It was 2009 — five years since Marshall Mathers had last released an album — and the rap community was hankering for another Eminem project. With Em’s super-producer and mentor Dr. Dre producing nearly every track, success was bound to happen when he released Relapse on May 15 of that year — and it did.
It ended up as the best-selling rap album of the year, and at present day, it’s certified double platinum.
The numbers, however, don’t tell the full story of Relapse.
Shady has always pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable to say in music, frequently going over the line. He’s often described a desire to murder his ex-wife and released songs filled with homophobic or sexist slurs since his commercial inception in 1999. The song “Guilty Conscience,” off his first album, even features him and Dre debating whether to have sex with a 15-year-old girl. Even with that past, his delivery on Relapse took it one step farther, and it’s shocking how well it sold considering twisted and violent nature of the program.
On “Same Song & Dance,” he threatens to lynch Lindsay Lohan with “66 inches of extension cord.” He describes his record of “17 rapes, 400 assaults and 4 murders” on “Crack a Bottle” and his urge to have sex with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on “We Made You.” The song “Insane” features graphic, fictional descriptions of his step-father raping him.
It’s the rap album equivalent of the horror film Silence of the Lambs, with Em playing the serial killer. He even incorporates lines from Buffalo Bill, one of the film’s sinister characters, in his song “3 a.m.”
In a way, the album gives some interesting insights into the mind of a deranged and violent pain pill addict. The project’s intro, “Dr. West (Skit),” is a conversation between Em and his rehab doctor that goes off the rails as the doctor turns into Slim Shady, Em’s alter ego. It’s freaky, and I would recommend listening to it with the lights on.
Eminem has acknowledged the album is mostly fiction — he’s playing a character — but there are parts that closely resemble the reality of his life, particularly when it comes to drug use.
The track “Déjà Vu” might be the most chilling and non-fictional part of the album. It’s a day-in-the-life of a drug addict, culminating with waking up in an ambulance. The song bears a close resemblance to Mathers’ 2007 overdose.
Mathers tried to clarify the difference between his different on-mic personalities in a 2009 interview with The New York Times. “My fans, and people who genuinely listen to hip-hop and love it for the art form, they know what’s Eminem, what’s Marshall and what’s Shady,” he said.
While this argument seemed to be accepted then, it’s hard to think it would fly now. Regardless of whether he’s speaking fictitiously or not, the messages are over the line.
In an era when music is so easily accessible by those of all ages, there would certainly be conflict over younger listeners tuning in to Relapse. You could make the case that he is minimizing the real-life experience of victims as he delivers these exaggerated and made-up stories of rape and abuse.
Eminem has shifted his image a good bit in recent years. The four albums released since Relapse have caused little to no controversy in the music community — though they are admittedly less strong than his early 2000s ones.
It’s a tad ironic that a guy who has a 2018 song condemning mass shootings and the NRA is the same guy who put out Relapse, but artists evolve. Whether you see it as lyrically dexterous and engaging horror album or a violence-promoting project, Relapse will always exist in the Detroit rapper’s discography — serving partly as a reminder of a different time.