Maybe there should never have been room for Eminem in the fi rst place.
Just over a decade ago, he emerged as an unlikely worldbeater: a white rapper from Detroit with a vexatious obsession with violence and social dysfunction. His pop megasuccess was serendipitous, explicable by no common measuring sticks.
Certainly, in the rear view, it's tempting to see Eminem's ascendance as a fluke, never more so than now, several years past his commercial peak. He recently released “Recovery” (Aftermath/Interscope), his sixth solo album on a major label, his fi rst album as a sober man, and the most insular of all his releases.
In many ways, the Eminem captured on “Recovery” is reminiscent of the artist he once was, before the zeitgeist got hold of him. He still has the familiar preoccupations: cartoonish gore, sexual aggression, astonishingly intricate rapping. He sounds far more invigorated than on anything he's released since 2002, the year of his last strong album, “The Eminem Show,” and the soundtrack to the quasi-biopic fi lm 8 Mile.
For the first few years of his fame, Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, exerted a gravitational pull on pop and was impossible to emulate, making him only more powerful. But over the last few years, as he retreated into drug-fueled isolation, Eminem — one of the most crucial figures in pop culture in the last 20 years, who pushed hip-hop over the final hump to mainstream acceptance — has been a nonentity.
In 2010, he's become a multimillion-selling cult figure, trafficking in a peculiar style that once transfixed the world but now feels anachronistic.
“Recovery” could have been an opportunity for re-evaluation or redefinition, a record that would steer Eminem into new, possibly difficult topical terrain. But instead, he's used it as a platform to reassert his core values, stripped clean of the self-induced trauma of recent years.
He knows how much damage he's done to his reputation. “Them last two albums didn't count,” he raps on “Talkin' 2 Myself.” “ ‘Encore' I was on drugs, ‘Relapse' I was flushing them out.”
First and foremost, Eminem's rapping has survived largely intact, still a wondrous thicket of internal and complex rhymes that come off as feats of athleticism as much as language.
“Recovery” is redolent of Eminem circa 1997-98 — before the whimsical accents and cadences — just as his Slim Shady alter ego was being formed, when wordplay mattered far more than subject matter or tone.
Thankfully, there are just a handful of his once-signature, quickly outmoded pop-culture references on this album — Michael Vick, Brooke Hogan, David Carradine, David Cook. (What, nothing rhymed with Kris Allen?) A decade ago, they marked Eminem as a provocateur willing to take on enemies. Now, they suggest he's become a passive and sluggish consumer of pop culture.
When Eminem first appeared, he was a curio, inspiring both fierce culture wars and fawning notice from critics eager to dub him something greater than a mere rap star. He was more than happy to oblige, even if it meant getting lost along the way.
But today more than ever, being a mere rap star is multilayered, complicated work. It's just the type of thing this fiery white rapper from Detroit might eventually be great at.