Last year it was Indiana Jones. This year, it's Eminem's Slim Shady.
Rap's demented antihero _ the star of Eminem's best-selling CDs and biggest hits _ has returned to torment us once again on "Relapse," Eminem's first full studio album in almost five years.
"I guess it's time for you to hate me again/Let's begin, now hand me the pen," he chants in the refrain of "Medicine Ball," a nonsensical ode to menacing behavior that includes everything from a Christopher Reeve insult to pill-popping references.
The problem is, what "Relapse" inspires more than hate is indifference. When Eminem and his alter-ego Slim Shady made their debut a decade ago, not only were the raps a lot wittier, they also introduced us to a sinister darkness that was shocking and revelatory at the same time: We felt as if we were getting an insider's view of a tormented soul gleefully upending society.
Four albums later, we get the picture. Adding new layers of gore, misogyny and hateful epithets doesn't make it any fresher, especially if the rhymes are progressively weaker. "Bagpipes from Baghdad" skewers Mariah Carey, but wasn't that so 2003? Is Marshall Mathers still carrying a torch for Ms. Carey? And does anyone care?
Equally dated is the weak first single, "We Made You," which takes shots at Sarah Palin and the romance between Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer ... which fizzled four months ago. Even if the romance was still relevant, the celebrity potshot comes off as a rote attempt to capture the magic of songs like "Without Me" without any of the sizzling rhymes.
But Eminem didn't become known as one of the best rappers alive (some say THE best) for nothing, and "Relapse" proves that he's still an unparalleled storyteller. Unfortunately, that proof comes only in spurts, like on the alternately tragic and hilarious sex abuse tale "Insane" and "My Mom," on which he points the finger yet again at his horrid mother_ but this time, for his dependence on over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
In fact, the best moments come from Eminem's worst moments _ when he details the real reason behind his rap exile, his yearslong addiction. On songs like "Deja Vu" and "Stay Wide Awake," he makes you feel empathy for his ordeal: "And you'd think with all I have at stake/Look at my daughter's face/'Mommy something is wrong with dad I think,'" he says on "Deja Vu," a downbeat, powerful track about his drug free-fall.
"Beautiful" has the potential to be both maudlin and downright corny, with its sample of Queen's "Reaching Out," as Eminem pleads to have someone walk a mile in his shoes to see his painful vantage point. But the confessional contained within is excellent and engrossing.
If only "Relapse" had more of this to offer. But the Dr. Dre-helmed CD puts more effort in doling out shock humor than illuminating tales, and suffers for that choice. Instead of giving us a new script, we get a story we've seen before.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: Did Marshall Mathers' mom do anything right? On booming "My Mom," he talks about a mother so wicked she chops drugs up in her son's food to keep him out of her hair, laying the foundation for his future drug abuse: "My mom, loved Valium, and lots of drugs/that's why I'm on, why I'm on, 'cause I'm my mom."