Released in 2009 to lukewarm reviews, and later dismissed by Mathers himself as”ehhhh”, Eminem’s 5th major label release Relapse may not be the runt of the litter we all thought it was, but rather the jewel in the crown of a glittering back catalogue.
Relapse had been an album I’d dismissed myself when it was released, shelved after only a handful of listens to languish on my CD rack for the next decade. After the (relative) disappointment of Encore and the throwaway new tracks on greatest hits album Curtain Call, I fell into the trap of simply pre-judging it based on what had been before, and, heaven forbid, what the critics were saying about it.
It was only after a long drive home one night in January 2019 that I bonded with Relapse properly. At midnight on the M6, with Talksport’s reception fading in and out to the point of incomprehension, I put Relapse on, almost on a whim. And when it finished, I put it on again. Then again. By the time I got home at 2:30am, I was convinced it was my favourite Eminem album. A few weeks later, I’d taken a slightly more considered stance that although I couldn’t put it above The Marshall Mathers LP, it was neck and neck with The Eminem Show for the silver medal, and as an album that distills all the classic Eminem tropes into a single disc, it stands out as his quintessential work. It might not have the lofty highs of The Marshall Mathers LP’s ‘Stan’ and ‘Drug Ballad’, nor The Eminem Show’s ‘Hailie’s Song’, or ‘Without Me’, but as an all-rounder, it truly delivers. It has all the elements we’d look for in an Eminem album: the skits (featuring Steve Berman, Paul Rosenberg AND Ken Kaniff), the gross-out Slim Shady narratives (‘Insane’; ‘Same Song and Dance’), the contemplative quasi-ballads (‘Beautiful’; ‘Déjà vu’), the ‘I’m back, everyone’ big-hit single with accompanying comedy music video (‘We made You’), a song about his mum (‘My Mom’), the self-deprecation and struggles with being a good father (‘Déjà vu’), Dr. Dre cameos (‘Old Time’s Sake’; ‘Crack and Bottle’), and plenty of references to Horror films and serial killers(‘3AM’; ‘Bagpipes from Baghdad’; ‘Medicine Ball’; ‘Must be the Ganja’; ‘Underground’). It’s also arguably the only Eminem concept album, which itself makes it worthy of a listen.
Although its lack of editing is nothing compared to the bloated Revival, there is still some fat that could have done with trimming, here, (‘Medicine Ball’ sounds like an offcut from ‘White America’, and ‘Underground’ seems to just re-hash what’s preceded it on the album), and the inclusion of two songs and a Skit after the album’s narrative has ended was an odd decision, leading to a somewhat anti-climactic finish. That said, though, Relapse is dramatic, hilarious, disgusting, disturbing, and extremely well-produced, and is an album well-worth a revisit if, like me, you didn’t appreciate its worth when it was released.