The dumbed-down returns of Eminem’s last couple of albums have set the bar so low it’s practically buried, and he knows it: He’s done everything he can to set Recovery up as a fresh start, even arguing “them last two albums didn’t count / Encore I was on drugs / Relapse I was flushing them out / I’ve come to make it up to you now.” That promise carries some serious weight when it arrives amid a string of unflattering confessions on “Talkin’ 2 Myself”—in which Eminem admits to nearly writing dis tracks aimed at Lil Wayne and Kanye West for getting more attention than him, all while pouting about his own fading powers. In the same way, “Going Through Changes” engenders real sympathy as it documents his pill-and-pity-fueled spiral into reclusion. Always at his liveliest when he’s feeling persecuted, Eminem unflinchingly owns up to a lot on his road to redemption—but really, all he had to do was drop the farts and faux-Jamaican patois.
Eminem hasn’t completely purged his toxins: He’s still capable of a cartoonish groaner like the “white-trash party” riff of “W.T.P.,” or a hacky horndog come-on like “So Bad.” He’s still self-indulgently hung up on Mariah Carey, and he’s merely swapped Christopher Reeve for Michael J. Fox. But he also has some all-new skeletons: The specter of slain partner Proof haunts several songs before Proof is properly eulogized in “You’re Never Over,” and even without explicitly mentioning his ex-wife, Eminem spins compelling destructive-relationship yarns in “Space Bound” and the Rihanna-assisted “Love The Way You Lie,” even while “25 To Life” reveals that the real “selfish bitch” holding him down these days is rap itself.
Rihanna—who fares better than Pink, who provides an awkwardly grafted chorus on “Won’t Back Down”—is part of an infusion of guest voices that help Recovery do more than pay lip service to the idea of rebirth, especially on tracks like “No Love,” where Just Blaze and Lil Wayne bring out Eminem’s spitfire best (and make hip-hop safe for Haddaway samples). And while the endless atonement metaphors threaten to make Recovery a maudlin affair, at moments like these, Eminem soars over his lowered expectations. He may never get the “Cinderella Man” comeback he’s claiming, but at least he shouldn’t have to apologize for this one.