Eminem is back from the dead. After ending a long professional silence with a barely heard thump—last year's "Relapse"—Eminem has thundered back onto the scene of mainstream hip-hop with "Recovery." Once again, Eminem is ruling music charts, monopolizing radio waves, and raking in millions with hit-singles and highly publicized tours.
As it turns out the name says it all—"Recovery" versus "Relapse." Let that marinate. We'll come back to it.
Let's back up. Eminem has always had strong musical talents. His lyrics are witty and suggest cognitive strengths with verbal expression and comprehension. His wordplay is sophisticated and humorous suggesting high levels of creative intelligence. The strong beats of his songs are in part due to strong industry partnerships (i.e., rap staple Dr. Dre), which point to equally strong social intelligence. All of these abilities round-out a generally elite musical presence.
And yet his musical career has fluctuated. His recent hiatus and the underwhelming "Relapse" proved head-scratching, especially in light of "Recovery's" success. His musical talents have never wavered. He's always been the same, musically speaking. So, what's with the fluctuation? I believe the underlying explanation is something within him that actually does fluctuate—his mental health.
The Mental Health Yo-Yo
Eminem has long battled internal demons. Raised as an only child by an impoverished mother, within a broken household (paternal abandonment), his early life was a tumultuous experience. Nomadic home life, the suicide of a close uncle and failing grades propelled Eminem toward becoming a disconnected, embittered high school drop-out.
As with many people, early external chaos can become internalized. In his adult life, he's been addicted to a pharmacy of drugs, and he's struggled with depression and anger. Such internal chaos tends to initiate vicious cycles of dysfunction. Predictably, Eminem's later life has been littered with conflict and controversy. He has married his high school sweetheart, Kim, twice. She has attempted suicide. They've divorced. He's been jailed for assault. Hell, he's been sued by his mother. That last one should say it all.
His life is a narrative of chaos continued. And the maladaptive mental processes fostered by his experiences and personality traits may be reflected in his music.
A prime example is the patterned misogyny and homophobia exhibited in his lyrics. I know what you're thinking: What rap song doesn't exhibit such qualities? It's become almost a pre-requisite for rap songs. As a counter-point, I would simply suggest that communal complicity doesn't make something healthy and, furthermore, Eminem's relationship to these unhealthy processes seems more personal than most. One senses that Eminem is not "performing" as much as he's "getting it out."
Eminem, as far as I know, has not suffered negative or traumatic experiences, such as assault, by anyone in the queer community. So, what he's doing is channeling a ton of effort in order to exude intense vitriol toward a group with whom he's never really engaged. I'd speculate that this sort of action may be the result of disintegrated parts of self and immature defenses. Meaning, what explains the effort and emotion that Eminem pours into his unprovoked attacks on people who have done nothing to him are partly born from problems he has with himself. Unresolved sexual feelings and discomfort with his sense of self may continue to operate below his awareness as he denies and displaces.
So, that's the mentally unhealthy Eminem. And sometimes, as with "Relapse," this part of the famed rapper wins out. Mental illness overwhelms, the result of which are all of its unattractive and unappealing features—passivity, unregulated negative emotions, dishonest self-presentation, and interpersonal conflicts. This is the Eminem that grows defensive and embittered, whines about archaic slights, spills anger without a clear, coherent target, and aimlessly reflects on a now-stagnant life story.
We sense this and we are turned off.
But there's a mentally healthy Eminem. This Eminem is alive and kicking, occasionally winning a round or two in his eternal and internal boxing match. This Eminem, I would argue, is what keeps him separated from so many other successful but fleeting artists of our time. This healthy Eminem has buffered him from the paralyzing dysfunction of his problematic predispositions and upbringing, constantly fed a loyal following, and kept him attached to the limelight.
Let us not forget that Eminem is an artist who has raked in Grammys and Academy Awards. He's gone triple platinum, and in 2001 his Marshall Mathers LP broke records for the fastest-selling album and single of all time.
I might link his success to his sporadically prominent mental health. He has expressed homophobic ideas but he has also done things like "the hug heard around the world," when he embraced Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards. He has exhibited a concern for a better world, as with his anti-war track "Mosh." And many of his songs demonstrate healthy values in line with being a good father and loyal friend. Indeed, "Recovery" may represent a recovery of mental health in which a generally active, thoughtful and confident stance permeates most of his songs.
Here, Eminem is taking ownership of his life. He accurately reflects on personality flaws (an inconsistent father figure), confesses professional hiccups (critiques his previous album), and describes an orientation toward others and his life that is characterized by renewed vigor and honesty. In short, his introspection is insightful, and the world he is reconstructing for himself (for others to see and model) hints at a healthier lifestyle.
Some people are drawn to his music because it can, in a sneaky, circuitous sort of way, reflect an inspired and intelligent approach to life that, in turn, breeds the happiness, success, and well-being we all seek. As a result, Eminem has become an individual whose success has defied expectation. He should not be nearly as successful as he has been, as he's had to fight through traumatic experiences and pathological tendencies to succeed within a profession that renders him a low man on the totem pole of power.
In my opinion, Eminem harbors a mesmerizing internal life in which extreme gifts of mental health constantly spar with equally profound elements of mental illness. Within his songs, we subconsciously watch and wait. We root for his healthy side to win out against a formidable foe. The dizzying back and forth has maintained his popularity and albums like "Recovery" represent the most recent round of psychological fighting, in this case, a mean right hook that has dropped the psychological villain to his knees.