Much was made earlier this year of Eminem's comeback album, Relapse. But the real story is how he's put together the best sequel since The Dark Knight.
I just met Eminem again, for the first time in 10 years. Don't get me wrong, we've spoken at least a half-dozen times since our initial introduction back in May of '98, when I interviewed him for BLAZE Magazine. But the guy I dealt with in those intervening years? Well, he was a different person. The dude I met in that strip mall parking lot more than a decade ago, listening to mixes on the stock system of his Buick rental, was outgoing, hilarious, genuine, razor-sharp, and endlessly talented. He was a walking adventure and an inspiration. But, with him being overwhelmed by the fame—and then the work, and then the drugs—every encounter we shared after the release of The Slim Shady LP got incrementally more awkward, involved less eye contact, and left me feeling more concerned about the collateral damage of his unmitigated success.
For the first few years this change was to be expected, as his ubiquitous celebrity necessitated isolation, and his grueling schedule of albums, tours, and movies would be enough to wear down even the most rugged. But the relationship hit its nadir, for me, with an interview in February of 2006—weeks before the murder of his best friend, Proof. I had no idea the depth of his troubles, but detached, glassy-eyed, and at least 30 pounds heavier than just six months prior, Eminem seemed to be plunging off the deep end. I don't know Em well enough to call him Marshall, but I do know enough to say with certainty that the bloated space cadet at that shoot was not the guy I'd met wearing that same damn Nike hat. And as the aforementioned personal tragedy unfolded, and the public became more aware of his deteriorating condition, from a distance it really felt like Em might be living out the frequent and unwelcome comparisons to Elvis— specifically, an untimely, pill-addled end.
Thankfully, Em's survivor spirit, and the help of his most trusted loved ones, stymied his addiction. Seeing Em reemerge healthy, thin, and drug-free with Relapse this spring, I—and damn near everyone else who likes to hear words rhymed skillfully—breathed easy. Sure, he seemed serious and sometimes stiff on his press tour. And the album, despite mostly positive reviews, caught its share of critical flak for its formulaic roll-out (poppy "nyeah-nyeah" first single, dark second single, etc). None of that mattered, though; Eminem was back! And those who knew shit about shit knew the music was damn good. And the fans spoke with their wallets—to the tune of 1.5 million units, the highest-selling rap record of 2009.
Which brings me back to our reintroduction today in Detroit. Animated, relaxed, funny, and most importantly, fully engaged, the guy sitting across from me is once again the dude that I met over a decade ago. And what's more, it's clear that as The Slim Shady LP only teased at Eminem's potential as an artist, Relapse only teases at the promise of his recovery. His awe-inspiring, precise performance on the A-list posse cut of the year, "Forever," is more than just a reminder of Eminem's maniacally focused talent in full gear—it's a promise. And a challenge. Relapse 2 is to Relapse what The Dark Knight was to Batman Begins. That's my word.
Pulling himself away from his pursuit of happiness (mixing a Just Blaze-produced future classic), Em sat with Complex to discuss his chase of the perfect album, his obsessive compulsions, and what exactly a Spankwire is. It's nice to meet him. Again.
You've had about five months to sit with your "comeback," Relapse. What are your feelings about it now?
I was happy with it when I put it out—but honestly, I haven't given it too much thought since then because I've been so busy working on Relapse 2.
So the sequel won't reflect your reaction to the first one and its reception?
Well, when I finished Relapse, I had a whole album of material that didn't make it that I wasn't ready to throw away, so that was going to be Relapse 2. But then I got with Dre in Hawaii and started recording more, and now the new material has knocked out all the old songs. But yeah, the new material is definitely different. Making Relapse, I was still working the drugs out of my system, so there was a lot of...just jokey shit. It was a lot of punchline-y, funny, shock value—kind of going back to The Slim Shady LP. And that was cool, but I've kind of flipped the page. Now I'm going for songs instead of one-liners. I don't want to make shit that you hear once and then the joke's over; I want to make records that you could play a hundred times, a thousand times.
Relapse definitely feels like you're shaking off the dust—it was like I could take the songs out of sequence and put them in order of when they were recorded, because the rhymes got so much sharper the farther you got from the drugs.
You're right, my thinking became sharper again as I went along. If you were to take a song like "My Mom" or "Must Be the Ganja," those were cool—but they were the beginning stages of me coming out of the [addiction]. It wasn't until it got into songs like "Stay Wide Awake" that it felt like my mind got sharper. I became more on-point towards the end of recording the album. Right now, I feel like I'm more focused than I've ever been. I still feel like I have room to get better but I feel like I'm definitely on my game right now.
Speaking of being on your game, who had the second-best verse on "Forever"?
Who had the second-best verse? [Laughs.] I don't know, I like everybody's verses—but I like Drake's verse a lot. I wouldn't say I had the best verse; everybody approached the beat different. Kanye was crazy, too, and Wayne. I just saw the beat differently than anybody else did; for some reason, I felt like the beat was a double-time beat, so I rapped faster.
I'm sure sobriety has changed more than just your rapping. Has it changed your friendships?
Yeah, I've gone back and rekindled some old friendships—people I knew from back in the day. I feel like I'm closer with everybody now, certainly—probably a lot easier to get along with, too.
[Laughs.] You want to explain that, Paul?
[Em's manager] Paul Rosenberg: [Laughs.] In every regard. Literally, in every way you can imagine he's easier to get along with.
So you feel better?
[Laughs.] Hell yeah, I feel better. I feel like a human being again. There was one point in time where I felt like...[Sighs.] I don't know—I felt like plastic.
In what way?
I think I looked plastic. My face, fat plastic. [Laughs.] I was eating, but the Vicodin made me hungry because it eats up your stomach lining, so you want to fill your stomach back up, but then it stops you up so you can't shit, you just—
That's why I was gaining so much weight, I was just so fucking bloated. It's a trip when people take sobriety for granted. Feeling trapped in my addiction and then getting sober—you appreciate it so much more, because I didn't know if I would ever know what it's like to feel normal again, ever.
Are there moments when you feel like you're being tested?
Not with drugs or alcohol or anything like that. I just steer clear of it.
So you're stone-sober these days?
Yeah, it'll be 18 months on the 20th [of October]. I realized I can't touch anything, and that's why I'm clean right now and why I'm going to stay clean. My brain just doesn't know when to shut off. When I do something I have to do it all the way—that goes for music, with a high-hat, a snare drum, a rhyme, everything. I have to push it to the extreme. That's how I realized I have addictive behavior. Somebody told me this once, that the thing that makes me bad is the same thing that makes me good at other things.
When the details of Michael Jackson's death came to light, did you see any parallels?
Oh, 100 percent. When you read things about Michael Jackson it's hard to decipher what the fuck is true, but there's the story of how he woke up at whatever time and he needed something to go back to sleep because he had this or that and it didn't work. That's exactly what used to happen to me: I would take a couple of pills and I would be up an hour later and I'd want more. Then I'd take more and that would be enough to maybe get me back to sleep for two more hours. Then I'd be wide awake again. So I definitely can relate, and it's a shame if he didn't have anybody there to just say, "Michael, you're an addict, you need help." It's one of the pitfalls of fame. I could just say, "Yo, I need this and this and this," and they're going to give me whatever I want because—
—because you're Eminem.
Exactly, it's fucked up. The worst thing that could have happened to me as an addict was having money.
So much of your best music was born of your addiction, but your writing is clearly inspired again. Where do you draw inspiration from now?
[Long pause.] I don't know, that's a hard question. As far as the everyday inspiration to write? I guess I draw it from everywhere—conversations, something I saw on TV, whatever. But as far as inspiration to make music? Of all the albums I've made, I still don't feel like I've made the perfect album. I've had ones that touch on this, and others that touch on that, but never one that's just perfect and fully relevant. I don't know if I'll ever make it, but I'm certainly trying every day.
CLICK NEXT TO READ PART TWO...