Much was made earlier this year of Eminem’s comeback album, Relapse. But the real story is how he has quietly made the best sequel since The Dark Knight.
Story by Noah Callahan-Bever; Photography by Matt Doyle; Styling by Anoma Ya Whittaker; Computer-Generated Imagery by Digital Fusion CGI
I just met Eminem again, for the first time in 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve spoken at least a half-dozen times since our initial introduction back in May of ’98, when I interviewed him for BLAZE Magazine. But the guy I dealt with in those intervening years? Well, he was a different person. The dude I met in that strip mall parking lot more than a decade ago, listening to mixes on the stock system of his Buick rental, was outgoing, hilarious, genuine, razor-sharp, and endlessly talented. He was a walking adventure and an inspiration. But, with him being overwhelmed by the fame—and then the work, and then the drugs—every encounter we shared after the release of The Slim Shady LP got incrementally more awkward, involved less eyecontact, and left me feeling more concerned about the collateral damage of his unmitigated success.
For the first few years this change was to be expected, as his ubiquitous celebrity necessitated isolation, and his grueling schedule of albums, tours, and movies would be enough to wear down even the most rugged. But the relationship hit its nadir, for me, with an interview in February of 2006—weeks before the murder of his best friend, Proof. I had no idea the depth of his troubles, but detached, glassy-eyed, and at least 30 pounds heavier than just six months prior, Eminem seemed to be plunging off the deep end. I don’t know Em well enough to call him Marshall, but I do know enough to say with certainty that the bloated space cadet at that shoot was not the guy I’d met wearing that same damn Nike hat. And as the aforementioned personal tragedy unfolded, and the public became more aware of his deteriorating condition, from a distance it really felt like Em might be living out the frequent and unwelcome comparisons to Elvis—specifically, an untimely, pill-addled end.
Thankfully, Em’s survivor spirit, and the help of his most trusted loved ones, stymied his addiction. Seeing Em reemerge healthy, thin, and drug-free with Relapse this spring, I—and damn near everyone else who likes to hear words rhymed skillfully—breathed easy. Sure, he seemed serious and sometimes stiff on his press tour. And the album, despite mostly positive reviews, caught its share of critical flak for its formulaic roll-out (poppy “nyeah-nyeah” first single, dark second single, etc). None of that mattered, though; Eminem was back! And those who knew shit about shit knew the music was damn good. And the fans spoke with their wallets—to the tune of 1.5 million units, the highest-selling rap record of 2009.
Which brings me back to our reintroduction today in Detroit. Animated, relaxed, funny, and most importantly, fully engaged, the guy sitting across from me is once again the dude that I met over a decade ago. And what’s more, it’s clear that as The Slim Shady LP only teased at Eminem’s potential as an artist, Relapse only teases at the promise of his recovery. His awe-inspiring, precise performance on the A-list posse cut of the year, “Forever,” is more than just a reminder of Eminem’s maniacally focused talent in full gear—it’s a promise. And a challenge. Relapse 2 is to Relapse what The Dark Knight was to Batman Begins. That’s my word.
Pulling himself away from his pursuit of happiness (mixing a Just Blaze-produced future classic), Em sat with Complex to discuss his chase of the perfect album, his obsessive compulsions, and what exactly a Spankwire is. It’s nice to meet him. Again.
You’ve had about five months to sit with your “comeback,” Relapse. What are your feelings about it now?
Eminem: I was happy with it when I put it out—but honestly, I haven’t given it too much thought since then because I’ve been so busy working on Relapse 2.
So the sequel won’t reflect your reaction to the first one and its reception?
Eminem: Well, when I finished Relapse, I had a whole album of material that didn’t make it that I wasn’t ready to throw away, so that was going to be Relapse 2. But then I got with Dre in Hawaii and started recording more, and now the new material has knocked out all the old songs. But yeah, the new material is definitely different. Making Relapse, I was still working the drugs out of my system, so there was a lot of…just jokey shit. It was a lot of punchline-y, funny, shock value—kind of going back to The Slim Shady LP. And that was cool, but I’ve kind of flipped the page. Now I’m going for songs instead of one-liners. I don’t want to make shit that you hear once and then the joke’s over; I want to make records that you could play a hundred times, a thousand times.
Relapse definitely feels like you’re shaking off the dust—it was like I could take the songs out of sequence and put them in order of when they were recorded, because the rhymes got so much sharper the farther you got from the drugs.
Eminem: You’re right, my thinking became sharper again as I went along. If you were to take a song like “My Mom” or “Must Be the Ganja,” those were cool—but they were the beginning stages of me coming out of the [addiction]. It wasn’t until it got into songs like “Stay Wide Awake” that it felt like my mind got sharper. I became more on-point towards the end of recording the album. Right now, I feel like I’m more focused than I’ve ever been. I still feel like I have room to get better but I feel like I’m definitely on my game right now.
Speaking of being on your game, who had the second-best verse on “Forever”?
Eminem: Who had the second-best verse? [Laughs.] I don’t know, I like everybody’s verses—but I like Drake’s verse a lot. I wouldn’t say I had the best verse; everybody approached the beat different. Kanye was crazy, too, and Wayne. I just saw the beat differently than anybody else did; for some reason, I felt like the beat was a double-time beat, so I rapped faster.
I’m sure sobriety has changed more than just your rapping. Has it changed your friendships?
Eminem: Yeah, I’ve gone back and rekindled some old friendships—people I knew from back in the day. I feel like I’m closer with everybody now, certainly—probably a lot easier to get along with, too.
Eminem: [Laughs.] You want to explain that, Paul?
[Em's manager] Paul Rosenberg: [Laughs.] In every regard. Literally, in every way you can imagine he’s easier to get along with.
So you feel better?
Eminem: [Laughs.] Hell yeah, I feel better. I feel like a human being again. There was one point in time where I felt like…[Sighs.] I don’t know—I felt like plastic.
In what way?
Eminem: I think I looked plastic. My face, fat plastic. [Laughs.] I was eating, but the Vicodin made me hungry because it eats up your stomach lining, so you want to fill your stomach back up, but then it stops you up so you can’t shit, you just—
Eminem: That’s why I was gaining so much weight, I was just so fucking bloated. It’s a trip when people take sobriety for granted. Feeling trapped in my addiction and then getting sober—you appreciate it so much more, because I didn’t know if I would ever know what it’s like to feel normal again, ever.
Are there moments when you feel like you’re being tested?
Eminem: Not with drugs or alcohol or anything like that. I just steer clear of it.
So you’re stone-sober these days?
Eminem: Yeah, it’ll be 18 months on the 20th [of October]. I realized I can’t touch anything, and that’s why I’m clean right now and why I’m going to stay clean. My brain just doesn’t know when to shut off. When I do something I have to do it all the way—that goes for music, with a high-hat, a snare drum, a rhyme, everything. I have to push it to the extreme. That’s how I realized I have addictive behavior. Somebody told me this once, that the thing that makes me bad is the same thing that makes me good at other things.
When the details of Michael Jackson’s death came to light, did you see any parallels?
Eminem: Oh, 100 percent. When you read things about Michael Jackson it’s hard to decipher what the fuck is true, but there’s the story of how he woke up at whatever time and he needed something to go back to sleep because he had this or that and it didn’t work. That’s exactly what used to happen to me: I would take a couple of pills and I would be up an hour later and I’d want more. Then I’d take more and that would be enough to maybe get me back to sleep for two more hours. Then I’d be wide awake again. So I definitely can relate, and it’s a shame if he didn’t have anybody there to just say, “Michael, you’re an addict, you need help.” It’s one of the pitfalls of fame. I could just say, “Yo, I need this and this and this,” and they’re going to give me whatever I want because—
—because you’re Eminem.
Eminem: Exactly, it’s fucked up. The worst thing that could have happened to me as an addict was having money.
So much of your best music was born of your addiction, but your writing is clearly inspired again. Where do you draw inspiration from now?
Eminem: [Long pause.] I don’t know, that’s a hard question. As far as the everyday inspiration to write? I guess I draw it from everywhere—conversations, something I saw on TV, whatever. But as far as inspiration to make music? Of all the albums I’ve made, I still don’t feel like I’ve made the perfect album. I’ve had ones that touch on this, and others that touch on that, but never one that’s just perfect and fully relevant. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it, but I’m certainly trying every day.
To that point, all of your albums have followed certain conventions as “Eminem albums,” and though Relapse was well-received, “We Made You” was the first time that the funny-lead-single formula didn’t fully connect.
Eminem: Yeah, looking back on it now I don’t know if that was 100 percent the way to go. I kind of liked the way the beat felt like it was slower in the chorus and then it sped up for the verses, but stepping back and looking at it as an average consumer or somebody who goes to a club, it might have been hard to figure out what the hell was going on in the song. On the other hand, it was the only option we had and the album might not even be out now if we hadn’t found a song that was clean enough for radio. But am I going to go in that direction again? Probably not.
When you first started putting out those singles talking about celebrities, you were saying things no one had ever said in a public forum, but now even the most conservative housewives in Middle America check Perez Hilton to see whose face he’s drawing cum on today—
Eminem: —So I started felching.
[Laughs.] Can you still shock people when there are no taboos left?
Eminem: I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas on how to shock—and if I do, I’ll probably just stop. But I definitely know what you mean, kids nowadays are so used to seeing crazy shit, there’s so much crazy weird shit on the Internet, it’s certainly getting harder to shock people.
Speaking of which, you’ve always said you don’t use computers or the Internet. Is that really still the case in 2009?
Eminem: I don’t even know how to turn a computer on and it’s probably better that way. I look at stuff, but as far as actually sitting there and knowing how to work it and knowing what sites to go on….
So you’re saying you still buy porn on DVD, then?
Eminem: Um… PR: There’s a lot of free porn on the Internet, I think, is what Noah’s trying to tell you. Eminem: Oh, is there? Maybe I should go on the Internet.
[Laughs.] There’s something called Spankwire…
Eminem: What? Spankwire?
Imagine a YouTube of pornography.
Eminem: Really?! I know what I’m doing for the rest of the day when this shit is over. [Laughs.] You can look up anything?
Eminem: Nostril fucking?
Maybe so. It’s like, any genre or actress—
Eminem: I have to go back and look at my pornos because there’s a couple chicks that really—
Changed your life?
Eminem: Yeah. [Laughs.]
Wow, Complex just put Eminem on to streaming porn. I’d like to apologize to music fans around the world now.
Eminem: If my album doesn’t come out, it’s Noah’s fault. [Laughs
OK, so before you got ruined by streaming porn, what was your daily routine like?
Eminem: I'm usually in the studio five days a week. Get up, run in the mornings. I run anywhere from two to five miles. There was a point in time—this is how I know I'm an addict—when I was running literally 17 miles a day.
Eminem: Sometimes 19. I would run eight and a half in the morning and then in the second part of the day I'd go home at night and do another eight and a half. I literally felt like I was addicted to running, like I was trapped in prison because it was like, "Ah, fuck, I gotta run again." I got into calorie counting so bad that when they told me that I was going to be in the woods with my shirt off [for the "3 a.m." video], I was like, “Fuck.”
What snapped you out of that?
Eminem: I saw an episode of Obsessed on A&E where this dude would get up in the morning and go to the gym, and then again at lunch, and then again after work. But then on his way home he’d pass by another gym, and he’d have to go in that gym and do like 15 reps of everything, too! He couldn’t pass by a gym without stopping in it. I saw that and was like, “I really got a fucking problem—I’m this guy.” There was a point in time when I had to burn 1,000 calories; if I didn’t burn 1,000 calories my day wasn’t complete. But now it’s like I can burn 275 calories and jump off the treadmill, or I can burn 550, and I’m OK with it. Have you seen The Machinist?
Eminem: For the “3 a.m.” video, I was thinking they could make my spine look real crazy like in that movie. I started getting real skinny so my veins would pop out and I was trying to get that look, but it just didn’t work. My body won’t really let me get that low. I was running 17, 18 miles a day and it was like, “OK, this is not going to happen.” But I still got pretty skinny, so after the “3 a.m.” video I threw a pizza party at the studio and ate a bunch of fucking pizza. [Long pause.] Then I went and purged. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding.
50 Cent talked about how you blew out your knee playing basketball with him. Do you still play?
Eminem: Yeah, I still play a lot.
Who do you compare your game to?
Eminem: Ummm…I would say a cross between LeBron and Jordan, basically. Maybe just a little bit higher level than those two, though. [Laughs.]
PR: His nickname on the court is Sweetness.
Eminem: Yeah, that’s actually what they call me. You can call me Sweetness for the rest of this interview, actually.
[Laughs.] As long as we don’t have to make eye contact when I say it, Sweetness. So you ball with 50 and Kanye West plays with Jonah Hill. Who’d win if you and 50 played two-on-two against them?
Eminem: That’d be very interesting. But I’ve never seen Kanye or Jonah Hill play.
Me neither, but Jonah says he’s all hustle, and Kanye says his game is better than people would expect, that he plays for highlights.
Eminem: 50 is better than you would expect too, though. OK, you know what, I think we could get them. I’m just saying, I’m just putting it out there. [Laughs.]
In case someone wants to put money on it. [Laughs.] Speaking of 50, he’s been venting about his placement on MTV’s “Hottest MCs” list. You were excluded.
Eminem: You know, when I heard that the other day, I didn’t really think too much of it. My only comment was, “That’s some peoples’ opinion.” It’s their opinion, and opinions can’t be wrong. As long as I’m comfortable with what I’m doing and I’m comfortable in my zone, then that’s that.
Wow. In the past, even though you were Mr. Just-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck, when we talked about lists and what people thought or said about you or your work, you really, really did give a fuck. What’s changed?
Eminem: I think it just has to do with not only being sober, but just being confident in who I am and my abilities or capabilities. Coming up as an MC, I took the frustrations of the underground and brought it with me into the mainstream. I know there was a certain complex I had in the beginning that was just a little paranoid or a little…sensitive.
OK, let’s talk about other changes. You’re wearing denim for the first time since…I don’t know. How did that happen?
Eminem: Really, it was just friends telling me I needed to wear jeans. [Laughs.] They were like, “Yo, you can’t come back wearing sweatpants.” I think a lot of it had to do with being heavier. When you feel fat, you wear clothes that are bigger so you don’t feel as big. I was wearing 3X—literally 3X—clothes, and as I got smaller I felt like, “OK, I think I can wear some jeans now and be OK with it.” And instead of just T-shirts, sweaters, or a vest or whatever. But I’m certainly not a fucking fashion consultant. Don’t call me if you want to know how to dress. I just rap. That’s all I really know how to do.
When did you decide that you wanted to go back to your natural hair color?
Eminem: Once I got sober I was like, “What the fuck am I doing? I’m like 35 years old, am I going to keep dying my hair fucking blonde?” Also it was just about letting go. The hair reminded me of my addiction, and I hated myself when I was in my addiction. I hated myself worse than anyone could ever hate me.
That’s pretty heavy. Well, on a lighter note, what do you do for recreation? Do you play video games?
Eminem: Yeah, I’m pretty nasty at Donkey Kong, B. You should go check my high-score. [Ed.—It says "1st 229,100 M-M" on the stand-up DK machine in his studio lounge.]
So you only play all the old-school games? No Xbox Live for you?
Eminem: Yeah, all the old-school games. I can’t really fuck with some of the new ones, they’re too complicated. I want to run and jump. That’s it. [Laughs.]
What music do you listen to on Sunday afternoon, when you’re cleaning the house?
Eminem: Sunday afternoon? I’m watching football on Sunday afternoon.
I don’t mean Sunday specifically, but what do you listen to in your free time?
Eminem: Fabolous has got a great album. Jay-Z, obviously. Last year I was bumpin’ T.I.’s Paper Trail for almost the whole summer. I had bought Lil Wayne’s album, but I was so busy recording that it literally just sat in my CD case until like six months ago. There was the hype about him, but I didn’t see what all the hype was about. I felt like he was good, certainly above average from his singles, but it was like, “Is he that dope?” Then I listened to the whole album and was like, “Wow! My man is that dope—Lil Wayne is fucking dope!” You’ve got to listen to a Lil Wayne song four, five, or six times to actually catch everything he’s saying. We were at a video set a couple months ago and I’m bumping it in the trailer and I’m like, “Yo, Wayne is dope!” And Paul is like, “Really? You’re just now figuring this out? Where the fuck have you been?” They think it’s funny, but you know, being sober, my eyes have opened up to so much more shit that I was missing, that I should have been hip to.
Eminem: Like The Wire! I slept on so much shit when I was in my addiction. Man, it was crazy. Now I’ve literally watched all five seasons of The Wire—I think I’m on my fifth time watching them all—and I’m about to sit and watch it all again because it’s the best show ever. It’s literally the best show ever. Oh man, what else did I sleep on? Entourage, I’m watching that now. My eyes were just fucking closed to everything. It was like I woke up.
Do you listen to any non-rap?
Eminem: Not really. Well, actually, ’80s music. Like we’ll be on the plane playing Uno and listening to ’80s music and people will think that we’re out of our fucking minds.
PR: Bumpin’ Tommy Tutone!
Eminem: What the fuck is that?
[Laughs.] What else have you discovered since you woke up?
Eminem: Oh God, Superbad could be the greatest movie of all time. There are so many things in it that when you walk away you don’t even know what part to talk about. That’s what happened to me. I watched that movie when I was first getting sober—I had a lot of free time—so I watched that movie, no lie, close to 200 times. I mean in the literal sense, I would just have that fucking movie on loop. There was one point in time I could give you the commentary on that up to about the fourth or fifth scene, line for line.
That’s nuts. You obviously had the small part in Funny People, but if Judd Apatow had a starring vehicle for you, would you be into that?
Eminem: Hell, yeah! That would be crazy; that one little scene was a lot of fun. We just haven’t found anything that’s been the right thing at the right time. I have to be finished with this album and then I’ll probably want to jump into something like that. I don’t know if there’s a movie where I’ll want to be in every single scene again, but something, yeah….
I remember talking to you back in ’98 and you were like, “I don’t want to be a rapper when I’m 30,” and the last time we talked—
Eminem: —It was, “I don’t want to be a rapper when I’m 40,” and the next time we talk it will be, “I don’t want to be a rapper when I’m 50.” Sixty is the cut-off. I can’t be no 60-year-old rapper, son!
[Laughs.] Sounds like you’ve got your professional life mapped out, then. What’s up with your romantic life? Do you date? What’s your deal with chicks?
Eminem: I don’t really have a deal with chicks right now. Honestly, I’m so focused on what I’m doing and obviously I just came out of a long relationship, so I’m just kind of coasting right now. I’m more focused on my sobriety, my work, and my kids right now. Making sure I get those aspects of my life right before I go into the world and do that again. So I think that Spankwire will be the alternative right now. [Laughs.] Spankwire it is. OK, so now how do I get on the Internet, buddy?