Road to Recovery…and a Higher Power

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay offers a review of Eminem’s new album, Recovery.  It’s the first review of a rap album here at Pop Theology.  Let’s see how it goes after the jump.

Eminem wraps (and raps) his latest effort in the language of one of the most popular religious movements of the last century, “Recovery.” Although Recovery has five more tracks than the Twelve Steps, it’s notable for the Steps it covers, and for those it leaves out.

First, any serious critic has to pause and name the most problematic element of Eminem’s music—his vicious and unrepentant misogyny.  It’s a problem throughout hip-hop, but Eminem revels in and illustrates his fantasies of abuse of women beyond the usual feral “b-word” boasts of most rappers.  His insistence on devolving into violence damages good songs on Recovery about the vulnerability of relationships like “Space Bound” and “Love the Way You Lie,” and permeates almost everything else on this album like a poison haze.

That being said, it’s important to see the irony in Eminem’s offensive lyrics—to understand a performance is not necessarily a literal endorsement of an action, but rather a take, a perspective, a voice on it.  Furthermore, we point the finger at Eminem only to find it pointing back at ourselves.  Eminem is as much a reflection as a cause of a culture of violence against women.  For some reason, he relishes embodying this societal shadow of sexism and misogyny, perhaps as a means of purging his own tendencies toward violence, perhaps as a means of attracting the disapproval that brings about the self-martyrdom he seems to need like oxygen.

On the first track, “Cold Wind Blows,” he says this is just the way he is:  “I’ll be nicer to women/When Aqua Man drowns and the Human Torch starts swimming.”  Although I don’t believe Eminem’s misogyny is immutable, I breathe the Serenity Prayer, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” and move on to explore the rest of the album.

Recovery features a lot of rap about Eminem’s recent drug problems, particularly his near-fatal overdose on methadone.  The recording booklet also features Eminem sitting in a glass house (the kind from which one should not throw stones?) in the middle of downtown Detroit, his hometown.  The visual joke frames the album title with the kind of double meaning Eminem relishes in his rap–it’s about Recovery from drugs, Recovery of the economy, Recovery of a career.

Eminem starts his comeback in the first song.  Although his bluster is as strong as ever, halfway through the song, he gets a smack from above, in the form of a lightning sound effect interrupting his rhymes.

“Cause you’re fake, [lightning crack] ahh what the fuck, that hurt wait!

[Lightning crack] Ahh what the fuck, I just got struck by lightning.

Alright then I quit, God I give up.

Call it evil that men do, Lord forgive me for what my pen do.”

Not exactly a “decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”  But there’s at least a recognition that some Higher Power might be affecting his life.

The three songs that show Eminem at his most vulnerable are “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” “Going through Changes,” and “Not Afraid.”  Taken together, this trio might parallel the dark night of the soul and transformation that those in recovery go through in the Twelve Steps.

In “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” Eminem raps: “You’re lying to yourself, you’re slowly dying, you’re denying/Your health is declining with your self esteem, you’re crying out for help.”  In another line he says, “Hit bottom so hard I bounce twice suffice this time around/It’s different them last two albums didn’t count/Encore I was on drugs, Relapse I was flushing ‘em out.”  This sounds like Step 1:  “We admitted we were powerless over drugs—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Eminem continues to Step 4, conducting a “searching and fearless moral inventory,” admonishing himself by his birth name:

“Marshall you’re no longer the man, that’s a bitter pill to swallow/All I know is I’m wallowin’, self-loathing and hollow/ Bottoms up of pill bottle maybe I’ll hit my bottom tomorrow… I’ve turned into a hater, I’ve put up a false bravado.”

A deeply moving account of Eminem’s struggle with considering suicide, “I’m Going through Changes,” features Ozzy Osbourne on the chorus track. This song continues the self-reflection theme and the cry for help:

“I feel like I’m losing control of myself,

I sincerely apologize if all that I sound like, is I’m complaining,

But life keeps on complicating, an’ I’m debating,

On leaving this world, this evening, even my girls,

Can see I’m grievin’, I try and hide it,

But I can’t, why do I act like I’m all high and mighty,

When inside, I’m dying, I am finally realizing I need help.”

Eminem also covers steps 8 and 9:  “We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  In “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” he admits:

“Hatred was flowing through my veins

On the verge of going insane

I almost made a song dissin Lil Wayne

It’s like I was jealous of him cause of the attention he was gettin’

I felt horrible about myself

He was spittin and I wasn’t

Anyone who was buzzin back then coulda got it

Almost went at Kanye too.”

In the Top 40 hit, “Not Afraid” he continues these steps by apologizing to his fans:

“And to the fans, I’ll never let you down again, I’m back/I promise to never go back on that promise, in fact/Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ‘ehhhh’”

The chorus has some of the same, us-against-the-world feel of his Oscar-winning song, “Lose Yourself.”  As he reaches out to fans that might be in pain (the album is dedicated: “2 anyone who’s in a dark place tryin’ 2 get out.  Keep your head up…It does get better!”), he even intimates the Twelfth Step:  “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others…”

“I’m not afraid to take a stand

Everybody come take my hand

We’ll walk this road together, through the storm.”

There’s still that matter of where Eminem’s Higher Power comes in, beyond a lightning bolt, but first let’s take a look at some of the other album highlights.

“W.T.P.” is a funny and roof-raising groove (the initials stand for “White Trash Party”) that gets Eminem back to his working-class roots.  “Pull up to the club in a Pinto like it’s a Porsche/Garbage bag for one of the windows, spray painted doors/ With the flames on ‘em, Michigan plates and my names on ‘em…”  The song’s a tribute to low rent fun, “tramp stamps,” doing doughnuts in a parking lot in a Gremlin, and the curious chemistry of “Mixing Hennessey and Fanta with Pepto and Mylanta.”

The genius of hip-hop rests in both its reuse of recorded music, samples rather than individual notes becoming the building blocks of a song, and in the wildly creative use of words, what MC’s call “flow.”  On the latter quality, no one’s better than Eminem.  Wordplay flies at the listener—sometimes in quick spurts, sometimes taking several lines for extended metaphors to evolve.  In “W.T.P.,” he explains, “I’ll rip a tree out the ground and flip it upside down/‘fore I turn over a new leaf clown.”  In a boast over other rappers in “almost Famous,” he raps, “Ya’ll are Eminem backwards, you’re menime’s” (mini me’s).  Explaining his superior oratorical skills in “Won’t Back Down,” he raps, “these other cats ain’t metaphorically where I’m at man/I gave Bruce Wayne a Valium and said/settle ya fuckin ass down I’m ready for combat-man/get it “calm Batman?”  Yes, Eminem, we get it.  You pun more than the French.

Eminem’s delivery varies between a rat-a-tat spit and a drawl that mashes words together, shouted through a nasal punk tenor that still sounds adolescent despite his pushing forty.  Nowhere is the contrast between rap voices more acute than “No Love,” in which he teams up with (the currently incarcerated) ‘Lil Wayne, who croaks his lines in a Dirty South twang.  The sample in this case is the head-bobbing disco hit “What is Love,” by Haddaway, which Eminem and Wayne twist into a chest-thumping rebuke to other rappers that show them “no love.”

If there’s such a thing as a rap ballad, Rihanna and Eminem pull off a good one on Love the Way You Lie.  Rihanna’s pretty chorus is accompanied by piano and acoustic guitar.  Eminem’s words are about the pain and frustration of a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” relationship.  Even some of his more aggressive lyrics work within this doomed relationship in obsessional mode.  Until the end.  And then the misogyny takes over.  And an otherwise good track is ruined.

So where is Eminem’s Higher Power?  It seems like he skips steps 2,3,5,6, and 11, which have to do with letting go to God, and having God remove your “defects of character.”  But I can’t help but feel this album represents some kind of turning point for Eminem.  He’s come to some pretty difficult conclusions about himself and his own limitations.  Where did his “salvation,” if that’s what we want to call it, come from?

I read an article recently in which Eminem spoke of rap as the drug that saves his life.  And maybe here is his Higher Power.  Part of the reason the recovery movement uses the language of a Higher Power is precisely that an inability to conceive of a theistic God should not be a stumbling block to recovery.  Sometimes the sharing and compassion felt in an AA group meeting is the Higher Power.  It might be a parent’s responsibility to a child, which Eminem seems to feel.  I’ve heard of one case for an addict where a doorknob was his Higher Power, because it was the only thing working in his life.  The Higher Power is that which draws you out of yourself, your problems, your addictions, and encourages you to live into the fullness of your being.  For Eminem, this talented but troubling performer, rap is what saves his soul.  Maybe someday, it will enlighten him enough that “Aqua Man drowns, and the Human Torch starts swimmin’,” and Eminem finds respect for women.