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POP & HISS

Eminem lets loose monsters

New-album track 'I'm Having a Relapse' marks return of the rapper's earlier, ultra-violent persona.

October 20, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

It's nearly Halloween, and pop's favorite demons are coming out to say "Boo!" Guns N' Roses (i.e., Axl N' others) seem committed to a November release for "Chinese Democracy," the album that's been in the making since the dudes in Hinder were in grade school. And now there's fresh music from a project that's not as long delayed but nearly as anticipated -- Eminem's upcoming return, the Dr. Dre-produced "Relapse," of which a track is available for streaming via the Fader website.

The track, "I'm Having a Relapse," is the first taste of the Detroit rapper's return to mayhem. And mayhem he brings -- this compact, minimalist single features the rapper using rat-a-tat rhythms to deliver lyrics as pornographically violent as anything in "Saw V."

The imagery, not much of it printable in a family paper, is straight-up serial-killer fare. Eminem seems eager to throw off the burdens of his personal story and return to the manic character acting that made him a star in the first place. Unlike his best late singles, like "Lose Yourself" and "Mosh," he's not himself in this song; he's Slim Shady again, as possessed by the spirit of Jason Voorhees, his favorite slasher-movie macho man.

When the rapper puts on this mask, he enters a zone where all the problems that make for his more complex rhymes are washed away in blood, and nothing remains but masterful aggressiveness. For Eminem, random violence is freeing and funny, a paradoxically safe subject inspiring his still dazzlingly agile wordplay. Check out his rhymes: "mannequin" (plus an obscenity) and "manic depressed," "where is she" blending in with "something fishy." The madness Eminem invokes is compulsively precise in challenging opposition to the messy genius of his new rival, Lil Wayne.

Even more interesting is his shift to a new voice. Eminem has played with Caribbean dialects before, but in "I'm Having a Relapse" he fully allows a dancehall patois to take him over and turn his killer into an entity that's more menacing than comical.

Instead of making fun of a racial stereotype, here Eminem seems to be gaining power by putting on a respectful form of blackface. Combined with what is a vaguely Middle Eastern, slightly Timbaland-flavored musical hook, the final portion of "I'm Having a Relapse" offers a new twist on the minstrel tradition that's disconcerting -- minstrels can't be anything but that -- but startlingly effective.

What we don't yet know is whether Eminem will go beyond reasserting his mastery of the comic-horror genre to move into new directions on his upcoming album. The rapper's music became more complex as he grew up artistically and allowed Marshall Mathers to peek out from behind the hockey mask. Songs like "Stan" and "Lose Yourself" confronted the image he'd constructed rather than simply riding on its power. "Relapse," the album, will have more power if he continues to explore those real-life sources of his creepy mind games rather than just animating the dreamscape.

It's reasonable that, after several years of retreat, Eminem would want to prove that he's still master of his old tricks. But is there a market for horror rap? Younger players like Weezy, and even T-Pain, play with fantastic imagery yet find commercial success by also inhabiting more familiar, less threatening roles: the Romeo, the bling-clad player.

Eminem always has offered something different, at once more confrontational and more potentially enlightening. Comebacks, even by self-styled monsters, tend to be about flexing dependable muscles. Those of us who've long been fascinated with the many layers of Eminem's difficult art might hope for more than that.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

This article and others about pop music can be found online at the new Pop & Hiss blog. See latimes.com/popandhiss to read more.

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