For the first few years of the new millennium, Eminem undeniably was America's favorite cultural bogeyman -- right after Marilyn Manson, and just before Paris Hilton. But the platinum-selling rapper has been hiding out in the Detroit suburbs for nearly five years, which might as well be a century in these hyper-accelerated Twittering times.
"I guess it's time for you to hate me again," the now 36-year-old Marshall Mathers intones in an annoying sing-song midway through "Relapse," his sixth studio album, which arrives in stores on Tuesday. "Let's begin, now hand me the pen / How should I begin it and where does it all end? / The world is just my medicine ball you're all in."
There's an air of weary resignation in those words and in the rapper's delivery as he returns to venting his frustrations and taking out his boundless anger on any target that's handy: This shtick is well and truly played, and he knows it. And lest you doubt it, realize that much of the rest of the song "Medicine Ball" is devoted to once again mocking paralyzed "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve -- who died in 2004.
The precise moment when Eminem jumped the shark can be debated; I'm torn between the duet with Elton John at the Grammys telecast in 2001 -- which followed "The Slim Shady LP" in 1999 and "The Marshall Mathers LP" in 2000, both of which sold 9 million copies -- or his starring turn in the 2002 film "8 Mile." But the impulse behind both of those projects was the same.
Eminem made his name and a fortune that bought him a 29-room mansion with an unrelenting spew of venom, hiding behind his alter ego Slim Shady while gleefully celebrating his homophobia and fantasizing graphic homicidal violence against his ex-wife Kim Scott. Underneath it all was a sensitive soul with the heart of a true romantic, he claimed: He didn't really hate gays, he jammed with Sir Elton! And he may have dreamed of dismembering Kim and his mother, but it was only because they didn't love him the way that he deserved. Remember those heart-wrenching scenes with Kim Basinger as his mom in "8 Mile"?
Eminem may have had one of the most agile tongues and unique rhyming styles in the history of hip-hop, but that was only half the reason he appealed to the hordes of Generation Y teens trying to buy rebellion on credit at the shopping mall. The rest of it was that he shocked and horrified their parents -- the audio equivalent of torture porn -- but it was time to find a new monster as soon as he started asking America's soccer moms for a loving hug.
On "Relapse," Eminem spends half of the 20 tracks asking for love, understanding and sympathy for the drug problems that derailed his career. "I fall in bed with a bottle of meds and a Heath Ledger bobblehead," he rhymes, proceeding to blame his addiction on his mother in "My Mom." He also tries to justify his feelings about homosexuals by rapping about incestuous pedophilic rape in "Insane," and he wraps it all up with the hoariest cliche in the world, actually asking us to "Walk in my shoes, just to see / What it's like to be me."
For the rest of the lengthy album, the star tries to reclaim his old status as the button-pushing bad boy, tweaking Amy Winehouse and her hubby Blake Fielder-Civil; making not one but two gratuitous references to Kim Kardashian's assets; confessing that he pleasures himself while watching "Hannah Montana" and imagining the ruthless torture and murder of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears in "Same Song and Dance," a title that provides another hint that he's aware of how tired this routine is.
Mostly crafted by his old mentor and producer, Dr. Dre, the music is just as stale and predictable, full of Dre's overrated bubblegum hooks and cheesy gothic ambience. The one exception is the Middle Eastern flavor of "Bagpipes from Baghdad," but with more throwaway lines about Mariah Carey, Eminem blows the opportunity to offer a sequel/update to the track that remains his finest moment.
A fierce diatribe against President Bush floated on the Net not long before the release of his last album "Encore" (2004), "Mosh" for once found Eminem focusing his rage at someone who actually deserved it. "Imagine it pouring, it's raining down on us / Mosh pits outside the Oval Office," he rapped as George W. Bush sent Eminem's peers rolling through Iraq in un-armored humvees searching for nonexistent WMD. "No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil / No more psychological warfare, to trick us to thinking that we ain't loyal."
"Mosh" offered a glimpse of what a potent artist Eminem could be if only he abandoned his snotty teenage obsessions. But alas, it remains an oddity in his catalog, rather than the track that points to a worthy second act in a spectacularly lucrative career. And at the end of the day, commerce is what Eminem has always really been about.
In a particularly boneheaded, slavishly worshipful review, Rolling Stone compares "Relapse" to "a hip-hop version of Richard Pryor's 'Live on the Sunset Strip,' the classic 1982 stand-up flick where Pryor makes the audience squirm through jokes about freebase addiction and setting himself on fire." The only problems with that comparison are that Pryor actually was funny, and that he shared genuinely profound truths with his audience while revealing his inner demons.
That may be Eminem's goal, but he fails miserably.
"Whether I'm someone's favorite rapper or not, whether I'm thought of as one of the best, one of the most half-assed, whatever it is, I am one of the most personal," the rapper contends in The Way I Am, the autobiography he published last October. "That's why people relate to me, because I show so much of myself. That's why random taxi drivers call me 'Marshall.' And the reason I put so much of myself out there in the first place is because I had no idea I was going to be so famous. I had no idea, no f---ing clue. If I had to do it again, I don't know if I would."
Well, that sabbatical was your opportunity to bow out if you really wanted to, Em old pal. Instead, you came back with a hackneyed retread that gives us no better idea of who the "real" Marshall Mathers really is. And I for one don't care to know.