Eminem’s Recovery album was acclaimed as a triumphant comeback and one of the best albums of the year when it was released in 2010, but lately it has settled into a reputation as a disappointment. This decline can probably be chalked up to the fact that this is an album you can imagine any truly great rapper making. Not any old run-of-the-mill rapper…the quality of the lyricism is far too high for that…but still, you can easily imagine Nas or peak-period Jay-Z coming out with an album like this, while Eminem’s most acclaimed albums, like his three early-career masterpieces or 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP2, could never have been produced by anyone except Eminem himself.
This album has every bit of the lyrical quality that makes Eminem the greatest rapper in the history of the genre…in fact, these might be the most complex, rapid-fire lyrics to be found on any Eminem album, and the wordplay, in its own blunt-spoken way, is as witty as a Cole Porter song. What the album admittedly lacks is the distinctive Eminem flavor…the lyrics don’t lack for shock value most of the time, but the colorful and gruesome sense of humor that has become Eminem’s calling card is replaced by an earnest seriousness on most of these songs. The song templates here are tried-and-true Rap staples…the phoenix-rises-from-the-ashes anthem of triumph, the loving tribute to a fallen friend, the honest confrontation of the artist’s own psychological issues. There’s even one song, “Seduction”, that follows the I-Can-Steal-Your-Girlfriend formula that was so much of a cliche in Rap at the time.
But keep in mind that all of the elements of Eminem’s distinctive persona would never have mattered if he hadn’t been the greatest lyricist in all of Rap. For proof of this, look at one of the most excoriated Rap acts of all time, Insane Clown Posse. Their persona is, if you think about it, almost indistinguishable from Eminem’s…the darkly comic shock-rappers who pretend to be serial killers. The difference is that Eminem, at least apart from the Encore album, has the skill to back his theatrics up; because ICP are morons who write ridiculously stupid lyrics, their over-the-top personas just make them look like buffoons. What made Eminem a legend is his talent, far more than his gruesome subject matter, and that talent is in as full display on this album as anything in his discography.
There are a few things on this album that manage to capture a bit of the trademark Eminem spirit. “Cold Winds Blows” is the only appearance of his Slim Shady alter-ego on the album, and while it is quite sober and serious compared to previous Slim Shady songs, it still captures a flash of the character’s twisted humor. The twisted love song “Space Bound” actually managed to create some good old Eminem controversy, due to its music video climaxing with a graphically portrayed suicide. “25 to Life” seems to be another rant about Eminem’s ex-wife Kim, until a very surprising last line. In general, the second half of the album has more of a typical Eminem flavor than the first, but even it still contains some very earnest and conventional (if brilliant) songs.
As for the production on the album, it is good enough to be consistently worthy of the lyrics, with beats monumental enough to challenge those on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the same year. It also features one of Eminem’s most consistent strengths outside of his lyricism…making interesting and creative use of samples. When Pitbull or Jason Derulo or Flo Rida uses a sample of a well-known song, they’re just trying to piggy-back off that song’s success; when Eminem does it, he actually creates a whole new effect. It’s been true since the Dido sample on “Stan”, and he proves it true again on such songs as “No Love” (which samples “What Is Love?” by Haddaway) or the ‘hidden track’ “Untitled” (which uses a sample of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”).
The album also contains a monumental Pop crossover single…namely, “Love the Way You Lie”, the best hit song of 2010. It tells the story of Eminem’s mutually destructive relationship with his ex-wife Kim in some of the most searing lyrics he has ever produced. It may seem odd that, during the year that Chris Brown was temporarily banished from the Pop world over a domestic abuse scandal, Eminem could release massive hit a song openly admitting to abusing his ex-wife and actually receive sympathy for it. But then, that’s what separates a serious artist like Eminem from a talentless bozo like Brown…Eminem managed to convey genuine guilt over what he had done, and actually gave the impression that he had learned something from it. Speaking of Brown, the song also features a richly nuanced chorus by Rihanna, who seems to pour all the anguish and ambivalence of her own experiences with domestic abuse into her delivery.
Apart from Rihanna, there are very few featuring credits on the album proper, and only one actual guest rapper, Lil Wayne on “No Love”. Now, Wayne could generously be called an uneven talent, but being on the same track as a revitalized Eminem seems to have inspired him, and he rises to the occasion with probably the single best verse in his entire discography. The most unlikely choice for a collaborator is probably Pink, whose ‘Grrl Power’ persona wouldn’t seem to be a very comfortable match for Eminem’s attitude, but the album finds a way to make their worlds meet effectively on the defiant “Won’t Back Down”. But Eminem also proves that he is one of the few artists working today who can be counting on to do top-level work even on his Deluxe Edition bonus tracks, particularly on a collaboration with Underground Rap legends Slaughterhouse, “Session One”. This surprisingly excellent track serves as a foreshadowing of Eminem’s next project, Hell: The Sequel, which would be a collaboration with Slaughterhouse’s most famous member, Royce da 5’9”.
Overall, this album is admittedly not as unique, or perhaps quite as much fun, as the other top-level Eminem albums. But it is nonetheless a masterpiece of a very high order, and it did constitute just as much of a return to form as the critics who initially greeted it suggested. Eminem’s album the year before, Relapse, wasn’t as bad as Eminem himself seems to have decided, being actually pretty solid apart from a few prominent duds, but those who now suggest it is superior to Recovery are kidding themselves.