With sales topping 2.7 million and Grammy buzz swelling, Eminem’s Recovery deserves closer inspection as to why it’s succeeding commercially as well as critically in an otherwise lackluster year for album sales. As this is Eminem, please note the advisory applies to all tracks.
An obvious explanation to Recovery’s success is every track on the album is high quality. Other artists with large sales on their hit singles are not selling their full albums at a similar pace as Eminem, likely in part to an overall weaker album. The standard industry formula of mixing hit songs with forgettable, skippable filler-songs no longer works, as reflected by the sales numbers. Especially in these difficult economic times, music buyers want the most bang for their buck, and Recovery delivers.
A vague analysis, “high quality” is also a surface explanation to any album’s success. The music needs to resonate with the audience and make an impression. Recovery is Eminem’s most personal album to date – discussing codependency, depression, personal loss, addiction and suicide. Psychologically compelling, these are mature themes many listeners can relate to, but it is Eminem’s emotionally uplifting response to his problems where, I believe, the message is resonating with his audience – and it is a surprisingly conservative message. He takes personal responsibility for himself. Throughout the album, Em apologizes repeatedly to his fans; takes responsibility for two crappy previous albums, his drug addiction, his relationship with his ex-wife, and his daughters; and apologizes to a number of his peers while criticizing himself. Mixed between these more personal tracks are a number of adventures for alter-ego Slim Shady, as vulgar as ever and name dropping as only he can. However, the themes of codependency and personal responsibility are laced throughout every track on the album. In its entirety, Recovery’s songs give context to one another, a context otherwise lost in listening to only a few popular tracks.
Codependency manifests itself psychologically in a variety of ways, and in intimate relationships it can lead to depression and cycles of abuse ranging from emotional, verbal and, in the extreme, physical violence. Abusive codependent relationships far too often end as murder/suicide statistics. In “25 to Life” (posted above) Eminem chillingly describes codependency’s role in his relationship with his ex-wife (presumably). Arguably the most compelling track on the album, Em breaks the cycle of abusive behavior, angrily ending the relationship and simultaneously taking responsibility for his own happiness while acknowledging his own role in the relationship. The abusive patterns of codependent relationships are examined again in the hit song “Love The Way You Lie.” In tackling the heavy issue of domestic violence, Eminem’s style is reminiscent of Nirvana’s handling of rape in “Polly.” Bringing in Rihanna for this duet reinforces the point this is behavior Eminem is not condoning. In the song “Space Bound” these various codependent themes are depicted in a new relationship, repeating the same behavior patterns as before, culminating in emotional abuse and violent fantasies.
In addition to the depression associated with a codependent relationship, Eminem also suffered a personal loss – the death of his best friend. The ensuing depression, pain pill addiction, and near suicide are hauntingly recounted on “Going Through Changes.” He again takes responsibility for his problems, vowing to his daughters he’ll recover. He discusses his near fatal overdose again in an anthem to his friend, “Never Over.” Instead of wallowing, Em states, “this depression ain’t takin me hostage,” and vows to celebrate his friend’s life.
These tracks add some context to the hit song (and video) “Not Afraid” where Em again takes responsibility for his problems and happiness. Opening with encouragement to those who “might still be in that place, and you’re trying to get out,” Em continues to reach out by admitting his own problems and working to resolve them, captured cleverly in the line, “it’s time to exorcise/exercise these demons; these mother f*ckers are doing jumping-jacks now.” Beginning and ending the song, the chorus rings with confidence and encouragement with the line, “Just lettin you know that, you’re not alone; Holla if you feel like you’ve been down the same road.”
Brilliantly mixed between these intense personal songs are a number of lighter tracks. With clever word play, crude humor and alacrity, alter-ego Slim Shady brings some light-heartedness and diversity without dropping the overarching theme of recovering from dependency. “Won’t Back Down” (featuring P!nk) echos with Em’s commitment to overcoming his codependency while adding his infamous vulgarity. Backed by a rock power trio and P!nk’s chorus, Em delivers a number of memorable lines including, “listen garden tool don’t make me introduce you to my power tool, you know the f*cking drill, how you douche bags feel knowing you’re disposable, Summer’s Eve Massengill?” and “I gave Bruce Wayne a Valium and said settle ya f*ckin ass down I’m ready for calm Batman! Get it? Calm Batman?” Nestled in this track is the potential question of the decade, “Need I remind you that I don’t need the f*cking swine flu to be a sick pig?”
Em plays mind games with his competitors in “Seduction,” tauntingly saying, “better get your girlfriend and check,” and “there’s a 7 disk cd changer in the car, and I’m in every single slot and you’re not. Aw!” Shady gets his man-whore on in “So Bad,” saying, “I’m ready for ya Mama, why you think the only thing I got on is my pajamas?” and bragging, “my love has got you so blinded you couldn’t pick Amy Winehouse out of a lineup.” My personal “Oh no, he di’n’t!” moment came on the track “Almost Famous,” with the opening line, “I stuck my d*ck in this game like a rapist, they call me Slim Roethlisberger,” (I agree) and later includes cringe inducing mentions of The Challenger and David Carradine.
The highly danceable track “W.T.P.” has hit single potential, in my opinion. With an upbeat tempo and party theme, “W.T.P.” might seem an unlikely candidate for a political statement, but the celebratory tone reveling in common man status suggests a disdain for elitists. Politically, elitists foster codependency while conservatives value personal responsibility and respect the collective wisdom of common citizens. While I highly doubt Eminem intended to make a conservative political statement with this song, the sentiment is there nonetheless. Additionally, it’s unlikely Eminem intended to weave personal responsibility throughout Recovery in the conservative political context, however, it should hearten conservatives that the message is not only in the mainstream of popular culture today, but it’s on the top selling album of the year to date. (More on these themes in popular culture in the future.)
The critics predicting an Album of the Year Grammy based on weak competition are, frankly, underestimating or undervaluing the quality of this work. Profound and empowering, Recovery is Eminem’s best work to date. Even with a competitive field, Recovery should be honored with a number of awards as it is a strong contender in its own right.