dizzying, star-powered and weirdly forgettable, a "Lost Yourself" instead of a "Lose Yourself."
Can you drive around listening to this collection of often big, slabby tracks, where the hair on the back of your neck stands up with every Em verse that's crammed with fearless self-examination, clever jabs at pop figures, and still-sharp battle-champ deliveries? Hell, yeah.
Is Recovery, to use a 12-step analogy, a guy perhaps making his amends (to himself, the emcees he's dissed or thought of dissing; Kanye West and Lil' Wayne are mentioned) and turning his life and will over to a power greater than himself? Yes. And that power greater than himself sounds here like it's pop culture and his place in it.
Recovery stops shy of having any spiritual awakening. Part of the problem — or at least the challenge — is rap itself. Getting Rihanna and Lil' Wayne and Pink to bark a chorus or sling a rhyme makes the album only sound like a variation — though a very accomplished one — on an industry formula rather than a true reawakening. Couple that with A-list producers (Just Blaze, Emile, the Drake-maker Boi-1da) leaning too heavily on obvious samples (the lumbering Ozzy sample on "Going Through Changes" is just a plodding buzzkill) and Recovery keeps hitting its head on the glass ceiling of Top 40 and pop culture — over and over again.
When Em debuted Slim Shady in '99, he almost accidentally became the most powerful presence in pop, capable of parodying presidential scandal, clowning on his family's tragic dysfunction, and, like the rest of us, making fun of pop culture as both a distraction and a way to connect with the rest of the world. His jaw-droppingly great rhyme skills made the feat that much more perfunctory. But a decade later, the pop references seem ill-conceived, dated, a dumbing-down. Who cares? Where Recovery promises to be, say, Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic, it stalls mostly at sobriety-inspired recitations of the same subject matter, but delivered with a new, poignant clarity. In the end, Em sounds stuck between floors, somewhere between Eddie Van Halen and Morrissey as far as his ability to conjure and reconfigure himself recognizably, even thrillingly. Is Recovery better than 99 percent of music being made today? Of course. Is it better than The Eminem Show? Oh, God, no. But the Marshall Mathers show — whatever that could be next time out — will be.
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.